It is fascinating how much the lives of people in history become entwined with each other, and how our personal experiences are both unique and shared by many others. Jewish history is a tapestry of interconnecting lives, and in a time where we can’t physically visit our heritage in Jewish travel cruises, we can still immerse ourselves in the stories of the past, in the comfort of our own homes.

In 1492, when the Alhambra Decree called for the expulsion of all Jews in Spain, Isaac Abravanel and many other Jews fled to other parts of Europe. While he only briefly lived in Naples, other members of his family settled there more permanently. One of them was Benvenida Abravanel.

Life of Benvenida Abravanel

Almost all of Benvenida Abravanel’s childhood is a mystery, in contrast to her complicated relations with her family and other individuals in the latter parts of her life. What is known was that she was the daughter of one of Isaac Abravanel’s brothers, that she married her first cousin Samuel, and that she had several children. When Naples was subject to an attempt at Jewish expulsion, first by King Ferdinand in 1511, Benvenida’s family was one of two hundred that were exempted.

In 1533, another attempt at expulsion by King Charles V was thwarted by Benvenida and several other important figures in Naples. However, when they finally moved out of Naples and towards Ferrara, in northern Italy, when an edict in 1540 declared that Jews wear an identifying badge.

When her husband died, she inherited his estate and many of his possessions, becoming a businesswoman who gave generous donations to her community. Her inheritance from Samuel’s will was contested by one of his illegitimate children, but she argued on her behalf and remained the holder of her late husband’s business affairs, opening five banking establishments in Tuscany. She was said to have died around the 1560’s.

Who Was Benvenida Abravanel? Lecture by Dr. Henry Abramson

A Resonant History

Benvenida was part of a wealthy few, but she was also someone who experienced persecution, and used her influence to help others. Based on a few accounts, it seems that, like many other learned Jewish women in Europe, she hosted intellectual salons, and was also the tutor and friend of Eleonora del Toledo, who would become the Duchess of Tuscany.

Her life was quite different for many Jews of her time, but it was also resonant to many of their shared experiences. On our future kosher riverboat cruises, let us remember how our different ancestors lead lives that influenced many others.

Featured Image Photo Credit:
Eleonora da Toledo, Aluna de Benvenida Abravanel