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An “Esther” in the Kingdom of Naples

Libi Astaire

After the Abarbanel family left Spain in 1492, they found a safe haven in the Kingdom of Naples. But even there trouble began to brew and the Jewish community once again faced an edict of expulsion. Who would save the day? In a curious twist of events, the role fell to Benvenida Abarbanel, the niece and daughter-in-law of Spanish Jewry’s most famous advocate.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Abarbanels were no strangers to the fickleness of kings and the vagaries of history. Therefore, when Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel arrived in Naples in 1492 — after being expelled from Spain along with that country’s other Jews — he most likely took the warm greeting and assurances of Naples’s King Ferdinand I with a grain of salt.

And rightly so. Within two years, King Ferdinand was dead, the Kingdom of Naples had been conquered by France, and the Jewish community was once again facing an uncertain future.

It was within this pungent mix of political upheaval and court intrigue that a new Jewish heroine arose, Benvenida Abarbanel. Like Queen Esther before her, she was forced to plead the cause of her people. How she came to be chosen for that role is, as the saying goes, a whole megillah.


A Mishmash Otherwise Known as European Politics

To the very end, the Jews of Spain prayed for a miracle. Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel, finance minister to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, brought chests filled with gold to the Spanish monarchs in the hope of convincing them to annul their edict of expulsion. But Hashem rules the world, and the decree remained in place. On Tisha B’Av, 5252 (July 30, 1492), the Abarbanel and his family left Spain, along with the hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews who had become penniless exiles. The Abarbanels settled in the Kingdom of Naples, which in those times stretched across the southern half of what is today Italy.

Two centuries earlier, Naples would not have been a natural choice. Although Jews had lived in Naples since approximately the first century, when the area was ruled by the Romans, during the thirteenth century, the Catholic Church embarked upon a cruel program to force Jews living on the Italian peninsula to convert.

Some did convert to escape exile and save the lives of their children. And some of those who converted became crypto-Jews, who were then hunted down by agents of the Italian Inquisition, established in the 1200s.

This may sound eerily like the story of the Jews of Spain, but there was one important difference: During the medieval era, the Italian peninsula was a divided land that was home to many powerful city states, each one in competition with the others. And so when the Jews were expelled from one city, they were usually welcomed by a duke from somewhere relatively close by. That welcome was followed by a few good years of tranquility and wealth, which were, in turn, followed by years of degradation ending with expulsion, as the cycle started again.

The ascension of King Ferdinand I, also known as Don Ferrante, to the throne of the Kingdom of Naples in 1458 ushered in a period of stability for both Jews and crypto-Jews that lasted almost forty years. In 1492, the King of Naples put out the welcome mat to some 9,000 refugees from Spain, including Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel, who became one of Don Ferrante’s advisers.

Don Ferrante died shortly thereafter, but the new king, Alfonso II, retained the services of the Abarbanel. Then King Charles VIII of France declared war on Naples and captured it in 1495. Alfonso fled to Sicily and the Abarbanel went with him. Most of the Jews who had been living in Naples fled, as well. Those who stayed experienced the horrors of pillage and destruction, until they were expelled toward the end of 1496.

In 1503, the French lost the Kingdom of Naples to Spain, and the next three decades were a power struggle between Spain and France for control of the kingdom. Things only settled down in 1532 when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (who was also the king of Spain) appointed Don Pedro Alvarez de Toledo to be the new Spanish viceroy of Naples. Remember that name, because we’ll hear more about Don Pedro in our “megillah” later on.


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