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Women & Jewish Books: Women of Italy

In the making of the Jewish book, women have played a role as publishers, printers, patrons, and writers.

The first woman involved in printing Hebrew books was Estellina, the wife of the physician Abraham Conat, who introduced Hebrew printing in Mantua and published six Hebrew books there in 1474-77. A printing press had been established in that cultured city in 1471 and others followed. As David W. Amram writes in his The Makers of Hebrew Books in Italy:

At one of these presses Conat caught the inspiration to print Hebrew books, and communicated it to his worthy helpmeet, Estellina. She printed on her own account. . . "Investigation of the World" by Jedaiah Bedersi and in the colophon she writes, "I Estellina, wife of my master my husband, the honored Rabbi Abraham Conat, may he be blessed with children and may his days be prolonged, Amen! wrote this book, 'Investigation of the World"' . . . She "wrote" the book, as her husband said, "with many pens without the aid of a miracle," for the art had not yet invented the word "printing" by which to define itself.

It seems clear that she had a hand in the printing and proofreading, both of which the word "wrote" connotes. It is most fitting that the Mantua of the Gonzagas, rulers who were patrons of the arts, be the place where a Jewish woman entered into Hebrew bookmaking. The Jews of that city were the most integrated into the general culture of any contemporary Jewish community, women as well as men. "The libraries of the women of Mantua," Shlomo Simonsohn writes in his History of the Jews in the Duchy of Mantua, "testify to their enlightenment and their literary interests." The Library of Congress has a fine copy of one of the volumes produced by the Conats, the Commentary of Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon on the Pentateuch.

Among the earliest of Hebrew books is this commentary on the Pentateuch by Levi ben Gerson (Gersonides), printed by Abraham Conat in Mantua, c. 1476. Abraham's wife, Estellina, apparently participated in the publication of the books issued by her husband and thus becomes the first of a notable list of women involved in the printing and publication of Hebrew books. We see here the end of Genesis.

Peirush ha-Ralbag 'al ha-Torah (Commentary of Gersonides on the Pentateuch), Mantua, c. 1476.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Estellina had a hand in the actual production of books. Dona Reyna Nasi, a century and more later, was purely the patron publisher. Her mother was one of the most remarkable women of her time, Dona Grazia Mendes, whose wealth and diplomatic acuity had enabled her to transfer both family and fortune from Christian countries in Europe, where a Marrano past threatened their security, to the relatively safe Ottoman Empire.

Dona Reyna was wife to her cousin, Don Joseph Nasi, who rose in that empire to become Duke of Naxos. Nevertheless, upon Joseph's death in 1579, the sultan expropriated much of the widow's wealth except for the 90,000 dinars stipulated in her ketubah (marriage contract). With this inheritance, Dona Reyna established a Hebrew press, first in her palatial residence in Belvedere, then in Kuru Tschechme, a suburb of Constantinople. Of the books printed in the first press, the Library has a copy of Torat Moshe (c. 1593-1595), the commentary on the Pentateuch by Moses Alsheikh, "a resident of Upper Galilee."

After the death of her husband, Don Joseph Nasi, Duke of Naxos, the widow Dona Reyna established a Hebrew press in her home in Belvedere which she continued in Kuru Tschechme, a suburb of Constantinople. Shown is the title page of Iggeret Shmuel, a commentary on the Book of Ruth by Samuel di Uzeda, which states: "Printed in the publishing house and with the type font of the noble lady of noble lineage, Reyna, widow of the Duke and Prince in Israel Don Yosef Nasi by Joseph ben Isaac Ascaloni."

Samuel di Uzeda, Iggeret Shmuel, Kuru Tschechme, 1597. Hebraic Section.

A commentary on the Book of Ruth by Samuel di Uzeda, Iggeret Shmuel, the first book published by Dona Reyna's relocated press in Kuro Tschechme in 1597, is in the Library's Hebraic Section. It is fitting that a book about the biblical Ruth, a woman convert to Judaism, is published by Reyna, a woman who returned to Judaism from an apostasy imposed on her by her ancestors. The title page acclaims the patron-publisher: "Printed in the house and with the type of the Crowned Lady, crown of descent and excellency Reyna (may she be blessed of women!), widow of the Duke, Prince and Noble in Israel, Don Joseph Nasi of Blessed Memory."

The tractate Shekalim of the Palestinian Talmud, with the commentary of Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, prepared for the press by his student and disciple Israel ben Shmuel of Shklov, "now a resident of Upper Galilee [Safed]," and published with the "generous monetary aid of the noted philanthropist Bluma, daughter of Mordecai, and her sons."

Masekhet Shekalim, Minsk, 1812. Hebraic Section.

More than two centuries later another woman patron, also a widow, Bluma daughter of Mordecai, widow of Eli ben Shalom, published a book in Minsk, Russia, in 1812. It is a commentary on the tractate Shekalim of the Palestinian Talmud, whose editor, Israel ben Shmuel of Shklov, is a resident of the Palestinian "Upper Galilee," i.e., the city of Safed. Like Dona Reyna, Bluma used a portion of her inheritance to become a patron of the Hebrew book, but unlike Dona Reyna, Bluma was a humble woman, unknown to history, except for this one act of pious philanthropy, which gained her some small measure of immortality.

Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).