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.
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."
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."
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).