The Jews of Italy have had an unusual trajectory. They have lived in one place for the past 2,000 years, which, as you well know, is pretty much a first in our history. The earliest of Diaspora Jewry in Europe, this community enjoyed relative peace over the centuries. (Because the various Italian city-states were controlled by different rulers, Jews might be invited and protected in some regions while oppressed and expelled in others.) With the arrival of exiled German Jews in the 14th century, and persecuted Spanish Jews in the 15th, the original Italki population swelled and had its first experience with Jewish “diversity.”
Even before the Renaissance, the meager scattering of sources that reveal the Italki experience suggest that Jewish influence was alive and well on the peninsula. During the artistic and literary revolution of the 14th and 15th centuries, Jewish communities thrived and partook in the cultural novelties alongside Christian contemporaries. However, by the 16th century, Italian anti-Semitism flared up, banning Jews to ghettos and slapping them with harsh legislation which would endure until the 19th century. While Italian Jewry went through different phases of religiosity and politics, through it all women have held unique places in both secular and Jewish societies, both as cultural influencers and spiritual leaders.
A Powerful Poetess
Sara Copia Sullam (1592-1641) was born to a prominent Venetian family with wealth and consequence. After receiving a weighty Jewish and Italian education, Sara went on to write poetry that brought her popularity and a following. Assuming the role of salon hostess, she entertained noteworthy literary and artistic figures who sought to benefit from her financial backing for their work. During this earlier period, Sara was admired and acclaimed. However, as this series has demonstrated all-too-consistently, her role and influence in noteworthy circles would cause her significant harm.
Upon reading the work of the Genoese monk, Ansaldo Ceba, Sara began a long correspondence with him, although the two never actually met. A devoted Christian, Ceba soon made clear his intentions of converting his young fan. She adamantly refused his efforts, and in one cheeky letter, suggested that she might pray for his conversion.
A few years later her troubles began. One of her intellectual acquaintances, Baldassare Bonifaccio, wrote a treatise on the immortality of the soul in which he accused Sara of denying this truth. Such an accusation in 17th century Venice amounted to heresy, and could have brought the Inquisition to her door. Two days later, Sara wrote a manifesto to defend herself. In it she laid out her unshakeable faith in immortality as well as her disgust at her opponent’s tactics and representation. Using her wit and arsenal of literature, Sara drew from Jewish texts as well as Aristotle and Dante to craft her rebuttal. She also penned a letter to Bonifaccio that concluded with: “Live happy! You will attain the immortality that you preach so eloquently, if you observe your Christian teachings as well as I observe the law of Judaism.”
Hurt and humiliated by Bonifaccio’s accusations, Sara further suffered the silence of her many literary friends – none came to her aid or to her defense. After apprising Ansaldo Ceba of her predicament and hoping he would publish a piece that would absolve her, she was again disappointed by a chilly letter that offered no sympathy other than regret that she had not yet converted.
Disillusioned, Sara continued in her role as salon hostess, yet endured further betrayals as some of her beneficiaries attempted to steal from her. A few others sought to denigrate her work, claiming it was plagiarized. Embodying two social evils, that of being a woman and that of being a Jew, Sara swallowed her double dose of penalties bitterly.
Upon her untimely death, the Jewish community paid tribute to her for her many acts of charity, as it indicates on her tombstone: “Sage among women, crown of the poor, she was a true companion to the wretched.” And although she suffered vitriolic attacks in her lifetime, she has been fully vindicated by later artists and writers who have come to her defense.
Sara was not the only female to carve a niche in the literary and cultural world. A number of Jewesses were hostesses, poets and singers, a few of whom performed at royal courts. Madame Europa di Rossi, the 17th century opera singer, was one such figure, as was another woman known only as Rachel of Venice, who received special permission to leave the Jewish ghetto in order to entertain the nobility. Records of compensation for their services are extant. (This particular period of Jewish life in Italy seemed to experience a slackening of moral standards, and later centuries reflect a strong rabbinic reaction to these leniencies.)
A Community Leader
Benvenida Abravanel of Naples (16th century) had immigrated to Italy with her family after the Jews of Spain were expelled. Her uncle had been financial advisor to King Ferdinand of Spain before the expulsion, and her family had connections with the royal court. Therefore, when the Spanish viceroy to the kingdom of Naples was seeking a teacher for his daughter, Eleanora Benvenida was readily engaged. The two women developed a special friendship, which would greatly benefit the Abravanel family during later persecutions. Eleanora referred to Benvenida as “mother” in one document.
When the government of Naples sought to expel its Jews, Eleanora, although just a young girl, used her position to help petition Emperor Charles V on behalf of her friends. Using part of their family’s fortune, Benvenida and her husband, Samuel bribed the government to allow the Jews to remain. Their attempts were only partially successful, resulting in a postponement but not an annulment.
As the Jewish predicament in Naples deteriorated, Benvenida and Samuel accepted an invitation from the Duke of Ferrara to settle in his duchy. The duke’s secretary referred to Samuel as “king of the Jews,” indicating how well-known and influential he was. Samuel died shortly after, leaving almost all of his property and wealth in Benvenida’s hands. One of Samuel’s sons from a previous marriage contested the will, arguing that women cannot inherit. This dispute was discussed among numerous rabbinic figures in Italy and Turkey, with Benvenida ultimately receiving the bulk of the money and control of the business.
With the death of her husband, Benvenida expanded the family banking operation and secured commercial privileges through the aid of her friend Eleanora, who had married the Duke of Tuscany. With her wealth and influence, Benvenida became a great philanthropist who supported Torah scholars and aided the poor. Her home became an asylum for all those in need, she succeeded in ransoming many Jewish prisoners, and her name spread across the Jewish Diaspora as a benefactress. One visitor described her piety in a journal, noting how “she fasts every day.” Her name appears in various texts, documents and books, praising her generosity, her kindness, and her tireless efforts on behalf of the Jewish people. Shortly after her death, she was thus described:
[Samuel] merited that his wife was also among the honored women of Israel, among the distinguished in their nobility and in their excellence they stood by us in our exile. Like this was the lady Doña Benvenida Abravanel, a model and a symbol of modesty, piety, wisdom and power.
Although the vast majority of Jewish Italian women did not receive formal Hebrew or secular education like Benvenida, nor were they as financially and politically influential as her, a number of others have distinguished themselves as scholarly and literary heavyweights, using their knowledge to contribute to the Jewish community. Deborah Ascarelli (16th century), believed to be a female prayer leader at the Catalan Synagogue in Rome, translated many Hebrew seforim into Italian for the benefit of her fellow women who could not read Hebrew. Rivkah of Ferrara (16th century), daughter of Yehiel ben Azriel Trabot, was instrumental in preserving her father’s teachings and bringing them to his colleagues so they could be recorded. And Miriam Shapira-Luria (15th century) is alleged to have taught in a yeshiva from behind a curtain, instructing the young men in matters of Jewish law.
Although this series focuses on politically and communally influential personalities, it is worth noting that Jewish women have been involved in all sorts of other interesting enterprises. Italian Jewesses were employed in printing presses, playing a crucial role in preserving and disseminating Jewish texts. A few were practicing doctors, and there is one record of a Jewish cosmetician, Anna, who provided a Christian noblewoman with ointments. Women have helped their husbands in business, selling silk, producing buttons, and raising buffalo, just to name a few. And as always, they have supported their communities, running charity organizations, tending the sick, and feeding the poor, fulfilling the assertion in Mishlei: “She spreads out her hand to the poor man, and she stretches her hands out to the needy” (31: 20).
Adelman, Howard Tzvi. “Benvenida Abravanel.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. (Viewed on July 19, 2018)
Cecil Roth The Jews in the Renaissance (Jewish Publication Society of America 1977)
Moses Avigdor Shulvass The Jews in the World of the Renaissance (Spertus College of Judaica Press 1973)
Emily Taitz et al. The JPS Guide to Jewish Women (The Jewish Publication Society 2003)