Hebrew poetry in 19th-century Italy

Rachel Morpurgo, of the famous Italian-Jewish David family, was arguably the first woman to engage in modern Hebrew poetry.

Hannah 311 (photo credit: Sara Novenson)
Hannah 311
(photo credit: Sara Novenson)
At the turn of the 19th century, the Luzzatto family of Trieste, Italy, fostered the talents of its children. Its most famous member was Samuel David (1800-1865), a poet and philosopher, but his beloved cousin, Rachel, was a talented literary figure as well. Rachel (1790-1871) was 10 years older than Samuel (who seems to have been born in the same house); the two remained close even after he left Trieste. Rachel was educated at home by private tutors, one of whom was a rabbi, as well as by her brother and uncle. The family had a large, impressive library which enabled its members to expand their horizons without leaving home. Rachel studied Hebrew classical works beginning with the Bible, Rashi and commentaries, and at age 14 began to study Talmud. Her cousin, later known by the acronym Shadal, bought her a copy of the Zohar in 1817; if she was able to study this text, the level of her Aramaic was obviously impressive.
This young woman apparently felt no pressure to marry, keeping herself busy with composing poetry and sending both poems and letters to her cousin, working in the family business on a potter’s wheel and sewing her own clothes. Samuel refers to her rejection of every prospective groom; she explained to him that she had found a suitable match but that her parents were not cooperative. (See Howard Adelman, “Finding Women’s Voices in Italian Jewish Literature,” in Women of the Word, ed. Judith R. Baskin, 1994). In 1819, the 29-year-old Rachel wed Jacob Morpurgo, a man who did not seem to appreciate her literary and intellectual talents. Married life thus limited her creativity to the realm of motherhood as she gave birth to three boys and a girl.
The poet reveals that the only time in which she could carve a niche of time for herself was on Rosh Hodesh (or late at night) when women traditionally limit their activities to light housework. Once a month, she found time to express her thoughts, but was well aware that a serious poet could not be so severely limited. Consequently, she became self-conscious about her inability to expand her horizons and about the gap between herself and her male peers whose lives allowed time for intellectual activities.
As the Haskala movement spread, it reached this northeastern port city’s Jewish community and influenced the Luzzattos. As a result, between 1847 and 1865, Shadal published his cousin’s poems along with some of their earlier correspondences in the maskilic journal Kokhavei Yitzhak. She received a great deal of praise, yet had difficulty dealing with the attention. At the same time, there were skeptics who doubted a woman could possibly possess such a level of mastery of Hebrew and Aramaic.
Castiliani, who published a collection of her poems in 1890 entitled Ugav Rachel (Rachel’s Organ), explained that visitors began to appear in Trieste in order to ascertain that she actually existed, as they were convinced that what had appeared in her name could not possibly be the product of a woman’s pen! Some were obsessed with her accomplishments, viewing them as a sexual aberration or as a divine miracle. One contemporary assumed that a woman’s biological fertility prevents literary creativity; therefore the poet must have reached menopause as there could be no other viable explanation for her productivity.
Interestingly enough, when composing a blessing she chose to include not only the names of the patriarchs but the matriarchs as well. As did her male peers, she signed her name modestly, either as Rachel the Worm (a humble being indeed) or by using a diminutive, little Rachel. She wrote about love, feelings and yearning for Zion, topics with which she was comfortable and which she felt would not reveal her educational deficits. Morpurgo was a creative literary figure deserving unqualified recognition, for essentially she was the first woman to engage in modern Hebrew poetry.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.