- A Silenced Harp: The Life and Works of the Italian-Hebrew Poetess Rachel Morpurgo by Tova Cohen
She was a contemporary of the Brontë sisters, George Eliot and Emily Dickinson. Like many other nineteenth-century female writers, Italian Jewish poet, thinker and scholar Rachel (Luzzatto) Morpurgo (1790–1870) is one of those mysterious historical phenomena: What brought a Jewish woman, raised in a traditional rabbinic family and educated like so many other Jewish women of her generation and social class, to dedicate her life to learning and writing? Tova Cohen's monumental book—a 625-page volume representing years of research on Morpurgo's life and work—utilizes all available sources and a variety of methods, including those of literary criticism, feminist studies and social history, to try to answer this intriguing question.
The scale of Cohen's work is outstanding, given that little was known beforehand about Morpurgo, and it pays its subject a rare honor: Hardly a figure in pre-modern Jewish history who was not a rabbi or community leader has received such a rich and detailed biography.
The book comprises five parts. In the first chapter, Cohen describes the broad historical background that, she argues, enabled the appearance of a woman like Morpurgo. She discusses the unique attitudes of the Italian Jews toward teaching women and toward general education and focuses in particular on the special conditions created in Morpurgo's home town of Trieste. The different forces that came together at the time of Morpurgo's birth—the tradition of giving girls at least some Jewish education, and even of viewing more in-depth religious studies for them with favor; an openness to the humanities, and in particular to poetry; and the cultural exchange facilitated by Trieste's status as a port and border city—help explain how a Jewish woman could begin writing. Although these conditions had existed in Italian Jewish communities for some time, Cohen argues that it was the specific atmosphere of the first half of the nineteenth century, with the rise of the Haskalah (the Jewish enlightenment movement) in central Europe, that created the conditions for Morpurgo's poetry to be welcomed. [End Page 180]
The second chapter provides a history of Morpurgo's literary and scholarly reception. Like some other female writers, Morpurgo was admired by her contemporaries, only to be later forgotten by the public. Her poems were printed in the maskilic periodical Kokhevei Yitzḥak, and she corresponded with some important figures of the Haskalah. A collection of her poems was even published posthumously by R. Vittorio (Ḥayim) Castiglioni under the title Ugav Raḥel (Rachel's harp, 1890). Nevertheless, her contribution to Hebrew poetry was belittled by literary scholars, and so she was written out of the canon. In the century and a half since her death, few scholars (among them Dov Sadan, whose own writings were not accepted into the canon) have paid attention to or shown appreciation for her writing. Her disappearance, Cohen argues, had several political and cultural reasons, but it had to do mainly with the fact that she was a woman. Her poetry was deemed "minor," "personal," "ornamental" and not original, and therefore unworthy.
Cohen's principal mission, therefore, is to write Morpurgo back into the canon of Hebrew literature and culture. The next three parts of the book are dedicated to achieving this goal, using a full range of feminist scholarly tools: gynocriticism, feminist psychological interpretations and, most importantly, reading Morpurgo's writings as palimpsests.
First, Cohen endeavors to reconstruct Morpurgo's life story, beginning with her childhood in the household of the famous Luzzatto family and her relationship with her illustrious younger cousin, the scholar and rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto, and continuing with her young adulthood, during which she started writing. There is very little information about the crucial years in which Morpurgo first refused to marry and later insisted on marrying Yaacov Morpurgo, against her family's will. Her marriage was followed by many years of silence, after which, at an older age, she went...