Rachel Luzzatto Morpurgo

The first woman to write modern poetry in Hebrew.

Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide To Jewish Women (Jewish Publication Society).

Rachel Luzzatto was born on April 8, 1790, just five years after the gates of the old ghetto of Trieste were torn down. The Luzzattos came from along line of Italian-Jewish scholars, and her parents were prosperous and respected in the community. Rachel received the same excellent education as her brother and her male cousins, studying Hebrew and Aramaic and being introduced to the Talmud and other medieval texts at an early age. She also studied Italian literature, mathematics, Rashi’s commentaries, and the Zohar. Somewhat of a mystic, Rachel Luzzatto began writing poetry when she was eighteen and continued to do so until her death 63 years later.

In the Beginning

Despite a life steeped in tradition and Jewish scholarship, Rachel Luzzatto was not oblivious to the new ideas swirling outside-and sometimes even inside-the Jewish community. As a young woman, Rachel refused all the suitors approved by her family and insisted on a man of her own choosing. He was Jacob Morpurgo, an Austrian-Jewish merchant. Her parents at first refused to permit the match but finally consented when Rachel was 29 years old.

Accounts of their married life differ. One of Morpurgo’s biographers said that she and Jacob were blissfully happy. She reported that Morpurgo cared for her four children, attended to all her household duties, and still found time to write and publish her poetry, meet and correspond with Jewish scholars, and lecture to young men who sought her wisdom." Other researchers contended that she lived in near poverty and could find time for her writing only at night or on new moons, customarily celebrated as a half-holiday for women." According to information collected from her daughter Perla, Jacob Morpurgo took little interest in his wife’s writing and was surprised to find that people came to solicit her opinion.

Ahead of Her Time

Like that of the entire Luzzatto family, Rachel Morpurgo’s goal was to revive Hebrew poetry in Italy." While she followed the tradition of earlier Italian-Jewish poets, Morpurgo is considered the first woman to have written modern poetry in the Hebrew language, including poetry on secular subjects not meant to fit into synagogue liturgy.  Her poems were published in a Hebrew journal called Kokhavei Yitzhak (Stars of Isaac) and were signed with the initials of the three words, Rahel Morpurgo haketanah (the small one). In Hebrew these initials spell out Rimah (worm), a symbol of extreme modesty. As she grew older, Rachel Morpurgo began to believe that the soul could be united with God through contemplation and love. Her poems are filled with images of this conceptual union and with messianic hopes.

Rachel Morpurgo died in 1871 at the age of eighty-one. In 1890, 100 years after her birth, Vittorio Castiglioni–a noted scholar, native of Trieste, and chief rabbi of the Jewish community of Rome-published a volume of her poems and letters. He named the collection Ugav Rahel (Rachel’s harp). Just a few generations after Castiglioni’s book was published, Nina Davis Salaman, one of the foremost English-Jewish scholars and poets of her time, rediscovered Rachel Morpurgo’s work and rendered it into English. With these translations, Morpurgo was brought to life for a new generation."

A Poem By Rachel Morpurgo

This poem, one of Morpurgo’s later works, illustrates her use of metaphors from nature and her spiritual inclinations.

From a distance, I look upon the eternal hills,

Their face covered with glorious flowers.

I rise high, as if on eagle’s wings, to cast a glance,

Raising my head to view the sun.

Heaven! How beautiful you stream forth,

Winds sweeping across your stage,

Revealing the place where freedom ever lives.

Who, who can express its sweetness!"

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