Unexpectedly Stumbling Upon a Unique Jewish Destination in Italy!

Sometimes, life’s unexpected surprises are to be found at arm’s length or, quite literally, around the corner! But I digress…

Earlier this summer, my two younger daughters and I spent a week in Italy primarily to celebrate my niece’s, their first cousin’s wedding which took place on beautiful, isola d’Elba, the Island of Elba.

Before our departure for Napoleon’s once-temporary home, we spent our first two nights in the bucolic northern Italian town of Crema, my niece’s husband’s parents ancestral home. Less than an hour and a half’s drive from Milan, we could not have asked for a more delightful, picturesque town, one dating back to the 6th century: a veritable maze of narrow, cobbled-stone streets lined with brightly-painted, flower-bedecked homes; elegant, private palazzo’s behind ornate, wrought-iron gates and fashionable boutiques leading to the central “Piazza Duomo,” awash with outdoor restaurants and cafes.

The plaque on the outside of the Museum.

Crema, however, is not your typical tourist’s destination. On the contrary; I suspect that very few Americans have ever ventured into the town but Asians, for example, are now arriving in unprecedented numbers. Why? Because Crema was chosen as the site for the full-length 2017 award-winning movie “Call Me by Your Name,” directed by Luca Guadagnino, who just happens to be a local resident.  Imagine my daughters surprise when they were told that the movie’s two male stars, Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer, also stayed at our charming, six-bedroom B&B on Via Vimercati!

Crema, a town of approximately 34,000, has apparently no Jewish residents nor are there to be found any synagogue remains. I was told, however, that a tiny Jewish quarter was once situated directly behind and in the shadow of the Duomo, the Cathedral, that continues to dominate the main piazza.

I had asked my wife, Randy, to purchase a National Geographic map of Italy before our departure. I was interested and curious to know where we were going to be. Imagine my surprise when, after finding Crema in the Lombardy region of the country, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the closest geographical places to Crema was none other than Soncino!  I was astonished; all I knew was that the village associated with Jewish printing was in Italy but, to all intents and purposes, it might well have been hundreds of miles away. On the contrary; it was just around the corner! Literally!

The inscription attesting to the “…word of God from Soncino…” (Sefer Ha’ikkarim, 1485)

I asked my niece’s now father-in-law, Alberto, if he wouldn’t mind taking my father and I to visit the “Museo della Stampa,” the Printing Museum which also houses the “Centro Studi Stampatori Ebrei Soncino,” the Soncino Hebrew Printers’ Study Center. Alberto was only too pleased to help. He promptly called and was told that the Museum was only open that day for two hours from 10:00am to 12 noon. By then it was already 10:15; we hadn’t a moment to lose! It was now or never for we were all leaving bright and early the following morning for the coastal town of Piombino in order to take the ferry over to Elba.

After driving for about 20 minutes through corn fields and non-descript industrial plants, we duly arrived at 8 Via Lanfranco, a tall, old brick building dedicated to the history of the printing press but also to Soncino’s truly unique Jewish history: it was here, supposedly on the very site where the Museum is now located, that the world’s very first edition of the Hebrew Bible was printed! Those of us at all familiar with translated Biblical and Talmudic texts recognize the unsurpassed quality of the iconic “Soncino Press” printers’ mark (with its iconic tower probably connected with the neighboring municipality of Casalmaggiore), universally acknowledged as, arguably, the oldest and most venerable Jewish printing house in the world.

The Museum at 8 Via Lanfranco, Soncino.

The history of Jewish printing is forever linked with the village of Soncino (2018 population just over 7,800 including one Jew, Aldo Villagrossi!) thanks to a Jewish family who, due to anti-Jewish discrimination, had fled the German city of Speyer, near Mainz. Due to an edict authorized by Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan, Israel Nathan b. Samuel’s family was given permission to set up a loan business in Soncino in 1454. After some three decades, the family decided to embark on a new business: that of printing and published their first work, the Talmudic tractate Berachot, on February 2, 1484.  However, the so-called “Familia Soncino,” (“Sonchino” in Italian) made history when on, April 22, 1488, they printed “…La Prima Bibbia Ebraica Completa…” the first complete edition of the Hebrew Bible, with vowels! It should be noted that the Soncino’s printing house was the only one of its kind in Italy from the last decade of the 15th century to the first quarter of the 16th century.

The late Gothic-style, tower-like building on Via Lanfranco and its carefully planned masonry – with inner tough bricks suitable to support the planking and outer waterproof bricks – together with the larger rooms on the ground floor and the ogival windows on the upper floors, suggest that it might well have been the very site of the Soncino’s printing house and home.  It was renovated and officially opened in 1988, to mark the quincentennial anniversary of the first complete printing of the Hebrew Bible. A translation of the marble plaque affixed to the outside brick wall reads as follows: “This building has been designated as the home of the Jewish printers who named themselves after the town of Soncino and printed numerous books in this village from 1483 to 1492 among which was the first complete Hebrew Bible in 1488. The owner, Dr. Francesco Cerioli, gave it to the local authorities so that it would become the venue for the study of the Soncino Printers. 22 September 1991.” 

A facsimile of the first page of the first printed edition of the Hebrew Bible, April 22, 1488.

I am extremely grateful to Francesca Perotti, the Museum’s Curator, for the time she spent with us and for her invaluable insight. She made a freshly-minted copy for me of “Pagina iniziale della Bibbia stampata a Soncino il 22 aprile 1488,” the very first page from the very first printed edition of the Hebrew Bible which just happens to contain Genesis 1:1-14. I couldn’t help but notice that in addition to the Museum’s own watermark, the lithograph also includes a parody (in both Hebrew and Italian) of the famous biblical quote from Isaiah (2:3): “For out of Zion shall go forth the Law and the word of God from…Soncino!!”

While my visit to Sunsi (as it’s known locally) was all too short, it was truly memorable! Who knew that just down the road from nearby Crema, in a remote corner of what was once the Jewish quarter of a small Lombardy village, the very first edition of the Hebrew Bible was printed over 531 years ago!

Rabbi Robert S. Leib serves Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington, PA.


The Jew of Whitehorse

This summer, I had the opportunity to travel up to Whitehorse, Canada, a city of some 30,000 people in Yukon Territory. Why did I go to Whitehorse? Should I give you the Facebook answer or the real one?

I went to Whitehorse because I would have the opportunity to fly on Air North, a small Canadian Carrier. This airline was on my bucket list of airlines to try. Yes, I love flying, and I go out of my way to be in the air. My husband says I’m normal in every other way.

While researching what to do with my one-day visit to Whitehorse, I learned that Rick Karp, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, was Jewish. He was one of a handful of Jews in the city. I began to think of him as “The Jew of Whitehorse,” as he was the carrier of the Torch for the city. I reached out to Rick right away, and he offered to show me around upon arrival.

It was then that I remembered a story my Grandpa Bert, of blessed memory, once shared.

Grandpa Bert was born in Russia and moved to Montreal when he was an infant. As a young adult, he worked for the Canadian Railroad and headed west. Grandpa disembarked the train and asked the local station manager if there were any Jews in town.

The manager held up one finger and said, “There is just one family.”

One family….. That’s all it took. Grandpa found that family and they took him in for the night.

Now, it would be really nice if this story unfolded with a romantic ending. (No, the family did not have a child that Grandpa eventually married). It’s just a simple story grandpa used to share to illustrate how important it was to be part of the Jewish community.

So while my trip to Whitehorse began as a flying adventure, it transformed into an opportunity to walk in the path of grandpa (though the town he went to was not Whitehorse).

Rick Karp is an incredible soul. He shared with me how he and his wife (zl) arrived in Yukon. He told me about the Israeli community who landed there as well. And he showed me incredible documents about the history of Judaism in Yukon Territory, going back to the times of the Gold Rush. Rick introduced me to the tiny Jewish cemetery in the town of Dawson, and how it had been rediscovered in the middle of the woods after nearly a century of abandonment. And Rick showed me photos and videos of Jewish celebrations that had taken place in the area of over the years. There were tears in my soul.

My entire thinking shifted while there. I approached my visit with an attitude of, “Perhaps I can help bring a taste of Judaism to the area.” But I left realizing, “The Jew of Whitehorse gave me more than I could possibly ever have brought to him.”

My gosh…. the entire world is a living Torah! And I feel deepened through Parashat Whitehorse, stumbled upon by complete accident, but giving me a renewed sense of purpose!

Rabbi Zach Shapiro serves Temple Akiba in Culver City, CA.

Convention Israel

Showing Up – Now more than Ever

This February the CCAR will be convening in Israel.  While it’s always a good time to go to Israel, this February offers an especially important and unique opportunity to spend time together in Israel as colleagues, as students and as hovevei Tzion. In case you are still deliberating the costs and benefits of participating in this seminal sabbatical experience, I would like to offer three specific reasons why I think you should join us in Israel this February.

1. You need it. Being a one-in-seven year experience, this convention provides you with a unique opportunity to be exposed to cutting edge learning, leadership and the program being offered allows you as a rabbi to encounter and process complex issues in a collegiate environment in which to process and air feelings, discuss frustrations and digest the daily trials and tribulations facing Israel and the Jewish people. These days in Israel will doubtless afford us a high level of professional development and enrichment to last the whole year.

2. Your community needs you to have these experiences.  I don’t have to tell you that for many in our movement, Israel is the source of great debate, controversy and even despair. I also don’t have to remind you that for many congregants, you are the source, authority and expert on all things Jewish – including Israel.  Which is why coming now will give you the opportunity to report back and share the rich and important encounters, meetings, briefings, study sessions and experiences with your congregants, boards, staffs and community members. They are in desperate need of first hand, beyond-the-headlines accounts of the exciting changes that are happening in the Israeli Reform movement, innovative ways of learning Torah, governmental and parliamentary deliberations and all that we are doing to combat the worrisome trends that are oft-mentioned in the media.  Your congregations, organizations, Hillels, and staffs need you to be their emissaries and bring back a real and meaningful account of experiences that are only available to this sort of a convention.

3. Israel needs you. This past year we worked very hard (with much gratitude to all of our rabbis for supporting, pushing and campaigning) to ensure that ours was the largest delegation to the World Zionist Congress.  We wanted the Government of Israel and the rest of the world to see that the Reform movement cares deeply and passionately about Israel and has come out in droves during this difficult time.  We did that, and let me assure you that our presence is felt.  In a world where headlines fade quickly, we need to do all that we can to demonstrate to both the Government and people of Israel that we are committed and invested in the future of Israel and in our movement’s relationship with her.  Only a strong showing of our rabbinic leadership will demonstrate that commitment and will send the message that we are strong, dedicated and will not pass up the opportunity to stand as a collective body of rabbis to hear and be heard.

I look forward to spending time, learning and experiencing with all of you in just a few short months!

Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America