Although in the writing of history the term “first” must be used with caution, Devorà Ascarelli may have been the first Jewish woman to have had her own book published. Indeed, all that is known about Devorà Ascarelli is available in her book. Although the book has been mentioned in almost every bibliographic catalog of Jewish books, information about it is often contradictory, perhaps because of the work’s rarity. It contains her translations of liturgical selections from Hebrew to Italian as well as her own poetry in Italian.
From the dedication of the book, we learn that Devorà Ascarelli was the wife of Joseph Ascarelli, and that they lived in Rome in the sixteenth century and probably continued to do so into the seventeenth century. To explain the fact that nothing is known about her family, even its name, several writers have suggested that she may have been a paternal cousin of her husband which is why no other family name has ever been mentioned in connection with her. The family is associated with the exiles from Spain and the leadership of the Catalan community of Rome.
Ascarelli’s book is usually identified with the first piece in it, L’abitacolo degli Oranti or Me’on ha-Sho’alim (The Abode of the Supplicants), a selection from Mikdash Me’at, Il Tempio (The Small Sanctuary), part 2, canto 2, a liturgical poem for Yom Kippur by Moses Rieti of Perugia (1388–1459), which she translated into rhymed Italian. Prose translations in her book include Barekhi Nafshi, or Benedici il Signore o anima mia, which is a tokhehah (reproof) prayer in the Roman rite by Rabbenu Bahya ibn Paquda of Saragossa (second half of eleventh century); La Grande Confessione or The Great Confession by Rabbenu Nissim, identified as the head of the Babylonian Academy; and an avodah prayer for the Sephardic Yom Kippur service. The title page of the book, most of which is in Hebrew, indicates in Italian that these works were “Vulgarizati dalla Mag. Madonna Devorà Ascarelli Hebrea” (translated by the great lady Devorà Ascarelli, a Jew). Not mentioned on the title page though included in the work are two sonnets which she wrote—Il Ritratto di Susanna (The Picture of Susannah), based on the Apocrypha story of Susannah and the Elders, and Quanto e’ in me di Celeste (Whatever in me is of Heaven)—and an anonymous short poem dedicated to her—“Ape, ingegnosa voli” (Fly, O Clever Bee). The liturgical pieces are published in both the Hebrew original and Ascarelli’s translation. It is usually asserted that they were intended for liturgical use on Yom Kippur.
The literature about Devorà Ascarelli maintains that the work was completed in about 1537, without making it clear whether the reference is to the whole book or to the first work in it, and on what grounds the date was arrived at. Most writers then give the year 1540 as the time when her talents were recognized, without stating under what circumstances. It is often stated that the book was first published on October 22, 1562. This date, however, seems certainly to be based on an error, in fact one of many, introduced in 1925 when the book was republished in Rome, along with much irrelevant material. The thirty-one-page book was first published in Venice on October 22, 322, which was in the fall of 1601 (not 1602 as most catalogs claim) and again in 1609. David della Rocca, who identifies himself as a Jew writing in Rome, is often identified as the publisher of the book. This, however, could not have been the case since the Venetians would not have allowed a Jew or a foreigner to publish books in Venice. Calling her his “Padrona,” and using the language of gift and exchange, it seems more likely that he expedited the publication of the book for her for personal reasons. It also seems clear from the tone of this dedication that Devorà Ascarelli was alive when it was published.
As the law required, the publisher in 1601 is given as Daniel Zanetti, a Christian publisher of Jewish books. Also complying with the law, the title page bears a publication license from the Venetian authorities. The publisher of the 1609 edition is listed as Giovanni di Gara, this time with the name of Samuel Castelnuovo cited in the role filled by della Rocca in 1601.
L’abitacolo Degli Oranti. Venice: 1601, 1609.
The original book was republished without the Hebrew and with much additional material by Pellegrino Ascarelli.
Debora Ascarelli Poetessa. Rome: 1925.
English translations by Vladimir Rus, along with the Italian originals, of Devorà Ascarelli’s two sonnets are available in Written Out of History: A Hidden Legacy of Jewish Women Revealed through Their Writing and Letters by Sondra Henry and Emily Taitz. New York: 1978, 130–131.
Excerpts from her book are available in Pesaro, A. “Alle Donne celebri Israelite.” In Il Vessilio Israelitico 29 (1881): 34–37 and 67–68.