1790 – 1871
An Italian Hebrew poet, Rachel Morpurgo was part of the renaissance of Hebrew poetry and literature that began at the end of the eighteenth century. In a century that produced famous women poets such as Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she achieved great renown in Jewish scholarly circles as a Hebrew poet. While earlier Italian Jewish women poets like Sarah Copia Sullam and Devorah Ascarelli had written almost totally in Italian, Rachel Morpurgo wrote all her poems in Hebrew.
Morpurgo was born Rachel Luzzatto in 1790 into a distinguished rabbinic and literary family in Trieste that included R. Moses Hayyim Luzzatto (1707–1746), known as the Ramhal, author of the influential Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Upright). Ten years her junior was her cousin Samuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865), the Shadal, a famous Biblical scholar and philosopher. The two cousins, who were great sources of inspiration to each other, lived in the same house for eight years. Much of what we know of Morpurgo’s life comes from the Shadal’s writings, including his letters and his autobiography.
Morpurgo had a strong Jewish education and studied with relatives and with private tutors. Her studies encompassed Bible and commentaries, Talmud (which she started at the age of fourteen), Hebrew language and medieval Hebrew literature, including ethical writings such as Hovot ha-Levavot (Duties of the Heart) and Menorat ha-Ma’or (Lamp of Light. She also studied Italian literature and mathematics. We know from correspondence that her cousin the Shadal brought a copy of the Zohar for her in 1817, and this had a great influence on her future writings, with many of her poems dealing with themes of redemption. She began writing poetry at the age of eighteen but it was not until 1847, when her cousin sent her early verses to Kokhevei Yizhak (The Stars of Isaac), the influential Viennese periodical of Hebrew literature edited by R. Mendel Stern, that they were published.
Besides her scholarly pursuits she had many practical skills. She learned lithography and the craft of turnery (on a lathe) from her father and uncle. She was skillful at making clothes for herself, her mother and later her daughter. In 1829, at the age of twenty-nine, she married Jacob Morpurgo, an Austrian-Jewish merchant (although her parents were initially opposed to her choice and only reluctantly consented) and they had four children. She continued to study and to write but only at night or on Rosh Hodesh which was celebrated as a quasi-holiday for women. Evidence suggests that her husband did not encourage her pursuit and took no interest in her studies or her writings. In one poem Morpurgo notes and explores the tension between her responsibilities in the house and her creative writing.
After 1847 her poems and letters appeared in Kokhevei Yizhak to great acclaim. Some of the letters were addressed to her cousin, some to the editor of the periodical. Nine poems by contemporary writers in honor of Morpurgo were published in Kokhevei Yizhak. But it was only after her death that her poems and letters appeared in book form. In 1890, the centenary of her birth, R. Vittorio (Hayyim) Castiglioni (1840–1911), poet and scholar, who became Chief Rabbi of Rome in 1903, published a collection of her works in Cracow called Ugav Rahel (Rachel’s Harp). It included letters and fifty of her poems with a biography of the poet in Hebrew and Italian as well as an essay of his own on the position of women in Judaism. Castiglioni admired Morpurgo as “an Israelite,” as a fellow native of Trieste and as a great poet. He considered her “a ready writer, who by her pleasant writings added beauty and glory to our holy language.” Some of the information that Castiglioni gives was obtained from Rachel Morpurgo’s daughter Perla who also gave him some of her mother’s manuscripts.
Morpurgo wrote a variety of verse, secular and religious in tone, much in sonnet form. She wrote poems in honor of different people or events, such as weddings. Many are riddles, depending on plays on words, dates and names and on sophisticated word patterns. Many are on Jewish themes, such as yearning for the land of Israel, redemption and Exile, and some contain images of the union of the soul with God. There are no poems of youthful yearning and no “feminine” poems, although it is interesting that in one letter to her cousin dated 1850 she adds the names of the biblical foremothers when she says “May He who blessed our forebears, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless the whole community of the Congregation of Israel, and may we merit to go up to offer paschal sacrifices upon the altar.” She was extremely modest, signing her poems “Rimah” (“worm”) as an acronym for Rachel Morpurgo ha-ketanah, the small Rachel Morpurgo. In one poem she refers to herself as a “dead dog” (see 1 Samuel 24:14 and 2 Samuel 9:8) and from her letters one can see that she often lost faith in her literary abilities. Yet she continued writing throughout her life; her last poem was written a few days before her death at the age of eighty-one and was left unfinished.
Imbued from childhood with knowledge of Jewish sources and Hebrew literature, Rachel Morpurgo left a unique legacy of poetry, although in the modern revival of Hebrew she was often dismissed as a mere medievalist.
Castiglioni, Hayyim Isaac. Ugav Rahel: Shirim ve-Iggrot u-Mikhtavim Shonim. Cracow: 1890 (reprinted by Y. Zamora, Tel Aviv: 1943); Salaman, Nina. Rachel Morpurgo and the Contemporary Hebrew Poets in Italy. London: 1924; For a complete listing of Morpurgo’s writings in Kokhevei Yizhak see Wachstein, Bernhard. Die Hebraische Publizistik in Wien, vol. 1, Vienna: 1930, 151–153; Kobler, Dora. Four Rachels. London: 1947; Adelman, Howard. “Finding Women’s Voices in Italian Jewish Literature.” In Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing, edited by Judith Baskin, 62–65. Detroit: 1994; Breger, Jennifer. “Three Women of the Book: Judith Montefiore, Rachel Morpurgo and Flora Sasoon.” AB Bookman’s Weekly 101 (March 30, 1998): 853–864; Levine Katz, Yael. “Rachel Morpurgo.” Judaism 49 (Winter 2000): 13–29; Zierler, Wendy and Rachel Stole. The Idols: The Emergence of Modern Hebrew Women’s Writings. Ann Arbor, Michigan: 2004.