Jewish women have been involved in the production of Hebrew books from the earliest days of Hebrew printing. In 1477, the colophon of a Hebrew book Behinat Olam printed in Mantua declared, “I, Estellina, the wife of my worthy husband Abraham Conat, wrote this book Behinat Olam with the aid of Jacob Levi of Tarascon.” It is well known that the author of the book, an ethical work written in Hebrew in the first half of the fourteenth century, was Jedaiah Ben Abraham Bedersi (c. 1270–1340). But it was Estellina who arranged for the printing and was actually involved in the process. She used the word “wrote” because there was as yet no term in Hebrew for “printing.” According to her husband, who was the proprietor of the press, Estellina “wrote” the book “with many pens, without the aid of a miracle.”
Until the nineteenth century, printing was a cottage industry; adjoining living and printing areas enabled the entire family to join in helping with the multiple tasks involved. Among both Jewish and non-Jewish women it was mainly after the husband died that his widow took over the printing press. Since some of the widows married soon after, their new husbands, often also printers, took over the business. Many widows, however, chose to continue operating the business themselves in order to support their family and sometimes to pass it on to their children.
After Estellina Conat, there were at least fifty-four other Jewish women printers whose names were on colophons or title-pages up to the 1920s and there have been many since. Probably there were many more: it is hard to estimate numbers because so many Hebrew books were lost and destroyed over the centuries during periods of persecution and expulsion. Some of the women are mentioned specifically by name: in other cases lines in the colophons and title pages state, as in the case of the famous Proops family of Amsterdam, “Printed by the Widow and Orphans of Jacob (or Joseph) Proops” or “Printed by the Widow and Brothers Romm” in late nineteenth-century Vilna. It seems likely that countless Jewish women contributed anonymously to the printing endeavor throughout the centuries.
There is evidence from external sources of some printers whose books have not survived. A Converso, Juan de Lucena, is considered to be the first Hebrew printer in the Iberian peninsula, even though no books survive from his press. Records of the Spanish Inquisition state that he and four of his daughters were accused of printing Hebrew books in the village of Montalban and in Toledo before 1480. In 1485, one of his daughters confessed before the Inquisition that she had helped her father print Hebrew books. “I accuse myself of having been delinquent by helping my father to write in Hebrew with type, which sin I have committed while a girl in my father’s house.” Almost fifty years later, another daughter was condemned to life imprisonment after a similar confession.
There is no evidence of women being involved in Hebrew printing in most Sephardic lands, even though there were important Hebrew printing centers in Salonika, Fez, Izmir and Adrianople. There was one spectacular exception: Doña Reyna Mendes (c. 1539–1599) in Constantinople. She was the daughter of Doña Gracia Mendes, the famous businesswoman and philanthropist who came to Constantinople in1553, and the wife of Joseph Nasi (1524–1579), advisor to the Sultan and one of the most important men in the Ottoman Empire. Her mother had supported many scholars and had underwritten the printing of Jewish books, but Doña Reyna was the first Jewish woman herself to establish a press which she did not inherit from her husband. When Doña Reyna’s husband died, the authorities confiscated almost all of his wealth. With the remainder she established a press in Belvedere, near Constantinople, and later another press in the Constantinople suburb of Kuru Cesme. She published at least fifteen books, including prayer books and a tractate of the Talmud. A typical title page of her printing press declared: “Printed in the house and with the type of the noble lady of noble lineage Reyna (may she be blessed among women), widow of the Duke, Prince and Noble in Israel, Don Joseph Nasi of blessed memory … near Constantinople, the great city, which is under the rule of the great and mighty Sultan Mohammed.” While she ran the printing press, hers was the only printing press in Constantinople in any language, and thus she had no community of printers or patrons for support. After Doña Reyna’s death in 1599, the press stopped functioning and no further Hebrew books were printed until 1638. The first Turkish book was printed in the city only in 1729.
Famous in the annals of the contribution of Jewish women to printing were two typesetters, Ella and Gela at the end of the seventeenth century—daughters of a convert to Judaism named Moses who first worked as a printer and then had his own printing house in various cities including Amsterdam, Dessau, Berlin, Frankfurt an der Oder and Halle. Ella set type in her father’s printing house in Dessau. In 1696 the Yiddish rhymed colophon to a volume stated: “These Yiddish letters I set with my own hand, Ella, daughter of Moses of Holland. My years number no more than nine, the only girl of six children. If you find an error, please remember that it was set by a child.” Ella moved to Frankfurt an der Oder and worked with her brother on the important Talmud edition printed there between 1697 and 1699: this she noted at the end of Tractate Niddah. Her younger sister Gela set the type for two books in her father’s press in Halle between 1709 and 1710. In a prayer book printed in 1710 she wrote:
Of this beautiful prayer book from beginning to end,
I set all the letters in type with my own hands.
I, Gela the daughter of Moses the printer, whose mother was Friede. …
She bore me among ten children. I am a maiden still under twelve years.
Among the many women printers in Eastern Europe, perhaps the most interesting phenomenon is the preponderance of Jewish women involved in the printing profession in the city of Lemberg (Lvov) in the nineteenth century. Until 1782, when the Austrian authorities ordered the Hebrew printers of Zolkiev, a small city near Lemberg, to move to Lemberg to facilitate censorship, Lemberg had no Hebrew printing, but it quickly became a printing center for Jewish books which were then distributed throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
One of the printers in Zolkiev was Judith Rosanes, a great-granddaughter of Uri Phoebus the printer who had come to Zolkiev in 1691 from Amsterdam. She printed by herself in Zolkiev, with her husband David Mann before his death, and also with various of her cousins who were also printers. In 1782 she moved to Lemberg and established her printing business there. She then married Rabbi Hirsch Rosanes, rabbi of the city and a great scholar. Altogether Judith Rosanes printed at least fifty books until her death in 1805. She was the first Jewish woman to print Hebrew books on a commercial basis over an extended period—for at least twenty-five years. It is known that she had twenty-four employees (all male). She was probably helped in part by her son from her first marriage, Naftali Hertz Grossman, but he set up his own printing press in Lemberg in 1797. The name of Judith Rosanes was so famous as a printer of Hebrew texts that in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the authorities forbade the publication of Hasidic books, printers used her name to suggest that the books had been printed much earlier.
The wives of two of Judith Rosanes’s cousins also printed in Lemberg after the death of their husbands—Chaya Taube, the wife of the printer Aharon Madpis, and Tsharni Letteris, wife of Ze’ev Wolf Letteris. The former ran a press by herself under her own name for about thirty-three years until she handed it over to her son .The latter received official permission to return to Zolkiev in 1793 and published there for at least nineteen years. The daughter-in-law and granddaughter of Judith Rosanes also ran a printing press in Lemberg. When Naftali Hertz Grossman died in 1827, his wife Chave Grossman continued running the press until 1849. When she died, the printing press passed to her daughter Feige, who printed at the press until at least 1857. It has been suggested that the printed books falsely attributed to Judith Rosanes to avoid government prohibitions on printing were actually printed by Chave Grossman, her daughter-in-law.
The most famous Jewish woman printer in Lemberg in the second half of the nineteenth century was Pesel Balaban. While her husband Pinhus Moshe was alive she was very active in the business, but it was after his death that she expanded the press, producing high-quality editions of halakhic texts such as the Shulhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law).
At the end of the nineteenth century the most famous Jewish printing house was that of the Widow and brothers Romm in Vilna. The Romm family began printing in 1799 and continued until 1940. However, it was under the management of Devorah Romm (d. 1903) that it had its greatest success. In 1860 the death of her husband left her, his second wife, aged twenty-nine, with six children and one from his previous marriage. She took over the firm and expanded it in partnership with her brothers-in-law until her death in 1913. She was the dynamic and hard-working partner; helped at first by her father, she was the major decision maker in the firm as it produced thousands of volumes in superior editions. She personally hired the enterprising literary director Samuel Shraga Feigensohn. The Romm edition of the Babylonian Talmud in the 1880s, incorporating textual variants from rare manuscripts in different libraries, was a landmark in Hebrew printing; twenty–two thousand copies of the first volume were sold by advance subscription and this edition became a model for all later editions. The press also printed much Haskalah (Enlightenment) literature. After Devorah’s death, the Romm press declined and was sold in 1910.
Haberman, A. M. “Jewish Women as Printers, Typesetters, Publishers and Book Patrons (Hebrew). Berlin: 1933; Yaari, Avraham. “Women in the Holy Endeavor (of Printing)” (Hebrew). In Mehkerei Sefer. Jerusalem: 1958, 256–302; Idem. “The Printing House of Rabbanit Judith Rosanes in Lvov” (Hebrew). Kiryat Sefer 27 (1940): Miscellaneous Bibliographical Note 36, 95–108; Fraenkel, Sara. “Who was the Falsificator of Judith Rozanis in Lemberg?” (Hebrew). Proceedings of the Ninth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Division D, Vol. 1. Jerusalem: 1985, 175–182; Karp, Abraham. “Let Her Works Praise Her.” In From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress. Washington D.C.: 1991, 167–171; Feffer, Solomon. “Of Ladies and Converts and Tomes: An Essay in Hebrew Booklore.” In Essays on Jewish Booklore, edited by Philip Goodman, 365–378. New York: 1972; Breger, Jennifer. “The Role of Jewish Women in Hebrew Printing.” Antiquarian Bookman (March 29, 1993): 1320–1329.