Tag Archives: Italian Jews

Jews of the Week: Abraham Garton & Gershom Soncino

The First Jewish Printers

Abraham Garton (c. 1450-1510) was born in Spain and moved with his family to Calabria, Italy sometime before the Spanish Expulsion of 1492 (which took place on Tisha b’Av). Little is known of his life. Inspired by Johannes Gutenberg, who produced the first printed book in Europe in 1439, Garton established his own printing press to produce Jewish books. His first publication was the Torah commentary of the great Rashi, produced in 1475. In order to avoid using the holy script of the Torah itself, and to be able to fit more letters on a page, Garton decided to use a special cursive Hebrew font previously developed by Sephardic rabbis. This went on to become the standard font for printing the commentary of Rashi on the Torah and Talmud, as well as the commentaries of other sages, and is referred to as “Rashi script” – even though Rashi himself never used it!

Rashi script, originally developed by Sephardic rabbis in Spain (top) compared to regular Hebrew script (bottom).

Emblem of the Soncino family and printing press

Several years later, Yehoshua Shlomo (the son of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants to Italy) established a Hebrew printing press in the town of Soncino, and later in Naples. He undertook the publication of the entire Talmud, starting with the first tractate, Berakhot, in 1483. The work was taken over by his nephew, Gershom Girolamo Soncino (c. 1460-1533). A scholar in his own right, Gershom was fluent in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. In addition to the Talmud, he published books of Torah and the Megillot, as well as various rabbinic texts. He traveled all over Europe to find manuscripts that he could publish. He also produced non-Jewish books, and became famous among Italians for the high quality of his work. All in all, he produced some 200 works, and was the first to use illustrations in a Hebrew book. Soncino later established printing presses in other cities, the last in Constantinople, where he lived out the remainder of his life. He became wealthy, and used his funds to assist Sephardic Jews following the 1492 Expulsion from Spain, and the Portuguese Expulsion in 1497. The Soncino family printed Jewish books until 1557, playing a key role in the wide-spread dissemination of Jewish wisdom, and opening up the study of Jewish texts to the masses. Soncino Press was reestablished in London in the late 19th century, and continues to publish Jewish books today.

How to Observe Judaism in Outer Space  

Words of the Week

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.
– George Bernard Shaw

Jews of the Week: Mathilde and Arthur Krim

A Couple that Transformed the World

Mathilde Krim

Mathilde Galland (1926-2018) was born in Italy to Christian parents of Swiss and Italian heritage. While studying in medical school at the University of Geneva, she met an Israeli and converted to Judaism to marry him. She became passionate about her new faith, and the Zionist dream, working tirelessly to help Israeli fighters (especially the Irgun) acquire weapons and funds. After receiving her PhD in biology in 1953, the young family settled in Israel, and Mathilde became a researcher at the Weizmann Institute. During this time, she made important discoveries about viruses and cancer, and was part of the team that first developed a way to determine the gender of an embryo. Mathilde moved to New York after getting divorced, and joined a research team at Cornell University.

Arthur Krim

During this time, she met Arthur B. Krim (1910-1994), the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Krim graduated from Columbia Law School in 1932 at the top of his class, and worked at a law firm until the outbreak of World War II. He served for the War Department doing critical military work, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, Krim launched a film studio start-up, Eagle-Lion Films. When it tanked, he became a manager at United Artists, and was given three years to turn a profit. He did it in six months, and went on to head United Artists for over two decades (producing hit films like Dr. No, which brought James Bond to America, and West Side Story, which won a record 10 Oscars). Krim and his partners made United Artists the largest movie producer in the world by 1967. Krim would later co-found Orion Pictures (Amadeus, Dances with Wolves). All in all, Krim was a film studio exec for 46 years – possibly the longest in Hollywood history – produced and distributed over 1000 films, and was called “the smartest man ever to work in the movie industry.” Aside from movies, Krim was an important member of the Democratic Party, and served as its finance chairman. He was a personal advisor to three presidents: Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter.

Arthur and Mathilde Krim with President John F. Kennedy

Mathilde and Arthur Krim were famous for their extensive philanthropy and the huge role they played in the civil rights movement, as well as in ending apartheid in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and advancing human rights all over the world. Mathilde continued to work as a researcher throughout her life, and ran the interferon lab at Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research between 1981 and 1985. During this time, she was one of the first to identify the grave dangers of HIV-AIDS, and did important research to understand the pathology of the disease. In 1983, she founded the AIDS Medical Foundation, and then co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Aside from her own research work, the Krims donated millions of dollars to the cause. In addition to 16 honourary doctorates, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000, the highest civilian honour in America. Her husband had previously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969.

When is Mashiach Coming?

Words of the Week

Every Hebrew should look upon his Faith as a temple extending over every land to prove the immutability of God and the unity of His purposes.
– Grace Aguilar