Tag Archives: Venice

Jew of the Week: Elia Levita

The First Yiddish Novel and Hebrew Dictionary

Cover Page of a 1541 Edition of ‘Bovo-Bukh’

Eliyahu “Bachur” haLevi (1469-1549) was born near Nuremberg, the youngest of nine children. When the Jews were expelled from the region, his family settled in Venice. Throughout these years, Eliyahu spent most of his time in the study of Torah, Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and Hebrew grammar. In 1504, he settled in Padua and took on a job as a teacher of Jewish studies. He wrote a textbook of Hebrew grammar for his students, and the book quickly spread far and wide. It became especially popular among Christian scholars, many of whom were then trying to learn Hebrew in order to understand the Bible in its original language. Meanwhile, inspired by other Renaissance authors, Eliyahu wrote a romance novel in Yiddish, the Bovo-Bukh, history’s first Yiddish novel. Hugely popular, it has been continuously published until this day, going through some 40 editions over the past five centuries. It was also translated to other languages, including German and Russian. The book’s title is the origin of the well-known Yiddish phrase, bube mayse, an “old wives’ tale”. Eliyahu wrote two satires in Italian as well. By the time he resettled in Rome in 1514, he was quite famous, and became close with Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo. The two made a deal in which Eliyahu and his family could live in the Cardinal’s palace, in exchange for Eliyahu teaching him Hebrew and Jewish mysticism. (At that time, Jewish mysticism was very popular in Europe, and had many famous non-Jewish students, too, including Michelangelo and Pico della Mirandola.) Eliyahu lived with the Cardinal for the next 13 years. During this time, he composed several more textbooks on the Hebrew language, including one of the first Hebrew dictionaries. He also translated various Jewish texts, mainly Kabbalistic ones, into Latin. Rome was sacked in 1527, so Eliyahu had to relocate again. King Francis I offered him to become a professor of Hebrew at the University of Paris, but Eliyahu declined because at that time Jews were banned from living in Paris and he refused to live in a city where his brethren were not welcome. Eliyahu would return to Venice and passed away there. Today is his yahrzeit. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron is one of his descendants.

Words of the Week

To have a second language is to have a second soul.
– Charlemagne

Jew of the Week: Diane von Fürstenberg

Diane von Fürstenberg    (Credit: Ed Kavishe)

Diane Simone Michelle Halfin (b. 1946) was born in Belgium, the daughter of a Moldavian-Jewish immigrant father and a Greek-Jewish mother who survived the Holocaust. She was born just 18 months after her mother was liberated from Auschwitz. Halfin studied economics at Madrid University and the University of Geneva. During this time, she met Prince Egon of the German aristocratic house of Fürstenberg. The couple soon married and had two children: Prince Alexander and Princess Tatiana. The now-Princess Diane did not want to be a trophy wife, and “decided to have a career. I wanted to be someone of my own, and not just a plain little girl who got married beyond her desserts.” She followed her passion into fashion design and apprenticed at a textile factory in Italy. It was here that she first came up with her idea of the “jersey dress”. Unfortunately, the Prince and Princess separated (a major reason being the disapproval of the Prince’s family of a Jewish bride), and Diane became a full-time fashion designer in New York. She started her business with a $30,000 loan from her father. In 1974, she finally introduced her jersey “wrap dress”. It took the world by storm, and over 5 million dresses were sold in just one year. Von Fürstenberg expanded into cosmetics and fragrances, and was soon among New York’s most successful fashion designers and businesspeople. After moving to Paris in 1985 to open a publishing house and a European cosmetics line, she returned to New York in 1997 to re-launch her American business. The jersey dress returned to immense popularity. In 2004, von Fürstenberg launched new collections of jewellery and beachwear. A couple of years later, she was made President of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a position she still holds. She is one of the most popular designers among celebrities, and her dresses have been worn by the likes of Kate Middleton, Michelle Obama, Madonna, and Jennifer Lopez. Von Fürstenberg is also a noted philanthropist (together with her current husband Barry Diller), having donated millions to a wide array of causes including public housing, education, human rights, health, and the environment. Every year, she presents a $50,000 “DVF Award” at the United Nations building to each of five women “who display leadership, strength, and courage”. She is on the board of Vital Voices, an organization that assists women around the world, particularly in the area of economic empowerment. In 2014, she gave $12 million to help restore the crumbling historic Jewish ghetto of Venice (the oldest in the world). Von Fürstenberg also had her own reality TV show (House of DVF) that ran for two seasons, and has written two popular books. She still presides over 111 DVF stores around the world. She was recently ranked by Forbes among the world’s most powerful women, and in the TIME 100 list of iconic figures.

Words of the Week

One feels the beauty of the world only according to the measure of beauty that is in the inner core of one’s soul.
– Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Elio Toaff

“The Pope of the Jews”

Rabbi Toaff with Pope John Paul II

Rabbi Toaff with Pope John Paul II

Elio Toaff (1915-2015) was born in Livorno, Italy, the son of Livorno’s chief rabbi. Despite the fact that his father did not want his son to follow in his footsteps, Toaff nonetheless pursued religious studies (as well as law and theology at the University of Pisa) and was ordained a rabbi by age 24. At 26, he was appointed rabbi of Ancona. Not long after, Germany occupied northern Italy, and Toaff became a resistance fighter. Captured by the Nazis and sentenced to death, he managed to escape while digging his own grave. Following the war, Toaff became the rabbi of Venice, and a professor at its university. In 1951, he became the Chief Rabbi of Rome (and, in effect, the Chief Rabbi of Italy) a post he held for 51 years until retiring in 2002. He had the monumental task of restoring Italy’s Jewish communities after the massive destruction they experienced during the war. Rabbi Toaff focused his efforts on rebuilding Jewish infrastructure, reigniting Jewish education, and bridging the gaps between Jews and non-Jews. In 1986, he invited Pope John Paul II to Rome’s Great Synagogue for a joint prayer. The Pope accepted, marking the first time in history a pope visited and prayed at a synagogue. The two had a very close relationship. Incredibly, Rabbi Toaff was one of just two people that the Pope mentioned in his last will and testament (the other being the Pope’s personal secretary), writing “How can I fail to remember the rabbi of Rome?” Rabbi Toaff cleared the way for the Pope to visit Israel in 2000, and to establish formal diplomatic relations between the Jewish State and the Vatican. Rabbi Toaff was beloved by Jews and Catholics alike, and was a central voice of morality in Italy, as well as the primary authority in Jewish law. Toaff was knighted by the Italian Republic, and given the title of ‘Senator for Life’. He was commonly nicknamed “the Pope of the Jews”. Sadly, Toaff passed away on Sunday. He would have turned 100 years old next week.

Words of the Week

A rabbi doesn’t work only for his community or for the Jews. A rabbi has to talk to every human being who needs him. He belongs to everybody. He is for everybody.
– Rabbi Elio Toaff