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Discovering Yiddish treasures in a glorious Italian library

Follow in the footsteps of the historian who founded the world's major Yiddish archive to uncover Jewish artefacts in a place best known for ham.
Elizabeth Finkel
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Four people pouring over a small Hebrew book

Tour participants examine a medieval Jewish text at the Palatina library (Image: supplied).

Published: 2 July 2024

Last updated: 2 July 2024

Parma, Italy is best known for parmesan and prosciutto, but it is also a place of Jewish pilgrimage,

Yiddishists come here, as I did last October on a YIVO tour, to visit the Palatina Library and walk in the footsteps of the first Yiddish linguist – Max Weinreich.

 Born in 1894 in what is now Latvia, he studied in Germany, lived in Vilna  and escaped the Holocaust to become a professor of Yiddish at City University in New York.

Like many 20th century Jewish intellectuals, Weinreich sought a contemporary Jewish identity “neither in Moshe Rabeinu nor the Messiah”, in the words of one of our on-board historians, US-based Professor Sam Kassow, a specialist in Ashkenazi Jewish history. Our other was US-based Professor Elissa Bemporad, a specialist in Italian Jewish History.

Weinreich’s point of entry was the Yiddish language.  After completing his dissertation in Germany in 1923 “Studies in the history and dialect distribution of the Yiddish language”, in 1925 he went on to co-found the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (Yiddish Scientific Institute), abbreviated as YIVO,  with trustees including Freud and Einstein.

Today YIVO, based in New York, is the world’s primary archive of 1000 years of Ashkenazi Jewish culture recorded in Yiddish.

But the Palatina Library in Parma is home to some of the treasures it honours, an unparalleled collection of medieval Jewish texts. 

Palatina library (supplied)
Palatina library (supplied)

As Kassow explains,YIVO saw the collection of materials and the establishment of archives as a major priority.  And it didn’t just involve scholars. Jews of the shtetl were enlisted to collect their material culture. The grey everyday life of the shtetl, the cholent and kugel, their ‘mameloschen’ (mother tongue) – things Jews were somewhat ashamed of – should instead serve as a means of self-discovery.

“Through this means, Weinrich felt Jews would come to an understanding of who they were. And find a means to have pride in who they were notwithstanding all the attempts to demean them.” 

Weinreich drew inspiration from his US visits to black universities in the early 1930s. In Kassow’s words, He wanted to know how African American educators gave their young people the wherewithal to withstand the unceasing barrage of hate and slander and denigration. How did these colleges give their young people the armour to keep going?”

The YIVO project endured even in the Warsaw ghetto. As their final act, historian Emanuel Ringelblum and his fellow resisters recorded their own history of life in the ghetto. 

It was Weinreich’s mission to archive everyday Yiddish literature that brought him to the Palatina library in the early 1920s.  Housed in a 14th century palace and dedicated by Napoleon’s second wife – Maria Luigia Bonaparte, the Palatina library is a temple of learning. 

Stepping into the cavernous space is a humbling experience. A domed ceiling frescoed with ‘Prometheus Stealing Fire’ soars above; all around are floor to ceiling musty wooden shelves packed with books,  each row protected by a tasselled damask apron. The books leather bound with gold embossed titles that breathe antiquity: “Cholera in Genoa”, “Obstetrica Teorico Pratica,” “Naturalis”, “Petrarch.” 

We Jewish pilgrims walk in awe, drinking in the distilled essence of centuries of scholarship.

 We are led into an adjoining office space that houses the medieval Jewish texts.   Our guide is Roberta Tonnarelli. Gently spoken with a refined airy note to her voice, her master’s degree involved deciphering Jewish tombstones, and her PhD translating ancient Hebrew manuscripts. She now works as a conservator at the Jewish museum Fausto Levi of Soragna in Parma.  

Tonnarelli shows us three books that are part of the collection of 18th century cleric G.B. De Rossi. The collector’s interest seems somewhat surprising until we learn that Catholic clergy were keen on Jewish scholars as original sources for Biblical narratives.   De Rossi’s collection spanned books of the Renaissance – a time where research into Jewish texts was sponsored by the Medicis – all the way back to the first printed books in Venice.

But printed books are not what Tonnarelli cradles gently in her hands. These are all hand-written texts.  The first is a small 16th century volume that tells the story of Esther, probably read in the home during Purim. The exquisitely precise script is as regular as type font.

Guide Roberta Tonnarelli shows a medieval Jewish text to visitors at the Palatina library (supplied)
Guide Roberta Tonnarelli shows a medieval Jewish text to visitors at the Palatina library (supplied)

The second is a 14th century palm-sized Italian book of psalms written on velum.  Its exquisite illustrations include one of storage towers used as a refuge during sieges.  We saw several of them, some leaning, in Bologna and Sienna.

The third book is the most awe-inspiring. Dated to 1073, it is a Mishnah (a commentary on the Talmud), dealing specifically with agricultural techniques. Though it employs a Hebrew alphabet, the words themselves are Italian. Roberta points out margin notes referring to persico (peach), parsonata (parsnip), salvatico (coriander) and fasuli (beans). It is the work of many hands, and was probably used in a yeshiva, judging from the vernacular, in Southern Puglia.  We know the age of the Mishnah from a twin copy held at the Vatican whose publisher’s imprint dates it to1073. 

Italy’s Jewish history is different to those of Eastern European Jews.  For starters, its Jewish population was always relatively small, never exceeding 50,000. Poland’s was three and a half million at its height just before the second world war. But Italy boasts the oldest Jewish population outside the Middle East – originating from slaves brought to Rome after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

Venice is also the birthplace of the ghetto in 1516, and where the first printed copy of the Talmud was published.  It was also the home of Elia Levita who in 1508 wrote the Bova Bukh, a Yiddish rendering of a knight’s tale that became a classic of Yiddish literature and the origin of the ‘bube mayse’ or old wives’ tale. Turin is the birthplace of beloved author Primo Levi. Ferarra was the home of Giorgio Bassani, author of the Garden of the Finzi Contini.

All places of Jewish literature that we visited in our pilgrimage – in our own small way continuing the mission of YIVO.

The 2024 YIVO tour of Italy runs from Sep 16th to 29th. Visit YIVO for more information.

About the author

Elizabeth Finkel

Elizabeth Finkel is a biochemist who switched to journalism. She co-founded Cosmos Magazine, serving as Editor in Chief from 2013-18, and is now Editor at Large. She is the author of Stem Cells, which won the Queensland premier’s Literary award and The Genome Generation. Besides journalism, she serves as a Vice Chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University and on advisory committees for Latrobe University Press and Zoos Victoria.


  • Avatar of brian stagoll

    brian stagoll3 July at 12:18 am

    thanks for this neat summary of our inspiring visit to the Palatina Biblioteca, a reminder of how Yiddish endures.

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