Books tell stories. Not only through the texts written or printed within them, but also through the ephemera and paratexts – the bindings, the inscriptions, even wax seals casually stamped in the back of a volume. Such is the case with a volume in Columbia’s collection, cataloged with the call number B893.14 Y11. There are records in CLIO for the three printed volumes bound within the book, all dealing with Hebrew language and grammar: David ibn Yahya’s Leshon Limudim (Constantinople, 1542); Elijah Levita’s Masoret ha-Masoret (Venice 1538), and part II of that work, titled Tov Ta’am (Venice, 1538).
However, there are a number of other “works” within this volume, some of which are a bit more difficult to classify. Beginning in the early 17th century, owners of the book began to use the blank pages scattered throughout the book (separating individual volumes – and in one case separating a title page from its work) to detail their history, recording births, marriages, and deaths. The earliest date listed is 1598, and the records go well into the 18th century. The bound volume begins with Leshon Limudim as noted above. Following this printed text were a few blank pages preceding the title page for a new book, this one written by hand, titled Dikduk Lashon ha-Kodesh (Grammar of the Holy Tongue), produced in Livorno in 1612. The binder of the volume also inserted a couple of blank pages following the title page and before beginning the main manuscript text.
To give a sense of the deep history hidden within the pages of this book, I will document just two generations of the many that are detailed within the volume: In the mid-17th century Yitshak Anversa of Livorno took up the quill to list the history of his family. Yitshak begins his narrative on the first of the blank pages by documenting his marriage to Rahel on Friday, the 13th of the month of Nissan, 1676. After the dates (in both the Christian and Jewish calendars) of their wedding, Yitshak wrote a heading that translates as “the children which God has granted his servant,” with a paragraph for each child, indicating the day of the week, the Torah portion that was read that week, the Hebrew date of birth, the date in the Common Era, the child’s name, and who the child was named after. We thus learn of the birth of five children to Yitshak and Rahel Anversa:
A daughter, Esther (16 Feb 1677), named after Yitshak’s mother; a son, Elyakim (4 Jan 1679), named after Yitshak’s father; a daughter, Palomba (6 Jan 1681) – no reason is given for her name; a son, Avraham (26 Feb 1683) – named after Hakham Abraham For(i)do. The entry for Avraham is crossed out, and the next page shows a new entry five years later, for a son named Avraham Hayim (18 August 1687).
Here we have a small peek into a tragedy that impacted so many early modern families. It appears that the first Avraham died, perhaps shortly after birth. The next son was named for the first, with the added name “Hayim,” (i.e. life), as a prayer that this child not suffer the same fate as his brother. Unfortunately, though, there is a notation next to that entry as well, indicating the Avraham Hayim passed away on 6 Tishre, in the year 1701.
Yitshak’s son Elyakim seems to have inherited the book, and he continued writing the family history. Elyakim provides the date for his own marriage, to a woman named (like his mother) Rahel, the daughter of Eliyahu Yeshurun, on 3 Adar in the year 1709. Elyakim wrote the details for his own children (noting that he named his first daughter Dina after his mother-in-law rather than his mother because his wife and his mother had the same name). His second and third daughters were named for his sisters, Esther and Palomba. Esther unfortunately died before her second year. Interestingly, the same narrative also includes children born to Yitshak’s son-in-law and Elyakim’s brother-in-law, Yitshak Servi, who married Elyakim’s sister Palomba. (None of the writers indicated who Yitshak Servi’s wife was, alas, and so I am very grateful to Francesca Bregoli who brought my attention to the Registres de ketubbot de la Nation juive de Livourne, which identified Palomba as Servi’s wife, and, in 1734, documented the marriage of Dina to Gherson de Mose Haim Esforno – Elyakim notes in this volume that their son was named after his father, Yitshak.) Thus, in just a few scribbled pages, we learn about four marriages, the birth (and in some cases, death) of multiple children, and about 75 years of family history.
But the Anversa family did not just chronicle family matters! After the manuscript grammar book, a few more pages (initially blank) were filled up, this time documenting the “shaking of the earth” in Livorno. A major earthquake in Livorno is known to historians in the 1740s, but the list detailed here begins in Yitshak’s time, nearly 100 years earlier: on Passover in the year 1646. Here the author writes like a scientist – documenting even the hour of the day (22.5) that the earth shook. Further earthquakes are noted on Thursday, 12 Sivan (25 May), 1684 (in the 16th hour), Saturday night (1.5th hour) on 5 Av 1705 (26 July), and Wednesday, 13 Tevet 1712 (in the 9th hour). For the earthquake on 19 Sivan 1716, the author notes that he and his family were in the synagogue upon the first ‘quake, but there was a second one that Saturday night in the 2nd hour, and then the following Tuesday in the 11th hour.
The printed editions of Masoret ha-Masoret and Tuv Ta’am complete the volume of linguistic works, and thus it ends. An additional clue to the people who owned and used the book use can be found in a censor’s mark on the very last page, indicating that the book was reviewed by the Ferraran censor Laurentius Franguellus, probably in 1575.
A person just opening or closing the volume might miss the incredible stories hidden within, but a closer look reveals the stories – of love and loss, of life and the shaking of the earth – that can be hidden within just a few pages.