The Jews of Casale Montferrato The History of a Vital Community Rediscovered

Fact Paper 24

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

Four of the Thirty-Three Pinkasim Found in the Geniza of Casale Montferrato. While searching for four centuries of the missing history of the Università d’Altare, a glassmaking community in northern Italy, HHF Executive Director Samuel Kurinsky delved into the Geniza, or storeroom, of the synagogue of Casale Montferrato, overlooked by the Nazis. Included in the thousands of books and documents were thirty-three Pinkasim, massive journals chronicling the daily affairs of and events surrounding the community. The journals date from 1589 to 1933 and provide a unique, four-hundred-year historical record of the Casale community and of the region.

The Holy Community of Casale Montferrato

So reads the title of the first of thirty-three journals kept by a series of scribes assigned to recording therein the business and life of the Jewish community of Casale Montferrato. The first pinkas was started in 1589; the last journal ended with the Nazi occupation in 1945. Thus, the thirty-three pinkasim span almost four centuries of the community’s life. The resultant record is a complete history of the community except for a ten-year period in which Napoleon’s armies occupied the area.

Most of the five hundred or so members of the community living in Casale before the Nazi invasion are now gone. Only a few families mark the presence of a historically significant community.

A Jewish community existed in the region of Casale even before 1589 under the benign rule of the Marquises Montferrato. Casale was then the governmental seat of the Montferratos. Some Jews may have resided in the region as far back as the Roman period. Others were refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, and they were joined by another influx of refugees from over the Alps. Casale continued a more or less protected existence under the rule of the succeeding Gonzaga dynasty of nearby Mantua, with whom the Montferrats had intermarried. The Casale congregation became one of the rare Jewish communities which did not suffer the dire fate which befell so many others. The phenomenal survival of the journals, and of thousands of other documents and books stored in the community’s Geniza, is due to the protection the Jews enjoyed under the rulers of the region.

The storeroom and its contents survive secondarily because of an oversight of the Nazis. In their rampage through northern Italy they obliterated the archives of the Jewish communities and wrecked most of the buildings that contained them. Among those structures was the Casale synagogue. They also demolished the synagogue’s adjoining buildings. In so doing the storeroom and its contents were (fortunately!) buried.

The synagogue is an architectural jewel, restored to baroque magnificence through the persistent efforts of two members of the community, Adriana Ottolenghi and her husband, Doctor-Professor Giorgio Ottolenghi. They were largely responsible for initiating the project and raising the necessary funds. Thanks are also due to the personal oversight of the project by an architect, Professor Giulio Bourbon, then Director of Culture of the region. The Ottolenghis were also instrumental in establishing and maintaining a museum of the community, housed in the very building in which the Geniza was found.

Adriana had survived the persecutions in Italy, moved to the United States in 1951 and graduated from the University of Wisconsin. Returning to Italy to care for an ailing grandmother, she met Giorgio in his ancestral town, Casale, fell in love with both the man and the town.

Adriana and Professor Ottolenghi and less than twenty other Jewish residents remain of an influential community which had been composed, at times, of close to a thousand members. They are dedicated to the maintenance of the Museo di Arte e Storia Antica Ebraica, and to making the museum available as a living demonstration of the vibrant history of the broader community it represents.

The synagogue is now a national monument of Italy.

The escape from obliteration that all similar records of Jewish life of the region suffered at the hands of the Nazis can only be attributed to good fortune. We are now privileged to read the record of the meetings of the community; we can now study the statutes passed by the elected officials, statutes that served as guidelines for the Jews of the entire region; we can now observe the manner in which the community dealt with the exigencies of traumatic events that enveloped them, war, invasion, and severe problems accruing from ecclesiastical provocation.

The museum additionally houses a wealth of historical and personal documents, manuscripts, contracts, business permits, records of disputes, and records of communications with the outside world.

The Earliest Three Pinkasim

The first three Pinkasim of the thirty-three surviving journals kept by the community were incomprehensible to the Hebrew scholars in Italy to whom they were shown. They were not only written in Hebrew/Rashi, itself an obscure method of Hebrew writing, but that they were rendered in a coded form. They were evidently made intentionally cryptic to avoid the possibility of its being understood by church savants, should the journals fall into church hands. The exigencies of the times made such an artful initiative necessary.

A copy of the earliest Pinkas was brought to the United States by the author in 1987 to find a scholar capable of its transcription so as to determine its value and how it could be made comprehensible to scholars. After an exhaustive search, twenty pages of the copy were finally submitted to Beryl Schwartz, of Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, a scribe knowledgeable in Hebrew/Rashi. Unfortunately, the text was interspersed with sixteenth century Italian idioms, with which Schwartz was unfamiliar. Nonetheless, his transcription sufficed to prove that the pinkas was indeed an invaluable record of the community and its times.

The journals open with enactments setting norms of comportment that reveal much of sociological and historical value, and, indeed, could well be applied today. Modesty is prescribed in personal adornment and comportment and in the conduct of social events:

Statute 4g: At social parties no more than 12 participants shall be present. At circumcision parties, 12 are allowed. At weddings, 20 of the citizens of this city are allowed. There is no limit on guests from outside the city.

Casale was a hub of Jewish travel:

Statute 7: Members of the community will voluntarily agree to host visitors from other communities by inscribing their names on slips of paper, which are placed in a box... Visitors will draw a slip at random from the box and be assigned to the family whose name is on the slip, for no less than one night and three meals.

A search began for a scholar who was not only capable of transcribing the Hebrew/Rashi but was likewise knowledgeable about Renaissance Italian lore, history and language. It appeared that we had located one in Rabbi Jacob Malki, a student at Yeshiva University, who was not only Italian but stemmed from the same region of Italy. We retained Rabbi Malki to transcribe the three first Pinkasim.

After the better part of a year’s work, the transcription of the first pinkas was submitted to Professor Bonfil of Hebrew University for criticism. He judged that while the transcription made the text comprehensible, it was studded with errors and mistranslations and was not suitable for scholarly publication. Professor Bonfil submitted a few names of scholars capable of correcting Malki’s work and continuing with the following pinkasim.

We retained one of these scholars, Itzhac Yudlov, Director of the Catalogue Division of the National Library of Israel, to correct Malki’s work and continue with the transcription. Almost half of the $20,000 needed for the project was granted by HHF board members Steve Offerman and Mel Dubin. Ken Orr and Dr. Pauline Weiss each contributed a thousand dollars.

The work is still incomplete, as the apparat, or the bibliography and references needed for final publication has not yet been added. The text, however, is available at the Israel National Library for scholarly research, and has already been incorporated in works by the renowned Professor Bonfil.

Professor Maurizio Cassetti, head of the state archives, catalogued and organized the literature found in the Geniza. Most of it was housed in the museum adjoining the synagogue, and the most ancient, fragile documents are housed in vaults under environmental controls in the state archives. All the literature and documents are now available to scholars.

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History Revealed

The journals provide a unique view of historical events from inside the Jewish community. Unlike the histories we are accustomed to, they are not chronological recitations of royal successions and intrigues, of battles won or lost. They provide an intensely personal perspective of a drama which unfolds page after page as if being read in contemporary newspapers. We follow the families from generation to generation and become intimate with the families involved; We are made privy to the problems as they arise; We feel the pulse of events as the human drama unfolds; we read on breathlessly, eager to learn what happens next.

To cite but one example from the succession of events swirling around the community over the centuries, the very first pinkas leads us through the Spanish invasion of the region.

The Spanish army reached the very threshold of Casale. The Spaniards took Jewish hostages as they advanced through Piedmont, knowing full well that Jews would pay a heavy ransom for their release. The captives would otherwise be sold off as slaves, destined to a life of misery in the mines.

The problems of raising the sizeable sums needed to ransom these unfortunates and the solutions arrived at are recorded in the journals. At the same time a flood of refugees from Alessandria and other neighboring cities inundate Casale and cause a massive sustenance problem for the community.

Thus the record of more than three and a half centuries is recorded of the births, weddings, and deaths of a score of generations, of the means of earning a livelihood, of disputes that inevitably arose between families, and of the exigencies accruing from outside events impacting on the community.

Other Literature in the Casale Geniz

The mass of other documents in the Casale inventory supply an invaluable compendium of information about Judaic history, norms, and social structure. Included are journals from Moldavia, Prussia, Hungary, Peru, Belgium, Russia and elsewhere. A considerable proportion of this literature dates to the nineteenth century and earlier. For example, the Geniza contains a complete collection of the Educatore Israelitica, which was published in nearby Vercelli. Each copy contains revelatory articles by prominent historians and other writers and provides a fascinating fountain of information and current events.

Jewish artistic, commercial and industrial activity is reflected in reports of medals won at expositions, and of titles and honors bestowed upon Jews for extraordinary achievements, or for extraordinary services rendered to the communities in which they resided. The magazine’s comprehensive news coverage of Jewish life expands our knowledge of the composition not only of the Casale community itself but of the activity, economic and social, of all the Jewish communities in the region, and of Jewish communities throughout the world.

The Casale community was the hub of Jewish life in the region. Jews were prominent in the life of virtually all the neighboring towns and village, including Turin, Vercelli, Biella, Ivrea, Cherasco, Saluzzo, Asti, Chieri, Brusa, Busca, Mondovi and others. The only archive surviving more or less intact is that of Casale, and we are left to interpolate the information contained in it to formulate a picture of Jewish life in the region.

Banking occupied many members of the Casale and other communities, but other Jews, and particularly the Jews in the surrounding towns, were involved in many industrial and agricultural pursuits. Sericulture, or silk production, was an important Judaic industry of the region. The street leading into the center of town was once lined with mulberry trees and was known as the Via Ebraica.

The Jews had traveled a long historical road together with the art of sericulture to arrive at the countryside around Casale. The Jews learned the art in China, established it in Eretz Israel, then implanted it in Byzantia. Roger II, the Norman Crusader, invaded Byzantia and transported the Jewish silkmakers of Thebes and Thessalonica to Sicily, then under Norman hegemony. When Sicily came under Spanish rule and oppression, the silkmakers brought their art (by invitation) to Tuscany, and thereafter to Bologna, Venice and Genoa, and to the region of Casale. Sericulture remained essentially a Jewish art well past the Renaissance.1 [See Fact Paper 15, Silk-Making and the Jews, and Fact Paper 3, The Silk Route, An Odyssey of the Jews].

Salt, one of the products which was likewise a virtual Jewish monopoly at the time, was among the commodities dealt with in Casale. Spices, another group of products widely distributed by Jewish entrepreneurs was likewise a product traded by enterprising members of the community. Glass beads, such as those produced in the Netherlands by Jews, and coral, mined off the neighboring Ligurian shores, were both utilized in the jewelry traded by Casale entrepreneurs. [See Fact Paper 20-I, Ornament and the Jews; Beads]

News items from Around Casale

No better example of the vast but obscured contribution Jews have made to the technological evolution of western civilization can be made than the numerous references to prizes, medals and honors given to Jewish inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs from towns and villages around Casale, reported faithfully in the Educatore Israelitico from year to year. The records also demonstrate the great variety of trades of the Jews of the region, from developing agricultural products to the production of outstanding Hebrew grammars! For example, there is an entry regarding prize winners at the industrial fair held in nearby Turin in June, 1858 [abstracted as follows]:

Y Silver medals:

  • Dr. Michele Trevis, an engineer, won two silver medals, one for a furnace considered heretofore impractical, for the production of litharge, and another for a machine for chopping and sieving poisonous substances.
  • Manesse Fratelli of Brussa, for unrefined raw silk.
  • Tachis and Levi from Chieri, for fabrics in cotton, wool and cotton, and cotton covers of various kinds.
  • Comanni, Mantel and Treves, for buttons of horn and of cow’s hooves.

Y Bronze Medals:

  • Salvador Benedotto Olivetti of Ivrea: several qualities of wines and other agricultural products.
  • Simaglaglia Fratelli of Turin and Busca: organs.
  • Marco Anselmo Segre of Saluzzo: unrefined silk.
  • Francesco Colombo and Sons of Mondovi: raw silk.
  • Giovanni Ardizzone of Biella: Hebrew Grammars
  • Giuseppe Valaprega of Biella: grammars and psalms in Hebrew.
  • Sanson Segre of Vercelli: 12 bundles of raw silk "of his own spinning."
  • Comanni, Montel and Treves of Vercelli: buttons. Honorable Mentions:
  • Samson Segre of Vercelli: raw silk
  • Jonah’s widow [!] and the heirs of Latte of Turin: Silk fabrics for carriage trimmings.

Other entries in the Educatore Israelitica, many supported by other documents in the Casale archives, continue this extraordinary record of Jewish industrial and commercial accomplishments in the region. For example:

  • Dec., 1854: Maestro Treves consecrated his new oratorio and harmonies, and composed a new Allel.[See Fact Paper 8, Jews and Music]
  • Jan., 1862: Samuel Treves and Sanson Segre won a medal at the "Great Industrial Exposition of Florence" for silk textiles.
A portion of a folio from one of the first three pinkasim found in the Geniza of Casale Montferrato.

News from Around the World

But that is far from all that can be culled from the Educatore Israelitica and other Casale literature and documents

The following news items, abstracted from but a few years of the "News Around the World," a regular feature of the magazine, are typical of the depth and variety of world-wide information provided:

  • Jan. 1853: A Cross of Honor was given to Rabbi M. Max by the Emperor of France.
  • The Emperor of Austria conferred the Imperial Order of the Iron Cross upon Baron James de Rothschild.
  • The Jewish population of Australia rose to 3.000.
  • Sept. 1853: The King of Prussia bestowed the Order of the Red Eagle upon Baron Carlo de Rothschild.
  • Jan. 1854: Frances H. Goldsmith, oldest son of Baron Goldsmith, named council to Queen Victoria.
  • May, 1855, Baviera, France: Dr. Ottinger was entitled Consigliere for his zeal during the Cholera at Munich, the first Jew at Baviera to be so named.
  • June, 1855: The Jews of Prague number 12,000 persons; there are three professors at the University, thirteen schools, thirty doctors and surgeons, two optometrists, two dentists, seven doctors-at-law, two rabbis, one preacher [sic!].
  • Nov., 1856: Dr. Michelangelo Asson, head surgeon of the Venice hospital, published The Science of Surgery.[See Fact Paper 11, Jews and Medicine]
  • On the 25th anniversary of the King of Belgium, Sig, Loeb, head Rabbi, and Salvador Mornange, Minister of Foreign Affairs, were named Cavalieri of the Order of Leopold.
  • Prussia: The Augsberg Gazette announced that conversions to Judaism is mounting rapidly in Prussia. In Berlin alone this year there were four.
  • The Gazette likewise reports that the clergy are deliberating how to oppose the frequent conversions from Catholicism to Judaism
  • Dec., 1856: At Swersenz [Warsaw] Poland, there are 900 Protestants, 700 Catholics, and 2000 Jews.
  • Nov. 1859, D. Simon, Surgeon of the Austrian army, decorated with the Cross of Francesco Giuseppe.
  • Jan., 1860, Bucharest: Prince Kusa appointed B. Franchetti Professor of Choral Music for all this city.
  • London: Sir Frances Goldsmid, a noted Jew, sent the sum of 25,000 franchi for arms for General Garibaldi.
  • Portugal: The king and his royal family made a donation to the poor Jews of Morocco. This philanthropic act is doubly remarkable from a country in which our co-religionists are not legally recognized.
  • May 1862, Australia: A Jewish locksmith of Vienna, who created a masterpiece of a grill in front of the new synagogue of Leopoldstadt was named Court Locksmith.

News from the Islamic world

The news sent in by correspondents from the Islamic world and the Ottoman Empire to the Educatore Israelitica is particularly rich with positive events:

  • May, 1853, Sarajevo, Turkey: The Chamber of Commerce is composed of 2 Turks, 2 Greeks and 1 Jew.
  • July, 1853, Morocco: The US... named Judah Solomon Levy as US Vice Consul and commercial agent.
  • March, 1855, Constantinople: The Sultan signed an order for Jewish women to change their headgear, which was like a heavy turban called a halebi, to one of Turkish style, which leaves the hair free and does not lack grace. The Chief Rabbi, whose wife set the first example, was well received despite the discontent of some old folks.
  • July, 1855, Tunis: Commendatore Dr. Abram Nunes Vais, a doctor-surgeon, head of the artillery regiment, was elevated to the post of protomedico (overseer of medicine) to the Bey of Tunisia together with the reconfirmation of Drs. Castelnuovo and Lumbroso. Dr. Benjamin Boccaro was named to replace Dr. Vais in his former post The Bey was kind to the Jews. He established a hospital for Jews stricken with cholera during the plague of 1850. He also donated twenty five thousand franchi for baking matzot for the Jewish poor. Many Jews who had previously been forced to convert to Islam were allowed to return to Judaism. It is with a great sigh of relief that his successor, S. Mohammed, his cousin, is also kindly disposed, reconfirming all in service, including Jews around his royal person. More than twenty Jewish families are in the service of the Bey, enjoying the maximum liberty of conscience, following their religious obligations, observing holidays, giving money... and when a birth or wedding occurs, supplies all the expenses from within his own house. Tell me, does the same thing happen in your country?
  • Oct. 1855: Dr. Abram Nunes Vais, protomèdico for S. Ahmed Pascià, was promoted to Grande Ufficiale dell’Ordine Iftihar.
  • Nov. 1855: The new Bey, treading in his predecessor’s footsteps in relation to the Jews, appointed cavaliere Nissim Semana head of the treasury and conferred the Order of Iftihar.
  • Apr., 1856: The Bey [of Tunisia] made Dr. Giuseppe Tanguini, a doctor of the 5th infantry regiment, Cavaliere del Nascion Iftihar, and Simion Natof, a native of Tunisia, was raised to the dignified post of Grand Officer of that order (receiving salary and arms suitable for that office).
  • Aug. 1858, Africa: In Debats, we find the story of a Jewish heroin, the Queen of Aures, Damia, nicknamed Cahena, a Joan of Arc of the desert. She fought and won, shining with rare virtue, and finally succumbed. This Berber queen belonged to a Berber tribe which found refuge there in the most ancient times. [The Berbers] best soldiers were Hebrews, such as Tarik, the first conqueror of Spain, of those that gave their name to the Strait of Gibraltar.2

Numerous other entries from North Africa and Turkey go on from year to year. Among the historical notes are many which cry out for further investigation, as, for example, the following:

  • Dec., 1857: Excerpt from Dr. Benedetto Trompeo’s book, Doctors and Royal Physicians of the Royal Court of Savoia: "We find, however extraordinary, that in the year 840 King Charles II, called "The Bald," had as a doctor a certain Jew, Sedacias, just as we have among us Jews serving as doctors for the Princes of Savoia as well as for the Popes, in which regard we find in the history of medicine a Freind, who, in the tenth century, in view of the ignorance of other nations, it was only Jews who were skilled in the art of health care, astronomy and mathematics. Toward the end of the 16th century our celebrated Agostino Buccio was still applauded for On the Effect of Pestilence, with which was cured with great success those infected in the past and present calamities [plagues]."

"In 1473, Maestro Jacobo di Cremona was doctor for Duchess Giollanda o Violante of France, wife of Amedeo IX, called "The Blessed"; in addition, there are elsewhere Jewish surgeons of highest reputations. There is Albensuar of Seville, a Jew, doctor and surgeon highly regarded in the court of the Almoravidi, to which he is attached."

News from the Americas

It should not surprise us that the Educatore Israelitica was privy to news from correspondents in the Americas:

  • Jan., 1853: Savannah, Georgia: The Jews are completing the restoration of their new synagogue at an expense of $3000. Many Christians, moreover, contributed to this work.
  • Jamaica: The Jews are occupied with great honor with many responsibilities in the government and almost all the independent press has Jews for editors.
  • Sept. 1853, California: The temple was not destroyed in the fire that ravaged much of Sacramento. Many Jews occupy public office. Joseph Shamson is Treasurer of the county of San Francisco, and Solomon Heydenfeldt is a judge in the State Supreme Court. His brother Elkon Heydonfeldt and Isaac N. Cordozo are members of th House of Representatives.
  • May, 1854: Senator Cass proposed in the House of Representatives to oblige `the government to obtain from European governments and of the world, the same religious privileges enjoyed in the US.
  • Feb. 1856, California. Hardly had [Jewish] preaching houses [sic] been opened when, from 1849 in San Francisco, the first "Hebrew Benevolent Association" was formed, followed by the "Eureka Benevolent Association." Then the women formed another for assistance to the poor and sick; young people organized themselves for mutual aid and education.
  • Oct., 1858: The US president nominated Senator Judah Benjamin ambassador to Spain. Mr. Benjamin enjoys a reputation in the U.S. for science, probity, and talent. Mr. Hammond, Senator from South Carolina, wrote to the Attorney General: "Mr. Benjamin is worth as much as all the rest of us. He is, without doubt, the most eminent juridical consul of America, and the Senate’s topmost orator. The president will receive much value from his uprightness." Senator Beniamino rejected the offer. The mission was desired by a co-religionist, Mr. Belmont, ex-ambassador to Aia [Asia?]
  • Feb., 1859: Cincinnati: In the center of Mississippi there are many whose hearts burn with the fire of Judaism. Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur are remembered and observed by a large congregation , among whom I am to be found, at the residence of our esteemed brothers Schwartz and sons at Brownsville, in this county. Some have come seventy miles to meet with their brothers in prayer. Brother Schwartz officiated as Chasen. [Signed] Nicholas Sharff, Raymond, Omds [?] County.
  • Aug., 1862, California, the Jewish State [Sic!]: Fifteen years ago California was comparatively a desert. The first Jewish immigrants came here in 1848. In 1849 they had already created forty charitable organizations. They bought land for a cemetery, and made gatherings for the holy proceedings. Although recurrent fires largely reduced their prosperity, they always bounced back, and in 1852 about forty German families came together and formed the congregation Emanuel. The next year they erected a magnificent temple costing $ 36,000. Sir Moses Montefiori gave the growing community the first Torah scroll. Simultaneously, a Polish congregation was formed entitled Sceerit Israel, and erected a temple costing $20,000. The first congregation numbered 280 families, the second 150. Jews spread throughout the territory, forming congregations in Sacramento, San José, Senora, Grassy Valley, Los Angeles, Stockton and other places. There was about a thousand Jewish families in San Francisco. For the recent holidays, they had to open two branch temples in addition to those already existing at Betamedrase [?], ad all the houses of worship were crowded. In Temple Emanuel, a great change was made by their minister, [Rabbi] D. Cohen. Men and women worshiped together as in a church. The cantor, officiating, turned his back to the Arc. The reading of the Pentateuch was completed in three years. It was decided to introduce another ritual in which neither the redemption nor the restoration of Israel was mentioned. The Rabbi preached against the observation of a second day of holiday and against mourning Kericha, Sirha and Seelociscim. There was, however, a strong minority that opposed that innovation and knew how to interject obstacles. The Polish community strictly adhered to all the Talmudic orthodox observances.

Other Casale Archival Literature

In addition to the Educatore Israelitica, other Casale literature contains fascinating historical information. One manuscript recounts an astonishing event that illustrates that the production of munitions was another Jewish technology of the times.

First, let us recall the historical background for the event. Among the Jewish emigres from Spain were those proficient in munitions. This expertise was particularly attractive to the Turks, and Sultan Beyezid II issued a special invitation for the Sephardim to settle in his dominion. He issued firmans to ensure the protection of the "talented Sephardim" against the Inquisition. The sultan is quoted as saying that he "considered Ferdinand of Spain a fool" for pursuing a policy of expulsion which, first of all, "impoverished his own kingdom while enriching the sultan’s," and secondly, "allowed such vital secrets as munitions-making and the technology of artillery manufacture to escape from Spain to its enemies."

Three and a half centuries earlier, Pierre Belon reported at first-hand that the Sephardim established, among other basic industries, iron-working shops in Salonica and Constantinople. The Sephardim produced the first wheeled gun-carriages for the army of Sulaiman the Magnificent, artillery which secured his military successes.

Ferdnand Braudel, notes that among the Jewish industries on the Bosporus were manufactories just south of Galata, on the Golden Horn opposite Constantinople "where they make powder and artillery."

"In 1573," Braudel notes, "Venice was preparing to drive out her Jews... At this point Soranzo arrived from Constantinople, where he had held the office of Bailo. According to a Jewish chronicler, he addressed the Council of Ten in the following terms: ‘What pernicious act is this, to expel the Jews? Do you not know what it may cost you in years to come? Who gave the Turk his strength and where else would he have found the skilled craftsmen to make the cannon, bows, shot, swords, shields and bucklers which enable him to measure himself against other powers, if not among the Jews who were expelled by the Kings of Spain?" An earlier French description of Constantinople (about 1550) had already noted as much."4

Jews were also munitions makers for the Medicis. That Jews were in demand for that expertise in the vicinity of Casale is evidenced by the manuscript found in the Geniza.

It is entitled: An Honest Jew.

"In 1657, " the MS begins, "the Duke of Modena, Francesco I, gazing greedily upon Alessandria, attempted to capture it with treachery. In order to accomplish his purpose he approached a Hebrew who had invented a unique way of refining gunpowder, and of producing it cheaply and in quantity."

"The Duke contacted the Hebrew through a co-religionist in Torino. Through the agency of Count Montecocculi, the Hebrew was promised as much as 1500 doppie if he would traitorously burn up the powder at Alessandria, and was offered an additional bonus if the Hebrew would also secretly contrive to have a door of the city open when the Duke’s forces appeared."

"The Hebrew refused, but after some time, on the insistence of Count Montecocculi, and afraid of his life, he pretended to accept the offer. He parted from the Count in Acqui and returned to Alessandria with some of the plans of the enemy that were confided in him. He immediately disclosed all of them to the presidium head,"

"That is how the city was warned of the danger, armed itself, and prepared for every eventuality. After long battles and a hard siege the city succeeded in being victorious over the Duke, as a result of the honesty of a Hebrew."


It is clear that the Casale community was a vital center of Jewish life of the region, and was well informed about events affecting Jews throughout the Diaspora. The evidence provided by the Pinkasim, and by other surviving documents in Casale’s archives, demonstrate that this was true throughout the more than three and a half centuries of the existence of a most vital and dynamic community, a community about which history has scarcely taken note.


  1. The relationship between the Jews and sericulture, and the process by which the art and the Jews arrived in various parts of Italy is documented in HHF Fact Papers 3: The Silk Route; A Jewish Odyssey; in Fact Paper 15: Silk Making; A Jewish Tradition; in Samuel Kurinsky, The Glassmakers; an Odyssey of the Jews, ch. 8, "The Linen, Glass, Spice and Silk Route," New York, 1991, pp. 251-295, and in an article in an article in Alte Vitrie, issue 1993/1 by Samuel Kurinsky, "Origine dei maestri vetrai altaresi."
  2. The story of Queen Kahena and the Jewish Berbers was told in HHF Newsletter 56, March, 1996
  3. M. Francis, Essai sur l’histoire des Israelites de l’Empire Ottoman depuis les origines jusqu’a a nos jours, 1897.
  4. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II, Vol. II, 1976, p. 808.