The Klau Library preserves the pinkas of the Hebra de Casar Orphãos (Society for Marrying Orphans) from Venice. The Casar Orphãos was established in 1613 by Iberian Jews, mostly former conversos and their descendants in Venice. The society was a cosmopolitan dowering confraternity (hevrah) that provided dowries for both orphan and impoverished non-orphan “poor Hebrew girls, Portuguese or Castilian on the father’s or mother’s side.” The Casar Orphãos pinkas covers the years 1613-1674 and constitutes a unique archive. It is a manuscript written in Portuguese and contains the regulations of the hevrah, lists of its members, deliberations, elections, minutes, lists of the candidates for the annual distribution of the dowries, and the results of balloting for those chosen to benefit of the hevrah from 1613 to 1664 (1). Many other contemporary Jewish charitable organizations in Europe and the Mediterranean directed their philanthropic efforts towards local Jewish women and girls.
Candidates applied not only from Venice but also from other Mediterranean and European Jewish communities, including Fez, Thessaloniki, Monastir, Livorno, Corfu, Skopje, Istanbul, Tunis, Amsterdam, Ancona, Izmir, Jerusalem, Pazardzhik, Lugo, Split, Dubrovnik, Safed, Constantine, and towns in Poland. My current book project explores the Jewish home in Venice during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a multi-religious and multi-ethnic webwork of individuals, communities, and objects in motion (2). The ghetto itself was and remained a space of physical segregation, oppression, and housing scarcity, yet the Jewish home was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious crossroads for householders, workers, apprentices, servants, and individuals who had experienced enslavement, later achieving freedom through manumission. In my work, I analyze the pinkas of the Casar Orphãos to begin mapping and understanding the lives of Jewish girls and women whose names and the information associated (cities, relatives, if they were orphans of both parents or only one parent, and at times age and with whom they lived with) are recorded therein. In doing so, I also mine dowries, testaments, and other notarial deeds of Jewish maidservants and matrons in Venice, and account books of the hevrah.
The pinkas was conceived as an open book, periodically updated and expanded, with no single author responsible for its content, and it had many readers. The minutes were often read aloud during meetings to recall past discussions and decisions. At present, the pinkas is a silent archive that preserves the names and memories of young Jewish women who are otherwise absent from the historical landscape. More specifically, I aim to trace the stories of the applicants for and recipients of the annual dowries, as well as the members of Casar Orphãos, their wives, and daughters, in order to reconstruct a comprehensive and extensive history of early modern Jewish women’s experiences in Venice and beyond. If complemented and challenged by other archival evidence, the pinkas of the Casar Orphãos opens up alternative and complementary ways of thinking about a history of personal trajectories of unknown female individuals, uniquely connected outwards to the Mediterranean world.
Jewish matrons, girls, and maidservants who gravitated around the Venetian mercantile Sephardi society appeared to share not only the same domestic spaces, but also a way to inhabit and to view the world that was much broader than the world of their Christian and Muslim peers. Jewish matrons from different ethnic and social origins created alternative dowering networks to those enacted by the Casar Orphãos and the other two dowering societies in Venice, controlled by the local male mercantile elites. Jewish maidservants participated in the emergence of a global commercial world through the circulation of their small things at times donated to former mistresses and female co-workers scattered in the Mediterranean. Those female networks in some cases were born of devotion to Judaism, love and sympathy and in others of utility, but they were always sustained by mutual services, benefits, and obligations.
Contributed by Federica Francesconi, University at Albany (SUNY)
1 On its structure see the pioneering article by Miriam Bodian, “The ‘Portuguese’ Dowry Societies in Venice and Amsterdam: A Case Study in Communal Differentiation within the Marrano Diaspora,” Italia 6 (1987): 30–61.
2 Federica Francesconi, “The Jewish Home in Early Modern Venice: Cosmopolitan Intimacy, Global Networks, and Diasporic Objects” (in progress).