They Should Know Who Olga Neuwirth Is

The pandemic overshadowed and distracted us from a truly historic achievement. Well, Olga Neuwirth is an accomplished composer who has written many works including the operas: Lost Highway, American Lulu, and Orlando. I interviewed her on October 30th, 2020 at the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna. She “…grew up in a ’68 hippie family with only artists” and was born in 1968 in Graz, Austria. She called herself “a punk from the countryside.” The “punk” grew up playing mainly trumpet, before she had a car accident on the day she got her braces removed, causing a broken jaw and thus the end of her trumpet career. Olga also learned piano, but had a “… problem in [her] brain coordinating [her] left and right hand”. When she wanted to play a black key, she would play a white key. Thankfully, she was the drummer in her punk band, which helped correct the issue. In her punk band, she also played a little electric guitar.

I asked Olga who her biggest inspirations were growing up. She responded with the Beastie Boys, Patti Smith, Luigi Nono, and Miles Davis. The first two artists show her youth, punk, and rebellious side. Olga met Nono four times. The first time was in Vienna when he was the composer in residence at the Wiener Konzerthaus. She was a student and as a fan curious for knowledge walked up to him to ask him questions. The second time was while Olga was a student in Aix-en-Provence studying in a music program, which, she said, was Nono’s last workshop. Her main professor was Nono. The last two times were in Venice. The Miles Davis inspiration came from her father being a jazz musician and her passion for trumpet: “I wanted to be a female Miles Davis.”

Through her inspirations and circumstances, Olga found herself on the composer track almost accidentally. She originally wanted to be a trumpet player and in her punk band “…played drums like Eddie Funk, but more like Eddie Punk.” After her car accident, she was out of school for a while. When she returned, Hans Werner Henze, a German composer, came to her village looking for young musicians for his project he had at the time, to show the creativity in everyone. Olga did not want to join the project, but as a gifted musician who just lost her favorite instrument, her teacher made her join. This project started Olga’s path to become a composer. After the project, at age 16, she went to school in San Francisco for a year. At the time, she was not sure whether she wanted to go into film, composition, or painting. At San Francisco Conservatory of Music, she studied composition, but at the Art School of San Francisco Bay she studied film and painting. After life in San Francisco became too expensive, she returned to Austria having chosen composition.

Building on her musical inspirations, I asked Olga what inspired the opera Orlando musically, besides the book written by Virginia Wolf. She reiterated her diverse musical background. She studied and was around music and musicians of classical, jazz, and punk backgrounds. This instilled a way of thinking in her mind; “[I] was never about borders of what is the “right” music.” Her musical identity is made up of parts that together make a whole. In Orlando, the character is a male writer who becomes a woman overnight, but dresses like a man as well. “Orlando goes through these centuries: for [Orlando] it’s about the history of writing more, for me, also the history of music.” She remembered her talks with Nono and what she had learned from his music: “how to combine past and present.” Like Nono she wanted to never be in a box that is “why he went to other countries to hear other music… and see traditions from other cultures. He was always curious and open. There’s not one canon of what is the right music.”

Just like bringing genres together, Olga has brought people together with her choice of works. Today’s culture is becoming very inclusive, particularly with gender and sexual identities. This is a huge topic in Orlando and thus for Olga “the second interest” in her life; “if there are no boundaries in music, there are no boundaries [on] how you would like to live, who you consider yourself, who you are.” While living in San Francisco, Olga had many friends who did not identify as straight and many who had AIDS. She participated in many protests in the area, including one over the murder of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in Californian history. From a young age, she was always a proponent for diversity in life and gender decisions. Olga wanted to show the plight of a transgender person in Orlando, but also the struggle for a woman to be equal to a man in life, as a writer, and as an artist. Women have been degraded and dissuaded from pursuing their passions. The patriarchal society that we live in supports a man’s climb to the top, but not a woman’s fight. Orlando was written and chosen in small part due to its humor, but mainly to show a parallel from Olga’s hardships making it as a female composer/writer to Orlando’s story of adversity.

Even though Olga Neuwirth’s Orlando became the first opera created by a woman to be performed in the 150+ year history of the Wiener Staatsoper, she has still faced the troubles of the music industry. I asked her what she would continue to do for future women in future generations to help them overcome the patriarchal oppression she has endured: “There’s still a lot of things to do” she said, “but maybe it’s not for my generation anymore. The next generation has to fight. I was really going into desert land.” Olga has done so much for future women just by continuing her work. She has become a role model for young women who want to go into the arts. But her lack of knowledge on what to do next troubled me. It seemed as if the industry had worn her out, but mainly, there are still a blinding number of obstacles left to move out of the way, as evidenced by Olga’s publishers and the Wiener Staatsoper, who told her to rewrite Orlando due to the experimental music and subject matter. She, of course, refused. Usually an opera created by a composer of her stature would be asked to return for more performances before it is ever played. Olga was told “…we have to see if it is a success.”

Orlando went on to be a success. It was performed in December 2019 for five sold out nights. Afterwards, she was then again asked to rewrite the opera. She said, “if you write it the right way we might perform you,” mocking the patriarchal society, those who told her to rewrite the opera, and what they had told her. Even with these battles she still has been able to push boundaries and bring people together.

Olga is very passionate about mixing genres, which she believes is the way for music to evolve. Opera is becoming much less popular for today’s youth. Younger people, in general, do not go to the opera. But Orlando got many people of the younger generations to go see the opera. It drew a non-traditional audience. The older and more classical-music-minded people did not like the second half very much, but that was the favorite of the “new-comers.” “This could be the future of opera,” Olga said about mixing genres. I pointed out how Arnold Schönberg held his Skandalkonzert, which debuted his atonal music in 1913. The concert resulted in tomatoes being thrown and subsequently a riot breaking out. “Whenever you start something you have obstacles. Just as Schönberg and Nono… you immediately run against the wall of 100+ years of petrified minds who think this is the right way to do something.” Olga kept hammering this sentiment to me: “You can’t go back!” This is something Olga Neuwirth has done her whole life and is a part of her identity: “it’s me. This is my life.” I asked her to elaborate on how she gained this attitude and stuck with it early in her career when most artists are pushed into becoming more mainstream. “I wasn’t taken seriously; I had to fight to be taken seriously,” she said. “I was considered the young fool, but I was freer to do things… I didn’t have a teacher and wasn’t in a school.” That second part surprised me, so I asked her to further explain: “I could try out more things than I can try out now, because I have this name or whatever. You get these stupid labels. I’m not interested in these labels.” Most artists when they start are pressured by the industry to be something they are not, so that the music is more easily listenable and commercially successful. “They try to put you in this drawer.” Olga’s journey is more unique, but not entirely bizarre. She had freedom to show her own style, but now that she has made it, she is asked to conform to the publishers and others (who are a part of the industry) who want her to continue to be successful for their own monetary gain. “Sometimes the fool is allowed to say even the worst things to the king. No one is allowed to say these things to the king or person in power, except for the fool.” Olga used such a great metaphor. The up-and-coming musician is very much like a jester to the rest of the industry. One that tries something different must be mistaken. However, the strongest part of the metaphor is that the industry thinks they can trick or manipulate the fool.

This brought up a similar situation with Dave Chappelle. Dave Chappelle turned down $50 million from Comedy Central because he thought that was below his value, but mainly because of the creative freedom he wanted. I mentioned to Olga how he “fled” to South Africa as a result, to which she responded “yah, clever.” “They try to put you in their drawer, which was never your life or why you started something” she continued. Dave Chappelle recently won this battle against the industry. His new video entitled Redemption Song depicted why he left Comedy Central and how after asking the public not to watch Chappelle’s Show, Comedy Central paid him millions of dollars and gave him the rights to his name and likeness back. “You have to have a lot of strength to fight against it, otherwise you are just captured and not who you are anymore.” Thankfully, Olga and Dave are strong.

Another lively topic in today’s world was, and is, artists owning their masters. Kanye West has been a huge activist in this field and Taylor Swift recently rerecorded an album (planning more) because her masters were sold without her being given a chance to match or beat the offer.[1] Artists in the United States earn 12% of the overall revenue made by the music industry.[2] That is the lowest percentage of any profession comparatively. I asked Olga if she owned her masters. She responded with the story of trying the get everyone’s contracts and shares correct for Orlando. The publishers, DVD companies and Wiener Staatsoper demanded most of the rights, but the musicians, stage hands, advertisement firms, etc. all demanded a piece. It took her months to get everything settled because there were too many people involved. “There’s too much pressure from different sides.” They all expect artists to agree to every demand because of the passion the artist has for their work. The artist wants to display their work, so they are more likely to compromise in order to get the art seen. The industry knows artists like Olga believe “corporations cannot be part of the creative process,” so they make absurd requests in ownership knowing the artist will compromise for this purpose. “[Artists] just want to compose, [they] have other things to worry about than contracts.” For an artist, the music is very personal: “Music is inside.” The artist wants control of what comes out of them and their emotions; “it’s in your brain and you have to bring it into a quantified system… in a way, it is artificial… and then you give it to someone else. Then you are dependent on if they like it, it is incredibly exhausting.”

Olga’s favorite operas of all time are all political pieces, which further solidifies her musical and social identity to fight for creative freedom and just movements. My final question for Olga was what her favorite operas of all time were. She responded with “Moses und Aron” by Arnold Schönberg, “Al gran sole carico d’amore” by Luigi Nono, “Die Soldaten” by Bernd Alois Zimmerman, and “Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern” by Helmut Lachenmann. All of these serve a political and social message. “Something I learned from Nono, but also a little from Henze, is to stand up for what’s right, speak up against what’s wrong.” Olga wanted to reiterate the importance of creative freedom. I brought up the Shut up and Dribble movement in the United States, which was started after Laura Ingraham, a Fox News TV host, told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” Olga had a similar situation: “a publisher once told me I should shut up otherwise they would kick me out. I used this line in Orlando.” After acknowledging my shocked face, she continued, “I haven’t become an artist to shut up!” One of her publishers wanted her to sign a contract that stipulates certain topics she was not allowed to discuss. “How can I sign a contract that says I’m not allowed to say anything?” She understood that the companies are scared of liability or a failed investment, but questioned the importance; “they want to be secure, I don’t know why they are so afraid!” One would think that a company would understand they are talking to a passionate artist. They ask for the artist to agree to things that compromise their integrity, out of leverage, but as Olga said, “they should know who I am.”

[1] Tsioulcas, Anastasia. “Look What They Made Her Do: Taylor Swift To Re-Record Her Catalog.” NPR, NPR, 22 Aug. 2019,

[2] Wang, Amy X. “Musicians Get Only 12 Percent of the Money the Music Industry Makes.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 8 Aug. 2018,

Solomon Molcho (1500-1532)

Solomon Molcho (originally Diogo Pires) was a Portugese Jewish mystic. As a young man he held the position of secretary to the High Court of Appeals in Portugal. When the Jewish adventurer David Reubeni arrived in 1525 in an attempt to persuade the king to align with Jews to force the Ottomans from Israel, Molcho fell under his spell and converted to Judaism, forcing him to flee or face the Inquisition as an apostate. Molcho studied Talmud and Kabbalah with Rabbi Joseph Taitazak in Salonika, where he befriended and greatly inspired Rabbis Joseph Caro and Shlomo Alkabetz. Molcho began preaching the coming of the Messiah in 1535 or 1540, travelled to Italy where he gained an audience with Pope Clement VII. A flood in Rome and an earthquake in Portugal seemed to confirm some of Molcho’s predictions and warnings, and increased his support from both Christians and Jews.

in 1532 Molcho likely stayed in Venice with Dr. Eliyahu and Fioretta Chalfan, who supported him against his opponent Jacob Mantino (who had also opposed Chalfan in the divorce case of Henry VIII). In a letter to Rabbi Taitazak Molcho gave Chalfan’s address in Venice as a way to contact him. At the end of 1532, Molcho went to Ratisbon (Regensburg) with Reubeni to meet with Emperor Charles V, where they proposed a Jewish-Christian army to reconquer the Holy Land from the Ottomans. The Emperor’s counselors opposed the idea, and the Emperor had Reubeni and Molcho arrested and sent back to Italy to face the Inquisition. In Mantua, Molcho was sentenced to death by an ecclesiastical court for being an apostate and was burned at the stake. Legend is that Molcho refused the offer of a pardon if he returned to Christianity.

Following Molcho’s martyrdom, Eliyahu Chalfan created an enormous kabbalsitic chart recording many of Molcho’s teachings. The chart was obtained by the Medici Library in Florence in 1570. Molcho’s tallit, robe and flag were brought to Prague, perhaps by the Chalfan family. In the early17th century by Rabbi Yomtov Lipman Heller wrote that he saw the small silk tallit of Molcho in the Pinkas synagogue. In 1666 during the time of the messianic claimant Shabbtai Zvi, the robe and flag of Molcho were displayed and Molcho was considered a precursor and predictor of Shabbtai Zvi.


Shlomo Molcho’s robe on display in the Jewish Museum of Prague.
Shlomo Molcho’s flag on display in the Jewish Museum in Prague.
Stylized signature of Solomon Molcho, from a manuscript owned by the Alliance Israélite Universelle at the beginning of the 1900s.

Solomon Molcho (Wikipedia)

Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1512-1585)

Eliezer Ashkenazi was a peripatetic rabbi, physician and prolific scholar who seems likely — despite his different surname — to have been a son of Dr. Eliyahu and Fioretta Chalfan. Eliezer’s epitaph says he is son of Dr. Elia. Both Eliezer (Provençal Responsa 96) and Dr. Eliyahu Chalfan (Isserles Responsa 56) say they are descendants of Rabbi Joseph ben Solomon Colon, MaHaRIK. So either Rabbi Eliezer is the son of Dr. Eliyahu Menachem Chalfan or he is the son of a different Dr. Elia who is either a grandson of Josef Colon or married to a granddaughter of Josef Colon. The different surname can be explained by his long presence in Egypt early in his career, where all Jews who were not originally from Egypt or the Levant were referred to as “Ashkenazi.”

The Jewish Encylopedia describes him as follows:

Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi received his Talmudic education under Joseph Taitazak in Salonica. Ashkenazi first became rabbi in Egypt 1538-60, probably at Fostat (now Cairo), where, by his learning and wealth, he became widely known. Compelled by circumstances—doubtless of a political nature—to leave Egypt, he went to Cyprus, remaining there for two years as rabbi at Famagusta.

A desire to visit foreign lands and to observe foreign peoples impelled him to give up this position and to travel. He went first to Venice; but a disagreement with the rabbis, Meïr Padua and his son Judah Katzenellenbogen, caused him to leave the city and in the same year to take up his residence at Prague (1561). Here—either because he was a rabbi, or, at all events, because he was a leading authority—his was the first signature appended to the 1564 constitution of the burial society of the congregation. After leaving Bohemia and proceeding eastward as far as the Crimea [?], Ashkenazi returned to Italy, not before 1570. While rabbi of Cremona he published there (1576) his work, “Yosef Leka?” (Increases Learning; compare Prov. i. 5), dedicated to Joseph Nasi, duke of Naxos, which was several times reprinted. Four years later he was again in eastern Europe, as rabbi of Posen. In 1584 he left that city to take up his abode in Cracow, where he died in 1585.

Ashkenazi’s printed works, besides the “Yosef Leka?,” are the following: (1) A commentary on the Book of Esther; (2) “Ma’ase ha-Shem” (The Works of God; Venice, 1583; several other editions), a commentary on the historical portions of the Pentateuch, written for the instruction of his son Elijah, and containing also a complete commentary on the Passover Haggadah, which has frequently been published separately; (3) eight “seli?ot” (penitential prayers), included in the Bohemian liturgy; (4) a “toka?ah” (homily), published by his son. His supercommentary to Na?manides, and his critical marginal notes—said to number one thousand—on Joseph Caro’s “Bet Yosef,” have not been preserved.

Though Ashkenazi can scarcely be said to have exercised an influence either on his own or on later times, his personality was an extraordinary one for that age. He may be called the last survivor of a most brilliant epoch in the history of the Sephardim. During a period when, in Germany and Poland, the hair-splitting dialectics of Jacob Polak could achieve a triumph, and, in Egypt and Palestine, the mysticism of Isaac Luria could confuse the clearest intellects, Ashkenazi preserved an impressive independence of thought. Although educated by a fanciful cabalist, and a fellow-pupil of Moses Alshech, yet he was a student—if not a deep one—of philosophy and physics. As a Talmudist, such men as Joseph Caro, Moses Isserles, and Solomon Luria considered him of equal authority with themselves; but when the rabbinical decisions of the old rabbis ran counter to sound judgment, he never sought a sophistical justification for them, as was then the custom, especially in Poland.

Valuable material for a correct estimate of Ashkenazi may be found in several of his decisions preserved in the responsa literature of the time. In Venice he decided that a man could be forced to a divorce, if, by immoral conduct, he had incurred his wife’s aversion (Isserles, Responsa, No. 96). It was probably this decision which brought upon him the opposition of the above-mentioned Venetian rabbis, though he was connected with them; for Ashkenazi’s son was Katzenellenbogen’s son-in-law. From the standpoint of strict Talmudic interpretation, Ashkenazi’s opponents were in the right; since his sentence contravened that of the Tosafists, who for the German-Italian Jews constituted, as it were, a court of last resort.

The Jews of Poland were still less capable of comprehending such a personality than were those of Italy. The following occurrence affords a striking instance of this fact: The “roshe yeshibot” (heads of academies) had forbidden their pupils to establish a rival academy in close proximity to their own. Ashkenazi declined to assent to this resolution, when requested. At the same time, he complained in a letter to Joseph b. Gershon ha-Kohen, the “rosh yeshibah” at Cracow, that, although the decision of the Polish rabbis was based upon the authority of Maimonides, yet he considered it irreconcilable with freedom of instruction among Jewish rabbis. How little he was understood by his Polish colleagues is fully displayed in the reply of the rabbi of Cracow, who at great length vindicates Maimonides’ standpoint by erudite and astute references to the Talmud (Joseph b. Mordecai Gershon, “She’erit Yosef,” No. 19). Consequently, J. S. del Medigo is justified in his remark that Ashkenazi remained unknown to the Poles, and he applies to him wittily, if somewhat audaciously, the verses: “Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it,” etc. (Ps. lxxx. 9 [A. V. 8] to 13 [14]). Ashkenazi had come from Egypt and had to live among the uncultivated Poles.

Ashkenazi’s wife, Rachel, died at Cracow April 3, 1593. Her epitaph, still extant, bears witness to her piety and benevolence (“Monatsschrift,” xliv. 360). His son Elijah published the liturgic collection, “Zib?e Shelamim,” and wrote a short elegy on his father, which was used as the latter’s epitaph. has another biography

ASHKENAZI, ELIEZER BEN ELIJAH THE PHYSICIAN (1513–1586), rabbi and exegete. Eliezer’s activities covered many of the Jewish centers of the 16th century. The influential position he held in widely scattered communities indicates the basic unity of Jewish society and culture in the period. A pupil of Joseph b. Solomon Taita?ak in Salonika, Eliezer went to Egypt when he was 26, and officiated as rabbi. Elijah of Pesaro said he “judged all the community of Egypt for 22 years.” While there, Eliezer was in contact with the *Safed communit and its sages, including Joseph *Caro, who respected and consulted him. In 1561 Eliezer was compelled to leave Egypt, and settled at Famagusta in Cyprus. Elijah of Pesaro, who met him there in 1563, describes him as “well-versed in 12 languages… a sage in many general sciences and in the Talmud… he is wealthy.” Azariah dei Rossi called Eliezer “the greatest of the generation.” In 1563 Eliezer was in *Venice; the following year he traveled to Prague, returned for a few years to Famagusta, and again went to Venice. From there he went to Cremona where in 1576 he published his commentary Yosef Leka? on the book of Esther, dedicated to Joseph Nasi. The same year he was invited to Poland as rabbi of Poznan; he was subsequently called to Gniezno, and thence to Cracow, where he died. In Poland his answers to legal queries were accepted as authoritative. Impartial in his decisions, he denied his support to the brother-in-law of Moses Isserles, Joseph Katz, who had referred to Eliezer in a discussion with his own pupils. Eliezer’s main work, Ma’aseh Adonai, a commentary on the Torah, was completed in Gniezno in 1580 and printed in Venice in 1583. It follows the rationalist trend in rabbinical scholarship, calling for freedom in exegesis of the Scriptures: “Each and every one of us, our descendants too, to the end of all generations… is obliged to search for the meaning of the words of the Torah… to accept the truth from whoever says it, after we have understood it. Let us not permit the opinion of someone else – even if of an earlier generation – to hinder us from research… Research and choose: for that you have been created and reason has been given you from heaven” (Ma’aseh Adonai, 169). Eliezer suggests that irrational elements in Jewish tradition had accrued through copyists’ errors, misunderstandings, and misreadings, or had been precipitated in times of trouble and expulsions, or even inserted by ill-disposed persons. In Joseph Solomon Delmedigo’s estimation “the Ma’aseh Adonai should be read in its entirety.” He also records that Eliezer wrote a supercommentary on Na?manides’ commentary on the Torah and “a thousand refutations of the Beit Yosef” of Joseph Caro. Eliezer also wrote seli?ot and piyyutim printed at Cracow and in Lublin (1618). His glosses on the code of Mordecai b. Hillel are included in Gedulat Mordekhai (Hanau, 1593).

If Eliezer Ashkenazi is in fact the son of Dr. Eliyahu and Fioretta, then his grandfathers were both astronomers and he could be the same as a man known as Eliezer the Astronomer in the Jewish Encyclopedia

By: Richard Gottheil, Isaac Broydé
German scholar of the sixteenth century; author of “Ge ?izzayon,” an astrological compilation fromHebrew, Arabic, and Latin sources (Neubauer, “Cat. Bodl. Hebr. MSS.” No. 2066). He quotes Abraham bar ?iyya ha-Nasi, Ibn Ezra, Andruzagar, Albumazar, ‘Ali ibn Ri?wan, ‘Ali ibn Rajil, Leopold of Austria, Johannes, Guido Bonatti, and, according to Dukes, Copernicus. In the introduction Eliezer says he began a great work on astrology, a chapter of which, entitled “Reshit ?okmah” (quoted by Neubauer, l.c.), is devoted to Ibn Ezra. Whether the “Sefer ha-Goralot” (Vatican MS. No. 216), bearing the name “Eliezer,” is by the same author is not known. The same uncertainty prevails regarding Vatican MS. No. 477, which contains a commentary on Ptolemy’s “Centiloquium,” and which also bears the name “Eliezer.”

Also note that the grave in Krakow may be a duplicate of another grave that was found nearby in Stabnitz (Stopnica?). See “There is also a remarkable thing in this matter, it has become known to us that in the community of Stabnitz (Stopnica?) about 20 miles from here there is found a grave with the name of Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi, son of the Rabbi Eliyahu the doctor, author of Maaseh Hashem from the same time.”


Eliezer Ashkenazi (Geni)

Eliezer Ashkenazi (Wikipedia)

Yosef Lekach. Commentary on the Scroll of Esther by Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi son of Rabbi Eliyah the Doctor, Z”L. Cremona, 1576
Grave of Eliezer Ashkenazi ben Elia Rofe

Kalman Chalfan

Kalman Chalfan was possibly a son or grandson of Eliyahu and Fioretta Chalfan. He lived in Jersualem and Safed, and was given permission to go to Lemberg in Poland in 1570.

The story of Kalman Chalfan begins with Joseph Nasi (1524-1579), an extraordinary figure in Jewish history. Nasi was a converso born 1524 in Portugal who moved to Antwerp in 1546 to escape the Inquisition, and then soon fled to France and on to Venice where he became openly Jewish. In 1554 he again moved to Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire, where he became a high-ranking diplomat serving Sultan Selim II, ultimately attaining the rank of Duke of Naxos. Among his accomplishments was negotiating peace between Poland and the Ottomans in 1564, which gave him entrée into various business opportunities in Poland. In 1567, King Sigismund II of Poland allowed Nasi to send two Jewish representatives, Chaim Cohen and Abraham Mosso, to come to Lemberg, Poland to negotiate on Nasi’s behalf. They conducted their business importing wine for several years, much to the dismay of the Christian competitors as well as the local Polish Jews.

Among the documents related to Joseph Nasi and his agents is confirmation that in 1570 King Sigismund II of Poland granted permission for a number of Jewish merchants to come to Poland from the Levant and Venice. One of these was “Calman Alphan a Hierusalem de Schafet” (Kalman Chalfan in Jerusalem from Safed). We do not yet know anything more about Kalman Chalfan, but it seems very likely that he is a son or grandson of Eliyahu Chalfan and Fioretta Kalonymos, as his name is combination of the given name of Fioretta’s father and the surname of Eliyahu.

If our theory is correct, it means that a member of Eliyahu and Fioretta’s family moved to Safed and Jerusalem in Israel, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. In the 16th century, Safed, a small city in the hills of the Upper Galilee, became an important center of Jewish learning, especially in the development of Jewish mysticism and kabbalah. Safed had been a small Jewish settlement since at least the 13th century, but received an influx of Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Southern Italy after 1492. The most significant of the new residents was Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575), author of the great codification of Jewish law knows as the Shulchan Arukh. Caro likely met Solomon Molcho in Salonika, perhaps while Molcho studied with the kabbalist Rabbi Joseph Taitazak, who also taught another of Caro’s friends, Solomon Alkabez (who became the brother-in-law of another important resident of Safed, Moses Cordovero). Caro references both Molcho, Alkabez and Taitazak as strong influences in his writings. It is certainly possible that Kalman Chalfan also studied with Taitazak and then journeyed on to Jerusalem and Safed. When Molcho wrote to Taitazak before his death in 1532, he told Taitazak to send letters to him care of Eliyahu Chalfan in Venice.

Joseph Nasi is credited with spurring settlement in Safed, which means he may have been responsible for Kalman Chalfan moving there around 1560. Note also that Eliezer Ashkenazi, who is possibly a son of Eliyahu and Fioretta Chalfan, dedicated his book Yosef Lekah, published while he was in Cremona in 1576, to Joseph Nasi.


Joseph Ausch (1600-1674)

Joseph Ausch, haLevi, the Rosh Medina (literally, “head of the land”), was a signatory of the statutes governing Bohemian Jewry (outside Prague) from 1659. In 1665 Jewish dealers in woolen goods were barred from entering the town of Litomerice, but Joseph Ausch petitioned to be allowed to enter the city so that he could pay off his debts. Joseph Ausch died in Auscha (Úštek) Bohemia (near Terezin and Litomerice) on August 24, 1674. His grave still exists in the cemetery in Ustek.

Joseph’s father was Matityahu. There was a Jew Matityahu from nearby in Leitmeritz in 1546, who could be an ancestor.

Joseph Ausch was married to Jentl Ausch Chalfan, who died around 1700. Her father came from Vienna and her mother came from Prague.

Joseph Ausch


Grave of Rosh Medina Joseph Ausch haLevi, d. 1674 in Úštek, Bohemia
Samuel Oppenheimer (1630 Heidelberg – 1703 Vienna)
Samuel Oppenheimer (1630 Heidelberg – 1703 Vienna)
Portrait of Süßkind Stern
Date Created: 1671
Location: Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Abba Mari Chalfan the Astronomer

Italian astronomer of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In 1490-2 he was in Lucca where he wrote an elegy on the death of Jehiel of Pisa. In 1492 Chalfan was in Naples, where he studied astronomy. Chalfan was the author (in 1494) of “?a’ame Mi?wot,” containing explanatory notes on the Alfonsine Tables, still extant in manuscripts in Naples and Parma. These notes by Chalfan were translated by historian David Gans when he visited and participated in the astronomical research conducted by Tycho Brahe and his assistant Johannes Kepler at the imperial observatory in the Benátky summer palace of Rudolf II in 1600. Gans named one of his sons Abba Mari, making it very likely that Gans was married to a descendant of Chalfan.


An illustration in the 14th century Codex Manasse of the Jewish poet Süßkind von Trimberg wearing a Jewish hat similar to the type Venetian Jews were required to wear. (Wikimedia)
Der Seelen Wurzgarten, Ulm: Konrad Dinckmut, 1483

Rabbi Josef Colon Trabotto (Maharik)

Rabbi Josef Colon, the son of Rabbi Solomon Trabbotto, known as the Maharik, was the foremost talmudic rabbi of his era in Northern Italy. His family came from Chambéry in Savoy to Piedmont in the early 15th century. Rabbi Josef Colon served as rabbi in Pieve de Sacco in 1469 and thereafter in Mestre near Venice. He later served in Bologna and Mantua, but was banished by the authorities and moved to Pavia, where he established a center of talmudic learning. His opinion was sought on religious matters in Italy and Germany. The collection of his opinions, known as responsa, published after his death was widely influential.

Rabbi Colon declared that a person could not be compelled to appear in a foreign rabbinic court when there was a local court available. When false accusations against the Jewish community of Regensburg lead to a heavy fine and the need to raise funds, Rabbi Colon held that the surrounding communities were required to contribute, as they could also soon find themselves facing similar accusations and fines.

Rabbi Colon was famous for his ability to establish broad principles that would apply not only to the case at hand, but to future disputes. He ruled that a parent’s objection should not prevent a child’s marriage to an appropriate spouse, because a child was not obligated to suffer the pain of marrying an undesired spouse in order to honor his parents. Colon had “an inflexible regard for right and justice,” and was not swayed by bias toward or against any individual person. He chastised a respected German rabbi for adjudicating a dispute in which he himself was a party. Driven by false rumors to attack Rabbi Capsali in Turkey for laxity in matters of divorce law, Colon later recanted and on his deathbed sent his son Perez to deliver an apology to Capsali.

Josef ben Solomon Colon Trabotto (Maharik)


LIPPI, Fra Filippo Herod’s Banquet Fresco Duomo, Prato

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David Kalonymos of Naples (-1506)

David Kalonymos was an Italian Jewish court physician, astrologer/astronomer in Naples. Jewish astronomers of the time were expected to write horoscopes and make astrological predictions based on astronomical calculations. Astrology was widely considered to be a form of wisdom, akin to the mysticism of Kabbalah and the teachings of the Talmud. In 1564, David wrote two astrological treatises, one of which is on the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. He dedicated the work to King Ferdinand I of Naples in the hope of obtaining religious liberty for Jews in southern Italy. A horoscope for David’s son born on March 28, 1458 has been preserved in a book in the library of Parma.

In 1466 David translated from Latin into Hebrew an astronomical work of John of Gmünd describing an astronomical instrument invented in Vienna in 1417. He also wrote a philosophical treatise on the Destructio Destructiones of Averroes.

Both of David’s sons, Calo and Chaim, followed their father in the practice of astrology and other philosophical activities.

David Kalonymos


Astrolabe with Hebrew
Astrological chart for a son of David Kalonymos, Parma 336 p. 73$FL17907178
Don Ferrante of Naples depicted as one of the Magi in the Adoration of the Magi by Marco Cardisco, Civic Museum of Castel NuovoNaples

Ferrante d’Aragona, depicted as a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece
Sculpture depicting the coronation of Ferrante as king of Naples by Latino OrsiniBenedetto da MaianoBargello MuseumFlorence
Gold coin with the crowned effigy of Ferrante I, king of Naples
‘Christ Among the Doctors’ by Albrecht Durer, 1506.
St. Jerome in the Desert
Giovanni Bellini
The court of the Gonzaga (1474) Andrea Mantegna

Dr. Calo Kalonymos

Dr. Kalonymos den David Kalonymos (known as Maestro Calo) was a medical doctor, astrologer, linguist, translator and philosopher. His father David was granted citizenship of Naples as a court physician. Calo, referred to in Neopolital records as “doctor of the arts and of medicine,” began as the court astrologer to the Duke of Bari in the early 16th century. To avoid the Inquisition in Southern Italy he moved up to Mestre and Venice, where his name appears in the diaries of Marino Sanudo.

Maestro Calo was credited with predicting the war between Venice and the League of Cambria in 1509, and reassured the doge that no harm would come to Venice from a solar eclipse. As a result, Calo was given a ducal license to wear a black hat identifying himself as a medical doctor, indistinguishable from the ones that Christians used, but that right was expressly taken away from Calo in 1517 by the Council of Ten after the ghetto was established . From then on Calo and other Jews were required to wear only yellow hats. In February 1518, Calo was falsely accused of murder by Vita/Chaim del Banco, the brother of the wealthy banker Anselmo del Banco. Calo was released but Vita was banished from Venice for three years.

Besides being a doctor and astrologer, Calo also wrote and translated numerous texts. He completed a chapter on biblical accents in Abraham de Balmes’s posthumous work printed in 1523 by the famed publisher Daniel Bomberg, who also issued the first printed version of the Talmud at that time. Calo translated several philosophical and astronomical works from Hebrew to Latin, and contributed to Venetian editions of Aristotle and Averroes.

Kalonymos ben David Kalonymos


RAPHAEL (1483-1520)
‘The School of Athens’, 1509-11 (fresco)

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Menachem Chalfan of Venice (-1551)

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu ben Abba Mari Chalfan of Venice. Rabbi Chalfan is famous for a number of different things. First, he was apparently in contact with the false messiah Solomon Molcho, a Portugese Jew who escaped to Italy and after a number of escapades, was burned at the stake by the Inquisition. Second, at the behest of the Christian Cabalist Francesco Georgio, Chalfan provided Richard Croke a religious opinion in favor of King Henry VIII in his attempt to convince Pope Clement VII that his so-called “levirate marriage” to Catherine of Aragon should be annulled because she had previously been in a marriage (lasting only five months) to Henry’s brother Arthur and had not borne a son. Third, in a collection of responsa compiled by Joseph Graziano of Modena, Chalfan gives his opinion on the question whether a Jew may instruct Christians in Hebrew. Citing numerous passages from the Talmud, which he elucidates with logical acumen, Chalfan shows that elementary instruction may certainly be given, if only for the purpose of enabling non-Jews to comply with the seven laws given to Noah. 

Dr. Eliyahu Chalfan was well-known by the important Italian author Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), whose partner Caterina Sandella received his medical treatment during a serious illness. Aretino’s letter of thanks to Dr. Chalfan praises him for his biblical knowledge and expertise, suggesting that “men could learn how to be Christian from you” and “the Pope himself . . . should listen to your inspired voice.” Aretino apparently enjoyed debating with Chalfan texts he viewed as allusions to the Virgin Mary in the Old Testament.

Eliyahu Chalfan’s father Abba Maria Chalfan went to Naples in 1492 to study astronomy. He authored explanatory notes on the Alphonsine Tables, which provided data for computing the position of the sun, moon, and planets relative to the fixed stars. Eliyahu’s mother was the daughter of the foremost talmudist of his generation in Italy Josef ben Salomon Colon (the MaHaRIK), an exile from Chambery France who lived in Mestre, near Venice, and was later rabbi in Bologna and Mantua, and died in Padua around 1480.


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