Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Soncinos Move to the Ottoman Empire

Rabbi Sonsino
In 1454, Symon Ebreus, a descendent of Moses of Speyer (14th cent.) in Germany, came to Soncino, in northern Italy. In 1483, his grandson, Rabbi Israel Nathan, along with his two sons, Joshua and Moses, established the world-famous printing press that became known after the town itself. However, in 1490, just seven years after, he and his family were expelled from Soncino, because of the religious persecutions that took place during the rule of Ludovico Maria Sforza (1452-1508), the Duke of Milan. Family members spread to different places of Italy (e.g., Casal Maggiore, Naples, Brescia, Fano, Pesaro etc.) and continued to publish books, both Jewish and non-Jewish. In 1527/8, Rabbi Gershom, the son of Moses Soncino and grandson of Israel Nathan, moved first to Salonika and from there to Constantinople, today, Istanbul. He, too, continued in the tradition of his family and published many Jewish books. His son, Eleazar b. Gershom Soncino also became a prominent publisher.

Other members of the Soncino family took residence in different parts of the Ottoman Empire, still continuing with the publishing trade. We find Gershom b. Eliezer Soncino in Cairo (in 1557); Moses Joshua Soncino in Smyrna (c. 1715); some members even immigrated to Safed. One of the latest in the business was Joshua, son of Moses Soncino who lived in the first half of the 18th century (c. 1737).

In his collection of studies on Turkish Jewry[i], the historian Avram Galante, mentions Rabbi Eliezer Soncino who was the rabbi of the Italian community in Constantinople (late 1500’s) as well as a certain Moises Sonsin, who lived in the late 1700’s. Galante also states that the city of Smyrna had a neighborhood known as “Sonsino.” During my youth in Turkey, I had heard that there were other Sonsinos in the country, but I never met them.

A word about the spelling of our name: In Italian, the letter “c” in Soncino is pronounced as “tch,” like the “c” in “Chile” or “cheetah.” In Hebrew, the same letter “c” was rendered by “tzadi,” and pronounced as “Sontz/sino.” However, Turkish or Spanish does not have a letter that is equivalent to the Hebrew “tzadi.” Besides, in Turkish, “c” would have been pronounced as “dj.” I surmise that is the reason why the spelling of our family name was moved from SonCino to SonSino, in line with the French and Spanish pronunciation.

Today, the Sonsinos are spread all over the world. From our Sonsino page in Facebook I know that there are Sonsinos in Latin America, in Israel, in the States and other parts of the globe. The family is no longer engaged in the printing businesses. The name was taken over by a Jewish-English publishing company in 1929 (the “Soncino Press”) to honor the famous printers of the past.

Today Sonsinos are found in many professions. However, to my knowledge, I am the only one in the world who is a Rabbi. At least there is one more now.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
March 2014

[i] Avram Galante, Histoire des Juifs de Turquie. Isis, vol. 1-9.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Visiting the Town of Soncino

Rabbi Sonsino
This year marks the 560th year of the arrival of a German-Jewish family to Soncino, a little town in northern Italy, and their success in establishing a world-famous printing business in medieval Jewish life.

In 1454, Franceszo Sforza, the then duke of Milan, whose jurisdiction extended to include Soncino, authorized Symon Ebreus (Simeon, the Hebrew) to settle in Soncino, along with his family and friends, and practice “artem feneratoriam” (namely, to give money in interest). However, when town officials set up a public loan office and made private banking almost impossible, Israel Nathan, the son of Simeon and a wealthy physician, along with his sons, Joshua and Moses, decided to open the printing press that called itself after the name of the town. Soon, they began to publish many Jewish books, and became so famous that of them it was written, “From Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Soncino” (Based on Isa. 2: 3).

In March of 1961, I visited the town of Soncino. It was still a small rural town, with a large castle called Rocca Sforzesca. The town people were not accustomed to foreigners. I remember seeing a number of women doing the laundry in a small river. When they noticed my travelling companion and me, they suddenly stopped their work and set their puzzled eyes on us, asking each other, “Who are these people?” Once they found who we were, and especially that I was a descendant of the Jewish family that printed books in their town, they became quite friendly. I then realized that I was the only Sonsino in Soncino! We then met the local priest, Monsignor Pietro de Micheli, who graciously gave me a copy of his book, Soncino; Memorie e Notizie (1956).

We stayed only one night in town. The next morning, we hired a guide who took us around. We visited the famous castle of Soncino. Our guide also took us to two interesting streets. One of them was called, “Via della Stampa” (“The Street of the Printing House”) and the other “Via degli Stampatori” (The Street of the printers), a clear indication of the location where the family lived. The town is very proud of the fact that its name is now famous throughout the world.

And so am I.

Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
March, 2014

Monday, March 24, 2014

Reconnecting with Childhood Friends

Rabbi Sonsino
In the Apocrypha, the sage Ben-Sira writes, “Whoever finds a faithful friend, finds a treasure” (6:14). Childhood friends constitute part of the building blocks of our life that shape our character and enable us to become who we are. Because of the vicissitudes of existence, we eventually lose contact with most of them and they are stored away in our memories. But if we want to know ourselves better, we need to reconnect with them, to find out what they are up to, and to share happy and sad stories.

Like many of you, I too lost contact with most of my elementary, high school and college friends. I left Turkey in 1961, studied abroad, traveled extensively, moved often, and finally settled in the Boston area where I have lived for the last 30 plus years. I am now ready and eager to make contact again with those who influenced me in my youth. And I have been successful up to a point. Some of my friends sadly passed away, and I am sorry I did not communicate with them while they were alive. Others simply disappeared from the radar and I cannot locate them. But a few precious ones have surfaced, and I was able to reconnect.

First, I attempted to locate some of my elementary and high school friends. I had already been in touch with just a few, but now many more appeared in Facebook and elsewhere. We are now in the process of exchanging class pictures and family episodes. My high school in Istanbul (“The Jewish High School”), a private educational institution that was led for many years by my father, organizes every year a get together in March, and graduates flock from Israel, Europe and other places. One year I plan to attend as well.

I have been able to keep in touch with a few friends in Law School (Istanbul) and Rabbinic Seminary (HUC-JIR), but recently I have attempted to locate my colleagues in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, but have had very little success. But this past week, I hit the correct button. I heard that there will be a gathering in Philadelphia of some of my classmates at the house of my Arabic professor, but regrettably I cannot attend this time. Maybe, in the future.

A few days ago I found my American pen pal whom I had met in Turkey, about 50 years ago. While serving in the Turkish army, I wrote to SE often, inquiring about life in America. She represented for me my ultimate goal of coming to the States. In fact, when I came to Cincinnati, I met SE again, even attended her wedding. But after ordination, I went one way, she another. But this week, I located her in Facebook and contacted her. I learned she became a prominent physician, has three daughters and is still active, though retired from her profession. It was wonderful closing the gap again.

Have you tried to reconnect with your childhood friends? The book of Proverbs calls a good friend an oheb, a loving person; that is one “who sticks closer than a brother” (18: 24). Good friends are part of our life, and you should never forget them. I did not, and I am glad for it.

Rifat Sonsino
March, 2014

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Temple Beth Shalom Donates Winter Hats to Israeli Soldiers

In December, Temple Beth Shalom joyfully donated over 200 winter hats to sailors serving in the Israeli Navy.  Recently, we received the following letter of thanks along with a great photograph of the sailors aboard the Israeli Naval Ship Keshet.

Also below (after the break) are copies of the letter that Rabbi Perlman sent to the crew of the Keshet and the letter that our community received in return from Major Steven Gordon.

Currently, Temple Beth Shalom is working on another wonderful project to support Israeli soldiers.  This time, dozens of members of our community are hand-knitting caps that our own TBS community members will hand-deliver when we travel to Israel in December 2014 as part of our “TBS Israel Adventure.”  For information on how to knit or support this important effort, please contact Margie Glou (