Chronicles of a Talmud girl boss


Devorah Romm, a pioneering businesswoman in 19th-century Lithuania, reshaped the literary landscape of Eastern European Jewish communities. Whether breaking copyright rules, crafting the opulent Vilna Shas or implementing a groundbreaking business strategy, Devorah was unafraid of defying expectations. In this episode, Yael and Schwab explore Romm’s legacy as a trailblazer who rose to meet challenges and flourished in ways unimaginable for woman at the time.

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Schwab: Welcome to Jewish History Nerds, where we do exactly what it sounds like, nerd out on awesome stories in Jewish history.

Yael: I’m Yael Steiner and my childhood dream was to stay in school forever.

Schwab: I’m Jonathan Schwab and I am in school forever. Yael, what awesome story in Jewish history do you have for us to nerd out on today?

Yael: Today we’re going to talk about a woman named Devorah Romm, a woman you’ve likely never heard of.

Schwab: Yeah, I have not heard of her.

Yael: But she’s had an outsized impact on your Jewish education and on the Jewish education probably of any educated Jew for the last 100 plus years.

Schwab: That sounds amazing and sounds exactly like some of the best episodes we do. Perfect. No notes. Tell me about Devorah Romm.

Yael: So she took over a large publishing house in Lithuania from her husband who died a young and early death. And as an amazing, insightful, creative businesswoman, took that publishing house to a completely different level. She was really the main determinant of what got read by the Eastern European Jewish community from the 1860s through her death in 1903.

Vilnius old town (Photo: Augustas Didzgalvis/Wikipedia Commons)

Schwab: Sounds like a fairly important time. And you’re saying that she didn’t just publish things, but therefore chose the texts that people read.

Yael: Yes, because if it didn’t get published by Romm, it was not nearly as widely disseminated.

Schwab: Was that the name of the publishing house? Romm?

Yael: So her last name, her married name is Romm, R-O-M-M. She was born in approximately 1831 to the Harkavy family, an affluent family in its own right. And then she married into the Romm family, a family of publishers in Vilnius, Lithuania. Just a note, I will probably be referring to Vilnius throughout this podcast as Vilna, which is its Yiddish name. The reason why I’m going to call it by its Yiddish name, Vilna, is because it is such a prominent place in Ashkenazic Jewish history that my entire life, I’ve heard about it, about the scholars who studied there and about the learning that came out of that place. And it’s just easier for me to call it Vilna. So Vilna, Vilnius.

Schwab: It’s like the intellectual center of that time, right? Or in the Ashkenazi world.

Yael: Yes. And in general, publishing empires tended to crop up in large centers of learning. Prior to Vilnius, you had Venice as a major center of publishing for Jewish works when the community in Italy was thriving. And there was also a smaller publishing house, closer to the Romm publishing house, that was their major competition to begin with, but they actually became of little consequence even before she was born. The publishing house was in the 1820s, 1830s, Slavuta. So the Slavuta publishing house was run by Hasidim. The Romm publishing house was non-Hasidic. So there was a little bit of a culture clash between these two houses.

And this Slavuta house had a copyright to publish the Talmud for 25 years. The Slavuta Publishing House had exclusivity rights to publishing the Talmud for 25 years at the beginning of the 19th century.

Schwab: How did that happen? Who agreed to that and who enforced that?

Yael: That’s a rabbinical decision. That’s a local rabbinical decision.

Schwab: Oh, okay, like it wasn’t a copyright law thing, but all the Jews said, okay, these people are allowed to publish the Talmud for 25 years.

Yael: Right, for 25 years. And the Romm publishing house, even before Devorah, was gaining a little steam. And they decided they were going to break this rule.

Schwab: Yeah, which also I want to say, why would only one publishing house have the right to publish the Talmud? I feel like the Talmud belongs to the Jewish people.

Yael: It’s an interesting question. It may have been simply that they were trying to keep the publishing house in business and to maintain their success and their sales. If they were the only ones who could sell the Talmud, then they would have a built-in customer base of all the people who wanted to buy the Talmud.

Schwab: That does make some sense, I guess.

Yael: And just to clarify for anyone who’s not so familiar with the printed Talmud, the Talmud is extremely voluminous. And a printed set of the Talmud is thousands of pages long. And it is a major purchase for anyone even today to buy a full set of the Talmud. But back then, even more so. So the fact that there was an exclusive right to print it, was basically a guarantee that you were going to have some sort of sales base and that you could probably sell it at a markup. I don’t want to go too far astray with Slavuta, but basically the rivalry between the two publishing houses came to a head when some people walked into a synagogue in Slavuta one morning and found an employee of the publishing house hanging from the rafters.

Schwab: Whoa, okay. Yeah.

Yael: Yeah, it’s Godfather level stuff. It’s fairly certain that he had ended his own life, but the rumors took hold that he had been killed by his employers, the Shapiras at the Slavuta house, because he was going to inform on them to the local censors about some nefarious dealings. It’s not really clear where this rumor came from, but the Slavuta house was completely shut down. So the Romms no longer had to worry about them as competition.

Schwab: Hmm, wow. And then they could publish the Talmud because Slavuta was out of business?

Yael: Yeah, I mean, they had already started, but they became the only ones.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. Oh, that’s right. You said they started doing it despite the decree, against the rules.

Yael: Correct. So Slavuta as a Hasidic publishing house only published holy books. There’s even a rumor, though I think it’s likely apocryphal, that the Shapiras would immerse every single piece of movable type in their printing press in the mikvah before using it.

Schwab: I love that. Whether that’s true or not, what an amazing evocative image that just cuts to the core of so much of what we talk about here and like Jewish history and Jewish lore.

Yael: I find it fascinating because it really speaks to the holiness of words, the holiness of the printed text, and the sacred nature of the printed text. I think we talked a little bit about in Mendelssohn where he wrote a transliterated German Bible in Hebrew letters and what that means for the status of the book. Is it still a holy book? And I think, you know, printing and publishing as a profession when it meets Judaic studies, takes on a different level of not only importance, but I think self-importance to a certain extent.

Schwab: Yeah, we talked about this a lot in the Cairo Geniza episode, but the idea that texts are holy and sacred and need to be buried bodies would be buried, that there’s some sort of holy embodiment to texts themselves. But the immersing the movable type in the mikvah thing is so interesting because that’s what we usually do with utensils that we use for food. You’re consuming the text in some way, therefore it needs to be purified.

Yael: I didn’t even think about it like that, but I like that connection. So just to be clear, it may or may not have happened. It’s a nice story. The Romm publishing house definitely did not do it. Devorah Romm was a stern and logical businesswoman. So she takes over the business. She gets 60% of it. Her two brothers-in-law collectively get 40%. They’re a lot younger than her. She installs her father as a business manager.

Schwab: That’s a very good deal for Devorah Romm.

Yael: And she really makes sure that she has the upper hand in decision making. I don’t think it was as contentious as it seems like it could be. I do think the brothers-in-law tried to get their own operation off the ground, and it just didn’t take, and they eventually came back, and works, until this day, copies of the Vilna Talmud that are still printed today still say in certain places, ha’almana v’achim Romm, which means the Widow and the Brothers Romm.

So it was clear that it wasn’t the Family Romm. And she didn’t use her own name, which is interesting. And I don’t know if that was out of modesty or religious fervor. Though one interesting thing to note about her is that she did not cover her hair. And it seems like the only reason she was allowed to get away with not covering her hair was because she was such a big deal in the community. And the way she became this big deal is because unlike the Shapiras in Slavuta, she only published what made money and she would publish anything that made money to the extent that she ultimately printed Christian prayer books because they were profitable.

Schwab: And sold them to Christians, though.

Yael: Yes, yes, yes. Sold them to Christians. She published works by early Haskalah thinkers. She published what we know now to be the Mikraot Gedolot Bible, which is a heavily annotated text and paratext Bible. Text and paratext means there’s a main text at the center of the page. And there are paratexts in the case of the Bible and the Talmud, commentaries on the main text, that surround the text on the page. And the way that Davorah Romm formatted the Talmud for its printing has stayed with us until today. And the text-paratext design of the Talmud page is Davorah Romm.

Schwab: Wait, you’re saying that’s she’s the one who said it that way, of like, what’s on every page what surrounds the main text of the Talmud. That’s a really big deal.

Yael: Yes. To give two examples, one with respect to the Bible that she published, the Mikraot Gedolot, is that she was cousins with a very prominent rabbi, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, who’s also known as the Netziv. And he wrote to her asking that she include a little known commentary called the Sforno in her Bible. He said to her that it’s not studied enough. And she included it and that is an extremely prominent and famous commentary today. Right.

Schwab: Yeah, that’s in every Bible that I’ve ever used for serious study. That is one of the main commentators that is printed there.

Yael: And that’s what I mean by her having been the decisor of what we learn. If she had said, no, it’s too expensive to add another commentary, or it doesn’t fit on the page or whatever it is, who knows if we would be studying the Sforno now.

Schwab: Yeah. Wow. Yeah.

Yael: So the main reason why the Romm Publishing House is famous today is because of the Vilna Shas. Shas is a shorthand for Talmud. Well, let’s take a step back. Obviously, the Gutenberg printing press changed the entire nature of how information spread around the world. You know, the first 100 years or so, dissemination was slow. But as time went on and more areas had printing presses, books were being published at a much higher rate, literacy was going up, but it wasn’t a quick process by any means. In the 1800s, a technique was developed that she was the first one to implement called stereotyping. And stereotyping is…

Schwab: Where you meet people and you just, you know, have met other people similar to them and you make all sorts of assumptions.

Yael: Yeah, it’s not when you decide that one guy’s a jock and one guy’s a rebel and one girl’s a brat and one girl’s a headcase or whatever they were. She was the inspiration for the Breakfast Club. So basically what it was rather than individual pieces of type for each letter, you could make a mold or a sheet that had the entire page on one sheet so that the page could be used over and over again and stored and put on a shelf and you didn’t need one person laying out every single word in tiny little squares every time you needed to reprint something.

Schwab: Does sound like it would be a lot faster.

Yael: A lot easier. What stereotyping did though, was it created a race to the bottom when it came to the pricing of certain books. Every publishing house was trying to undercut the other by saying we can do it cheaper, we can do it faster. What she says to herself, there are going to be a million low quality copies of things. I’m going to create a luxury item. And what she did was she published a set of Talmud, the Vilna Shas, so ornate, so luxurious, so high quality that she charged four times as much as everyone else. What ended up happening was that this became a status symbol. And if you didn’t have a Vilna Shas, were you really a top Yeshiva student? Were you really a top family?

The Vilna Shas included 100 different commentaries on the Talmud, whereas the previous iterations had 20 to 30 commentaries. So these 100 different commentaries that we now find in today’s copies of the Vilna Shas, were formatted and set by Romm, you know, the way that certain commentators are on the page with the main text and certain ones are only in the back, that was a decision that was made in Vilnius in the 1880s. The entirety of the Talmud was released over the course of six years from 1880 to 1886.

And in addition to being really fancy and expensive, it was based on the highest quality manuscripts that Devorah could access. She used the best editors, the best proofreaders. She went somewhere, I believe Germany, to get high quality paper. They devised a typeface that was blockier than what had previously been used. And it’s the same typeface that is used in the Talmud today and is used in almost every single Jewish holy book today, with the exception of those that are published by the Koren publishers. They have their own bespoke font.

Schwab: Yeah, that’s so cool to think about. Here’s this person who I had not heard of 30 minutes ago, but who’s, as you said at the beginning and you did not oversell it, her decisions are now in many, many Jewish homes and are present in so many texts that are just the standard ones in homes and schools.

Yael: It’s a very traditional wedding gift to the groom in observant Jewish families.

Schwab: I’ve been to engagement parties where it’s on display for guests to see that this is what the bride’s family bought for the groom.

Yael: Oh my gosh. Devorah would be so happy.

Schwab: I’m curious if it ever gets opened.

Yael: Having it is enough, and she knew this. She was such a shrewd businesswoman. She was the one who initiated this concept of a chosson shas, chosson being Yiddish for groom. Because she made this luxury item status symbol, and everyone wanted their future son-in-law to think they’re getting a good family, so they have to go out and get a Romm Vilna Shas, even though it’s four times as much money as a flimsier one.

Schwab: Question. Did she study the Talmud? How familiar was she with this text that she was shaping for generations to come?

Yael: Great question. We know that she was literate in Hebrew, which was highly, highly unusual for women at this time. We actually have documents that were handwritten by her in Hebrew. Among them, correspondence between her and a man named Solomon Buber, who is the grandfather of the scholar Martin Buber. Solomon Buber.

Schwab: Her cousin is a very famous rabbi. She corresponds with the grandfather of Martin Buber. But we’ve just never heard of her.

Yael: Never heard of her. Correct. So we know she was literate. I don’t know what her formal education was like. There is a Jewish historian named Rezi Chechik, who I have the good fortune to know personally, who has done a lot of work on Devorah Romm. And she posits that the eight or nine-page essay that appears in every Vilna Shas at the end of Tractate Niddah, which is the last tractate. You probably don’t know it’s there. Almost no one knows that it’s there, even very, very learned people. There is an eight or nine page epilogue called Acharit Hadavar, which really means the end of the thing, which is the epilogue. And it is unsigned personally, but it is sort of signed off, HaAlmana Romm. It was printed by Almana Va’Akhim Romm, that it was printed by the widow and brothers Romm. And it talks about the need for the publication of this Talmud and what purpose it serves on a communal and spiritual level. And Rezi has good reason to believe that it was written in fact by Devorah.

She has pulled out a few excerpts of text that she views as sort of Devorah’s Easter eggs, letting us know that it was written by her. And among them is a reference to the prophetess, Deborah, Devorah. There is a turn of phrase that’s used in the essay that is also a turn of phrase that’s used to describe Devorah in the Bible. So there is a good argument to be made that it could have been written by her and that she was much more educated than we think or than other women of her day. But whether or not she was learned in the study hall, learned in the ways of the world. I was going to say she has girl boss energy, but I think the way the kids say it now is that it’s giving girl boss. I’m not sure if that’s right.

Schwab: That’s a reference that our listeners under the age of 25 will understand.

Yael: It’s giving girl boss. I just want to give one other example of her prominence in the world of academia and scholarship during her lifetime. One of the commentators that she wanted to include in her version of the Talmud was the Meiri. He is a prominent commentator on the Talmud, because Devorah Romm included him. And she traveled to Rome, to the Vatican archives, to retrieve a manuscript.

Schwab: I’ve heard this story, but without any reference to Devorah.

Yael: So I think that there were several commentators like that. I think the Meiri is the most prominent. It was quite an ordeal. She traveled to Rome to retrieve this manuscript. So she gets there, and the library is closed for four months. And she doesn’t really know what to do, but she has sufficient clout that she is able to get access to the library. And she borrows the only copyist in town during that four-month break from a local rabbi, and she has the ability to get a copy of this very rare Meiri manuscript. And the reason why she’s able to do it, some say, is because this was right in the wake of the Edgaro Mortara incident.

Schwab: Great season two episode.

Yael: Thank you, some of you may remember from last season we talked about a young Jewish boy who was kidnapped by the papal police from his family because he had been secretly baptized and was believed to be a Catholic. This was in the 1850s and I think 1850s, maybe 1860s. And actually I know it was in 1859 because I remember that the Civil War was brewing.

Schwab: The Civil War, right?

Yael: And that’s why the US president didn’t want to get involved. But basically, all the ambassadors intervened. France, which was providing military support to Italy at the time, intervened. But the pope still kept this boy. And it was very bad PR for the Catholic Church. And the story spread worldwide. And Rezi Cechek, in some of her work on Devorah Romm, suggests, I believe maybe she’s quoting other scholars that it was in light of that incident that the Vatican was inclined to give her a little leeway.

Schwab: Yeah, we didn’t give back the person who we stole, but we will let you look at this famous Jewish commentator on the Talmud that the Vatican has the only copy of for some reason.

Yael: So she was a big deal. She was a really big deal.

Schwab: So she copies it and then she prints it. And that’s why it’s a standard. The Meiri is not the foremost commentator that people look at, but it’s definitely up there. If you’re going to an advanced Talmud lecture, you’re probably coming across the writings of the Meiri fairly often.

Yael: And I’m not sure what possessed her to pursue this particular manuscript, but she really was very dogged in pursuing as many as she could and cramming them in there in a very thoughtful way. When you look at a page of Talmud for the first time, it’s very confusing. But once you get the lay of the land, she did make the most of the space. And you can learn the way that it works. If you open up a Talmud to the first page, you’ll often notice a very ornate cover page with pillars and curtain, yes. That is the original, the OG Romm publishing house cover plate. And it was a cover plate that…

Schwab: With the pillars and the lions. Wow.

Yael: …was previously used by Italians in some generic publications. And she either bought or borrowed this cover plate and used it for the Talmud, and it’s still being used today. And so that’s sort of become the hallmark of a Vilna Shas. And yeah, she made all these decisions.

Schwab: Yeah, you’re telling me that there are, in my home, there are multiple examples of the direct influence of this person who I had never heard of, never thought about, that possibly her writing actually is in a book. I don’t think there are a lot of people whose writings I have in my home that I’m not aware of.

Yael: And it’s interesting, she’s obviously very well known for this innovative Talmud set that she published, but that’s just one thing. The Romm publishing house published tons of other material. And again, as I mentioned, she only published it if she thought it was gonna make money.

Schwab: Right, yeah, she was a businesswoman first and foremost, and not this is the pious woman who saved Jewish texts for the Jewish people and set the tone for Talmud study.

Yael: There could be so much that’s lost to history because it didn’t get published by Romm. One thing that as a corporate lawyer, I find fascinating, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to really get into the weeds on it. Professor Mutzi Zalkin of Ben-Gurion University in Israel has done a lot of work on Devorah Romm and continues to do a lot of work on Devorah Romm. And he mentioned in a lecture that I listened to, which he was giving at a university in Kyoto, which I found fascinating, that there are university students in Kyoto learning about this, that Devorah Romm was the first person in the Russian Empire, the entire Russian Empire, to implement a corporate structure where her assets were segregated from the assets of the business that she owned.

Schwab: I do not know enough about finance or corporate law to understand why that’s important. It’s limited liability. Is that?

Yael: Basically, yes, it allows your business to do things and the consequences of those actions not fall on you in a personal capacity.

Schwab: Which makes you feel free to take greater risks with your business.

Yael: Yes, absolutely, you can take greater risks. That’s why we have limited liability companies and limited liability partnerships. But it also gives you the opportunity to do something that Devorah Romm did, which her brothers-in-law probably didn’t like, which was that she was able to lend her personal money to the corporation, with interest and have the corporation pay her back interest that now comes out of the portion of the profits that’s supposed to go to her brothers in law.

Schwab: It definitely does sound like she is a very shrewd businesswoman. I see why you’re saying that.

Yael: I’m jumping ahead several decades, but when the publishing house gets sold, the name of the publishing house subsequent to the sale is something like the Stock Corporation of the Romm Publishing House, which to me is very good evidence of this, but it’s a weird thing to name a corporation unless you really needed to focus on that structure. So she was way ahead of her time. She was a real innovator.

But there is one meaningful thing that I’d like to share about the Romm Publishing House because even though we’ve talked about it most significantly as a business, as we mentioned at the beginning, it’s a business that is publishing holy books and holy works. And that was very important to the Jews of Vilna at that time. And several decades later, though, the corporation had changed hands.

As a side note, none of her children took over the business. And she had three sons who moved to America and none of whom stayed observant. In the 40s, when the Jews of Vilna, or some of the Jews of Vilna, were ghettoized, a resistance grew among those Jews in the ghetto.

And a story is told by a poet, a survivor of Vilna named Abraham Sutskever, who passed away in 2010, that one night a few individuals escaped the ghetto and went to the Romm Publishing House, which was this major building in the center of the city and was probably the most secure building in Vilna at the time. And they took the metal publishing plates, the plates that we mentioned before that made stereotyping possible, and they melted them down and they used them for bullets in the resistance.

Schwab: Wait, sorry, this is a legend or this is a corroborated story?

Yael: This is, I believe, corroborated by this gentleman, Abraham Sutzkever. I am taking this story from lectures that have been given by Rezi Tchek, who is a fantastic Jewish historian, and I have no reason to believe it’s not true. It was relayed either to her or someone by this gentleman who was in Vilna at the time, but it’s a literally melting.

Schwab: Right, like turning the words of the Talmud into weapons to defend Jews from their worst oppressors.

Yael: It reminds me of a famous story in my own family. My paternal grandfather was born in Eastern Europe, came to the United States in the 1920s, and then returned to Europe as a soldier in the US Army. And when the war was over, and he came back to the US, he came back with two Lugers, German guns that had been confiscated from Nazis in some way or another. I don’t have the details and hopefully me sharing this publicly is not going to bring some long awaited legal action on my grandfather who is no longer with us.

Schwab: I just want to say my grandfather who also is no longer with us also had a Nazi gun that he brought back from World War II as well.

Yael: So the reason I bring this up is that my grandfather and my great uncle as well, I think, donated those guns to the Haganah, the pre-state Israel Defense Forces to be used in the War of Independence. So they went from Nazi hands.

Schwab: Mmm, wow.

Yael: To the hands of people fighting for the establishment of the state of Israel, which I think is very cool.

Schwab: That is very cool.

Yael: I think our grandparents’ generation saw things that hopefully will remain incomprehensible to us. But the fact that these stories perpetuate through the generations is important and it’s kind of what we’re doing here. And if anyone perpetuated the Jewish people, the spiritual history of the Jewish people, it was Devorah Romm.

Schwab: This often happens in the course of the show, but I feel like my mind is blown by this story.

Yael: I think that, especially for us where we have a lot of familiarity with the Vilna Talmud, it feels very mind-blowing. But I do want to reiterate that there were so many other pieces of literature that are out there because of her. And not only Jewish literature, including the Christian prayer books, including controversial publications from the Jewish Enlightenment.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. Right, including these Christian prayer books that you touched on.

Yael: Even after her death in 1903, and the publishing house was around until the Nazi occupation of Vilna, whatever was popular and profitable at the time was being published by Romm. Communist materials were published by Romm. So it’s a very strange intersection of commercialism and, you know, fidelity to history. But I do want to reiterate, Davorah Romm, giving girl boss.

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