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Sarah Foner - A Hebrew Author of the Haskalah
By Morris Rosenthal
The Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, spread into Eastern Europe from Germany over the course of the nineteenth century. As the Haskalah spread, it seemed to many as little more than a rationale for assimilation and conversion to Christianity, but eventually it provided the basis for a new Jewish national identity. A key component of this identity was the revival of Hebrew in the secular press, where it was used in scientific books, journals and newspapers. The introduction of fictional works in Hebrew came relatively late in the Haskalah, with the first Hebrew novel, Mapu's Love of Zion, appearing in 1852. Writing in Hebrew demanded tremendous commitment from authors, who were consciously pouring their efforts into works whose potential readership was far more limited than it would be for similar works in Yiddish. The vast majority of Hebrew readers in the 1800's were male, and the only compositions by women to appear with regularity in the Hebrew papers were Aguna requests. These terse descriptions of missing husbands, along with the plea that they either be sent back home to their deserted and destitute wives and children or forced to grant a divorce, were usually written by proxies.
Sarah Menkin Foner (1854 - 1936), wrote about the issues that were important to her in the language she cared most about; Hebrew. She published the first novel by a woman in Hebrew, Love of the Righteous, at the age of twenty-six. The main themes in the novel concerned the institution of arranged marriages and the vulnerable position of Jewish women in Eastern European society. She dressed the plot in the style of the early nineteenth century romances by the French author, Eugene Sue, whose Paris Mysteries was the first popular novel to be translated into Hebrew. Foner still lived in her father's house when she published her novel, but soon after it appeared, she married Yehoshua Mezach, a divorced Hebrew and Yiddish writer twenty years her senior. Their brief marriage ended in disaster, and Foner was left with a child and with little further appetite to wax poetic on the subject of romantic love. After a period of living at home in difficult economic circumstances, she married the Hebrew playwright Mayer Foner, a man her own age, but one who did not share her respect for traditional Jewish observance. They traveled about the Pale of Settlement working as itinerant teachers before settling in Lodz.
A large part of her childhood memoirs were taken up by the infighting
between Hassidim and Mitnagdim in the city of Dvinsk in the 1860's. Being from a Mintaged family, she
tended to hold up the Hassidim as the intolerant ones, but she did recognize
the overall futility of Jews fighting one another in the middle of the
Polish/Russian wars. Also, as a strong supporter of the Haskalah, she felt
that many of the orthodox made a terrible mistake in not educating their
children in more secular subjects. She felt that if they had, the government
wouldn't have stepped in to force Jews into state schools, with disastrous
results. Finally, she was a strong Zionist (Lovers of Zion variety) and she
wanted the orthodox to join in. Neither of her husbands
were religious as very few "enlightened" men were. She apparently had to
compromise in order to be in a marriage where she could continue publishing
"It didn't happen like all the ultra-religious supposed, that Israel would
die in the melting pot of the Haskalah, God forbid. But when the Haskalah
began to develop, it was precisely the rich and the religious who should
have sent their sons to school, because at that time, they weren't forced to
write on Shabbat, nor were they even required to go to school on Shabbat.
... If they had sent the older youths who had been raised in the lap of
Torah and Mitzvot and had mastered it all, and had they afterwards absorbed
the Haskalah, then the Haskalah would have been to Judaism like a necklace
on a neck. They would have risen and succeeded, bringing Judaism along with
them. Moreover, our people didn't take to heart where it would end. At that
time it would have been easy for them to found gymnasiums and universities
for themselves, so that every father today wouldn't be compelled by fear and
anxiety to sign that he gives his son of his own will into the hands of
teachers, to desecrate the Sabbath and much more. And what did they do back
then? Who were the majority of those going to gymnasium at the beginning?
Street kids without morals and Derech Eretz, or Yeshiva students who threw
off the yoke of Yeshiva, service and the Torah, all together."
Male authors, despite their protestations to the to the contrary, did not welcome the competition of a woman with open arms. At the same time, many men wrote under female names in both the Hebrew and Yiddish press, in order to cash in on the perceived need for a feminine sensitivity in the literature. The late Haskalah period in which Hebrew fiction finally made it's appearance was characterized by more critics than authors. An elitist movement of critics led by David Frishmann served as the gatekeepers. They approve only of proper literature written in proper Hebrew, as they defined these. It comes as no surprise that Hebrew took a distant back seat to Yiddish in Jewish literature until the establishment of a Hebrew speaking country in Israel.
Foner uses the introduction to her short story, The Children's Path, to inveigh against the lack of civility amongst the Hebrew writers of the time, and the calumnies they cast upon one another. Foner herself would suffer through personal and professional slights throughout her active writing career, which extended from 1880 to 1919. Her novella, The Treachery of Traitors, was published in Warsaw in 1891, first in Hebrew and later in Yiddish. This historical fiction set in the time of the Second Temple served as a dual vehicle for Foner. First, by hearkening back to a period of Jewish military and political independence, she could add her voice to the budding Zionist movement. Second, she was able to weave several female characters into the story who prove themselves stronger than any of the men. The liberties she takes with history as reported in the Josephon are telling; such as having the would-be usurper torture and kill his own wife, in place of his brothers-in-law.
While living in Lodz, Foner founded the Daughters of Zion Society, for the education of Jewish girls in Hebrew and Jewish history. In 1903 she published a memoir of growing up in 1860's Latvia, From Memories of My Childhood Days. It contained strong Zionist content and harsh criticism of religious intolerance. Foner was especially critical of the Jews inability to peacefully coexist with one another, even while living under the constant threat of violence from the Russians and the Poles. She attended an early Zionist conference before leaving the European continent and her second husband permanently behind for England and America. Foner published a short Biblical fiction in Yiddish titled, The Women's Revolt, while in England, the back page of which carries an advertisement for her three most recent Hebrew works. During the Haskalah period, Hebrew authors, unlike their Yiddish counterparts, were largely paid "in kind." The publisher would supply the authors with an agreed upon number of their own books in place of advances and royalties, which they would sell if they could. The last story of Foner's to appear in print was published in an American journal, Shaharut, in 1919, a charming story of how the author came to learn Hebrew as a little girl. Foner spent the final years of her life in the home of her son in Pittsburgh, PA.
Foner was not the only woman to write in Hebrew during the Haskalah in Russia, but she was the earliest and most prolific of the women writing Hebrew fiction. Her first novel was published seven years before the birth of Dvora Baron, who many think of as the first woman to write modern Hebrew fiction. Her achievement can only be fully appreciated when one considers her formal Jewish education was limited to three years in Cheder, which she attended with the boys beginning when she was five years old.
All of Foner's major Hebrew works were written before modern Hebrew was reintroduced as a living language in Israel and most of her grammar and vocabulary are of Biblical origin. Many of the authors of the Haskalah salted their works with quotes from scripture. In fact, the vast majority of male authors learned their Hebrew in Yeshiva, an advanced religious school from which women were excluded. Foner was extraordinarily well versed in scripture, often using words that appear in the Bible only once or whose meaning is ambiguous without choosing a commentator to follow. Her use of the Biblical vocabulary is sometimes exaggerated, such as the identification of pastries prepared at Purim using a Biblical word for cake found only in II Samuel along with a "three sided" descriptor, rather than identifying them as Hamantashin.
The collected Hebrew works of Foner have been translated to English by her great-grandson, Morris Rosenthal. They appear in their entirety on the website www.fonerbooks.com and a 320 page hardcover book will be available in September, 2001. Rosenthal welcomes all correspondence at email@example.com.
from the July 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine