Haskalah Literature and Hebrew Publishing

A Woman's Voice - Sarah Foner, Hebrew Author of the Haskalah

May, 2009 - Copyright by Morris Rosenthal - - contact info

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Sarah Menkin Foner was the first woman to publish a Hebrew novel, "The Love of the Righteous" - Vilna, 1880. She was 26 years old when the novel was published, and soon after married Yehoshua Mezach, a divorced Hebrew and Yiddish writer twenty years her senior. This marriage ended in disaster when Mezach married another woman in another town, leaving Sarah pregnant and destitute. She then married Meir Foner, a Hebrew playwright and newspaper man, and returned to writing. "The Children's Path" was published in 1886 with a dedication to Sir Moses Montifiore, and is the first published children's story in Hebrew by a woman. The novella "The Treachery of Traitors" is a Biblical fiction set in Second Temple times, published in 1891. She followed this with "Memories of My Childhood" which appeared in 1903. Early memoirs by Jewish women are rare in any language, and this one consists of many short sketches from her childhood in the city of Dvinsk in Latvia in the 1860's. The German Convert is an "as told to" account by a young German convert who studies Talmud and Torah with the help of Foner's father. Soon after she moved to England, and later to the U.S. where she died in Pittsburgh in 1936. Her last published piece appeared in the American magazine Shaharut in 1919, a short story of how she came to learn Hebrew as a little girl. I also have a page of Haskalah Links from way back.

Foner was not the only woman to write in Hebrew during the Haskalah in Russia, but she was the earliest and most prolific woman writer of Hebrew fiction. Her first novel was published seven years before the birth of Dvora Baron, who many credit as being the first woman to write a Hebrew novel. Foner also wrote some Biblical fiction and other stories in Yiddish, although the Yiddish stories aren't included in this work. Her achievement can only be fully appreciated when one considers that she had the equivalent of a grammar school education from Hebrew cheder, and did not come from a wealthy family or salon society. Also, the late Haskala period, in which fiction finally made it's appearance, was characterized by more critics than authors, and an elitist movement led by David Frishmann which approved of only proper literature written in proper Hebrew. It comes as no surprise that Hebrew literature took a distant back seat to Yiddish in Jewish literature, until the establishment of a Hebrew speaking country in Israel.

The Hebrew that Foner wrote in was a Hebrew that had only been used for fiction for about 30 years before she wrote her novel. These 30 years from the publication of Mapu's "Love of Zion" to Foner's "Love of the Righteous" saw less than one new Hebrew novel per year, although there were several works translated into Hebrew from other languages, starting with "The Mysteries of Paris" by Eugene Sue, translated by Kalman Schulman in 1857. Foner made extensive use of Biblical language and quotes in her novel, which are tabulated below:

48 - Psalms 9 - Habakkuk 4 - I Kings 1 - Micah
44 - Isaiah 7 - II Samuel 3 - Leviticus 1 - I Chronicles
37 - Job 7 - Exodus 2 - Obadiah 1 - II Chronicles
29 - Proverbs 5 - Ecclesiastes 2 - Esther 1 - Daniel
25 - Ezekiel 5 - Song of Songs 2 - Judges 1 - Joshua
25 - Jeremiah 4 - Deuteronomy 2 - Zechariah 1 - Lamentations
15 - Genesis 4 - Amos 1 - Nehemiah
12 - I Samuel 4 - Hosea 1 - Numbers

Readers surprised by the apparent akwardness of some conversational exchanges should remember that Biblical Hebrew has no word for "Yes". Therefore, the question "Are you the son of Reb so and so?" is answered "I am the son of Reb so and so." Foner sometimes uses the device of breaking a biblical quote into two parts and having the parts said by the same, or different characters, in close proximity. 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 final result reads like something between the King James Bible and typical 19th century Romance literature.

Early Hebrew writers were often paid in kind. While Yiddish writers could expect a cash payment or royalties, the publishers of Hebrew books were acting more out of Zionist motivations. The publisher and the author sometimes split the print run, both selling books wherever they could. It was also common to search for patrons to subsidize the process, as Foner did with Montifiore. This shouldn't be confused with self publishing books, in the modern sense, where the author assumes all of the costs and risks and collects all of the profits. It was more of a communal publishing effort, in order to build a new Hebrew literature. Foner wrote quite a bit about Jerusalem in her Biblical fictions, but was never able to visit in her lifetime.

All of her fictional works are now available in the original Hebrew, having been reproduced in a book by Tova Cohen and Shmuel Feiner "Voice of a Hebrew Maiden: Women's Writings of the 19th Century Haskalah Movement" - ISBN 965-02-0359-1, Copyright 2006, published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, Ltd.

Memories of My Youth | The Treachery of Traitors | Letter to HaYom | Memories of My Childhood | The Convert from Germany | The Children's Path | A Righteous Love | Contact Information | Order Published Book