A Memoir of Jewish Girl Learning Hebrew

Translation Copyright 2001 by Morris Rosenthal

Translations from Hebrew

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A Girl can't become a Gaon?

by Sarah Faige Foner

Sarah Faige Foner is a 65 year old woman, learned in Torah, Talmud and Hebrew Literature. She speaks beautiful Hebrew and has written several Hebrew books. She lives in Harlem, NY, and dedicates all of her time to the study of Hebrew literature, biblical and modern. In her free time she collects donations from her acquaintances, and she gives this money to Hebrew schools, in order that it be possible for them to teach poor children for free.

In the beginning of the reign of Alexander the Second in Russia, in the year 1855, I was born in the town of Zager. My father was learned in Torah and wise, and he studied Talmud day and night. My mother also knew Hebrew, and every Saturday afternoon she taught me the Parsha of the week, including the commentaries of Rashi and Ibin Ezra.

For those of you who didn't know, my young readers, in past times parents taught their sons Torah and Talmud, but not their daughters. A daughter was only taught to read from the prayer book and to write letters in Yiddish. The daughters were busy all day with housework, and the parents thought it superfluous to teach their daughters Torah.

How did it come about that they taught me Torah and Talmud? These are the events I desire to relate to you.

It happened in my childhood, when I was five and a half years old, that my mother said to me, "Sarah Feiga, go to Miriam with the little house (Miriam poon'im shtiebeleh) and tell her to come to our house to help me prepare the meal, because we have guests coming. But if you find her in prayer, take care not to interrupt her - wait until she finishes her prayers then tell her my message.

I hurried to do my mother's bidding. I passed through the shuk which was full of wagons in which the farmers from the nearby villages sat and sold chickens, eggs, lentils, and all sorts of grain and vegetables, and I crossed the street with the Beit Kinneset and arrived at the bath house. Not far from the bath house stood a small and poor house, whose teetering walls were supported with wood posts, and whose straw roof was rotten and had many breaches. In this house lived Miriam, who earned her bread by helping women to bake and clean and to do all sorts of housework.

I opened the door and found Miriam standing and praying. Her head was wrapped in a wide, multi-colored kerchief. The kerchief was tied on both sides of her head, and therefore her head looked as big as a bucket.

I stood to the side without disturbing her prayers and listened closely to every word coming out of her mouth. She was reciting the Shacharit prayer, and after the prayers she said in Yiddish, "May blessings and success fall on my little head (kepeleh), Amen, Selah."

When I heard her last words I wanted to laugh out loud, but I was afraid that she would tell my father that I laughed, so I restrained myself. But as I walked home together with Miriam, strange thoughts and ideas began to trouble my heart.

Miriam, I thought to myself, she is a simple woman and she recites her prayers as she was taught by memorization, without understanding the meaning of the words. When she was a little girl, her mother taught her to recite, "May blessings and success fall on my little head," and on these words she is returning even today, without cognizance. A prayer like that is T'filah Shav and I don't want to turn out like her. When I get home I will ask my father to teach me to read from the Siddur, in order that I will know how to pray properly.

When I got home I said to my mother, "Give me something to eat, mother, because I'm hungry."

"Good," said my mother, "But first say the blessing."

"I don't want to say the blessing," I answered in tears.

"What's this my ears are hearing?" my mother said anxiously, "You don't want to say the blessing?"

"No," I answered, "I want to pray from the Siddur, not from memory like Miriam."

And so I told her what I'd heard and my mother laughed good heartedly and said, "In a little while your father will return from the Beit Midrash, and I'll ask him to buy you an Aleph-Bet and to teach you to read. Now say the blessing and eat."

I obeyed my mother, said the blessing and ate, then I went out to my girlfriends to play a game.

While I was playing with my friends outside, I saw my father leave the Beit Midrash. I abandoned the game and ran to greet him with a "Good Morning," took his Tallit and Teffilin from his hand and said to him, "Daddy, buy me an "Aleph-Bet" and teach me to read Hebrew."

"It's not yet time to teach you reading," he answered calmly, "Wait another year or two and then you'll begin to learn."

When I heard his words, I broke into sobs and ran to my mother and said to her, "Mommy, Daddy won't buy me an "Aleph-Bet!"

My mother approached my father and told him what I had related to her about Miriam "of the small house." My father laughed freely, stroked the hair on my head and comforted me that in the evening, on returning from the Beit Midrash, he would bring me the Aleph-Bet that I so desired.

For the rest of the day I was very excited, and I told all of my friends that today I would start to learn. I felt in my heart that I was being elevated above them all, because they would grow up simple and I would be learned. With the setting of the sun, I sat on the porch in front of our house and waited impatiently for my father to come.

Suddenly, I saw my father in the distance. Like an arrow from a bow I sped off running to greet him, extracted from his hand the Aleph-Bet, then happily returned home at a run, to deliver the good news to my mother, that my father had brought me an Aleph-Bet.

About this time, our guests arrived, and these were my Uncle Reb Yediya and his son Aryleh. This young man was an "Ilui," remarkable in his many aptitudes, especially in his memory and his erudition in Talmud. If a person wanted to test him, he could take a closed Gemora and position his finger on a certain spot on the cover and say, "What are the words that are printed in this place on page thirty-one?" The youth would stand and tell him the word written there without having to think very hard and without any mistakes.

When I saw these important guests, I didn't have the courage to talk to my father concerning the Aleph-Bet, but I heard my father in the course of his conversation with the guests tell them what had happened to me and what I requested from him. The guests laughed kindly and told him that I was justified.

The next day, after I ate breakfast, my father sat me on his knees, spread the chart of the Aleph-Bet on the table, began to teach me the first two letters, repeating them a second time and a third time. This wasn't to my liking, and I asked him to read for me the names of all of the letters, till "Tav". My father did as I asked, and I concentrated well on each letter, and the names remained engraved in my memory. When my father finished reading, I repeated before him the names of all the letters forward and backward, without errors. My father was amazed to hear the names of all the letters come out of my mouth, and he read me also the names of the nikudot . I learned these also and began to join the letters with the nikudot, "Ah, Bah, Gah, Dah, ..."

"I have to go to work," my father told me, "Go and play with the girls and when I return for lunch I'll continue teaching you."

My father left and I went out and sat on the small bench on the porch, and I began reviewing the Aleph-Bet diligently, until I knew it by heart. I entered the house and asked my mother to give me a Siddur, and by myself, without help, I began to slowly read the first prayer, "Ma Tov-ooh." I read it one time, two times, a third and a fourth, until I knew how to read this prayer fluently. From time to time, one of my friends came over to ask me to play with her, but I answered proudly, "It's not the time for play now, but the time to learn from the Siddur."

When my father came home for lunch, I opened up the Siddur and read before him the prayer "Ma Tov-ooh" fluently and well. He was astonished and hugged and kissed me, and he wanted to go out and tell our neighbors about this wonder. Just then, the door opened and my uncle came in, so my father called me and instructed me to read in the Siddur.

"She learned this in a half-day, from morning till now," my father said.

"I'm sorry that she's a girl," my uncle answered, "If she was a boy, she probably would have been a Gaon in Israel."

"A girl can't become a Gaon?" I asked innocently.

My uncle and father burst out laughing, and I was ashamed and humiliated and I hid in the corner and didn't want to sit down to the table to eat.

After a couple weeks, my father delivered me to the Cheder , and I sat there with the boys and studied together with them, even though they were several years older than me. Every half year I passed from one form to the next, until I had acquired knowledge of Tanach and Talmud. When I finished there I began to read every Hebrew book I could get my hands on. When I reached 25 years old, I wrote a Hebrew novel, and this was the first of my books to be printed, Love of the Righteous.

From "Shaharut - The Youth" September, 1919 Vol 6 -Jewish Youth Publishing Co. N,Y. N.Y. Z. Scharfstein, Editor

I welcome and questions or comments.

About Sarah Foner | 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