Sarah Feiga Meinkin Foner
1854 – 1936
Sarah Feiga Meinkin Foner wrote about the issues that concerned her most in the language she loved most, Hebrew. At the age of five and a half, Meinkin informed her mother that she wanted to learn the aleph-bet, and within two decades she demonstrated her acquired mastery of the language when she became the author of the first Hebrew novel ever published by a woman. The novel’s title Ahavat yesharim o hamishpahot hamurdafot (1881) (A Righteous Love or The Pursued Families) echoes that of the first novel in Hebrew, Abraham Mapu’s (1808–1867) Ahavat Ziyyon (1853) (Love of Zion). Despite harsh reviews of her first efforts, Meinkin persevered at her craft, during her lifetime penning two novellas, a handful of short stories and a brief memoir.
A descendant of the “Vilna Gaon” (Elijah ben Solomon Zalman; 1720–1797), Sarah Feiga Meinkin was born in Riga in 1854 to Joseph (c. 1820–?) and Sheina (née Kahana). Her father and mother, who were both literate in Hebrew, imbued their household with a love of Jewish learning. According to her memoir, her father, a former student of the Volozhin yeshiva, “studied Talmud day and night;” while her mother spent every Shabbat reading the weekly parashah (portion of the Pentateuch) with the commentaries of Rashi (1040–1105) and Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1164). Meinkin’s father initiated her into the rites of Jewish learning, first instructing her in hummash (Pentateuch) and later in Talmud. By the age of twelve, Meinkin had already published a letter in the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Yom, in which she reported from Riga that the principal of the local gymnasium was requiring acquisition of some Hebrew on the part of all Jewish students in order to advance to the next grade. In the article, she mocked the “majority of young men, who barely understand Hebrew” and would thus find this obligation too onerous. Not so Meinkin. She would continue to wield her pen in the Hebrew language and gain the attention of literary figures in the Haskalah.
Meinkin was still living in her parents’ home when she wrote the first installment of her two-volume romance, A Righteous Love. Set in nineteenth-century Italy, it weaves the tale of Finalia, the lovely and educated daughter of a Jewish-French dignitary living in Milan, who falls in love with an Italian Jew by the name of Victor. In the book, Meinkin drew liberally on her knowledge of rabbinic and biblical sources, while offering a portrait of an enlightened and yet devout Jewish woman, who insists on her right to pursue her goal of marrying the man she loves, rather than entering into a marriage of political or financial expedience. Soon after Ahavat yesharim appeared in 1881, Meinkin married Yehoshuah Metzah, a Hebrew writer approximately twenty years her senior. The couple had a child, Newton (1882–1964), but the marriage quickly ended in disaster when Metzah fell in love with another woman, leaving Meinkin pregnant and destitute. In 1885 she married the Hebrew playwright Meir Foner (1854–1936), a man her own age but one who did not share her commitment to traditional Jewish observance. Meinkin, a pious Jew throughout her life, was even known to wear a tallit while praying and covered her hair with a sheitel (“wig”) later in life. Meinkin and Foner traveled throughout the Pale of Settlement, working as itinerant teachers, before settling in Lodz, where Meinkin founded the Daughters of Zion Society for the education of Jewish girls in Hebrew and Jewish history.
Neither marriage nor teaching interrupted Meinkin’s writing career. In 1891, she published Beged bogdim (Isaiah 24:16) (The Treachery of Traitors), a novella set in the period of the Second Temple and based loosely on Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities. In highlighting this period of Jewish political independence, Meinkin allowed her budding interest in Zionism to emerge in print. Published first in Hebrew and later in Yiddish, the novella, like Ahavat yesharim, centers on a woman attempting to transgress gender boundaries by challenging her restriction to the private domain. In the end, the female protagonist, accomplished and enlightened as she is, finds little comfort in a man’s world that is ultimately alien to her.
The title of Meinkin’s last published novella, The Women’s Revolt— which appeared only in Yiddish—may well evoke the turmoil then raging in the author’s own personal life. After attending an early Zionist conference, Meinkin left Europe and her second husband for good. She went first to England (1903/1904) and then to the United States (1905/1906) to live her final years with her son in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She died in 1936.
English translations of six of Meinkin’s Hebrew works appear in:
Rosenthal, Morris transl. A Woman’s Voice: Sarah Foner, Hebrew Author of the
Haskalah.Wilbraham, MA: 2001.
Morris Rosenthal is Foner’s great-grandson. He also has a website with these translations and some biograhical material at www.fonerbooks.com
Ahavat Yesharim o Hamishpahot Hamurdafot (A Righteous Love or The Pursued Families). Part I, Vilna: 1880; Part II, Vilna: 1883; Beged Bogdim (The Treachery of Traitors). Warsaw: 1891.
Derekh Yeladim (The Children’s Path). Vienna: 1885; Letter in Ha-Yom, No. 67, (1886) St. Petersburg.
Mizikhronot Yemei Ne’urei (A Girl Can’t Become a Gaon?) The Hebrew original appeared in Shaharut—The Youth vol. 6 (Sept 1919). An English translation appeared in Women’s League Outlook Magazine, (Winter 2000); Mezikhronot Yemei Yalduti o mareh ha’ir Dvinsk (Memories of My Childhood Days or The View of the City of Dvinsk). Warsaw: 1903.
Rosenthal, Morris, A Woman’s Voice: Sarah Foner, Hebrew Author of the Haskalah (Introduction). Wilbraham, MA: 2001; Balin, Carole. To Reveal Our Hearts: Jewish Women Writers in Tsarist Russia. New York: 2000; Zierler, Wendy. And Rachel Stole the Idols. Detroit, MI: 2003.