Sarah Feiga Foner is not exactly a household name, but the late 19th-century novelist, who lived in Pittsburgh for the last 28 years of her life, holds an important distinction: she was the first woman to ever publish a novel in Hebrew.
Her own story will be recounted this Saturday at a lecture presented at Congregation Beth Shalom following Shabbat services.
Michal Fram Cohen, a doctoral candidate at Bar Ilan University in Israel who is writing her dissertation on Foner, and is in Pittsburgh researching her life, will deliver the presentation. Foner’s son, Newton, was a member of Beth Shalom, and Cohen believes he gave his mother’s papers to the congregation sometime before his death in 1965.
Foner’s story is unusual. Born in 1854 in Latvia, which at the time was a part of the Russian Empire, she was determined to study Hebrew as a child, even though such pursuits for girls were generally discouraged in 19th-century Eastern Europe.
“Her parents were unusual,” Cohen said. “She writes about wanting to learn Hebrew as early as age 5, and her parents allowed it. Her mother was relatively more knowledgeable; she could read in Hebrew. So her parents taught her, and eventually, they let her go to the cheder with the boys.”
But Foner was not really welcomed by the boys in her class, Cohen said. “After a while, she had to leave, but she continued to study on her own.”
She seemed to have a “natural inclination,” Cohen continued, to learn the language, as well as the drive to get her work published.
“It was not seemly for Jewish women to publish in Hebrew — to be outspoken, to be out in the public arena,” she said. “Women were expected to be at home with the children. Writing in Hebrew was an extension of the synagogue where men were doing prayer and study, and women were segregated behind the partition.”
Foner wrote her first novel at the age of 25; it was published in Vilna two years later.
“It was the first novel written by a woman in Hebrew to be published,” Cohen said. “It was published in 1881, when she was 27. It was a love story, set in Italy in the 1860s.”
It is noteworthy that the story was about romantic love, as opposed to a marriage arranged by a matchmaker, according to Cohen.
In 1909, Foner left an unhappy marriage behind in Poland, and came to Pittsburgh to live with her son. While she lived for a time in Chicago and New York, she eventually returned to Pittsburgh, where she was active in the Jewish community. In 1913 she served as president of the 400-member Daughters of Jacob Auxiliary Society, which supported Jewish education here.
She published four books, including a children’s story that is considered to be the first published in Hebrew by either a man or a woman.
While Foner remained Orthodox, her son became affiliated with Beth Shalom. She died in 1937 and is buried in the Beth Shalom cemetery.
Some of Foner’s descendants still live in Pittsburgh, including her great-granddaughter, Dr. Judy Cohen.
“She was an unusual phenomenon,” Dr. Cohen said. “Because she was an Orthodox woman, she didn’t have much of an outlet for her knowledge of Hebrew.
She pretty much disappeared from the history of Hebrew letters. I am trying to bring her back.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)