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“A Maiden Studies the Hebrew Tongue:” Treasures from the Library of Congress Reflecting Jewish Women Readers through the Ages

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(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic Specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.)

The time is April, 1879; the place, some town or city within the vast Russian empire. Perhaps there is a chill in the air for in Russia the winters are long, and on a night like this it is a pleasure to settle down with a copy of Ha-Melitz (The Jewish Advocate) and catch up on all the news. Already in its 37th year, Ha-Melitz is the most popular Hebrew newspaper in Russia and it casts a wide net over the entire world, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Here we read about a new law allowing university-trained physicians to wear a special badge of honor; there, an account of the difficulties faced by the Jews of Odessa in procuring unleavened bread for Passover. Your eyes roam from page to page and then, all at once, light on a small article tucked away inside. Intriguingly titled “A Maiden Studies the Hebrew Tongue,” it rivets your attention from the very first lines:

You sit reading a book by the light of the lamp; your eyelids drooping, your head spinning from the day’s toils [. . . .] You lean your head on your right hand; your fine eyes strained in concentration reflect love and a sacred yearning; your pale lips silently murmur words foreign to you . . .

-  “A Maiden Studies the Hebrew Tongue,” Ha-Melitz, St. Petersburg, 1879.

To the left, the front page of Ha-Melitz. St. Petersburg, April 1879 (no. 79); to the right, the article “A Maiden Studies the Hebrew Tongue” by L. Meckler (at the bottom of page 3).
To the left, the front page of Ha-Melitz. St. Petersburg, April 1879 (no. 79); to the right, the article “A Maiden Studies the Hebrew Tongue” by L. Meckler (at the bottom of page 3).

Portrait of a woman? Like a delicate paintbrush, the words skim caressingly over the woman’s face in its halo of lamplight, lightly echoing the image of the beloved in the Song of Songs (2: 6). No wonder, then, if the portrait sounds a bit like a love poem. And yet, appearances to the contrary, this is not a portrait of one particular, beloved face. It is, in fact, a group portrait of a whole new breed of young Jewish women, namely women readers of books in Hebrew. Not in Yiddish, not in Italian, not in Polish or Russian or any other language she might happen to know, but in Hebrew. In this last quarter of the 19th century the ancient language is on the verge of a modern renaissance, and the portrait in Ha-Melitz captures a new generation of Jewish women readers.

*     *      *

The tendency in the Jewish world to steer women away from the sacred language is well documented. Already the ancient Babylonian Talmud warns us that “anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is as though he taught her wanton ways!” (BT Sotah 20a). To clinch the matter, the phrase was repeated by Maimonides, one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of all time; an intellectual giant who lived and wrote in 12th-century Egypt. Below we see Maimonides’ famous code of law, Mishneh Torah, in a printed edition from 1490.

Detail from Mishneh Torah by Moses ben Maimon [Maimonides]. Printed by Gershom ben Moses Soncino, Soncino, 1490. Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.
Note that even at this early stage of printing, 1490, we are talking about a second printed edition – a sure indication of the book’s great popularity. Here, circled in blue, is what Maimonides says in this particular passage:

“The Sages commanded that a man not teach his daughter Torah, for the mind of the majority of women is not adapted to be taught [it] for they turn the words of the Torah into words of nonsense due to the poverty of their minds. The Sages said: ‘Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is as though he taught her wanton ways!’”

Now, up until modern times, women were generally excluded from the study of Torah and the study of Hebrew. Whether we can put all the blame on Maimonides is doubtful, but there is no getting around the fact that Maimonides’ opinion was quoted time and again by the greatest scholars through the ages, from Moses of Coucy, in 13th-century France, up to all the countless rabbis of 19th-century Eastern Europe eager to keep women in their traditional roles. What this meant, in practical terms, was that Hebrew and Torah studies became the special property of men, and that women were relegated to the Jewish vernacular, Yiddish or Ladino. Also, in many Jewish families it was the women who learned the language of the land, whether French, Russian, Polish – whatever. Knowledge of the local language was in fact encouraged since it was the women who kept the shop, or did the trading, while the men sat in the traditional Beit Midrash (“House of Study”) or at home, poring over the sacred Hebrew texts. In fact, a girl’s knowledge of the vernacular even became a strong selling point in the marriage market. One woman who experienced it all first-hand was Hinde Bergner, a woman who lived towards the end of the 19th century in Poland, and who relates in her memoirs that “when my prospective in-laws arrived, Mother asked me to dress prettily and to greet them politely and to consent to being examined in writing Yiddish, Polish and German.” (“In di lange vinternekht: mishpokhe zikhroynes.” Montreal, 1946).

Here in the Hebraic Section, our books demonstrate this linguistic divide time and again. One popular book for Jewish women was a small work that dealt with religious laws pertaining specifically to women, and these were usually in the vernacular. Here, for example, is one edition of the book, published in Italy in 1625.

מצוות נשים (Laws for Women). Benjamin Aaron Slonik. Padua, 1625. Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.

Except for the title, the entire work is in Italian, the presumption being that women would not be able to read Hebrew. Even if a woman wanted to read the Bible, she would usually read it not in Hebrew but in the Yiddish version known as “Tse’enah u-Re’enah,” so titled after the biblical verse “Go forth and gaze, O daughters of Zion” (Song of Songs 3:11). Though the title is in Hebrew, the text itself is in Yiddish and it was, in fact, one of the most popular books for Jewish women of all time. “Tse’enah u-Re’enah” went through many editions and was translated into several languages. It was sometimes illustrated, too; another sign of its popular appeal to a female audience. In the illustration below, for example, a rather naïve woodcut depicts the blind Isaac bestowing his blessing on Jacob, as Rebecca looks approvingly on.

“Tse’enah u-Re’enah” (“Go forth and gaze, O Daughters of Zion”). Sulzbach, 1836. Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.

The connection between women and the vernacular frequently finds expression in prayer-books, as in this lovely little “Order of Prayers before Retiring at Night” that is one of the most recently-acquired treasures in the Hebraic Section.

סדר קריאת שמע על המיטה (Prayers for Retiring at Night). Handwritten and illustrated by Joseph ben Meir Schmalkalden. Mainz, 1745. Miniature. Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.

Written and illustrated entirely by hand, it was created for a woman from 18th-century Germany and so small that it fits into the palm of your hand. With its brightly painted genre scenes and exquisite detail, this miniature provides a lovely example of the linguistic divide between men and women. Yes, the prayers are in Hebrew, but there are also translations in Yiddish and the instructions for the prayers are in Yiddish as well.

Printed ketubbah (Jewish marriage contract). Baghdad, 1911. Paper. Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.

One item in the Hebraic Section that appears to bear out the linguistic divide in a most unusual way is this ketubbah, or Jewish marriage contract from early 20th century Baghdad.

As is often the case, the groom in this document has a perfectly good Hebrew name – in this case Moses – while the bride’s name is distinctly non-Jewish: “Lulu, the daughter of Ezra Jacob.” Now, Lulu’s printed ketubbah is rather modest as ketubbot go – what makes it so interesting is the ivory silk bag which accompanies it. The bag is shaped as a 4-flap envelope, edged in lace and embroidered in jet.

Intriguingly, however, someone has scrawled on the inside flap, in big Hebrew letters and using purple crayon, the word Peninah – the Hebrew equivalent of the bride’s Arabic name (both Lulu and Peninah meaning “Pearl”).

Now, who would have defaced such a lovely item – and in purple crayon of all things? We can only guess. Could it be the work, say, of Lulu’s little brother, eager to show off his lordly knowledge of Hebrew? The Holy Tongue, after all, was the preserve of the male half of the community. We can just imagine “little brother” sitting there, shaking his head in disgust at the ignorance of the women-folk and thinking, “Ah, Lulu doesn’t even know her own Hebrew name.” So, crayon in hand, he got down to work. Only, the budding scribe must have been caught red-handed in his well-intentioned act of vandalism; the final letter of the girl’s name was never written.

Bag to hold the ketubbah. Silk with lace and jet embroidery. Baghdad, 1911. Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.
Bag to hold the ketubbah. Silk with lace and jet embroidery. Baghdad, 1911. Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.

By the middle of the 19th century, most Jewish women did not read or write Hebrew. But change was in the air, for many reasons, and modernity was making inroads in the Jewish world, affecting ideas about women’s intellectual abilities and the need to shape a cohesive Hebrew nation out of the polyglot of Jewish diasporas. And from the throes of all this cultural ferment rose a new generation of women readers of Hebrew.

בגד בוגדים (The Treachery of the Treacherous).
Sarah Faige [Meinkin] Foner. Warsaw, 1891.
Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.
We began this piece with a glowing portrait of the young Jewish girls who became the budding new readers of the Hebrew language, the ones whose lips “silently murmur” words that are foreign to them; we now end with the voice of one of these readers herself. The following lines come from a short memoir by Sarah Faige Meinkin Foner, a woman who experienced the changes first-hand:

In times gone by, 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 in Yiddish. The daughters were busy with household chores all day long and their parents thought it superfluous to teach them Torah.
–  Sarah Faige [Meinkin] Foner. In Shaharut.
New York. September, 1919 (Vol. VI).

Significantly, the same woman who wrote these words was also the first woman to write a novel in Hebrew; here we see the first edition of Foner’s second novel: “Treachery of the Treacherous” – a rousing historical novel set in the Second Temple Period (530 BCE – 70 CE).

Not the greatest novel ever written, perhaps – but definitely the dawn of a new age.

Comments (4)

  1. just absolutely fascinating. time prevents me from reading it all, or attempting full understanding–but of course the long-standing discrimination against women, as in all other cultures at the time, is hardly surprising. Main comment: these LOC holdings are just wonderful, and one has to hope that they will be studied and understood by students and scholars equipped to deal with this rich history.

  2. wonderful that LOC has this. a bit disappointing, though not surprising, that women were discriminated against in Hebrew culture–as in all other cultures at the time. hopefully this material will be studied and understood by others who, unlike this reader, who are qualified to deal with the material.
    thanks for posting!

  3. Beautifully written and it is so important to know that while prohibited religiously, women took it upon themselves to learn the language, and to use it for the entire society to see. Thank you for this bit of international women’s history at a time when so many are thinking and re-thinking the role of women in societies around the world.

  4. Thank you for acknowledging Sarah Faige Meinkin Foner as the first Hebrew woman novelist (Ahavat Yesharim, Vilna, 1881). She was also the first woman to write a Hebrew children’s story (Derekh Yeladim, Vienna, 1886).

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