30 November 2008

Jewish Women: early 19th century salons

Newly emancipated Jews in C19th Europe wanted to immerse themselves in Germany’s rich cultural life. Individual Jews were faced with a dilemma: they saw new opportunities, yet they may not have wanted to lose the comfort of the secure community they grew up in. In the end, even Moses Mendelssohn’s children seemed to prefer accommodation with the wider German Kulture.

Educated Jewish women suffered gender and anti-Semitic restrictions. So they adapted a new strategy: cultural salons where Jews and non-Jews met in equality, studying literature, art, philosophy or music.

Salons were not all Jewish; nor were they all in Germany eg The Remy Family in Paris was already running a salon that combined music, supper and billiards in 1776. In fact we can speculate that from the Italian Renaissance on, the cultural salon was a European wide phenomenon. But from 1790s on, at a time when Jews hadn’t yet been granted complete civil rights, salons performed a specific political and social miracle for Jews.

This modernising trend increased over the C19th. With the unification of the German Reich in 1871, Jewish Emancipation was complete. Although anti Semitism continued, most LEGAL barriers to social/economic progress were removed; Jews moved to the cities and became part of the growing urban population.

The salon allowed them to establish a venue, in the privacy of their own homes, in which Jews and non-Jews could meet in equality. Like-minded people could study literature, art, philosophy or music together, plus they could support both talented artists and writers. Each saloniere chose her own theme and selected the night of the week in which she wanted the salon to be held. Her staff did not have to provide dinner for the salon guests - just drinks and desserts.

Reading to the salon

Henriette Mendelssohn and Dor­othea Schleg­el ran active salons in Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Frankfurt, focussing on literary themes. Another of the early famous salons was founded by Henriette de Lemos Herz, who was, like all the other Jewish Salonières, highly educated and multi lingual. She was totally devoted to literature, esp to Goethe, the Sturm-und-Drang cult and the German romantic theories of friendship and sociability. Her salon was a unique expression of enlightenment ideas on religion, philosophy and educational debates.

Other families were particularly interested in music, so their salons reflected their musical taste. The family of the Jewish banker Daniel Itzig held cultural gatherings which attracted brothers Wilhelm and Carl Philipp Bach. Daniel’s daughter Sara Itzig 1761-1854 was well educated, studying music with Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Sara married Samuel Levy, one of the important German bankers. So her own excellent musical knowledge and her husband’s income allowed Sara Itzig Levy to become Wilhelm Bach’s most significant patron. She also studied the music of Carl Phillip Bach, and, at his death, she became his widow’s patron.

So why did this 100 year period of Jewish dialogue with high culture come to a crushing end. The beginning of the C20th brought in the real end of salons in central Europe. War turmoil, new ways of spending free time like travel and mass media meant women of leisure spent their time diff­er­ently. And because by the end of the century, political intens­ity and commitment became more important that polite, witty conversation.

You might like to read:
Bilski, Emily et al Jewish Women and Their Salons: The Power of Conversation, Jewish Museum New York, 2005.

Hertz, Deborah Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin, Syracuse UP, 1988.


grossmans said...

Your blog entry of literary salons was very interesting and educating. I am drawn to this idea where learned people gather around in homes to discuss ideas. I'll try to get the two books that you have mentioned so I can learn more about this subject.

Viola said...

I like this idea too. I'd love to set up a salon myself, but it's hard to find the time! I will read more about it instead.

Hels said...

grossmans and Viola

many thanks.. it is a great topic and one that I have come back to, with the students, this semester.
However now we are talking about the second half of the 19th century and into the new century.