Role play in the Salon?
Project (2002-2004)

The Berlin Jewish Salon as an “Informal Academy” and Place for Emancipation?

The function of a literary salon as semi-public meeting place for young authors and an interested audience has been widely discussed, and the Jewish salon in Berlin has been interpreted as site of German–Jewish dialogue. Seldom, however, has it been asked what the women involved gained from it themselves, socially and intellectually. This project focuses on the forms and results of the communication that took place in Jewish open houses in Berlin around 1800. At a time when women and Jews were excluded from almost all public careers and most public places, a salon offered an opportunity to circumvent this exclusion. The salon worked at the intersection of public and private. By inviting members of the public, politicians, authors, and actors to their private homes, the salonnières were able to participate in the intellectual discourse of their time. In practical terms, they gained access to rare books, took part in scientific experiments, were asked for their opinion, and were inspired to write themselves. The fact that most of the Berlin salonnières were not only excellent letter-writers, but also published on their own account, has hitherto been largely overlooked.

The salon was also a meeting-place for discourse. Many prominent writers on the “woman question” around 1800 attended salons regularly. Some of the most influential gender theories of the time were literally written on salon tables. But in what ways did the central role of the salonnière and the contact with intellectually ambitious women influence these men’s ideas on women in general? Similarly, salon members discussed the emancipation of the Jews—inside and outside the salon. Several politicians who later became involved in the emancipation process in Prussia had been close friends with one or more Jewish salonnières in their youth. Yet, as the project will show, there is no direct connection between friendship with Jewish intellectuals and commitment to or against civil rights for Jews. On this point, the salonnières’ correspondence with their guests will be contrasted with the comments that those guests exchanged privately outside the salon.