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Book Review: Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin
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Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin
details 18th Century Jewish-German relations
                                  ,  September 6, 2005


Reviewed by Norman Manson

This thoroughly researched, richly detailed book about a brief but somewhat pivotal period in history makes interesting reading -certainly for those of a historical bent - but it leaves the reader with at least one perplexing question: What significance did this small group of Jewish women have for the future of European, and particularly German, Jewry?

 Deborah Hertz, a professor of European history and Herman Wouk chair in modern Jewish studies at the University of California, San Diego, has delved deeply into the story of Berlin's "salons," informal intellectual gatherings, mostly in the homes of wealthy Jewish women during the years 1780-1806. A large proportion of those attending these sessions were gentile noblemen, attracted to these women for either economic or sexual reasons (probably some of both), and the contact between these two groups provided a new and exciting element in Judeo-Christian relations.

Up to this time, contact between Jew and gentile in Prussia and elsewhere in Europe was almost entirely on a commercial basis; social contacts were minimal. Hertz describes what brought about the change at the particular time it occurred, and how this affected both personal and community relationships.

The book includes a brief but succinct history of Berlin in the late 18th century, especially of its Jewish community (which numbered about 3,500) but also of its gentile upper class. This section sets the stage for the account of the role played  by the salons among the small, but influential, group of relatively wealthy Jewish women. And, during the quarter-century explored, their role obviously was of some significance.

But, for various reasons - the French occupation in 1806 during the Napoleonic wars, an upsurge of Prussian nationalism and anti-Semitism in this period - the salons quickly faded into oblivion in the early years of the 19th century. Ironically, in 1812 an edict gave Prussia's Jews a measure of freedom: the right to be citizens of Berlin, to move about freely and to be freed of the onerous special taxes previously imposed. The irony is that this pro-Semitic edict came at a time of rising anti-Semitism,

So, the key question remains: What influence did the salons have in promoting Jewish emancipation? And Hertz admits that he evidence on this issue is contradictory. For one thing, the salon institution involved a tiny fraction of the Berlin Jewish community. Of the 14 salons known to have existed, nine were led by Jews. And, on the question of Jewish continuity, it must be stressed that most if not all of the "salonieres" converted to Christianity during the peak years of the salon era. A major reason for the conversions was that this was the only way they could marry the gentile noblemen they had met at the salons. Many of the noblemen were relatively impoverished, and coveted the salon's women's wealth. There was no civil marriage in Prussia at this time. As a result, the women and their descendants were lost to Judaism.

The book is scholarly, replete with footnotes, statistics and graphs, yet is quite readable. But its subject would appear to have only a limited impact on the tumultuous course of European Jewish history.