Salon Explores Diversity of Jewish Culture

A page from Charlotte von Rosthchild’s 1842 illustrated Passover Haggadah.
A page from Charlotte von Rosthchild’s 1842 illustrated Passover Haggadah. (Courtesy of Ardon Bar-Hama)

The Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization revived an old Jewish tradition on Feb. 23, hosting a salon focusing on the diversity of Jewish culture.

That ties in with the library’s role of collecting and translating primary sources from Jewish history in encyclopedic volumes.

“The Posen Library seeks to change how English-speaking Jews understand Jewish culture and civilization,” said Deborah Dash Moore, professor of history and professor of Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, the project’s editor-in-chief who hosted the event. “It’s not just religious, it’s a mix of sacred and secular. It’s not just the domain of men, women played a very influential role. It’s written in dozens of languages. This anthology is meant to open people’s minds.”

The latest volume, “Confronting Modernity 1750-1880,” covers Jewish history during a time of rapid and profound change. During that period, many countries emancipated their Jewish populations by lifting medieval and early-modern legal restrictions on occupation and education.

This offered Jews more opportunities to participate in secular culture.

“One of the characteristics of this period is it opens up Jewish life to all kinds of new forms of culture,” Moore said. “Jews get to study art and music and start to produce a wide range of materials.”

Jewish salons originally took place in German-speaking lands, particularly Berlin and Vienna. They later spread throughout European countries and to the United States.

According to Moore, Jews held salons in their homes, which became spaces for Jews and non-Jews to mingle and discuss topics of the day. Women often hosted and facilitated the exchange of ideas about literature, music, art and science.

The Jewish home also happens to be the current fellowship theme at the Katz Center, where scholars conduct research on different Jewish topics every year. This focus on the home was the inspiration for the collaboration with the library.

“The salon uses the home as a center for conversation, culture, and political debate,” said Professor Steven Weitzman, the center’s director. “It was a center for high culture in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries.”

The Feb. 23 salon took place in a private home to replicate the environment of the historic gatherings. There were 30 to 40 attendees.

Moore read excerpts from “Confronting Modernity,” such as the register of a Dutch midwife and a letter from a Civil War-era Union soldier describing Passover dinner during his military service.

Hazzan Jessi Roemer of Society Hill Synagogue performed music composed during the time period, including songs from Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

“We had an evening of scholarship and music and conversation, and that’s exactly what the original salons were like,” Weitzman said.

History buffs who would like to participate in a salon should keep an eye out for announcements from the center later this year.

“It was so successful we would like to do it again in the fall,” Weitzman said. “We are creating a group called Friends of the Katz Center, which anyone can join by making a donation. One of the benefits of group membership is attending the salon.”

The center also offers programs that are open to the public throughout the year. Upcoming events include a four-part mini-course, Childbirth and Magic, on March 5, which addresses pre-modern Jewish childbirth practice. On March 25, Children of the Ghetto + Black Shul will feature a musical performance examining the connections between Eastern European Yiddish folk music and African-American spirituals.; 215-832-0729


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