Sinners or Trendsetters? A Forgotten Trio of 19th-century Jewish Feminists

Three women who were way ahead of their time, educated and famous for their Berlin soirees – but ignored for centuries by Jewish historians because they converted to Christianity

Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
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Henriette Herz, one of three German feminist intellectuals living in late 18th century, early 19th century Berlin, featured in "The Salon," a Hebrew book by Michal Zohar Ben-Dor.
Henriette Herz. The first among the three Jewish women to hold salons in late 18th century, early 19th century Berlin, as gatherings of women that focused on culture and literature. Credit: No credit
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

Anyone who was lucky enough to be invited to the salon of Rahel Varnhagen von Ense felt very fortunate indeed. That had nothing to do, however, with the large house, the magnificent salon illuminated by crystal chandeliers, the couches covered in green satin or the fine refreshments. Only people who were truly worthy were invited to the soirees of Rahel Varnhagen, née Levin, in Berlin of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

People gathered there to engage in lively conversations, to read together or to discuss new ideas or works of art. Guests included aristocrats and artists, scientists and politicians, writers and poets, philosophers and journalists, ranging from Friedrich Schlegel and Heinrich Heine to Prince Louis Ferdinand and philosopher Eduard Gans.

A fixture of intellectual life in the city, in Germany and indeed in Europe in general, Varnhagen was called the greatest woman of her generation by German historian Leopold von Ranke. To this day she appears on lists of ground-breaking historical figures – among the most important purveyors of the German Romantic movement and of the Enlightenment, an icon of the struggle for equal rights for women, and also someone who contributed to the advancement of the status and rights of Jews.

Varnhagen wasn’t the only Jewish woman who enjoyed such a standing at that time: Two of her best friends, Henriette Herz and Dorothea Schlegel, held their own literary salons, occupying a similarly impressive position in cultural and intellectual life as well. These women shunned their traditional roles and lived full and tempestuous lives, garnering respect and recognition; they wrote and made a name for themselves and they were trendsetters as well.

The names of these three women are far from being unknown in Germany, yet remain quite unfamiliar to the public in Israel. Now a new historical novel called “The Salon” (Sifrei Niv; in Hebrew), by Michal Zohar Ben-Dor, aims to bring the lives of these women to light in Israel as well.

Rahel Varnhagen von Ense. Her conversion to Christianity, and that of Herz and Schlegel, was seen as one step too far – leading to their almost complete effacement from Jewish history.Credit: No credit

“I encountered her name by chance in [Israeli author] Amos Eilon’s book ‘The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933,'” relates Zohar Ben-Dor, referring to Varnhagan. “He wrote about German Jews from the point at which Moses Mendelssohn (the German Jewish philosopher and a founder of the Jewish Enlightenment) was accepted into German society, up to the days of Hitler, devoting some space to the women of the cultural salons. On one hand, Jewish women had no rights – Jews in general had none – but the salons of these particular women flourished and prospered. It was wondrous.”

“The Salon” spotlights Varnhagen and her close friendship with Brendel Mendelssohn – the oldest daughter of Moses Mendelssohn, who later changed her first name, married (twice) and became the well-know writer Dorothea Schlegel – and with linguist and literary scholar Henriette Herz, née de Lemos. Zohar Ben-Dor devotes many pages to the emergence of this marvelous phenomenon.

Hard-to-repair rift

In class-stratified Germany, at that time, most Jews lived in an Orthodox ghetto. Only a small fraction of educated individuals and intellectuals, members of the academic and business worlds, emerged from that ghetto to mingle in the surrounding society. They provided a classical education to their daughters at home, but those women later rebelled against the traditional homemaking and wifely roles they were expected to assume. The manner in which this transpired, and the partners and lifestyles they chose, caused them to be cut off by their Jewish community – a rift that's hard to repair even after centuries.

“In the traditional world women didn’t write,” explains Rachel Elior, professor of Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “We have not even one book written in Hebrew, from the time of the prophetess Deborah until early 20th-century writer Deborah Baron. There was nothing written in Hebrew or published. Men studied and women didn’t; men were busy with an intellectual and creative life, while women were occupied with the home and raising children.

"We have a total gap but then here, in 18th-century Berlin, things changed. At the end of the 18th century, the world started embracing ideas of enlightenment, equality and emancipation, and the Jews of Berlin benefited from these ideas. A stratum of Jews arose, enjoying what Berlin had to offer on the outside, while maintaining their traditions at home. Within this group arose a group of women who wanted to integrate into the general culture.”

For her part, says Zohar Ben-Dor, "that dissonance that attracted me. The life of Rahel Varnhagen was fascinating, and throughout it she felt that the fact that she’d been born Jewish destroyed her life. She was an intellectual, an interesting conversationalist, but she couldn’t attend a university or advance. She could only get married. I felt that with this book I was once again giving these women a voice.”

New names and religion

Rahel Levin was born on May 19, 1871, the eldest daughter of banker and trader Marcus Levin and his wife Chaya, a Jewish woman who lacked refinement and knowledge of etiquette; she was illiterate, as was common in those days.

Rahel's father was distant and strict, and she grew up alienated from him and her Jewish background, defying the lifestyle imposed on her. She began to create her own literary salon at a young age, in the footsteps of those established by her two older, good friends. After her father died, she assumed a new surname, Robert, and refused to marry, although she did have some failed romantic relationships.

In the second decade of the 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars, she organized a welfare project for wounded soldiers and for the relatives of war victims. Earlier, she had published her correspondence with the diplomat Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, which dealt with the works of Goethe, thus helping to consolidate the latter’s lofty status. Several years later, at age 43, she converted and married Varnhagen. She continued to publish her work under a pen name.

Dorothea Schlegel. For her and her two friends, "the salon as a venue for expressing opinions. It was an alternate arena in which they could function as intellectuals."Credit: No credit

The new book also describes the life of her close friend Brendel Mendelssohn, who submitted to her father’s wishes and married the merchant and banker Simon Veit. Her married life was miserable and rife with tragedy, leading her to change her name to Dorothea and to have an affair with a young writer named Friedrich Schlegel. This led to a divorce, conversion to Catholicism and marriage to Schlegel. That situation allowed her to publish, under his name, translations of works that she did from French to German, as well as a book called "Florentin," published anonymously by Schlegel, and other writings.

Henriette Herz, the third arm of the triangle described in Zohar Ben-Dor's book, was the first to hold literary soirees, which began as gatherings of women that focused on culture and literature. The salons were held in parallel to a forum presided over by her husband, physician Marcus Herz, who died when she was 53.

Due to her desire to work and integrate into greater German society, and influenced by her friendship with theologian and preacher Friedrich Schleiermacher, she converted to Protestantism.

Subjects of criticism

These three women, and a smattering of others, were the harbingers of the trend toward more sophisticated education and artistic creativity among Jewish women during their lifetimes and afterward. Indeed, the first official school for Jewish women was opened in Krakow a century later, in 1917.

This trio of educated women was the subject of much criticism for their perceived lack of Jewishness, and their conversion to Christianity was seen as one step too far – leading to their almost complete erasure from Jewish history for centuries. In fact, says Prof. Elior, until the winter of 1980, when an article on the topic by Israeli poet-journalist Nurit Kahana was published, nothing had been written about the three women in question in Hebrew. After Kahana's piece there was another article by Emmy Lubinsky, and in 2013, an in-depth study on them was published by Dr. Natalie Naimark-Goldberg of Bar-Ilan University. But, to this day, few people in Israel know about these women.

Author Michal Zohar Ben-Dor. "Jewish women, and Jews in general, had no rights but the salons of these particular women flourished and prospered. It was wondrous.”Credit: Gal Zahavi

Elior: “Zvi Graetz, among the greatest Jewish historians, called these women sinners because they decided to leave traditional frameworks and convert. There was no religious interest in these conversions, only a wish to integrate. [As Jews] they were not formally allowed to integrate into German society, so they converted without adhering to a Christian way of life. In the traditional Jewish world, this was received very badly.

"They enabled exposure to German cultural life among wide circles, and this was unprecedented. It was the first time Jews and Christians sat together [in a salon setting]. It ended up with Jews converting, since being on equal terms with others was not possible otherwise. Graetz wiped them out.

“We live in Israel, for us Christianity is not a threat. But there, it posed a problem. Christianity persecuted Jews, on one hand, while on the other hand it was something beautiful, cultured with its wonderful architecture and art. Conversion was a formality [in the case of these women], but for anyone fighting to retain their identity, it was treason.”

“Some 6,000 letters were left behind by these women, but historians who wrote about them never even opened them," Naimark-Goldberg relates. “When I read what they [the women] left behind it did not resemble what was written about them until then – as if they’d established their salons in order to find husbands and join German society. It was said that they were frivolous women, unintelligent. But I read something quite different.

"The Salon," by Michal Zohar Ben-DorCredit: Cover design by Elinor Nhaissi

"They knew how to discern the injustice associated with their being women. They viewed the salon as a venue for expressing their opinions, for studying. It was an alternate arena in which the three of them could function as intellectuals.”

But they converted in order to marry, and that is apparently the main reason they are absent from Jewish history.

Naimark-Goldberg: “Rahel Levin converted at the age of 43. For 43 years she lived in peace as a Jew. There is a quote from before her death, where she says that Judaism was a stab in her heart. That was the only one of her quotes – not written by her, but which her non-Jewish husband cited as something she had said. Most of these women did not convert out of religious conviction.

"Even Dorothea Mendelssohn did so only after years of living with her partner. Years after Rahel had converted, she corresponded with her brother and wrote about Jews who were suffering from pogroms. She did not lose touch with her religion and did not convert out of any attraction to the Christian religion.”

For her part, Elior notes, "the women of these salons are an important chapter in feminist history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, they were rare and significant. Their diaries and correspondence are fascinating and important. They were full of inspiration, but no one taught about them here [in Israel], or about Heine, the most important German poet, who was a Jew who converted. The community cut itself off from anyone who converted. Jewish women who converted were totally ignored in Israel’s school system.”

Zohar Ben-Dor concludes: “History was written by men, and when some studies and books did look at Rahel, they mainly mentioned how her assistance to Goethe helped his career take off. This book is a voice I wanted to give her and her friends. Each one of them broke out of their framework, paying a heavy price for doing so. They were unwilling to stray from the path they believed was the right one for them.”

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