Blog, Blog and News, Women's History

Radical Jewish Women: Nina Salaman (1877-1925)

Jewish Museum London is proud to be collaborating with the Women’s History Network on a Radical Women series, focusing on the lives of Jewish women who have made a significant impact, not only within the Jewish Community in Britain, but to British society.

Up until relatively recently, many museums have been guilty of focusing exhibitions, collecting practices and research on telling the stories of  prominent men, and the Jewish Museum has not been an exception. Seeking to address and fundamentally change this changes the ways we collect objects, how we conduct our research, and what we choose to exhibit. Our mission states that we aim to surprise, delight and engage all people, irrespective of background and faith, in the history, identity and culture of Jews in Britain. But how can we do this by omitting the history and stories from half of the Jewish population in Britain?

Jewish women throughout history have made radical changes to British society, but many of their achievements have been omitted and overshadowed by the achievements of men. We aim to re-write the narrative and showcase some of the amazing achievements that Jewish women have made, not only in their own community, but to British society as a whole. An action is made radical by the fact that it fundamentally changes the nature of something. The radical actions of these women opened up opportunities for women and in doing so, had a dramatic impact on the position of women in society.[1]

Nina Salaman (1877-1925) is an excellent example of this. Nina’s portrait is hung on our stairwell in between our Judaism Gallery and our History Gallery. She occupies this space between religious items and social history as she has had a dual impact on both the scholarship of Hebrew texts and the advancement of women’s roles in education and in the Jewish Community.

Born Pauline Ruth Davis in the year 1877, Salaman is best known for being a well-regarded Hebraist at a time where Hebrew scholarship in Britain was not common, nor an academic pursuit that welcomed women. At the time, most translations of Hebrew were focused on religious texts, but Salaman sought to expand her scholarship to translate secular Hebrew Literature. Besides her Hebrew translations, she published critical and historical essays, book reviews, her own poetry and an anthology of Hebrew reading for children.

Her father’s family were originally from Bavaria, immigrating to Britain and settling in Derby in 1843.[2] He invested in his daughters’ education, teaching them Hebrew every day until the age of eighteen. Nina began publishing her translations in the Anglo-Jewish press at age seventeen and later contributed to her father’s work on the Machzor, a prayer book used by Jews on the High Holy Days.[3] Nina’s reputation gained prominence within the community, earning accolades from Israel Zangwill. Israel Zangwill was a British author and playwright, who rose to prominence with writings such as Children of the Ghetto and The Melting Pot. Zangwill worked with Salaman and introduced her to other well-known people, such as Judge Mayer Sulzberger, a central figure in the Jewish Publication Society of America, who published her Songs of Exile by Hebrew Poets in 1901. Further, Israel Abrahams, one of the most distinguished Jewish scholars of his time, met with her regularly in Cambridge and regarded her as superior in translations of difficult texts.In 1918, she was appointed to the council of the Jewish Historical Society of England.[4]

In 1901, she married the physician Redcliffe Nathan Salaman and together they had six children. After some time in Berlin and London, they settled in Hertfordshire. She supervised the education of both her male and female children, when traditionally the role of educating sons, especially in religious texts, fell to the father. She taught her sons to read Hebrew before she taught them to read English.[5]

 

When living in Cambridge whilst her husband was serving in the War, Salaman became more focused on contributing to the local Jewish community. On 5 December 1919, she became the first – and only – woman to preach in an Orthodox synagogue in Great Britain when she spoke on the weekly portion, the weekly liturgy read during Jewish prayer services, (the story of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel) to the Cambridge Hebrew Congregation, a traditional synagogue but one that was independent of the authority of the Chief Rabbi.[6] This would have been extremely controversial at the time, when women were only permitted to be involved on the fringes of worship in the synagogue.

Salaman felt that if Judaism was to survive and flourish in England Jewish girls must gain ‘a fundamental understanding of the form and spirit of the Hebrew language’. Girls were central to this project because when they became mothers they would be in a position to impart to their children a knowledge of the Hebrew language and a feeling for Judaism.[7] She made it her mission to encourage young Jewish girls to study Hebrew and have a more active role in Jewish life and academia.

However, her advocacy for the advancement of women did not stop within her own community. Alongside her husband, she served as a vice-president of the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage.[8] In 1912 she accompanied Israel Zangwill when he spoke to a suffrage meeting and sat on the platform along with other notables,[9] and she was part of a small delegation from the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage to the Chief Rabbi in July 1913 to see whether they could count on his support.[10]

Salaman was a pioneer for girls’ education and furthered the academic study of Hebrew gaining prominence in her field. She was both traditional and progressive, forming both an identity within her religion but also shifting the perceptions of where a woman’s place should be within the Jewish Community. She was a pioneer in the pursuit of academia, and is a figure that we at the Jewish Museum are proud to showcase as we start a Radical Jewish Women series with the Women’s History Network.

Helen Atkinson has a Master’s Degree in Modern History from King’s College London where she specialised in anti-suffrage agitation in Wales. Helen is currently working as the Operations Manager at the Jewish Museum London.

The Jewish Museum London’s mission is to surprise, delight and engage all people, irrespective of background and faith, in the history, identity and culture of Jews in Britain. Our exhibitions, events and learning programmes encourage a sense of discovery and aim to provoke questions, challenge prejudice, and encourage understanding.

[1] https://jewishmuseum.org.uk/2017/03/08/radical-women/

[2] Todd Endelman,’ Surreptitious rebel- Nina Davis Salaman’, Jeremy Shonfield (ed.), Report of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies (2014), p. 58.

[3] Ibid. pp. 59-60.

[4] NDS to RNS, 26 Dec. 1918, RNSP, CUL Add. MS 8171, Wedderburn Deposit.

[5] NDS, diaries, vol. 1, Oct. 1906, in possession of Jenny Salaman Manson, London.

[6] Todd Endelman,’ Surreptitious rebel- Nina Davis Salaman’, Jeremy Shonfield (ed.), Report of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies (2014), p. 69

[7] Ibid.

[8] First Annual Report of the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage, 1913–1914 (London, 1914)

[9] NDS to RNS, 16 May 1912, RNSP, CUL Add. MS 8171, Wedderburn Deposit.

[10] Todd Endelman,’ Surreptitious rebel- Nina Davis Salaman’, Jeremy Shonfield (ed.), Report of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies (2014), p. 71.

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