Blog Series, Parkes Questionnaire

Angelina Palmén: Berlin Jews, Business, and Bourgeois Feminism 1890-1914: Commerce and the Making of a Cultural Moment? (Jewish Culture and History)

This questionnaire spotlights research on Jewish/non-Jewish relations, hoping to build connections and engage with current academic debate. Angelina Palmén‘s article ‘Berlin Jews, Business, and Bourgeois Feminism 1890-1914: Commerce and the Making of a Cultural Moment?‘ is published in Jewish Culture and History.

  1. How would you summarise your article?

My article focuses on the period from around 1890 to the beginning of the First World War as a historical “moment” or cultural shift which (temporarily) placed women and women’s issues at the centre of western/European culture as well as social and political discourses. As I focus in on this particular aspect of what was happening in Europe at the time, I show how this moment extended beyond the activities of the first organised women’s movement – which was a ground-breaking development – and beyond parliamentary or sociological debates on the Woman Question, into the commercial sphere. My case study is the Jewish-owned department store Kaufhaus N. Israel in Imperial Berlin. The company published a series of illustrated albums for public consumption, some of which, I argue, promoted contemporary feminist ideas and progressive ideals of femininity. I suggest how these publications emerged from pre-existing associations of the department store with the female sex (i.e., a visibly female workforce and consumer base), and how they took inspiration from American and British department stores that endorsed suffragism. But, importantly, I also point to how they were shaped by the liberal, cosmopolitan Jewish context of the Berlin fashion trade.

2. How can we draw out themes from your research that are relevant today

I think the question about the pairing of social/political/ethical causes with commercial business is extremely relevant in today’s world. It is interesting to look at different kinds of companies and how they would navigate this relationship, for example, in a historical context, whether Jewish difference mattered, either in the way companies/company owners perceived themselves and their activities or in the way they or their companies were perceived by the wider public/consumers. My research also highlights the synergy that existed from the early days of European consumer economies and major social justice movements (in my case, the women’s movement), between commercial companies and these ideological/ideational causes – and also the tensions that were there from the beginning. I think the situation with the Pride movement today is perhaps in some ways comparable to that of the European women’s movement in the early twentieth century, in terms of the extent to which the cause has/had gained visibility and momentum and made gains in some areas but not all. Similarly, it’s an example we’re familiar with – the rainbow flag on different kinds of merchandise and company logos, creating awareness but also raising criticism about this type of “rainbow capitalism,” which some argue exploits (and distorts) the cause. In the first decade of the twentieth century, companies were already using the colours and slogans of the British suffragette movement to sell commodities (not N. Israel, though). I add to this picture by focusing on the Berlin fashion trade and in raising questions about the role of ethnic entrepreneurship and Jewish identities (alongside class and gender) in shaping company responses in this given context.

3. Has your research changed your view of Jewish/non-Jewish relations? 

Surprisingly little of my work has actually focused on social interactions between Jews and non-Jews; my sources have taken me in a different direction. That said, I have increasingly started to think about the metaphorical “marketplace” as a place of inclusion and exclusion (Gideon Reuveni has theorised a fair bit around this topic, as you can read in his contribution to the same special issue as my article). There was a prominent lobby of Imperial German Jews that believed in the market economy as a sort of insurance of Jewish rights; this idea that political emancipation alone could not ensure Jewish safety and success but that it needed to be paired with the liberal economy, as a “neutral” force, independent of the state. Jewish entrepreneurs often clustered in certain fields, and the Berlin ready-made fashion trade was one such Jewish enclave, or “safe haven,” if you will. When we add the lens of gender into this picture, it becomes rather more interesting. Jewish women tended to be middle-class and were less likely than non-Jewish women to work for pay– they were therefore also more likely to experience and participate in the “marketplace” as consumers, not producers (even though more and more middle-class Jewish women were taking up employment). At the same time, most of the majority female workforce in the fashion industry at least, was non-Jewish. This means that there were clear limits already at the time to how “inclusive” the marketplace really was, if we consider factors of class and gender. In the Hitler-era, it became tragically clear, of course, that the economic activities of Jews could not protect them either – although, I should say, that Jewish business networks and wealth generated through Jewish firms did offer routes of escape, as seen very clearly in the case of Kaufhaus N. Israel. The department store became the nerve centre and financer for a massive Jewish rescue operation by the last director Wilfrid Israel, which his biographer Naomi Shepherd brings to life so beautifully. 

4. Is there anything that was left on the cutting room floor from your article that you’d like to share?

There’s a curious anecdote in Naomi Shepherd’s book on Wilfrid Israel that I didn’t include and don’t really know what to make of. Amy Israel (née Solomon), who was the British wife of Berthold Israel, the director of the N. Israel company for most of the Imperial period, apparently had her own boutique on the ground floor of the department store. I haven’t come across any more references to this shop; very few company records have survived the Second World War and there are few, if any, living descendants of the Israel family alive today to tell the tale. In any case, Shepherd’s extensive interviews revealed that Amy’s boutique went on for several years, even though that it was apparently full of tasteless “theatrical kitsch” and a financial drain on the N. Israel company. It would be so interesting to know more about Amy, about the internal dynamic of the family, and about how this peculiar business arrangement worked in practice. Would customers see Amy Israel behind the counter? Was her boutique really such a failure or did her husband just not “get” what she was doing? Why was it so important for Amy to be involved in this way? I have so many questions. 

The Israel family at the wedding of Viva Israel c. 1914. Bottom row, from left: Berthold Israel and Amy Israel. Top row, from left: Herbert Israel, (unknown female), Viva Israel (bride), George Prins (groom), Wilfrid Israel, (unknown female). Personal collection of Henry Myer, from Naomi Shepherd. 1984 (2017). Wilfrid Israel: German Jewry’s Secret Ambassador (London: Halban Publishers). 

5. Please recommend one film/book/piece of music or any other form of media that feels relevant to your research or your understanding of Jewish/non-Jewish relations!

It would have to be the artwork of DESSA (Deborah Petroz-Abeles), which deals directly with the N. Israel albums. The albums put a great emphasis on the visual and artistic; their (mostly photographic) pictures are very prominent and sometimes arranged in an eye-catching, avant-garde fashion using a collage technique. I’ve focused in one of my earlier articles on how the N. Israel company is creating its own narrative through these pictures, through selecting, cutting, and arranging them, ultimately submerging the reader in a whole new visual universe. DESSA’s work deals with the memory of Kaufhaus N. Israel and Berlin as historical home to both Jews and non-Jews, paying in this way tribute to a now lost world. She demonstrates how the N. Israel albums continue to speak, as she creates her own visual narrative that honours the tradition of the N. Israel collages while reimagining them. Her website has samples from all of her artistic projects, several of which reference N. Israel.

’Hygiene of Beauty,’ 2001. Copyright DESSA (Deborah Petroz-Abeles).
‘Hope for the 20th Century,’ 2002. Copyright DESSA (Deborah Petroz-Abeles).

Angelina Palmén is a DPhil candidate in Modern Jewish History at the University of Oxford. Her thesis examines the promotion of feminism and women’s rights by companies in the Berlin industry for ready-made fashion and their mostly Jewish owners and directors 1890–1914. Palmén has been a graduate fellow at the New York Center for Jewish History in 2021–22 and has previously held fellowships with the German Academic Scholarship Foundation and the Posen Society of Fellows.

Jewish History and Culture is edited by Professor Joachim Schlör and published with Routledge, Taylor and Francis. It is an inter-disciplinary journal which brings together the best of current research in Jewish social history with innovative work in Jewish cultural studies. The journal includes cutting-edge research by younger scholars as well as established specialists, and reviews of recent publications. The journal explores previously neglected areas of the Jewish experience from a range of different perspectives including Jewish popular culture, social and political history, literary and cultural representation of Jews, and the global contexts of Jewish culture and history. Several issues have been published as a book, and include topics such as Jewish Migration and the Archive, Jewish Diplomacy and Welfare, Jewish Cultural Heritage, Jews on the Celtic Fringes, The Interface between Contemporary British Black and Jewish Cultures, and Jews: Movement, Migration, Location.

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