Nina Ruth Davis Salaman
1877 – 1925
Nina Salaman was a well-regarded Hebraist, known especially for her translations of medieval Hebrew poetry, at a time when Jewish scholarship in Europe was a male preserve. In addition to her translations, she published historical and critical essays, book reviews, and an anthology of Jewish readings for children, as well as poetry of her own.
Nina Ruth Davis Salaman was born on July 15, 1877, in Derby in England’s industrial heartland, to Arthur and Louisa (Jonas) Davis. Her father’s family were precision instrument makers (telescopes, opera glasses, miners’ lamps) and had lived in England since the early nineteenth century. When she was six weeks old, the family moved to London, settling first in Kilburn and then later in Bayswater. Although not an observant Jew by birth (there were few Jews and no synagogue in Derby), Arthur Davis embraced Orthodoxy and, having mastered the Hebrew language, devoted his leisure to Jewish scholarship. In 1892, he published a study of the neginot (cantillation marks) in the Masoretic text of the Bible, and in the next decade, working with Herbert Adler (1876–1940), a lawyer and nephew of Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler (1839–1911), prepared what became the standard British edition and translation of the mahzor (festival prayer book). He transmitted his enthusiasm for Hebrew to his daughter Nina and, most unusually, gave her and her older sister, Elsie, an intensive Hebrew education, personally teaching them every day. While still in her teens, Nina began publishing translations of medieval Hebrew poetry in the Anglo-Jewish press. She also contributed to her father’s edition of the mahzor. Israel Zangwill (1864–1926), the best known Jewish writer in the English-speaking world at the time and, like her father, a member of the Kilburn Wanderers (the circle that formed around Solomon Schechter (1847–1915) in the 1880s), encouraged her and provided her with an introduction to Judge Mayer Sulzberger (1843–1923), a central figure in the Jewish Publication Society of America, which published her collection Songs of Exile by Hebrew Poets in 1901.
On October 23, 1901, Nina married Redcliffe Nathan Salaman (1874–1955), a physician whom she had met four months earlier at the New West End Synagogue. (It was, literally, love at first sight —they were engaged only ten days after setting eyes on each other.) After living in Berlin for several months, while Redcliffe completed advanced training in pathology, they returned to London, where he assumed the directorship of the Pathological Institute at the London Hospital. However, tuberculosis forced him to leave medicine, and after three months of recuperation in Switzerland, he and Nina settled in the country, in the village of Barley in Hertfordshire. Family money (ostrich feathers and London real estate) having relieved him of the need to earn a living, they lived comfortably with their six children (one of whom died in childhood) and numerous servants in a thirty-room country house. Nina Salaman continued to pursue her interest in medieval Hebrew poetry, while at the same time supervising her children’s education, overseeing nannies, tutors, and servants, and, as the local squire’s wife, entertaining the vicar, hosting garden parties, and helping the village poor. Despite Barley’s distance from London, she maintained a kosher home (a matter of greater concern to her than to her husband) and Sabbath observance. For the festivals, the family traveled to London, where they stayed with one of Redcliffe’s numerous siblings and worshipped at the New West End Synagogue. She took personal responsibility for the Hebrew education of her children until they left for boarding school, especially that of her eldest son Myer, who she hoped would become a rabbi.
Barley’s proximity to Cambridge brought Salaman into close contact with Israel Abrahams (1858–1924), reader in rabbinics at the university since 1902 and, like Zangwill and her father, one of the Kilburn Wanderers. She met with him frequently in Cambridge—he regarded her as his superior in reading medieval Hebrew poetry—and occasionally left her boys in his care (he would give them Hebrew lessons and show them around the university’s museums) while she worked in the university library. In 1916, the Jewish Publication Society of America invited her to translate the poetry of Judah Halevi (before 1075–1141) for its Schiff Library of Jewish Classics. She was preparing the Halevi volume at the same time as Israel Zangwill was working on a volume of Solomon ibn Gabirol’s (c. 1020–c. 1057) religious poems for the same series and they frequently compared notes and critiqued each other’s work. She submitted the manuscript in 1922 but it did not appear until late 1924, a few months before her death.
Despite her attachment to Jewish tradition, Salaman was not a traditionalist when it came to the position of women. Like Zangwill and her sisters-in-law Isabelle Salaman Davis and Jennie Salaman Cohen, she was active in the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage, which campaigned not only to win the vote for women but to improve the status of women in the Jewish community, including the right of women seat-holders to vote in synagogue elections. She was particularly concerned that Jewish women become literate in Hebrew. Because they spent more time with their children than their husbands did, she believed that they were in a better position to influence their children’s feelings toward Judaism and thus Judaism’s future. Although her views were not radical, her behavior was quietly subversive of traditional gender roles. Her lectures and publications shattered what had been a male monopoly on Jewish scholarship in Britain. More daringly, on Friday evening, December 5, 1919, she became the first—and only—woman to preach in an Orthodox synagogue in Britain when she spoke on the weekly portion to the Cambridge Hebrew Congregation. The event caused a stir even outside the Jewish community, The Times remarking that on this question Judaism was in advance of Christianity. When asked whether Jewish law permitted women to speak from the pulpit, Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz (1872–1946) neatly sidestepped the controversy. He declared that since Salaman did not enter the pulpit until after the concluding prayer she did not preach during the service and thus she did not preach in the synagogue, since at that moment it was not being used for religious worship.
Like her husband, Salaman was a passionate Jewish nationalist. In 1916, she published one of the first English translations of the Zionist anthem “Ha-Tikvah” and later wrote the marching song for the Judeans, the Jewish regiment that took part in the British conquest of Palestine at the end of World War I. To mark the issuance of the Balfour Declaration (November 2, 1917), she and her husband planted a new orchard in the meadow of their Hertfordshire home, naming it “The Jerusalem Orchard.”
Nina Salaman died on February 22, 1925, her life cut tragically short by cancer. Her funeral took place on February 25, Rosh Hodesh Adar. It is customary to omit the funeral sermon on rosh hodesh, except in the case of an eminent scholar. The chief rabbi, accordingly, delivered a eulogy at her funeral.
Davis, Nina. trans., Songs of Exile by Hebrew Poets. Philadelphia: 1901; The Voices of the Rivers. Cambridge: 1910; “The Hebrew Poets as Historians,” Menorah Journal 5:5 (October 1919) and 6:1 (February 1920); Ed., Apples & Honey: A Gift-Book for Jewish Boys and Girls. London: 1921; “Ephraim Luzzatto (1729–1792),” Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England 9 (1922): 85–102; Songs of Many Days. London: 1923; Trans., Selected Poems of Jehudah Halevi, ed. Heinrich Brody. Philadelphia: 1924); Rahel Morpurgo and Contemporary Hebrew Poets in Italy, Sixth Arthur Davis Memorial Lecture, London: 1924.
Endelman, Todd M. “The Decline of the Anglo-Jewish Notable.” The European Legacy 4:6 (1999): 58–71; Loewe, Herbert M. “Nina Salaman, 1877–1925.” Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England 11 (1928): 228–232.