Off the Shelf: Exploring history from two points of view

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When researching a prominent family’s history, what particular aspects of their lives should a historian explore? That depends, of course, on a researcher/writer’s particular interest, although in the past that focus was often limited. For example, politics and warfare, rather than everyday life, were generally thought to be a historian’s purview. This was particularly true when dealing with business dynasties. What made them interesting was how they obtained and held or lost their fortunes. In contemporary times, some historians, though, have focused on other aspects of the families’ lives, for example, what we can learn from those members (usually meaning women) who were not involved in the business. 

There is no one correct way to approach history: in fact, some historians blend both approaches in their works because there is often overlap. It can be difficult to understand a person’s motivation without considering the funds available to them, just as it can be necessary to understand the personal considerations of someone making a business deal. Two recent books focus on different aspects of two wealthy Jewish families: “The Women of Rothschild: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Famous Dynasty” by Natalie Livingstone (St. Martin’s Press) explores the usually ignored female members of the family, while Joseph Sassoon’s “The Sassoons: The Great Merchants and the Making of an Empire” (Pantheon Books) details the rise and fall of the Sassoons’ business empire.

Livingstone begins by outlining how Mayer Amschel Rothschild’s bank dynasty began in Frankfurt, Germany, in the mid-1880s and expanded by establishing banks in Paris, Vienna, Naples and London. When Mayer died, one part of his will focused on his daughters and daughters-in-law: female members of his family or the wives of male members were forbidden to work for, or take any part in, the business. Although it’s clear that some men did talk to their wives about the decisions they made, the women of the family could not have any formal role in the industry that provided their income. Some of these women did forge their own paths outside the business, and there doesn’t seem be to any open rebellion against the family’s demands or the institutions founded by the family. In her work, Livingstone explores the lives of 15 Rothschild women, focusing mostly on those who belonged to the British branch of the family. 

The sheer amount of detail makes it difficult to generalize about the women. Those in England not only had to deal with the family’s emphasis on its male members, they were Jewish in a Christian society. It’s clear that, while there were no physical attacks, British society did not always welcome them. In the first few generations, those who married out were not welcome at family gatherings. Many marriages were made for financial reasons: marrying within the family helped not only to keep the money close, but created greater loyalty.

The stories of women in the 20th century were the most interesting, particularly that of Miriam Rothschild. Although Miriam had little formal education, she became one of Britain’s major naturalists, publishing books on several subjects, including those on the fleas that are part of the Rothschild Collection at the British Museum. She also worked as a translator at Bletchley Park during World War II; even decades later, she generally refused to discuss her work there. 
However, most of these women’s stories offer something of interest, making “The Women of Rothschild” a wonderful source for writers of historical fiction looking for inspiration. There are times when it was difficult to remember the details of a particular woman, something not helped by the fact that many of them had the same or similar names. Fortunately, there is a family tree, although it’s being spread over six pages makes it a bit cumbersome to use. However, these are quibbles: “The Women of Rothschild” is an important work of Jewish and women’s history.

While Livingstone focuses more on Rothschild individuals than the family business, Sassoon (who is a member of a distant branch of the family) doesn’t completely ignore some of the more interesting personalities in the Sassoon family. However, his main focus is on the business: he includes great details on the different aspects of the family’s empire, including listings of the cost of the different products the company traded in. Although the family was originally located in Baghdad, Sheikh Sassoon ben Saleh escaped due to political upheaval that targeted him and his family. The family settled in Bombay, India, but Sheikh Sassoon soon began sending his many sons to other countries to help facilitate trade. His son, David, continued this tradition with his many sons by two wives. Although the family generally worked together, one of David’s sons, Elias, broke away to form his own business.

Both Sassoon businesses focused on trade, particularly that of opium and textiles. The author lists many specific business transactions to show how these products changed from the 18th to the 20th century. Also under discussion is the family’s trade in opium, considered the most controversial part of their business, at least in contemporary times. However, the author makes it clear the opium was not illegal when the family and others traded in it, although these businessmen were partly responsible for its spread, particularly to China. Unfortunately, the family didn’t respond to changes in the times, something that often left the business in inept hands. Even worse, younger members of the family were not interested in finance or trade, another reason the company finally died. That’s particularly true of members of the family who lived in England and preferred a life of leisure. According to the author, what finally killed the company was Anglicization, meaning that the Sassoons wanted to act like other members of the British upper crust, rather than Jewish businessmen.

At first, there were marriages within the different branches of the family, in addition to those to outsiders that offered financial benefits. These included marriages to members of the Rothschild family. However, as time passed, intermarriages with the British allowed most of the Sassoons to divorce themselves from their Jewish origins. The book includes a two-page family tree, which was helpful, as were the smaller versions of that tree featured at the start of each chapter. This work will appeal to those most interested in the Sassoon business and who are willing to read about the many business transactions. Those looking for information about personalities will find some, but not as many as in Livingstone’s book.