Jewish Dynasties

August 1, 2023 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

Fans of multi-generational tales of Jewish families have three new non-fiction options, each fascinating: The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire by Joseph Sassoon; The Women of Rothschild: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Famous Dynasty by Natalie Livingstone; and Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty by Andrew Meier.

The Sassoons

Historian Joseph Sassoon tells the extraordinary tale of his Sassoon relatives. Around 1829, David Sassoon fled a hostile governor in Baghdad, a city where his family had prospered for centuries. He rapidly rebuilt his fortune in India and, with his sons, established mercantile hubs in China and England. The Sassoons soon dominated global commerce in cotton, tea, spices, silk, and other commodities, including opium.

Among many captivating characters, Farha Sassoon (1859-1936) stands out. When her husband, Suleiman Sassoon, died in India in 1894, Farha took over his duties managing the family’s Asian affairs. Farha, like her late husband, was a descendant of patriarch David Sassoon. The author believes she was “the first woman to run a global business in the nineteenth century.” Despite Farha’s proven competence, she was ousted by her male relatives after six years. She moved to England where she gained renown as a Jewish scholar and philanthropist.

The Rothschild Women

In his will, Rothschild patriarch Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) specifically excluded his daughters from participation in the Rothschild banking business. Nonetheless, down the generations, as author Natalie Livingstone shows, Rothschild women made their mark on both the family business and historical events – as indispensable advisors, influential hostesses, and political activists.

One intriguing piece of history unearthed by Livingstone concerns the role Rothschild women played in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which expressed the British government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Dolly Rothschild and Rózsika Rothschild (cousins-in-law) were early champions of Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann. They coached him on how to lobby for his cause, persuading him to tone down his bloody tales of brutal pogroms and more carefully consider, as Livingstone says, “what kind of story was suitable for the dinner table.”

The Rothschild women introduced Weizmann to key people within the Anglo-Jewish elite and the British government. Rózsika recruited her reclusive brother-in-law, Lord Walter Rothschild, to the Zionist campaign, and it was to Walter that Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour ultimately addressed the Declaration. The part played by the formidable female Rothschilds was largely forgotten.

The Morgenthaus

Andrew Meier begins his American epic, Morgenthau, with Lazarus Morgenthau, who emigrated with his family from Germany to New York in 1866. While Lazarus never achieved the success he sought, his descendants became important players in the events of their time.

Lazarus’s son, Henry Morgenthau (1856-1946), earned a fortune in real estate and became a vital contributor to and fundraiser for Woodrow Wilson’s presidential campaign. Wilson rewarded him with an ambassadorship to the Ottoman Empire. From that post, Morgenthau was among the first to warn of a brutal Ottoman campaign to “crush the Armenian race.”

Henry’s son, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. (1891-1967), served as Franklin Roosevelt’s longtime Treasury Secretary. Morgenthau expanded his portfolio to include setting up a War Refugee Board, credited with saving 200,000 Jews from the Holocaust.

Robert Morgenthau (1919-2019), son of Henry Jr., waged war on crime for more than four decades, first as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and later as the Manhattan District Attorney.

As with the Sassoon and Rothschild biographies, Morgenthau offers a fascinating prism through which to view the history in which successive generations of a family were immersed.