What’s Jewish About…the Gilded Age and the Sassoon Dynasty?
What's Jewish About...Opinion

What’s Jewish About…the Gilded Age and the Sassoon Dynasty?

One of the Richest Families in the World?

Robyn Spizman Gerson is a New York Times best-selling author of many books, including “When Words Matter Most.” She is also a communications professional and well-known media personality, having appeared often locally on “Atlanta and Company” and nationally on NBC’s “Today” show. For more information go to www.robynspizman.com.

Statue of David Sassoon, 1865, by Thomas Woolner, in the David Sassoon Library, Mumbai // Photo Credit: Helen Jackson
Statue of David Sassoon, 1865, by Thomas Woolner, in the David Sassoon Library, Mumbai // Photo Credit: Helen Jackson

In a conversation with Joseph Sassoon, a descendant of the Jewish Sassoon family dynasty and the author of “The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire,” we take a deep dive into one of the most fascinating stories of wealth, fortune, and downfall in Jewish history.  Joseph’s passion for discovery led him to an untapped trove of archival material about his extended family, and his ability to read in English, Arabic, and Hebrew led him to writing the history of the Sassoon ancestry. Joseph is a professor of history at Georgetown University.

The Magen David Synagogue in Byculla, Bombay, built by David Sassoon near his home // Photo Credit: Dinodia/Alamy

Tell us about the Baghdadi Sassoons of India and how they built an empire, family dynasty and became one of the richest families in the world?
It all started with David Sassoon who fled Baghdad in 1829 because of a conflict with the corrupt Ottoman governor of the province of Baghdad. From his new home in Bombay, David gradually started a trading business. Relying on his 14 children, he built a trading network in cotton, textiles, opium, tea and other commodities. By the time he died in 1864, the family enterprise was a global merchant with a meaningful market share, particularly in cotton and opium. David left a significant fortune for his children: £4 million (about $30 million), which would be roughly $500 million today, or $3 billion calculated by labor or income value.

How important was it for the Sassoons to be Jewish? Share how the founders and great-granddaughter, Flora (Farha Sassoon), who was the first CEO of the world in global business, celebrated their Jewish values?
David was profoundly attached to Judaism and was uncompromisingly observant of Jewish law and practice. He was a devoted student of the Talmud and insisted that all his sons had a thorough Jewish education. A few years before his death, David built a synagogue in the neighborhood where he resided. His great granddaughter, Farha, who Anglicized her name later to Flora, was extremely knowledgeable about Jewish texts and was fluent in seven languages. In 1924, she was the first woman to address the graduation of a seminar, of rabbis in London. She showed her tremendous knowledge of the Bible and the Talmud in her speech to the seminary.

Book jacket design by Madeline Partner

As a professor of history, what drove you to untap the archival treasure trove of history about your family? 
It all began with a letter sent to me by a Joseph Sassoon who was interested in our shared name and wanted to know if we were related. Conversations with him whetted my appetite and as a historian, what really tipped the balance was the discovery of a trove of untapped archival material containing thousands of documents dating from 1855 to 1949: everything from personal letters to account books and menus for dinner parties. Most of the business correspondence was written in Baghdadi-Jewish dialect using Hebrew characters to prevent outsiders from reading their letters.

When the Sassoons moved in the 19th century to England, the Sassoons were knighted. How did they become members of the British parliament? 
David’s eldest son, Abdallah, was knighted in 1872 and became Sir Albert, a title which was passed down through the generations. An extravagant party for more than 1,000 guests was held at his house in Bombay also to celebrate the new Viceroy of India. Later, Jacob, David’s grandson from Elias, was also knighted.

What happened in 1887 between the Sassoons and the banking empire of the Rothschilds? 
Marriages play an important role in consolidating business relations, strengthening political ambitions and providing an extra layer of security and diversification. One example was the marriage that tied the Sassoon and Rothschild families together. The wedding was of Albert’s second son, Edward, to Aline Caroline, daughter of Baron Gustave de Rothschild of Paris, on Oct. 19,1887. The ceremony was conducted by the Grand Rabbi of France and attended by 1,200 guests who were entertained at the reception by the Paris Opera chorus. The groom gave the bride a pearl necklace costing about $1,150,000 in today’s value.

Albert Sassoon, caricature by Spy (Leslie Ward) from Vanity Fair, 1879 // Photo Credit: Chronicle/Alamy

You also were born in Baghdad. How did your family escape from Baghdad in the 1970s to avoid Saddam Hussein’s regime? 
After the Six Day War in June 1967, life for Jews in Iraq grew increasingly untenable. The rise of the Ba‘ath Party a year later exacerbated the situation and public hangings of Jews followed in 1969. When we finally managed to escape a few years later, we left with nothing except for a small bag, closing the door not only on our property but on a land where my family had lived for centuries.

If we learn one thing from your family’s history, what do you want us to remember?
I hope our family’s legacy will be remembered as the capability of migrant families who left with nothing but managed to conquer the world through sheer hard work and determination.

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