A remarkable Jewish family — Jewish Renaissance

The poet dominated the show’s last room, which featured a draft of his 1917 protest letter, A Soldier’s Declaration, decrying World War I as misguided – an act that landed him in Craiglockhart, a military psychiatric hospital, where he became one of the first English patients to undergo Sigmund Freud’s ‘talking cure’. His late-in-life conversion to Catholicism would seem to be yet another instance of the family’s protracted dissipation. An equally telling example was the 1978 decision by the descendants of bibliophile David Solomon Sassoon (grandson of the other David) to sell the Codex Sassoon, a millennium-old Hebrew Bible that is the earliest most complete version still in existence, to the British Rail pension fund. In 2023, the volume was purchased by the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv for $38.1 million.

The decline of the Sassoons (compared to, say, the Rothschilds) lay in the foundational enterprise of opium trading. Banking, the Rothschilds’ legacy, remains an intrinsic part of the modern everyday, whereas opium no longer retains the romantic aura it harboured throughout the 1800s. As French banker Edmond James de Rothschild supposedly confided to a visitor before a collection of splendid objet d’art during a private tour of the family château outside Paris: “Ah, the 19th century – that’s when you really could make money.”

By Richard A Kaye

Photos: Installation view of The Sassoons at the Jewish Museum New York, 2023 © Kris Graves / courtesy of the Jewish Museum, NY

For more on the Sassoons, check out the accompanying book to the exhibition, The Sassoons by Esther da Costa Meyer and Claudia J Nahson (Yale University Press, 2023, £45).

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