(JTA) — The Sassoon family is having a moment. The Baghdadi Jewish dynasty that made its fortune in trade across the Indian subcontinent and East Asia is the subject of the current exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York, titled “The Sassoons.” Joseph’s Sassoon’s book, “The Global Merchants: The Enterprise and Extravagance of the Sassoon Dynasty,” was published last year. Last month’s highly publicized auction of the Sassoon Codex for over $38 million focused attention on the Sassoon heir who once owned the 1,100-year-old Hebrew Bible. The Sassoon Family Archive at the National Library of Israel has been newly digitized.
The Sassoon dynasty is the epitome of the cosmopolitan transnational Jewish families I retrace in my book “Baghdadi Jewish Networks in the Age of Nationalism”: intrepid merchants who transcended empires, continents and cultures. Starting with David Sassoon (1792-1864), who left Baghdad in 1828, eventually settling in India, the Sassoon empire would, at its height, extend from China to England. The transnational networks they and their contemporaries established, tied together disparate Jewish communities and laid the foundation for present-day philanthropies dedicated to the plight of world Jewry.
The Sassoon family cannot be reduced to a stereotype of wealthy Jewish collectors who assimilated into European culture, nor can they be seen simply as “The Rothschilds of the East” — although they mingled with Rothschilds and held similar riches gained through business. They were their own phenomenon quite apart from the Rothschilds. Too often modern Jewish history is presented from an Ashkenormative (Eurocentric) perspective. Elevating the histories of families like the Sassoons and the communities who benefitted from their philanthropy, highlights the diversity and complexity of the modern Jewish experience.
The Jewish Museum exhibit is laden with dreamy family portraits by Thomas Gainsborough and John Singer Sargent and the 18th-century European art the family acquired. This might give the mistaken impression that the Sassoons abandoned Baghdad, adopted European social and cultural tastes and never looked back to the Middle East. Fortunately, this visual narrative is balanced by the manuscripts, marriage contracts and Judaica that speak to the family’s deep connections to the Middle East and their Jewishness. “The Sassoons” exhibit, with its comfortable and opulent objects, subtly raises awareness of the diversity of Jewish experience.
The late 19th and 20th century world of the Sassoons is, in short, a gateway to understanding the specifically dynamic transnational Jewish networks of modern Middle Eastern Jewish history. The exhibit offers hints of the Baghdadi heritage of the family and the cosmopolitan religious, business and philanthropic networks in which they participated. Examples include the beautiful silver tikim (Torah cases) and a haftarah scroll, both commissioned by Flora (in Arabic, Farha) Sassoon (1859-1936), who was born in India and later emigrated to England. Flora was admired for both her erudition and business acumen, and her commissions are vivid examples of her religiosity and her concomitant global network: The silver for the tikim was smithed in Shanghai and styled in a Middle Eastern motif; the scrolls were written by a sofer, or scribe, in Baghdad, and the whole Torah was assembled in her hometown of Mumbai. During Flora’s lifetime both Shanghai and Mumbai were important nodes in the Sassoon business empire, and as a result had small but flourishing Baghdadi Jewish communities beyond the Sassoon family itself.
Similarly, the manuscripts on display in the exhibit, many acquired by David Salomon Sassoon (1880-1942), Flora’s son, illustrate the family’s interests in multilingualism and their Jewish material heritage. David collected over 1,000 manuscripts, and many of the rarest pieces in his collection were acquired during his trips back to Iraq. His close connection to the Jewish community in Baghdad despite his birth in Mumbai and adulthood in Britain, his proficiency in Judeo-Arabic (that is, Arabic written in Hebrew script and inflected with Hebrew and Aramaic loan-words) and his fluency in Judeo-Baghdadi (the spoken dialect of Iraqi Jews) enabled the acquisition of these rare and varied manuscripts. While many of the pieces on display seem to speak to the”Europeanness” of the Sassoons, they also underscore that the Sassoons remained a part of Iraqi society, and that these two societies were not mutually exclusive.
The inclusion of a 1946 photograph (by Arthur Rothstein) of Jewish refugees reading a list of Holocaust survivors in the exhibit points to yet another critical role of the Sassoons as important philanthropists for Jewish transnational causes. By 1939 over 20,000 Jews fleeing Europe had found their way to one of the few locations that did not require a visa, Shanghai. Arriving with little means and few, if any, connections, they were welcomed by a well-established Baghdadi Jewish community for whom the Sassoons had been — throughout the 19th and 20th centuries — the primary contributors to Jewish life, endowing schools, synagogues, and charities there as they did across the Baghdadi diaspora and the Middle East itself.
Philanthropy and communal leadership are essential components of the Sassoon legacy, helping us see a broader community beyond the beautiful and durable objects which are easiest for curators to display and which attract visitors for their inherent qualities.
If you happen to be in New York before Aug. 13, visit the exhibit to luxuriate in the wonders of wealth and prestige which the Sassoon family possessed. While you are there, pay special attention to the dual cosmopolitan and communal approach to Jewish history that is exemplified by many of the pieces on display. View the many artifacts and documents as an invitation to explore the global cultural, economic and philanthropic contributions of Middle Eastern Jewry, an enduring and rich legacy of a remarkable family.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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