Category Archives: Writers & Thinkers

Jews in the Wonderful World of Literature, Thought, and Scholarship

Jews of the Week: Sybil, David Solomon, and James Meyer Sassoon

In honour of Jew of the Week’s 9th birthday this November, we will feature a month-long series on the Sassoon family, the “Rothschilds of the East”. This is the final Part 4. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

David Solomon Sassoon

David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942), the grandson of patriarch David Sassoon, was born in Bombay, India. He was deeply religious, and spent much of his life travelling in search of ancient and rare Jewish manuscripts. By 1932, he had amassed an incredible collection of over 1200 unique texts. He described them in his two-volume tome, Ohel David. Today, these works are an indispensable tool for scholars of Judaism. Unfortunately, many of the manuscripts were auctioned off in recent decades to pay off the Sassoon estate’s tax debts to the British government. Many others are stored at the University of Toronto, and some at the British Library.

Sybil Rachel Sassoon, the Marchioness of Cholmondeley

Sybil Rachel Betty Cecile Sassoon, the Marchioness of Cholmondeley (1894-1989), daughter of Edward Sassoon, she wished to assist the war effort during World War II, and joined the Women’s Royal Navy Service. She went on to serve as Superintendent of the Women’s Royal Navy Service, and a Chief Staff Officer. In 1946, she was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for her valiant service. Her great-grandson is actor Jack Huston.

Rachel Sassoon Beer (1858-1927), daughter of Sasson David Sassoon, married a wealthy German-English banker and converted to Christianity, for which her family disowned her. She started writing for The Observer, and eventually became its editor. (She later became editor of the Sunday Times, too.) It was Rachel who managed to secure a confession from Count Ferdinand Esterhazy that the “evidence” against Alfred Dreyfus was forged, and that Dreyfus was innocent. This led to Dreyfus’ release from prison. (And it was the Dreyfus Affair that was one of the key elements in inspiring Theodor Herzl.) Rachel left much of her wealth to her nephew, Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), a war hero and one of the most celebrated poets of World War I.

The Right Honourable James Mayer Sassoon, The Lord Sassoon

The son of another of Rachel’s nephews is James Meyer Sassoon (b. 1955), who was born in London and studied at Eton College, followed by Oxford University. After heading a number of investment firms, he joined the British Treasury in 2002. Five years later, he was appointed as president of the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering. Among his duties was combat financing for terrorists. He was knighted in 2008, and entered the House of Lords in 2010, taking on the title of Baron Sassoon. He also served as the first Commercial Secretary to the Treasury.

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Words of the Week

I prefer a wicked person who knows they are wicked, to a righteous person who knows they are righteous.
Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak of Lublin (c. 1745-1815)

Jew of the Week: Émile Durkheim

The Father of Sociology

Émile Durkheim

David Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) was born in the French region of Lorraine to Orthodox Jewish parents. His father and grandfather were both rabbis, and Durkheim spent his early years in yeshiva intent on becoming a rabbi as well. Eventually, he decided to switch his career path and break out on his own. He went off to study psychology and philosophy. At 21, on his third application attempt, he was accepted to ENS, the most prestigious graduate school in Paris. Durkheim wanted to apply what he learned to explain society and social behaviour. At the time, however, there were no sociology studies anywhere in France. In 1885 he moved to Germany to work alongside some of the first sociologists. Two years later, Durkheim’s papers had become famous across Europe, and he was invited back to France to teach sociology at the University of Bourdeaux. Durkheim taught the first social science course in French history, and was also asked to reform France’s school curriculum. Over the next few years, Durkheim published a series of manifestos outlining exactly what social science is, and why it is important. He showed how the scientific method could be rigorously applied to this new field, and how it was distinct from related subjects. In 1895, he established the first university social science department, and in 1898 founded the first sociology academic journal. For these reasons, Durkheim is often called the “father of sociology”. His work is also credited with pioneering the field of criminology, and influencing psychology and philosophy as well. In 1902, Durkheim was appointed Chair of Education at the world-famous Sorbonne, and later became the only professor whose courses were mandatory for all students. Meanwhile, he served as advisor to France’s Minister of Education. Unfortunately, World War I had a devastating effect on Durkheim. Right-wing nationalists attacked him for not being “patriotic” enough, for being too liberal, and for being Jewish. Worse, many of his students were conscripted and died in the trenches. The final tragedy was the death of his own son. Durkheim fell terribly ill, and ultimately died from a stroke. Despite abandoning formal religion in his youth, he argued that religion is the most important social institution, and the key to a well-functioning “organic” society. He worried greatly about the rising trend of science and the “cult of the individual” taking the place of religion. Durkheim coined the popular term “collective consciousness” (among many others), and was the founder of the school of structural functionalism. Durkheim’s work has influenced countless thinkers, and still serves as the foundation of sociology today.

Words of the Week

Religion gave birth to all that is essential in the society.
– Émile Durkheim