Grand Chutzpah

The English Rothschilds

by Richard Davis
University of North Carolina Press, 272 pp., $17.95

A Jewish landed aristocracy seems about as improbable as Bertie Wooster breakfasting on lox and bagels. But the Rothschilds, at their grandest, have been impeccable in breakfasts as in everything else. A famous piece of Rothschild lore has a butler asking a house guest whether he would prefer to take his morning tea with milk from the Jersey or the Guernsey herd.

At least some of the perennial fascination with the dynasty is not much more than amazed gawking at their singularity. But Rothschild history, especially in England, signifies a great deal more than the Judengasse come to horse-and-hounds in the Vale of Aylesbury, astonishing though that alteration was. To those left behind in the shtetl or peddling shmattas off a barrow, their social conquest was balm to the wounds of humiliation. So that, among other Jews at any rate, their magnificence more often aroused vicarious pleasure than envy. When a Rothschild horse crossed line at the Derby, the barrow boy could reckon his winnings as a kind of share in the stock of the mighty.

This symbolic solidarity was just as well. For once the Jews of Europe had been freed from the ghetto, only to face other barriers less visible but just as daunting, their uncertainty generated a need for secular authority: figures that could face up to states and statesmen in a way denied to rabbinical tradition. So the transformation of the Rothschilds from old-style Hofjuden—Court Jews—to the frock-coated gentry of New Court in London, boosted collective confidence in incalculable ways. The model was not just that of financial success (though of course that counted), but success without apostasy. The Rothschilds themselves relished their role as unofficial nasim—prince–interlocutors of the exile, with all the prestige as well as responsibilities incurred. (One member of the family when asked his motto replied, only half in jest, “Service,” and added, “And by God we get it.”) But their triumph among the goyim ought not to be taken for some Shylockian satisfaction for historical wrongs. It was, in fact, born of a sturdy optimism about the ultimate reasonableness of governing elites to make room for a Jewish notability not as creditors but as peers. And it is a matter of much self-congratulation in Britain—and, until recently in France—that this essentially liberal scenario of graceful gentile concession reciprocated by Jewish patriotic devotion did indeed come to pass.

The Rothschilds, however, have generally declined to rest on their laurels. Resolved to turn their own family victories into institutional improvements, they acted as benign irritants against liberal complacency. Perhaps their most important gesture in this respect was their flat rejection of what might be called the nineteenth-century emancipation contract: “You shall be made free and equal,” decreed the emancipators, but on condition that you shed your unsavory manners, your gibbering tongue, and your chronic superstition. It was a tempting offer. Isaac d’Israeli eagerly grasped it and his son reaped the rewards in the next generation, compounding the …

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