The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

“Will the Real Rachel Please Stand Up!” Women’s Voices in the Sassoon Family Archive in the National Library of Israel


A family archive, the collection of a family’s papers and artifacts, can give a unique space and expression to women, who were often a marginalized group in society, especially in earlier times. Women are an integral part of a family archive and while the family archive preserves evidence of family members and their activities in the public sphere, it also covers the private sphere, which was often historically the dominion of the family’s women. The Sassoon family archive in the National Library of Israel is a fascinating example of such an archive and this lecture will look at the women in the Sassoon family archive in the context of its arrangement and description, and the story it tells.

The Sassoon family, also known as the "Rothschilds of the East", established a business empire that spanned countries and generations from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. The branch of the family which is central to the archive mixed in the highest circles of Indian, Anglo-Jewish and English society, and as history records, the men ran the business, held public office and were seen with royalty and men of influence. However, it is the family archive that reveals the rich and varied role of the family’s women, who took their place as patronesses, philanthropists and society hostesses. They ran the households, organised formal dinners, paid social calls and cultivated friendships with the wives and daughters of the men of influence. In an age when communication centred around letters, their correspondence linked the women of the family, often bearing the same name, to their friends and acquaintances, creating an additional dimension to the family story that awaits documentation by social historians. This will be the focus of this lecture, examining issues encountered by the archivists when arranging and describing the archive.