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A Flower Blooms in India

Dr. Pearl Herzog

Born into immense wealth, Flora Sassoon could have easily strayed from the path of Torah. Instead, she became a legend in her time — raising strong frum Jews in the heart of India, managing her family’s company after she was widowed at age thirty-five, and opening her doors and pocketbook to all who sought her help.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On April 13, 1936, an Australian newspaper, The Cairns Post, ran a small article on page 11 entitled “Famous Hostess Dies.”

“Lavish hostess and one of the world’s most learned women, Mrs. Flora Sassoon, has died at her home in Bruton street [London] ... after a long illness,” the article read, describing the passing of a woman across the globe. “Her meals were lavish Eastern Banquets and there was no greater crime in her eyes than to refuse the dishes, which she pressed on her guests. It is known that some of those invited to her home abstained from food earlier in the day so that they could do justice to her hospitality.”

The article failed to mention, however, that Flora was an Orthodox Jewess and that the meals she served to princes, dukes, literati, and other non-Jewish high society members, were strictly kosher. The Cairns Post, which described Flora as one of the world’s most learned women, was certainly referring to her secular and business knowledge, but did not indicate that Flora was also very well versed in Tanach, Mishnah, Gemara, halachah, and Jewish philosophy.


Family Ties

Flora was part of the legendary and exceptionally affluent Sassoon family dynasty — both by birth and marriage. She was the great-granddaughter of the dynasty’s founder, David Sassoon (Flora’s mother, Azziza, was the daughter of David’s eldest son, Albert). She was also married to David’s youngest son, Shlomo, at which point her great-grandfather also became her father-in-law.

When David fled Iraq in 1826 from the oppression of the Wali (governor) of Baghdad, it’s doubtful that he could have foreseen that such a tragic event would ultimately lead to his success and fortune. After his escape, David settled in Bombay (now called Mumbai), India, where he laid the foundation of a vast mercantile empire with branches in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Turkey, Japan, Persia, and England. In the words of a contemporary: “Silver and gold, silks, gums and spices, opium, cotton wool and wheat — whatever moved over land and sea felt the hand and bore the mark of Sassoon and Company.”

Flora’s maternal grandfather, Albert Sassoon, followed his father’s lead in business. Knighted by Queen Victoria of England, Sir Albert was famous for having built and established the first and largest dock in Bombay, which to this day is called Sassoon Docks. In 1869, when the Suez Canal opened and merchant ships could travel between Europe and Asia without needing to circumnavigate around Africa, it was imperative, in Sir Albert’s view, that India build a dock for ships to load and unload goods. The government officials in India were initially against Sir Albert’s plan of reclaiming land (creating land out of the sea) to establish docks. Once, however, they recognized that the docks cemented the future of Bombay as India’s primary port, they were deeply grateful to Sir Albert and paid him handsomely for his work.

The Sassoons, also known as the “Rothschilds of the East,” were rich in yichus, too. Flora could trace her lineage back to the Davidic dynasty through King David’s fifth son, Shefatyah. The family had eventually exiled to Spain and called itself “Ibn Shoshana” (son of a rose), which later became Ibn Sasson (son of happiness).         

Flora’s father, Reb Yechezkel Gabbai, was an outstanding talmid chacham and businessman. The Gabbais were another wealthy Torah family who, while still living in Baghdad (before relocating to India), had intermarried with the Sassoons numerous times. In fact, David’s mother was Ammam Gabbai — the wife of Sheikh Sassoon ben Saleh, a leading talmid chacham and philanthropist, and the daughter of a former nasi of Baghdad Jewry.


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