The First Mrs. Rothschild

Written by Sara Aharoni Yardenne Greenspan (trans.)
Review by Sarah Johnson

With her third novel, a prizewinner in Israel, Sara Aharoni illuminates the matriarch of an international banking dynasty, perhaps the most famous in the world. When one thinks of the name Rothschild, visions of immense wealth, financial power, and influence come to mind, but their origins were humble. Aharoni shows how her heroine, a woman of remarkable character, retained her modest lifestyle through her near-century-long life and instilled strong values in her family.

As a female historical-novel protagonist, Gutle Schnapper, nicknamed Gutaleh, is unusual since she’s content, and proud, to be the wife of a great man and the mother of his many children (five sons and five daughters that survived). Conditions in the Judengasse (Jewish quarter) of Frankfurt in 1770 are overcrowded, and its residents, forbidden from full citizenship, face tight restrictions on their movement, behavior, and careers. Meir Amschel Rothschild, well aware of these prejudices, determines to achieve dignity through financial success, and he finally wins Gutaleh’s father’s approval after becoming court banker to Wilhelm, crown prince of Hesse-Kassel.

In a voice that feels true to her culture, Gutaleh evokes her daily joys and laments, including her passionate marriage, her children’s births and deaths, and her periodic concerns (“Is it seemly to have our profits founded in war?” she wonders). While she remains at home in the Judengasse, running a growing household, Meir makes connections on his travels, overcoming countless obstacles while founding a large banking and trade empire.

The sections where Gutaleh shares details on international politics and economics are rather dry, but she’s an insightful observer of her children’s natures, particularly those of her sons. Each son later establishes his own financial institution in a different European city, creating an indomitable family network. Jewish history buffs will want to read this, and so will anyone seeking an original take on 18th– and 19th-century European history.