Life & Culture

Lord Rothschild: my Jewish roots

“It is a cardinal factor in Jewish life that we must give back and I am deeply conscious of my Jewish roots," says Lord Rothschild in an exclusive interview with Nicola Loftus


Lord Jacob Rothschild is in a reflective mood when we meet at his offices in St James Place in London. His name is known across the globe, yet he rarely gives interviews. “Probably because of shyness and the pressures of work,” he explains.

Although 2019 started badly for him after he lost his wife Serena to cancer after 58 years of marriage, he has lost none of his fighting spirit and despite his 83 years he has more energy than most men half his age — with no plans to slow down.

Educated at Eton, then Oxford and born into a family whose legacy has spanned eight generations, he has never been a man to rest on his laurels.

Now his eye is firmly focused on Waddesdon, the 4,000 acre estate in Aylesbury that he inherited from his cousin Dorothy de Rothschild, and his family’s legacy to Israel and the wider Jewish community.

This weekend former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks will put up a mezuzah to commemorate the official opening of The James and Dorothy de Rothschild room to mark the couple’s immense contribution to Israel and the Anglo-Jewish community.

“I thought that we should change the name of the Goodwood room to the James and Dorothy de Rothschild room and within that room have references to all the things they have done,” says Lord Rothschild.

There is a model of the Knesset, the Supreme Court and also one of the new National Library. But Waddesdon also has hidden treasures, such as the exquisite embroideries — probably made in Italy in the early 18th century for a private synagogue — which depict the First and Second Temples, made with untarnished gold and silver threads.

The vast house near Aylesbury was built in 1874 by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, who at 34 years old embarked on his “grand project” to build Waddesdon. The Manor took him 15 years.

The house became an astonishing example of ‘le style Rothschild’ which influenced the great American collectors of the late 19th and 20th century, such as Morgan, Frick, Vanderbilt, Huntington and Astor. It is one of the most visited stately homes in England — but few visitors realise its associations with Anglo-Jewish affairs.

Like his Rothschild relations, Ferdinand was active in the Anglo-Jewish community. He was treasurer to the Board of Guardians of the Jewish Poor from 1868-75, Warden at the Central Synagogue in Great Portland Street, laid the foundation stone in 1864 at the North London Synagogue and funded a technical scholarship at Stepney Jewish School in the East End.

After just a year of marriage to his cousin Evelina, Ferdinand tragically lost his young wife during childbirth.He was inconsolable; “mine was a loss which years cannot repair”. Evelina was buried in the Jewish cemetery in West Ham and, following her death, Ferdinand funded the Evelina Hospital for Sick Children in London.

As Ferdinand never remarried and had no children, he passed the estate to his sister Alice, who in turn left it to her great-nephew James de Rothschild. A committed Zionist, he had left Paris for England after the Dreyfus Affair and became Liberal MP for the Isle of Ely from 1929.

James, generally known as Jimmy, married British-born Dorothy Pinto in 1913 when he was 35 and she just 17.

“Jimmy was brought up by his father, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, as a passionate believer in a Jewish homeland and of the importance of Jewish values”, explains Lord Rothschild. “Jimmy and his wife were very active members of the Jewish community.”

Amongst other things, the couple helped to establish Norwood, the Jewish Free School and community centres in Stepney.

Jimmy was half blind, having lost an eye playing golf. “He became very involved with the Jewish Blind Society — which subsequently merged into Jewish Care.”

The couple were close friends of Chaim Weizmann and when James was convalescing from his war injuries sustained in battle, his young wife forged important contacts for Weizmann and his circle with key members of the British establishment.

Aged just 19, a committed Zionist, Dorothy received some 33 letters from Weizmann in one year.

As the historian Sir Simon Schama has said: “Through tireless but prudent social diplomacy, she managed to open avenues of influence and persuasion at a time when they were badly needed.”

These efforts, he says, “were instrumental in bringing about the famous letter dated 2nd November 1917, from foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, head of the British branch of the family.” The letter — the Balfour Declaration — committed the British government to support for a Jewish homeland.

While the original Balfour letter is housed at the British Library, Waddesdon has an exact facsimile of it — together with other letters from Dorothy and Jimmy to Weizmann.

In 1918 Jimmy was sent to Palestine to raise a Jewish battalion for service under General Allenby. Among the battalion were David Ben-Gurion and Joseph Sprinzak. Dorothy later commented: “I don’t know how useful they were as infantrymen but more than 30 years later the first became the Prime Minister and the second the Speaker of the Parliament of the State of Israel.”

“The visitors book at Waddesdon is full of names of guests such as Herbert Samuel and Lord Crewe — Dorothy knew everyone,” says Lord Rothschild. “They hosted King George V and Queen Mary and there were frequent political gatherings at Waddesdon.”

Much to their dismay, Dorothy and James remained childless, despite their affection and warmth towards children. During the war they gave Waddesdon to orphanages in London that needed to find refuge and after they heard about the Kindertransport they immediately sponsored 30 boys from a school in Frankfurt to come to the UK.

“They found a house in the village, called Cedar House, where they could stay and in a sense they became her children — they became known as the Cedar Boys and Dorothy followed their lives as they grew up and lived across the world. One became a golf professional and one ended up looking after the estate of an Earl in England.”

A new artistically curated exhibition of the Cedar Boys and their journey will also be on display at Waddesdon.

In 1942, Jimmy made an impassioned speech to Parliament. ‘Chips’ Channon recorded at the time that Anthony Eden read out a statement regarding the extermination of Jews in east Europe: “Jimmy de Rothschild rose, and with immense dignity, and his voice vibrating with emotion, spoke for five minutes in moving tones on the plight of these peoples. There were tears in his eyes and I feared he might break down, the House caught his spirit and was deeply moved …The House as a whole rose, and stood for a few frozen seconds.”

He had been in the forefront of efforts to help Jews persecuted by the Nazis, having been a member of the Council for German Jewry.

Dorothy — or, as she was affectionately known, Dollie — took Jacob under her wing. “I didn’t really know my cousin Jimmy that well as he died in 1957 but I always had a close relationship with his widow from then on.”

They had dinner together every week and it was Dorothy who took him to Israel for the first time in 1962.

“I was taken with my friend the great philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Isaac Stern the celebrated violinist and the composer Nicolas Nabokov. Those were the good old days when you would go round listening to trios playing music.

“Fifty-seven years later, through our Foundation Yad Hanadiv, we remain deeply involved supporting Israel with pride and pleasure.“

Shortly before he died, Jimmy promised to provide the funds for the Knesset building in Jerusalem, writing in a letter to Prime Minister Ben Gurion that the Knesset building should become, “a symbol in the eyes of all men of the permanence of the State of Israel.”

His widow wanted to carry on his work. “She made a lasting contribution to Israeli society through the philanthropy of Yad Hanadiv which she founded. She carried out her work as a labour of love, asking for nothing in return,” says Lord Rothschild.

Hanadiv, which means “benefactor”, was the nickname given to Jimmy’s father Edmond on account of his generosity. Its mission statement is : “Dedicated to creating resources for advancing Israel as a healthy, vibrant, democratic society, committed to Jewish values and equal opportunity for the benefit of all its inhabitants, carrying forward the philanthropic tradition of the Rothschild family.”

“It is a cardinal factor in Jewish life that we must give back and I am deeply conscious of my Jewish roots,” explains Lord Rothschild.

“The Foundation has grown and I have chaired it for 35 years. When I first went to Israel we had a staff of 4. Today we have a staff of more than 36 people working for Yad Hanadiv in Jerusalem. Our investment policy has been successful.”

His daughter, Hannah, a filmmaker, author and chair of the National Gallery in London, today chairs Yad Hanadiv while he carries on as president.

He marvels at the changes in Israel since he first visited 57 years ago.

“It is incredible: this tiny country, Israel, being a leader in agriculture, cyberspace, AI, medicine and healthcare — a phenomenon. It has a free press, an independent judiciary, has revived the Hebrew language and is at the forefront of global technological developments.

“Over the years the Foundation, based in Jerusalem, has touched virtually every citizen of Israel and it supports a wide range of activities including education, environmental issues, mental health issues, facilitating employment and the advancement of opportunity for Israel’s Arab community. I believe that it has had a good and civilising influence on the projects we have done.

“It was Dorothy’s idea to build the Supreme Court but she passed away before it was done, so that fell on me to complete. Today we have the great project of the National Library, which I have worked on for 20 years, and is now finally being built in Jerusalem. It will be a library without borders — for people of all faiths with links to Jewish communities throughout the world, thanks to the cyber revolution of today.”

This is clearly very special for Lord Rothschild. “I am very proud of the National Library project. It’s incredible that Israel hasn’t created a great National Library. It is, after all, the land of the book. The library will be the house of the book for all people of the book.”

The magnificent new building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, is scheduled to be completed in 2021.

Lord Rothschild’s eye for detail and his work in the arts have shaped his life, and his style and taste are legendary. He has been chairman of the National Gallery and the British National Heritage Lottery Fund, responsible for distributing some £1.2bn in grants. And he has painstakingly restored Spencer House overlooking London’s Green Park to its former glory.

He was the Chair of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for architecture and his eye for detail can be seen on the Waddesdon estate at the hauntingly beautiful RIBA award winning Flint House and at the Windmill Hill Archives.

This sleek and elegant building, designed by Stephen Marshall, cleverly puts the British countryside in the frame. It houses the Waddesdon archives together with a growing collection of modern and contemporary art. A Sarah Lucas life-sized horse and cart stands proudly outside, as do Michael Craig-Martin’s colourful umbrellas. Angus Fairhurst’s brooding gorilla sculptures sit alongside pieces from Sir Anish Kapoor and Edmund de Waal.

“The papers that we have housed here are astonishing — there are letters throughout the war period and so much material of interest on Anglo-Jewish community life, together with incredible unseen photographs of early Israel.

“Windmill Hill is a special place which offers a place for quiet reflection and education.”

Later this year, schools such as JFS, Cantor King Solomon and Immanuel College will be taking students on tours of the Windmill Hill archive.

With such impressive facilities it’s no wonder that the Serpentine Gallery chose to host their away day there and many companies now host board meetings and events at Windmill Hill.

There is always something new going on at Waddesdon. During Pesach this year there was even a matzah ramble in the woodland.

“Oh yes,” says Lord Rothschild, “we are planning a range of events to coincide with the Jewish festivals — we are looking at putting up a Succah later in the year.”

Next year the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos will unveil a huge wedding cake which will showcase the wedding exhibition.

“We have hosted many weddings at Waddesdon but not as many Jewish ones as we would like!” he says. “We have a wonderful space called The Dairy which is set on a lake and is surrounded with beautiful weeping willow trees. “

That’s if the guests don’t get lost in the wine cellars at Waddesdon that house Lord Rothschild’s personal collection of over 12,000 bottles of rare vintage wines, dating back to 1864. With magnums signed by the likes of Sir Winston Churchill, Henry Kissinger, the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Princess Diana it is well worth the visit.

“We have hosted many special dinners and events in the various rooms at Waddesdon,” he says with a smile. “We have organised private wine tastings in the cellar and in the Manor. Everything is possible here — you just have to bring your imagination.”

Clearly Lord Rothschild remains engaged and open to ideas. His and his family’s shareholding remain the largest in RIT Capital Partners, the listed investment company he created 31 years ago and which has grown into one of the largest investment trusts quoted on the London Stock Exchange.

Most recently, Lord Rothschild informed shareholders that he will shortly move from chairman to President of the company — maintaining his shareholding.

It is not surprising that Lord Rothschild now finds himself “busier than ever.” With such a legacy and so much going on in his life — what does he do to switch off?

“I escape to my holiday home in Corfu or spend time with my grandchildren — which I enjoy immensely.”


The James and Dorothy de Rothschild rooms are open from June 26 (Wednesdays to Sundays). Contemporary arts and architecture tours of Windmill Hill and Flint House run from May to September. Archive tours can be arranged 
 For tickets and other enquiries:


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