Sephardi Entrepreneurs in Jerusalem: The Valero Family 1800-1948
A few words first about the form of the book itself: It is a study, hardbound book that looks like a textbook (in fact, it elicited the question of why I was reading a textbook from more than one person). It is, though, beautifully bound, and it is a sewn binding (rather than glued), a minor miracle in today's publishing world. The paper is high-quality glossy, much like you would expect in a pricy textbook. All photos and images are clear and show great detail on the page. In other words, as far as the text as a physical object goes, it is of highest quality. The layout of the text and of the images, as well as the appearance of the book, though, will have most people assuming that you are reading a textbook, which is neither a compliment or a criticism; it is merely an observation.
In my review, though, I am going to treat the book as a textbook because its layout so closely matches that of a textbook (chapters with subheads, which are further divided into subjects) and because the authors explicitly state in the introduction that they are defining more terms in the text for the benefit of an American audience. If this were a textbook, I would imagine that it would be for an advanced class in Palestinian or Israeli history. For a completely amuteur audience, such as myself (I am in my late 20s, I know basic post-1948 history, and I keep up with what I read in the newspapers), the background information of this pre-1948 period often assumes too much knowledge and familiarity. The ideal reader for this book would be a student or someone whose knowledge of Israel extends beyond the knowledge I just outlined as my own. This is not at all to say that I did not find the book fascinating, because I did. I only wish that my own learning had been sufficient to keep up with the book.
A few words about the book's introduction: it is the most difficult part of the book to get through, and some readers may end up discouraged before they ever plunge into the book itself. During the preface, you begin to see the authors' technique of defining a term unfamiliar English-speaking, non-Israeli audience (the book had already appeared in Hebrew in 2005) by giving the definition parenthetically, after a dashed line, set off in commas, and sometimes with footnotes. Certainly, that is a big rough-and-ready, but it's simple, and it works. I personally have no qualms here. Because I look at this more as a textbook, I am not looking for style and grace in integrating these definitions.
It is here, in the introduction, that the authors try to give the readers a sense of the Ottoman rule and pre-1948 environment, but in a culture where most readers will not remember a time of peace in Israel and Palestine, their historical explanation relies too much on theory and is not simple and down-to-earth enough. The writers do promise (and do fulfill the promise) to show the complex ethnic relationships in the area by showing the Valero's actions, but they have clearly set aside this introduction for broad historical strokes, and the strokes for pre-1948 history are simply inadequate. The English-speaking, non-Israeli audience that the authors acknowledge they're writing for will not find sufficient background here or in the rest of the book; one family will not answer the lingering questions you will no doubt have about interactions in the ever-complicated area.
No, the strength of this book lies in what it calls "family biography," a "micro-history." If this book is like a textbook, it is not for a 101 class; it is for something advanced. When you reach chapter 1, "Family History," the book hits its stride and becomes fascinating. The authors trace the name from 1492, though thankfully they spare us taking the genealogy back that far. They treat four generations of the family, which, as genealogical charts (very helpful and very through) in the back show us, is quite a lot of family! The authors have wisely limited themselves to a limited number of people; by the end of the family history chapter, I found that I could keep all of the major characters straight in my head without flipping back to remind myself who was whom. The family history chapter is thoroughly enjoyable, I found; it is also well-organized in a way that allows you to keep the generations straight. Flipping back through it now as I write this review, I find that the text has given me much information that I can attach to each family photograph: the writers are excellent at attaching specific information to specific people in a way that allows you to "personalize" the historical character. If this is a family biography, then I think this is quite well done. The chapter is not simply a collection of dry historical dates attached to a person but stories that make these people "real." The only complaint I have, and it is one that I will raise again, is that if any of these people had significant negatives attached to them (only one Valero woman's husband is mentioned as having drinking and gambling problems--but he was not a Valero by birth), they are not mentioned), they are not mentioned. Biography or hagiography?
The chapter following is "Economic Activities," which one might expect from the title to be as dry as dust. Fortunately, the authors surprise us--it's interesting! We trace the changes between the first and second generation to the break that occurred with the third and fourth generation in the world of banking. Some history and sociology does come into play here, and it was changing populations in Palestine and a move toward the British Mandate period that forced the changes the Valero family went through. The subject of banking is covered extensively, and we are given a brief (and helpful) history of banking in Jerusalem. Now would be a good time to pause and mention the many footnotes that pepper the pages of this text: if you want to feel that your history is well-researched and well-grounded, the authors do not disappoint. When describing this history of banking, for example, they cite a multitude of resources to support their factual claims. All of these sources are duly recounted in the bibliography; if you wanted to track down any citation, the authors have thoroughly mined the subject area, and their research trail can be easily followed. I cannot stress enough how well-researched this book is and what a diversity of resources it contains. "Exhaustive" is the only word for it.
The "Economic Activities" section also covers banking, another Valero entrepreneurial activity. This, too, is quite interesting in that one gets a bit of a tour of Jerusalem at the time period of the family member in question. We also get some idea of law and justice in the legal disputes that arose because of land and land transactions. At the end of the chapter, though, the authors touch on a question that will remain with the reader to the end of the text: "there is no way of estimating the family's wealth" (165). From here I would say that we never have a true idea of how prominent the family actually was in its time. Certainly, it seems to have been important, but how important? Can this even be determined? We are told several times that the bank never moved from its home place of humble origins. This is another place in the book where we are missing a historical scale on which to weigh the relative importance of, not an event this time, but of a family.
Chapter 3, which deals with real estate, is again fascinating (and again, is a chapter you might not expect to find so interesting; the authors' enthusiasm for their subject is infectious). Photography, plans, maps, and diagrams abound. The authors also introduce, briefly, the popular theoretical concept of "space" so that they may talk about social space / private space, religious space, etc. Travel is also covered, as is the fashionable traveling for medical treatment (which gives the reader not familiar with this particular history a touchstone with European history). Chapter 4, "Society and Local Politics," is a place where more history would not have been amiss. Ottoman Rule and British Mandate become important in this chapter. The history is made more accessible, though, by focusing on the activities of the family members and not on larger changes (this is, after all, a family biography). However, even with the idea in mind that this is a Valero biography, the reader cannot help but wonder: what of ethnic relations? What of riots and conflict, these riots that are so casually mentioned? What of these fears that violence might erupt? They're mentioned, but there is no further detail. The reader senses the empty space and wonders what's missing. Certainly, it would be contrary to Glass and Kark's purpose to spell out these riots and fears in detail--once again, they're not writing a 101 introductory textbook--but to leave them untouched completely also seems to be a significant oversight.
Chapter 4 continues with charity work done by the family, of which there was much. It is entirely possibly that I am overly cynical, but, again, surely there were critics of the family? Glass and Kark's meticulous research, mentioned above, of course makes it clear that all these acts occurred, and I am not at all contesting their validity. But were there less charitable works? Poor decisions? Biographies are seldom all good, all praise, and it seems unlikely that this is the one exception. Pages upon pages, though, are reserved for philanthropy. The authors devote pages 291-294 to "The Valero Family Viewed by Outsiders" and include some negative remarks in there; however, they are negative remarks of the most mild sort ("thriftiness," for example) that are often balanced out by a counterclaim. It is hard to feel that the situation is balanced.
The final chapter, "Culture and Lifestyle," is comparable to the first in its high level of human interest. It, along with the first chapter, probably reads the most quickly. I like its placement at the back of the book: at the beginning, we are introduced to our cast of characters, and at the end, we wind down with look at their daily lives. Their businesses and politics are sandwiched in between. As a biography, though, the first and last chapter never let you forget that, above all, these were people, people who cared about the same things as most readers do: their families, their houses, fashion, furniture, schooling, children, religion, marriage, birth, jobs, etc. The last chapter goes through a discussion of how attitudes toward all of these changed over the years; while such a discussion might be expected, it is, of course, different for every time and place, and it is quite interesting here. A section on languages also fleshes out what these people's lives were like. There are even two recipes, should you care to attempt them! This final chapter shows us what people did besides be born, participate in business, and die. One can take away much about the Valero's class from this final chapter.
The conclusion is much livelier than the introduction (perhaps because we know more now? Though I must say, after rescanning the introduction, I don't think that's the case) and again reviews some history. This quick historical overview still leaves questions unanswered, but it would have been helpful earlier in the text--namely, in the introduction--nonetheless. In the conclusion, the authors bring up the discourse of "Arab versus Jew," and this lies at the heart of the text as an issue on which much more needed to be spoken. Yes, it is covered at some length that the Valeros had business relations with the Arab population, but, quite simply, what else was going on around there? Were their relations only with the elite? What are these "offstage" riots we hear about from time to time? In today's political environment, these questions can't not be addressed. I do realize that this is a family biography, and I think that the authors have done an excellent job of illuminating a period by focusing on one specific family: this was their stated goal, and they have succeeded admirably.
Glass and Kark had a goal in mind when they set out to write this text, this family biography, and accomplished it. Through a microcosm, we do begin to see a larger picture. The work is exhaustively researched; I can't imagine that they could have done more. Footnotes abound and are helpfully at the bottom of the page where they are referenced (it's a pet peeve of mine when I have to flip to the back to read the footnotes). Their bibliography is staggering. Helpful family trees also serve to enlighten the reader, and the index is good. Glass and Kark have also done well in defining unfamiliar terms for their audience. My chief complaint, which I have mentioned throughout, is that I still have difficulty placing this in the history of the era. Given that this book looks and appears to be a textbook, I can't imagine that it's introductory; it has to be more of an advanced book. However, if it's going to be read by the English-speaking, non-Israeli audience that Glass and Kark imagine, then turning attention somewhat outward to the larger historical picture (whether all along or in the introduction, or perhaps even in footnotes) will be necessary for this imagined reader.
Altogether, though, I enjoyed reading this book. I have that feeling one often has when putting down a good book, that, in closing it, one is saying good-bye to characters who are friends. I do feel as if I have gained some understanding of Jerusalem in the Ottoman / British Mandate period, and I understand better how a class of people operated at a particular time in history. Also, because this time period was unfamiliar to me, I appreciated the exposure to a timeframe hitherto unknown. I would like to see similar undertakings from Glass and Kark in the future.