Court Jews

Court Jews were purveyors who provided food, fodder, and munitions to the European courts in return for special privileges.

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Court Bankers

Many Jews provided their rulers not merely with munitions and foodstuffs, but also with supplies of money. In the early modern era, the courts of Europe were almost completely dependent upon private bankers for short‑term loans. It happened that most of the money trade in those days, for reasons we have described, was in the hands of experienced Jewish dealers in gems and precious met­als.

The identical circumstances that produced the Jewish merchant and purveyor produced the Jewish banker: his connection with the Netherlands, the banking center of Europe, through his Sephardic brethren; his international contacts in all the mercantile centers of Europe; above all, his long experience in dealing with precious metals and the currencies of the Continent. Again, the return for these short‑term loans transcended mere interest‑payment. As in the case of the Jewish purveyors, compensation frequently included the alleviation of Jewish disabilities, occasionally the right to live at court--often with a title.

One of the most colorful of these court bankers was Joseph Suss-Oppenheimer, nephew of Samuel Oppenheimer, of Heidelberg. The origins of "the Jew Suss" are shrouded in mystery. Ostensibly, he was the son of a wandering Jewish actor; but the rumor persisted that he was actually the illegitimate son of Georg Eberhard von Heidersdorf, Imperial Deputy‑Generalissimo and Knight of the Teutonic Order. Suss was raised by his wealthyuncle, and was trained by him in the art of banking… After becoming purveyor, factor, gem‑collector, and banker to Prince Karl Alexander of Wurttemberg, Suss exploited his opportunities with such acumen that he obtained virtually complete control of the financial administration of the duchy.

Wurttemberg was a sovereignty of no small importance; and Suss, with his grip on the state economy, managed to become a major influence in Central Europe at a time when most of Eu­rope's Jews were locked off within ghettos. Unfortunately Suss could not restrain his innate piracy. He did not hesitate, for ex­ample, to pocket large sums in bribes from industries that had been assigned government contracts. The Christian officials at court, wincing at the sight of this favored Jewish parvenu, lost no op­portunity to attack his integrity.

While Prince Karl Alexander was not unaware of what was going on, he was well satisfied with Suss's personal loyalty and zeal and with the profits that they produced. When the prince died, however, Suss was left without a protector. In 1737 a jury of nobles convicted him of fraud and embezzlement. He died on the gallows, contemptuously refusing to embrace the Christianity that might have saved his life.

The Lifestyle of the Court Jews

It must be remembered that the Hofjuden, the Court Jews, were only a handful of individuals, notable because they had won release from the confinements of the somber ghetto world. Their position was at all times as precarious as the whim of their patrons; and they were determined, therefore, to enjoy their moment of glory to the hilt. The Hofjuden emulated Christian courtiers in fondness for ceremony and formality, for ostentation and display, for costly buildings and elaborate dress, for titles and the simulacra of authority. Which of them knew when the brief moment of glory might end?

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.