Baroness Bethsabée (Hebrew: Batsheva) de Rothschild, scion of a well-known philanthropic family, was a modest and generous woman with a mighty vision. The foundations she established helped support numerous activities in the United States and Israel, especially dance, music and science. Her philosophy of life called for assessing needs at a given time and place and supporting the people whom she believed capable of responding to those needs, thus effectively filling the gaps.
Bethsabée’s father Edouard (1868–1949) married Germaine Halphen in 1905. They had four children: Alphonse (1906–1911), Guy (b. 1909), Jacqueline (b. 1911) and Bethsabée. Not long after Bethsabée’s birth in London, the family moved to Paris, where her father ran the French Rothschild bank he had inherited from his father, Alphonse (1827–1905). Here Bethsabée was raised. While her parents were not Zionists, they were, like all the French Rothschilds, Jewishly involved. The Dreyfus Affair had profoundly affected the family, who in consequence conveyed a strong sense of Jewish identity to their children and made Bethsabée particularly conscious of that identity. The Rothschild home had a rare art collection that accorded Bethsabée her aesthetic sensitivity and appreciation of quality and professional excellence.
Bethsabée received her bachelor’s degree in biology at the Sorbonne. In 1940, at the very last minute, she and her parents fled to the United States. She began studying biochemistry and biology at Columbia University, but never received an advanced degree. While in the United States, she signed affidavits for European refugees seeking entry to escape persecution.
During World War II, Bethsabée joined the Free French Movement at its office in New York and volunteered for its armed forces. Assigned to London, she landed in Normandy during the Allied invasion, eventually reaching Paris, where she served as liaison between the French and the United States military forces.
After the war she returned to the United States, enrolled at Martha Graham’s School of Dance and worked as Graham’s producer. In 1948 she married Donald Bloomingdale (1913–1954). The marriage ended in divorce. She established the Bethsabée de Rothschild Foundation for the Arts and Sciences, which from 1953 to 1960 was directed by composer Vivian Fine (1913–2000). The Foundation provided modern composers with the means to finance concerts, helped underwrite Martha Graham’s performances and document her achievements on film and supported a series of modern dance company performances on Broadway. Bethsabée de Rothschild’s book, La danse artistique aux U.S.A. (Paris, 1949), compares American modern dance with that of the European expressive school (Ausdruckstanz).
Bethsabée de Rothschild first visited Israel in 1951. In 1956 she joined the Martha Graham Dance Company’s historic tour of the Far East (as a wardrobe assistant, since everyone on this tour had to have a specific performance-related function), which was sponsored by the U.S. Administration. The tour was to terminate in Iran, but Rothschild underwrote its extension to Israel, where the performance left a lasting impression, prompting the abandonment of European expressive dance and intensifying interest in Graham’s American dance style. She arranged two additional tours in Israel by the Martha Graham Company.
Rothschild provided scholarships for Israeli dancers at Graham’s School of Dance. In Israel, where she adopted the Hebrew form of her given name, Batsheva, she facilitated the mounting of performances by several dancers, of whom Rina Gluck and Rina Scheinfeld are the most noteworthy. At the same time she established the Israel Chamber Music Society, with Gary Bertini as its artistic director (1957). Later, she cooperated with Bertini in founding the Israel Chamber Orchestra. In 1962 she established the Batsheva de Rothschild Foundation for Arts and Sciences to finance various activities in Israel, naming François Shapira as its director. Batsheva de Rothschild also contributed to special projects such as acquisition of numerous recordings for a music library in Israel at the request of Gary Bertini, translation of ancient literature into Hebrew at the request of David Ben-Gurion and establishment of a loan fund for the needy, administered by the Tel Aviv Municipal Social Services Department.
Rothschild established two foundations for science, one in the United States and one in Israel, the latter with Professor Ephraim Katchalsky (later Katzir, who became President of Israel in 1973) on its Board of Directors. She spent much of her time at the Batsheva shop in Tel Aviv, which featured original Israeli-designed fashions.
Batsheva de Rothschild’s long-term connection with Graham and love of dance inevitably led to her involvement in Israeli dance. Dancers returning from studies in the United States whom Rothschild helped support found themselves with no opportunities to perform. One possible solution was reinforcement of the Israel National Opera’s ballet company. When Opera Director Edis de Philippe asked for help in promoting the ballet company, Rothschild consulted with the well-known American choreographer Anthony Tudor and invited him to Israel, where he noted that a school had to be set up prior to the launching of a new dance company. Moreover, de Philippe’s tastes and personality and the relatively poor performance standard of the Opera ballet troupe did not appear to constitute a healthy basis for investment.
Aura Herzog, then Chair of the Israel Council of Culture and Art, recognized Batsheva de Rothschild’s love, concern and support for dance and invited her to direct the Council’s new Dance Department, which initiated the first summer course at the Academy of Music in Jerusalem in 1958 under the active leadership of Martha Graham.
Rothschild realized that the problem of performance opportunities for dancers demanded immediate solution. She conceived the idea of establishing a modern repertory company, which would provide an arena for both dancers and choreographers. At the time, this was a revolutionary idea for modern dance companies, which had hitherto focused on a specific choreographer. Martha Graham agreed to serve as artistic consultant and played an active role in establishing the Batsheva Dance Company (1964).
The Batsheva Company, generously financed by Rothschild and inspired by her vision, was a giant step forward for dance in Israel, yielding generations of dancers, teachers and choreographers. Batsheva, who lived alone, considered the dancers as her children. Despite its great artistic success and excellent reviews overseas, the Company displayed some serious discipline problems that Rothschild could not solve, since she lacked the requisite experience in directing a dance company.
Rothschild believed that destiny ordained her meeting with Jeanette Ordman, a classical ballet dancer who came to Israel from South Africa and began conducting ballet dance classes. Impressed by Ordman’s expertise and discipline, Rothschild recruited her to the Batsheva Company, appointing her rehearsal director and even offering her some choreographic opportunities. However, Ordman’s style did not suit the company, nor did she establish rapport with the dancers. Fearing that Rothschild was about to appoint Ordman as company director, the dancers rebelled. Rothschild was deeply hurt and severed her ties with the company, although she did not dare terminate its financial support, in view of the prestige and appreciation it had accrued. The rift was so severe that Rothschild attended neither the Batsheva Company’s performances nor even its thirtieth anniversary celebrations.
Believing in Ordman and supporting her unequivocally, Rothschild now invested all her energies and a considerable share of her resources in the new Bat-Dor Company, with Ordman as Artistic Director and principal dancer.
From the beginning, Bat-Dor’s style was a combination of modern dance with a strong emphasis on the technique of classical ballet. A school of dance affiliated with the Bat-Dor Company taught both classical ballet and modern dance. At Ordman’s initiative and under her supervision, Rothschild set up a branch of the school of dance in Beersheba (1975), the first Pilates institute in Israel and the Israel Dance Therapy Center (1985).
In 1975, Rothschild sought to merge the Batsheva and Bat-Dor Dance Companies under Ordman’s direction—a move which essentially implied the end of the former ensemble. The resulting public outcry led Rothschild to withdraw all her support from the Batsheva Company, which henceforth had to subsist solely on new but meager government allocations.
Rothschild invested all her time and love in the Bat-Dor Company, showering it with money and bringing in the finest creative minds. Jeannette Ordman was its star performer until 1984, when she retired from the stage. In the 1970s, Bat-Dor performances were known for their professionalism and tight discipline, yielding clean, sharp performances but sometimes sacrificing individualism and artistic freedom. Audiences and critics continued to prefer the Batsheva Company.
Israel’s dance map changed in the 1990s. The Batsheva Company took the lead once again, under the direction of choreographer and Artistic Director Ohad Naharin; the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company gained international prestige under the artistic direction and choreography of Rami Be’er and—most important of all—an abundance of excellent small troupes sprang up with fresh and original material. The Bat-Dor Company was relegated to the sidelines and lost its premier status. As time passed, questions concerning the Bat-Dor Company’s fate became more acute. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport rejected the company’s request for funding, but granted official support to the Bat-Dor School of Dance, recognizing its contribution to the Israel dance scene.
In 1989 Batsheva de Rothschild was awarded the Israel Prize for her special contribution to Israeli society. She died in 1999, following a long illness. Her work, motivated entirely by her love of Israel and of dance, was accomplished with remarkable benevolence and modesty. Her support was so widespread and generous that virtually all those involved in the Israeli dance world essentially owe their careers to Bethsabée-Batsheva de Rothschild.
Eshel, Ruth. Dancing with the Dream—the Development of Artistic Dance in Israel 1920–1964. Tel Aviv: 1991.
Idem. “The Batsheva Dance Company—the Graham Decade.” Dancetoday ( November 2004).
Idem. “Batsheva and Its Israeli Choreographers.” Israel Dance 4 (October 1994).
Manor, Giora. “Batsheva—the flagship of modern dance in Israel.” Israel Dance 4 (October 1994).
Sowden, Dora. “Building a New Dance in a New Country.” Dance Magazine (January 1969).
Bat-Dor: A Tribute to Jeanette Ordman. Compiled by Dora Sowden. 1990.
How to cite this page
Eshel, Ruth. "Bethsabée Rothschild." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/rothschild-bethsabee-de>.