Banking on the Jews

An exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum on Jerusalem’s first Jewish bank highlights the illustrious Valero family behind its founding

Warrent certificate Jewish Colonial Trust, 1900 (photo credit: Kadman Numinsmatic Pavilion Collection, Eretz Isra)
Warrent certificate Jewish Colonial Trust, 1900
(photo credit: Kadman Numinsmatic Pavilion Collection, Eretz Isra)
The name Valero may not mean much to the average Israeli today but, for about 70 years, up to just under a century ago, the family was responsible for founding and running the eponymous bank that was one of the flagship enterprises of the Yishuv in the second half of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.
The bank is the subject of an exhibition that opened at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv a couple of weeks ago and is due to run until the end of June. The show catalogue is a handsome tome called simply “The Bank of Valero” and subtitled “The First Hebrew Bank in Eretz Israel, 1848-1915.”
The Bank of Valero was founded in Jerusalem, not far from Jaffa Gate, by Jacob Valero, a Turkish Jew whose family originated from Spain. When he decid- ed to set up his financial enterprise, he was basically in a banking desert. There was simply nothing in the way of an organized, Western-style, financial transactions infrastructure here at the time.
When Jacob died in 1880, Haim Aharon took over the business and, according to his great-great-grand- son, Jerusalem property lawyer Oren Valero, he enjoyed a lofty status both in the local community and on the international stage. “He was like the min- ister of finance and the foreign minister rolled into one,” says Valero. “He took care of banking and financial operations, and he was the main conduit for receiving and allocating donations from Europe, from Amsterdam, for the Jewish community here. He had power of attorney for Baron Edmond de Rothschild, and made sure the money got to the various local causes. He also ran all the finances of the Sephardic community in Jerusalem, and all the foreign digni- taries who came here met with him.”
THERE IS an intriguing item of correspondence in the exhibition, written by Moses Montefiore, in which the British philanthropist instructs various important figures in Jerusalem – including the founder of the Valero bank – to give out donations of 56 pounds sterling and 16 shillings – a considerable amount of money in the 19th century – to the city’s poor.
Haim Aharon Valero was a true celebrity at the time.
“If there was, say, the official opening of Shaare Zedek Hospital, Haim Aharon was invited to attend,” says Oren Valero, “and he also liaised between the Jewish community and the Turkish authorities. He spoke at least seven languages fluently, including Ladino, Ara- bic, Hebrew and probably a bit of Yiddish too.”
The exhibition includes several photographs of members of the Valero family, but none more impres- sive than the formal studio shot of Haim Aharon, taken around 1908, dressed in suitably impressive fin- ery. There are also some telling historic documents, such as a double-page spread from the Valero Bank’s “grand livre,” or account book, from 1908, with details of the income and expenses of a French com- pany. The account book was sent to the museum by Jack Valero from London, and other items of display were collected from family members in Israel and across the globe.
There are some delightful examples of the business cards of yesteryear. They were several times larger than today’s compact version, and generally bore a photo- graph of the person in question, or even of a couple.
“We worked with Yad Ben-Zvi, and we had around 2,000 documents and photographs scanned,” Valero explains. “The business cards are very aesthetic and also very informative. You can get a good idea of the upper echelons of the business world of the time from the cards. People gave out their cards to others, like you have Facebook today. They developed their business and social circles through selective alloca- tion of their cards – like social networking.”
The bank closed in 1915, as World War I effectively blocked off all channels of international business in Palestine, although Haim Aharon maintained his VIP status. Evidence of this is displayed in the exhibition in the form of a neatly typed letter, dated October 24, 1922, in which the Mandatory Legal Department of Jerusalem authorized Haim Aharon Valero, as head of the local Sephardic community, to keep the bankruptcy documents of a man called Frutiger for safekeeping.
Another delicately preserved document, dating from 1891, certifies Haim Aharon’s status as head of the Sephardic Community Council. The piece of paper bears the stamps and signatures of the chief rabbis of the time as well as those of several other religious leaders.
Although “The Bank of Valero” is on display in Tel Aviv, the bank and the later generations of the fami- ly are largely Jerusalem-based. “Haim Aharon built a synagogue on Jaffa Road, which is still in use today,” says Valero, adding that his great-great-grandfather was not only a skilled financier and diplomat, he also had guts and vision. “When things became difficult inside the walls of the Old City,” he says, “Haim Aharon moved out and built a house near Jaffa Road of today. That was a brave move because it wasn’t too safe outside the Old City back then.”
Haim Aharon would, naturally, have been happy for his sons to take over the business – as he became head of the bank after his own father’s death – but it wasn’t to be. His three sons were more interested in a learning a profession and they all went to Lausanne, in Switzerland, to study. The exhibition contains a highly evocative photograph of Moshe Valero, taken in 1910, in his room in Lausanne when he was study- ing law there, and there is another rather more seri- ous-looking picture of Moshe’s brother, Gavriel, and his wife, Estherina, taken in 1915 when Gavriel was studying medicine in Lausanne.
“That was not something you normally found in those days,” notes Valero, “a father sending his sons to Europe to study. It was like sending your kids to Antarctica today. But Haim Aharon had accepted that his sons were not going to follow him into the bank- ing sector and did his best to provide them with a good education.”
Although he was in a financial business, Jacob was clearly not looking to make millions and was more interested in enhancing the quality of life of the local Jewish community and in imparting what he consid- ered to be important values. “Jacob’s will is in the exhi- bition, written with a quill, and you can see it is a real- ly special document,” says Valero. “Even though he was a very wealthy person when he died, there is noth- ing about money or property in it. It is all about advice on how to live properly and how to conduct yourself, and to make sure his children took care of each other.”
Haim Aharon’s will, which is also on display at the museum, is an entirely different artifact. “That does relate to finances, but also to all sorts of charitable funds.
He provided the land for Shaare Zedek Hospital and also Bikur Cholim Hospital. The Valero family also owned an area of Jerusalem that eventually became a hub of life here. “Mahaneh Yehuda Market was originally called Valero Market,” says Valero. “Haim Aharon really was a visionary.” Naturally, the Valeros had the means to make sure their corporeal appearance was preserved for later generations, and there are quite a number of professionally staged photographs in the exhibition. In addition to Haim Aharon’s formal por- trait, there is a rather stilted photograph of the wedding of his son, Jacob, and Jacob’s bride, Menuha Goldberg, taken in 1906. Another monochromatic print, clearly taken in a different era and cultur- al milieu, shows Judge Moshe Valero in his lawyer’s gown in 1935. The judge was also a property lawyer and Oren Valero is the fourth generation of his family to earn a living in this particular area of the legal profession. Haim Aharon’s brother, Joseph Moshe Valero, and his wife, Mina, also have a place in the exhibition, captured in a relatively relaxed pose sometime in the 1890s. Joseph Moshe died prematurely, which is why Haim Aharon took over the bank after his father’s death.
HAIM AHARON was something of a peace- keeper too. “He used to do something like arbitration between members of the commu- nity who had some dispute, and also between Sephardim and Ashkenazim,” says Valero, adding that the family did its best to get on with everyone in pre-state Palestine, regardless of religious beliefs or ethnic back- ground. “There is a great photograph of Judge Moshe Valero at a picnic at a place called Kubeiba, near where Har Adar is today, with dozens of Arab friends and acquain- tances with all sorts of musical instruments.
They used to spend all day eating, chatting and playing music. The family had good rela- tions with everyone.”
The family also took time off for some R&R, and there is an a staged – but fun – print of four members of the Valero dynasty sitting on a crouching camel by the Sphinx. The photograph was taken in 1911 when they were on vacation in Egypt.
Valero says that, despite the fact that some branches of the family have been living abroad for several generations, overall the Valeros have maintained their strong links with this part of the world in general and with Jerusalem in particular. “I grew up with the stories of the family, and I have always been interested in the photos and documents and other things. This is a family that is very root- ed in Israel.”
Besides manifesting the grandeur of his ancestors’ lifestyle and making the most of the opportunity to collate family heirlooms from across the globe, Valero feels that the Bank of Valero offers some added educa- tional value for Israelis in general. “People who go to the exhibition will see that, 100 years before the State of Israel was created, there were Jews here who were entrepre- neurs who had a strong sense of mission. It was something that was built in, not like today when people may volunteer for something for a defined period of time. We are talking about people who devoted 30 or 40 percent of their time to public deeds.
While they ran the bank, which was a seri- ous concern, they also, for example, initiat- ed and funded the construction of new neighborhoods.”
One of the display cabinets at the Eretz Israel Museum contains the yellowed front cover of the second issue of Zionut Vetz- imhonut (Zionism and Vegetarianism) with a box of text that reads: “Valero Land in the Jerusalem Hills next to Givat Shaul, con- taining 120 dunams and divided into 95 plots, is given free to Jewish settlers.” The right-hand side of the page shows a sketched plan of said plots.
In addition to the documents, there are various fine family possessions on display at the museum, including delicate crystal goblets engraved with the letter “V” that date back to Haim Aharon’s lifetime and an impressive-looking silver-and-seashell cut- lery set from the same period. One of the more emotive items in the show is a small embroidered cotton garment that was used at the circumcision ceremonies of all the male descendants of the Valero family over the last century and half.
Oren Valero says that, above all, Haim Aharon, and Jacob before him, took care to maintain the highest standards of business ethics and honesty. “The bank issued its own banknotes – little Monopoly pieces of paper,” he says, “and people in Eretz Yisrael then knew that if they had a banknote with the Valero signatures on it, that meant it was worth money. The most important things in banking are trustworthiness, integrity and accuracy. In those days, there were all sorts of currencies in use here – Turkish and German and British, etc., and the notes issued by the Valero Bank were also considered legal tender. I think that is a mark of how well-respected the bank was.”
The legacy of Haim Aharon’s healthy busi- ness dictum appears to live on. “A woman came to me for legal advice a week or so ago,” says Valero, “and she said she came to me because her father told her that the Valeros have a good name. You can’t buy a reputation with money.”
Valero would very much like to find a per- manent home for the collection after the exhibition closes on June 30, preferably in Jerusalem. “I think it is important for Israelis to know about the bank – the first Jewish bank here – and all the work Haim Aharon did, and the others.”
For Valero, the legacy of his illustrious ancestors’ institution, and their work, lives on. “When clients come here, we sit in this room and they see the picture of my great- grandfather, the judge, and some of the other things here, and I explain to them something about the Valero family. Every family has sto- ries to tell, but you have to tie them in with actual, practical things, too. There are some lessons to be learned here.”
■ For more information about the “Bank of Valero” exhibition: (03) 641-5244 or