In September 2006 I had the unique opportunity to interview Jewish philanthropist and hairstyling legend Vidal Sassoon for the now defunct “Iranian Jewish Chronicle” magazine based here in Southern California. With the news of his sad passing this morning, I felt it was appropriate to share that exclusive interview with readers as an special insight into Sassoon’s strong sense of Jewish identity and profound sense of Zionism.
While the name Vidal Sassoon has become synonymous with the glamorous world of hairstyling and haircare products for nearly five decades, the man behind the brand name had been equally well known for us unwavering support for Israel during this period. Before becoming known as the “father of modern day hairstyling”, Sassoon was born in the east end of London’s improvised Jewish ghetto in 1928. Despite his family’s financial problems, by age 14, the young Sassoon began working as an apprentice in a Jewish barber shop and learning his famous craft. During this same time he joined the “43 Group” a popular anti-fascist organization that combated post-World War II anti-Semitic groups parading in London’s streets. When the state of Israel was established, then 20-year-old Sassoon bravely volunteered and served in the Israeli army in the War of Independence.
After the war, Sassoon returned to London and over the years created his famous hairstyling empire that included forming hair salons, hairstyling schools, and haircare products bearing his name. Today he is credited for establishing the foundations of modern hairstyling after having created geometric hairstyle cuts, the popular wash-and-wear perm, as well as other hairstyling techniques that are widely used. In addition to his career, Sassoon had also dedicated his time to aiding worthy philanthropic and educational causes in Israel. In 1982 he founded the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was also involved with the North American Conference for Ethiopian Jews, a group that provides educational and sports programs for young Ethiopian Jews visiting the U.S. from Israel.
The following is a portion of my 2006 interview with Sassoon…
Your family name ‘Sassoon’ is very popular among Iranian Jews and Sephardic Jews, can you please give us a brief background of your family’s origins?
My father was actually from Salonika in northern Greece where the family had lived for some years. I think there was a population of about 90,000 Jews there and after the Holocaust there was 3,000 left which is quite dreadful. But I am Sephardic from my father’s side and my mother was born in London and her people are from the Ukraine, Kiev. So I guess on my mother’s side it was Ashkenazi, she spoke both Ladino and spoke Yiddish. She was quite a remarkable woman.
What prompted you to start working at a barber shop at a young age?
Well I had no choice. First of all it was World War II, we were in London and we used to sleep in the shelters because the German air force was rearranging the streets of London every night with the bombings practically every night in those days. This was in 42’ and I was 14. My mother didn’t have the luck that she might have had and my father had left us at an early age, so we lived in the east end of London with an aunt until I was five. Then my brother and I were put in a Jewish orphanage until I was 11, when the war started. At 14, that was the school leaving age unless you had money which we didn’t, or you had an extraordinary brain and won scholarships. Of course I didn’t have that either. My mother had a premonition and she felt that hairdressing would be very very good for me. She took me along to a man named Adolf Cohen at 101 White Chapel Road which was in the Jewish ghetto where I had my apprenticeship. He was a great disciplinarian which served me for the rest of my life, he was very good for me. It took me a long time of studying and working in different places around London.
As a teenager you joined the British Jewish organization known as the “43 Group” in London, what activities was this group involved in and how were you involved?
It was a rather strange situation because the war was over. Before the war there was quite a strong fascist party led by Oswald Mosley and he and his cohorts were put in detention (jail) during the war by Churchill. After the war they came out and immediately started up again with their anti-Semitism and running through the streets and having meetings, it was quite ridiculous. Many truly brave Jewish ex-servicemen started the “43 Group” because there were 43 people at the first meeting they had. These were tough men who had been through the war. Of course volunteers were needed, I was 16 or 17 at the time, most of my friends joined the 43 Group and there were quite a few hundred of us. Truly the fascists were smashed in the streets and yes if you were scared at times because it was scary. But after we saw the pictures that came out and the whole story of the Holocaust, there was actually no way we could allow fascists to run through the streets. I was arrested one night and put in jail, the following day the judge told me ‘to be a good boy’ and let me go. That was our life in those days, we decided that we were absolutely not going to allow what happened pre-war when Jews were just beat up indiscriminately in the streets. It worked beautifully because of mainly the tough Jewish characters that were in the British armed forces during the war, they were the people that did it. But also there were quite a few gentiles who had seen the camps, the horror of Europe and fought with us.
After Israel was established in 1948, what motivated you to suddenly leave your family and join the Palmach (Israeli army) at such a young age?
Through my mother who was an ardent Zionist and who used to hold Zionist meetings were we lived in the East End, so I grew up with Zionism. My sense was that without a strong Israel, Judaism would die out with only a few religious Jews in the world but basically as a philosophy of life it would be very much on its way out. Israel was so important. An Israeli officer, a “Sabra” came to London and had a meeting way before 48’ in late 47’ and say ‘that if a war breaks out which they were expecting, we would like volunteers’. He came to see the 43 group and I hadn’t a clue who he was. You’ve got to remember that I was just a private, a very insignificant member of the group, just one of the ordinary…I guess you call them G.I.’s. A few us put our names on a list, we couldn’t leave until the British left (Palestine) for obvious reasons because we were British.
Did you see any action while you were a soldier then?
I was very lucky, I was very fit and I joined the Palmach. I was living in a young fishing kibbutz with young beautiful Sabras, tough from their work and strong in their minds. We were three English guys— I was one of them, there was one American we were accepted into the group and became a part of the Palmach. We trained for two months, it was the hardest physical exercise I’ve ever had in my life. We marched through the night through the northern Negev through Arab lines because in those days you couldn’t truly get through by transport, we were building up the kibbutzim inside those lines. When Egypt attacked with tanks, many comrades were killed, many were wounded but I was very lucky. Out of the three Englishmen and one American, two of the English guys were wounded and the American and myself were unscratched. It was an extraordinary experience and I think that experience in Israel gave me the sense that anything could be done. I thought I saw a miracle happen, you think that 600,000 people beat back five Arab armies…it was an extraordinary feat. Frankly no one realizes how it was done.
After the war what motivated you to get back into hairdressing in England?
My mother. The war was over, we were in Tel Aviv waiting and deciding what to do with the rest of our lives. I got a telegraph from my mother who said that my step-father had had a heart attack, come home and earn a living. So I went back to England and the only thing I knew to earn any cash was through hairdressing. I got a job and many many jobs, it took quite a few years. In 1954 I opened my own salon after working for a wonderful man called “Raymond”, I learned so much from him about cutting.
Over the years you’ve been given the title of “father of modern hairdressing” for your contributions to the profession, where did you get the motivation for developing these haircutting techniques and what is it like to be considered a legend?
Well I opened my own salon in 1954 and by that time I was totally fascinated by what you could do with hair, the possibilities of changing things. For nine years I worked to change what was hairdressing then into a geometric art form with color, perm without setting which had never been done before. There were many innovations that we—I say we because I trained a team that was much involved with me. Many innovations we created that changed the craft, so I guess that’s why they call me the ‘father of hairdressing’…or maybe it’s because of my age, I’m 78 and possibility the grandfather.
In recent years, you have sold your chain of salons and the haircare products that bear your name to other companies. Have you decided to move away from the industry or are you still involved?
I haven’t moved away from it, in fact I did a live show at the ‘Albert Hall’ three months ago. There were over 5,000 people and we actually sold out the Albert Hall. I’m doing a show in Israel in May of this year. There’s a big hair show in Israel and they’re inviting the Jordanian hairdressers so I hear, which I think should be very interesting. I speak now, I don’t actually physically work on heads on hair, but I speak. In June my hairdressing team will be doing a show in Barcelona as well. We’re invited to so many places just to show up and talk to young hairdressers and tell them about our experiences. It’s very very nice, it a great compliment. So I haven’t really deserted the craft at all, I’m still involved.
Nowadays you do not see many prominent people in the public eye taking a strong stance on behalf of Israel, why have you remained active in fundraising efforts and a vocal supporter of Israel?
I honestly believe that without a strong Israel, Judaism is doomed. If you look at our center in Jerusalem that has done a survey about anti-Semitism in Europe, in France it is horrendous—it’s practically a quarter of the population there that doesn’t like Jews. In Britain it’s about 15 to 18 percent of the population that don’t like Jews. My sense is that as the world is today, there is an extraordinary rise of Islamic anti-Semitism utilizing much of the Nazi propaganda. When you have a situation were there is indigenous anti-Semitism it can become endemic and all you have to do is a start a spark. Frankly I don’t trust the world, there are very nice Christians in this world as there are Muslims, as there are Hindus etc, but there are only 13 million Jews left in this world. Where did they all go? They were all murder or they had to convert or be murdered. So a very strong Israel is absolutely necessary to our survival as a people.
You seem to be visiting Israel often and are active with social programs there, what is your sense of the Arabs that are citizens of Israel?
I do believe that Israeli Arabs should be equal citizens in Israel. They now vote for their own people the Israeli parliament, that’s good for democracy. But I do believe that the Israeli national anthem should be inclusive of all, it should not just be ‘nefesh yehudi’ it should be ‘nefesh Israeli’—everybody should be included. They’re either loyal Israelis or not, and if they’re not we’re creating a fifth column in Israel because there are 1.2 million people of the Islamic faith living there. I just believe we have to change our relationships with Israeli Arabs. I think it’s very important that they feel that they are very much a part of the society and they are Israeli. The ‘Druze’ for example who are loyal Arab citizens and serve in the Israeli army, we need to welcome them and have them included more in Israeli society.
What was your objective in founding the International Center on Anti-Semitism at Hebrew University that bears your name?
I was always involved with Hebrew University before then, but there was this wonderful professor, Yehuda Bower at the university and we had very similar views and feelings about Judaism and where Judaism was going and if there was a future for Judaism. It was terrifying to think that the people who created Einstein would be eliminated from the earth. It’s terrifying to think of all those extraordinary elements in society that made up Judaism that have been wiped away and could have been so creative for the rest of this universe. Yehuda Bower was speaking in his most brilliant way and his knowledge of past history was so valid and vivid, that we followed him. He talked to me and he said “how would you like to be involved in creating a center for the study of anti-Semitism.” So I said, could we also include other related bigotries (to study) because you’re trying to fathom the mind and hate of humanity and not just Jews. So this was a man that had great appeal, dynamic energy, and I was fortunate to meet him. I was also fortunate considering my background where I came from to have the necessary finances to help create the center. The center has grown extraordinarily. Yehuda Bower is close to 80, he still lectures but he is not in charge of the center anymore. I couldn’t be more pleased with the way the center is going and I’ll be visiting it in May.
Can you tell us a little bit about the North American Conference for Ethiopian Jews which you’ve become involved with?
It’s quite wonderful. We are developing programs where the money goes partly for education and partly for sports because the health body and healthy mind is were it’s at. Many people are involved; it’s really an honor to be a part of this. You know there’s something (the author) Camu said that has stuck with me all my life and it’s “too many people have forsaken generosity to practice charity”. I hate the word “charity”. The generosity of soul, if you give, you’re giving because you’re pleasing your own soul. The word charity means something totally different, “oh those poor people over there let’s do something for them”. Generosity is the spirit that is within you and I love the way Camu put it.
What advice do you have for young young Jews living in the U.S.?
It’s hard to give advice. There are so many people, how do you give major advice to a group of people, it’s very presumptuous. If you look into yourself as an individual, find your strength, and work on your weaknesses, have courage of your convictions…what more can you do. Feel a sense of pride, not false pride but a sense of pride in the extraordinary production in every area that the Jews have given to civilization.