Fam­i­ly Papers: A Sephardic Jour­ney Through the Twen­ti­eth Century

October 9, 2019

For cen­turies, the bustling port city of Saloni­ca was home to the sprawl­ing Levy fam­i­ly. As lead­ing pub­lish­ers and edi­tors, they helped chron­i­cle moder­ni­ty as it was expe­ri­enced by Sephardic Jews across the Ottoman Empire. The wars of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, how­ev­er, redrew the bor­ders around them, in the process trans­form­ing the Levys from Ottomans to Greeks. Fam­i­ly mem­bers soon moved across bound­aries and hemi­spheres, stretch­ing the famil­ial dias­po­ra from Greece to West­ern Europe, Israel, Brazil, and India. In time, the Holo­caust near­ly evis­cer­at­ed the clan, erad­i­cat­ing whole branch­es of the fam­i­ly tree.

In Fam­i­ly Papers, the prizewin­ning Sephardic his­to­ri­an Sarah Abre­vaya Stein uses the family’s cor­re­spon­dence to tell the sto­ry of their jour­ney across the arc of a cen­tu­ry and the breadth of the globe. They wrote to share grief and to reveal secrets, to pro­pose mar­riage and to plan for divorce, to main­tain con­nec­tion. They wrote because they were fam­i­ly. And years after they frayed, Stein dis­cov­ers, what remains sol­id is the frag­ile tis­sue that once held them togeth­er: nei­ther blood nor belief, but papers.

With metic­u­lous research and care, Stein uses the Levys’ let­ters to tell not only their his­to­ry, but the his­to­ry of Sephardic Jews in the twen­ti­eth century.