Fam­i­ly Papers: A Sephardic Jour­ney Through the Twen­ti­eth Century

By – June 9, 2020

In the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, Jews com­prised near­ly half the pop­u­la­tion of the city of Saloni­ca, then part of the Ottoman Empire. It was a cos­mopoli­tan port city on the Aegean Sea, with Jews involved in all aspects of its econ­o­my and lev­els of soci­ety. They could con­duct their affairs in Ladi­no, their moth­er tongue, and had a choice of more than fifty syn­a­gogues to wor­ship in. When the Sul­tan came to vis­it, he met with and paid his respects to the leader of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. A cen­tu­ry lat­er, the Ottoman Empire was gone, the city had become part of Greece and renamed Thes­sa­loni­ki. Its Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion had been dec­i­mat­ed. Those who sur­vived were scat­tered around the world.

His­to­ri­an Sarah Abre­vaya Stein chron­i­cles the sto­ry of this Sephardic Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty by trac­ing the his­to­ry of the Levy fam­i­ly. Their ances­tors had been expelled from Spain at the end of the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry, and like so many of their com­pa­tri­ots, trav­elled east, set­tling in regions of the Ottoman Empire where they lived for cen­turies. The Levys had made their home in Saloni­ca, and through their sto­ry, Stein writes about the Jews of Saloni­ca, the city once known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans.

Stein, who is direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Jew­ish Stud­ies, a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry and Chair in Sephardic Stud­ies at UCLA, the author or edi­tor of nine books and recip­i­ent of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture, came across a brief mem­oir of a Levy fam­i­ly patri­arch, Sa’adi Besalel Ashke­nazi a‑Levi. Notwith­stand­ing destruc­tion and dis­per­sion, the mem­oir had sur­vived, and a great grand­son even­tu­al­ly donat­ed the sole copy to the Nation­al Library in Jerusalem. Stein was intrigued by it, and decid­ed to trace the paths the Levy fam­i­ly took, from Sa’adi (as he was known), who died in 1903, to today’s descendants.

The mem­oir led her to what might be described as a fam­i­ly genizah, albeit a trove of let­ters and doc­u­ments not gath­ered in a sin­gle loca­tion but in var­i­ous sites, includ­ing Rio de Janeiro, Lon­don, Paris and Johan­nes­burg. The largest col­lec­tion of fam­i­ly papers is in Rio de Janeiro, and Stein was giv­en access to it by Sa’adi’s Brazil­ian-born great-great grand­son and his sib­lings, who opened their pri­vate archive to her. These fam­i­ly papers led her to others.

Now, thou­sands of doc­u­ments and many years lat­er, Stein, a remark­ably tena­cious, dili­gent researcher, has brought to life the myr­i­ad Levy fam­i­ly mem­bers, togeth­er with the world of a once-vital com­mu­ni­ty. She has done it mas­ter­ful­ly, with a grace­ful lit­er­ary style and a flu­id­i­ty that makes read­ing his­to­ry as dra­mat­ic and absorb­ing as any novel.

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

An engag­ing tour through the lives of mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions of a promi­nent Ottoman Jew­ish fam­i­ly of Ashke­nazi back­ground and their prog­e­ny scat­tered across the world, Fam­i­ly Papers offers inti­mate snap­shots of Sephardic Jew­ish life in the sto­ried city of Saloni­ca that reveal the aspi­ra­tions and hard­ships not only of a sin­gle fam­i­ly but also of an entire com­mu­ni­ty across the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Culling from a remark­able trove of thou­sands of pri­vate let­ters exchanged by mem­bers of the Levy fam­i­ly dis­persed across Saloni­ca, Brazil, France, Eng­land, and India, Sarah Abre­vaya Stein adds anoth­er plume to her cap by craft­ing an acces­si­ble and engag­ing tale that weaves togeth­er the diverse per­spec­tives of the many mem­bers of a sin­gle clan: from the birth of Ladi­no pub­lish­ing in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry through the annex­a­tion of Saloni­ca by Greece in 1912 – 1913, to the Great War, a major fire, and ulti­mate­ly the dev­as­ta­tion of the Holo­caust. The val­ue of Stein’s book comes not only in her deft sto­ry­telling abil­i­ty that brings the world of Jew­ish Saloni­ca and its dias­po­ra alive, but also her new schol­ar­ly con­tri­bu­tions, espe­cial­ly the recon­struc­tion of the role of Saloni­ca’s most infa­mous Jew­ish col­lab­o­ra­tor dur­ing the Holo­caust — him­self a scion of the Levy fam­i­ly. More broad­ly, the book offers a stir­ring med­i­ta­tion on the mean­ing of fam­i­ly and the man­ner in which the bonds among its mem­bers vary­ing­ly strength­en, fray, and dissolve.