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.

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.