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Literature

Family Papers Shares Sephardic Journey Beginning in Salonica

November 26, 2019

Sarah Abrevaya Stein is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, as well as Professor of History and the Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA. She is the author or editor of nine books, including Extraterritorial Dreams: European Citizenship, Sephardi Jews, and the Ottoman Twentieth Century and Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce. The recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, three National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two National Jewish Book Awards, Stein lives with her family in Santa Monica, CA. Her latest book is Family Paper: A Sephardic Journey through the Twentieth Century which begins in Thessaloniki or Salonica as it is also known.

According to the book’s description, for centuries, the bustling port city of Salonica was home to the Levy family. As leading publishers and editors, they helped chronicle modern life 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 Stein used 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, and to maintain their 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.

The New York Times reported on the book, noting that “the last hurrah of old Salonica was on the day in 1911 when the Ottoman sultan, Mehmed V, paid a visit to the empire’s great Mediterranean port. Among the celebrants on the docks were two brothers from the Levy family — Sam, a journalist, and Daout, an Ottoman official.

Neither of the brothers knew what was about to happen to the family, to their city, or to the other Jews who made up most of its population and ran its affairs. This was around the same time that the young David Ben-Gurion, later the first prime minister of Israel, spent a year in Salonica and noted with amazement that a ship couldn’t leave on Saturday ‘because the Jewish workers at the port did not work on the Sabbath.’ Salonica was, he declared, ‘the most Jewish city on earth.’”

The Levy family patriarch was a printer named Sa’adi whose 14 children lived through turbulent times as the Jewish port city of the Ottoman Empire eventually became the Greek city of Thessaloniki. His descendants witnessed the 1917 fire in Salonica, the Balkan Wars, the First and Second World Wars. The family’s letters offer insights not only into the lives of this particular family, but also into the history of the twentieth century and the repercussions which continue today.

Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century By Sarah Abrevaya Stein is available in bookstores and online.

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