True to its title, this book by Stein (Maurice Amado Endowed Chair in Sephardic Studies, & Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director, Alan D. Levy Ctr. for Jewish Studies, Univ. of California Los Angeles) delivers a tour de force tracing one family's history, beginning in Ottoman Turkey, and the lives of their descendants across the world in the present day. The Levys were a prominent clan in Salonica, Greece, and as publishers and editors, they had firsthand views of events in the Ottoman Empire. Stein relies on personal family narratives and correspondence to tell the story of nearly three dozen relatives from the late 19th through the early 21st century. The result is a small window into the world of Sephardic Jewish history along with the changes and turmoil world events had thrust upon them. The fate of history, the redrawing of nations' borders, and the Holocaust force the family to escape to other parts of the world, including India, Israel, the United States, South Africa, and South America. VERDICT A moving, wonderfully written history of a fascinating family that will attract readers of history and those interested in Judaic studies. Highly recommended.—Jacqueline Parascandola, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
UCLA professor Stein (Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce) delivers a fascinating history of the Levy family, Sephardic Jews with roots in the Ottoman city of Salonika (now Thessaloniki, Greece). Beginning with patriarch Sa’adi Besalel Ashkenazi a-Levi, a publisher who was excommunicated in 1874 for denouncing Salonika’s religious elite, and his 14 children, Stein draws from the Levys’ voluminous correspondence and records to trace four generations of family history across five continents. Along the way, she documents the pressures the Levys and other publishers and editors felt from Ottoman Empire censors and the influence of Alliance Israélite Universelle schools on Jewish families across the Levant, among other intriguing historical tidbits. A 1917 fire devastated Salonika’s Jewish quarter and dispersed many of Sa’adi’s descendants across Central and Western Europe, where “entire branches of the family tree” were destroyed in the Holocaust. Sa’adi’s great-grandson Vital, however, became a Nazi collaborator and “the only Jew tried in Europe as a war criminal.” Stein’s short chapters allow readers to get to know only a few members of the Levy family well, but her spirited account, which is greatly enhanced by its many photos, makes a fine contribution to the field of modern Jewish studies. (Nov.)
"Stein, a U.C.L.A. historian, has ferocious research talents . . . and a writing voice that is admirably light and human . . . [She] has produced a superb and touching book about the frailty of ties that hold together places and people." Matti Friedman, The New York Times Book Review
"The “Sephardic Journey” traced in Family Papers is . . . bounded by confident cosmopolitanism and aching loss . . . Stein guides the reader through [her] sources with a restrained but humane voice . . . The result is a book of unusual emotional power and immediacy." Sara Lipton, The New York Review of Books
"A masterpiece of historical research that reads like a novel . . . [Family Papers] is an intimate portrait of a family, reconstructed through a massive collection of their letters and documents. It’s also a chronicle of how their fates were shaped by the wars of the twentieth century, scattering the family from Greece to Western Europe, Israel, Brazil, and India." Sally Abrams, The Times of Israel
"Jewish past is visible only in the flickering light of remembrance. In Family Papers, Stein skillfully draws a map of this memory-scape and poignantly traces its travails." Benjamin Balint, The Wall Street Journal
"An extraordinary work of historical research, but it is much more personal, even intimate, than most scholarship . . . Family Papers is more than a fascinating account of the Levys’ gradual transformation from Ottoman subjects into Westerners and their dispersal throughout the world. It is also an opportunity to hear a small but poignant set of voices break through the silence that we have faced so far about the Jews of Greece. Stein’s prodigious research, a true labor of love, gives voice to some of those who have been silenced." Alexander Nehamas, Jewish Review of Books
"[A] remarkable book . . . Stein is able to summon her characters with the depth and feeling of a novelist." The Economist (book of the year)
"Remarkable . . . rigorously researched . . . Readers will rejoice at every miraculous story of survival, of which there are a few, and will mourn every death, of which there are many." Elaine Margolin, Los Angeles Review of Books
"Remarkable . . . Family Papers reflects the possibilities of modernity, the richness of Ottoman Jewry, and the nostalgia of diaspora consciousness. [Stein's] deeply intimate portraits of the Levy family present “'how this family loved and quarreled, struggled and succeeded, clung to one another and watched the ties that once bound them slip from their grasp.'” Hilit Surowitz-Israel, Lilith
"A fascinating history . . . [with] incomparable sources . . . A masterful multigenerational reconstruction of a family's life." Kirkus (starred review)
"A tour de force . . . A moving, wonderfully written history of a fascinating family that will attract readers of history and those interested in Judaic studies." Library Journal (starred review)
"A fascinating history . . . [Stein's] spirited account, which is greatly enhanced by its many photos, makes a fine contribution to the field of modern Jewish studies." Publishers Weekly
“From Ottoman Salonika to Rio de Janeiro, Paris, and beyond, Sarah Abrevaya Stein follows the fascinating Levy family over five generations. Letters, memoirs, and interviews reveal love and hate, success and shameful secrets both. An extraordinary Sephardic saga, brilliantly told!” Natalie Zemon Davis, author of Trickster Travels
“By turns intimate and expansive, mournful and celebratory, Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s Family Papers mines a remarkable trove of letters to detail the dramatically shifting fortunes of one extended Sephardic clan. As she brings us inside the lives and lines of her border-crossing, multigenerational cast of correspondents, Stein also makes expert use of her skills as cultural historian, textual detective, and savvy social cartographer to map the fate of a fading world.” Adina Hoffman, author of Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City
“Gripping, inspiring, and heartbreaking, Family Papers follows one Sephardic Jewish family from Salonica (now Thessaloniki, Greece) to the far corners of the world and through the most turbulent decades of the twentieth century. The author has accomplished something miraculous; by tracking down every scrap she could find, from Manchester and Johannesburg to Rio and Bombay, and reconstructing individual lives and all too many tragic deaths, this master of the craft makes the Levy family’s story everyone’s. This is history as it should be written now: approachable, yet full of insight, alert to every global resonance, and always insistent on getting as close to the truth as possible.” Lynn Hunt, author of History: Why It Matters
“Sarah Abrevaya Stein is a historianand a storytellerof consummate skill. In Family Papers, she has produced a lucid, intimate portrait of Sephardic Jews, of ties that bind and memories cherished and elided.” Steven J. Zipperstein, author of Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History
The experiences of a Sephardic family reveal tumultuous Jewish history.
Drawing on rich archives that yielded thousands of letters, telegrams, photographs, and legal and medical documents, two-time National Jewish Book Award winner Stein (History and Jewish Studies/UCLA; Extraterritorial Dreams: European Citizenship, Sephardi Jews, and the Ottoman Twentieth Century, 2016, etc.) offers a fascinating history of the Levy family, Sephardic Jews descended from Sa'adi Besalel Ashkenazi a-Levi, an influential publisher in 19th-century Salonica. The author's incomparable sources, which include Sa'adi's memoir (edited by Stein for publication in 2012), afforded her an intimate look at the challenges, quarrels, loves, and rivalries that beset Sa'adi and his wives, children, grandchildren, and their descendants as they experienced cataclysmic world events. Organized chronologically, each chapter focuses on a family member to explore their choices and opportunities in a changing world. Of Sa'adi's 14 children, one daughter became a teacher; one son followed in his father's footsteps as a newspaperman; another became a high-ranking official for the Jewish Community of Salonica. Yet another son, a gifted linguist and mathematician who rejected a teaching career in favor of law, rose to considerable stature as the Jewish Community's "director of communal real estate," a position that carried significant "legal, social, and economic authority." Four emigrated to Sephardic communities abroad. Generations of the Levy family were caught in the maelstrom of wars. The First Balkan War, which obstructed daily life, led to the Ottomans' loss of Salonica to Greece, an upheaval that the Levys saw as calamitous because it gave Greek Orthodox Christians preference to Jews. After World War I, a massive influx of Greeks reduced the once-prominent Jewish population to "a mere fifth" of the city's residents. In 1943, Nazi persecution intensified in Salonica, and Stein uncovers harrowing evidence of one great-grandson of Sa'adi who became a Nazi henchman, for which he was executed. By the end of World War II, of 37 family members deported from France and Greece, only one survived. Still, the Levys endure, scattered throughout the world.
A masterful multigenerational reconstruction of a family's life.