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Family Papers
Cover of Family Papers
Family Papers
A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century
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Named one of the best books of 2019 by The Economist and a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice. A National Jewish Book Award finalist.

"A superb and touching book about the frailty of ties that hold together places and people." —The New York Times Book Review

An award-winning historian shares the true story of a frayed and diasporic Sephardic Jewish family preserved in thousands of letters

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.

Named one of the best books of 2019 by The Economist and a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice. A National Jewish Book Award finalist.

"A superb and touching book about the frailty of ties that hold together places and people." —The New York Times Book Review

An award-winning historian shares the true story of a frayed and diasporic Sephardic Jewish family preserved in thousands of letters

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.

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About the Author-
  • Sarah Abrevaya Stein is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, and holds the Viterbi Family Chair in Mediterranean Jewish Studies at UCLA. She is the author or editor of many 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, two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two National Jewish Book Awards, Stein lives with her family in Santa Monica, CA.
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    September 15, 2019
    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.

    COPYRIGHT(2019) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    September 30, 2019
    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.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from October 1, 2019

    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

    Copyright 2019 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Matti Friedman, The New York Times Book Review

    "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."

  • Benjamin Balint, The Wall Street Journal "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."
  • Alexander Nehamas, Jewish Review of Books "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."
  • The Economist "[A] remarkable book . . . Stein is able to summon her characters with the depth and feeling of a novelist."
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