November 19, 2019
WSJ Reviews Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth CenturyHistorians in the News
tags: Israel, religion, Ottoman Empire, Mediterranean, Salonica
A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century
By Sarah Abrevaya Stein
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.”
But by that time the pitiless forces of the 20th century were inching closer, and the old world was about to vanish — a story told in Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s “Family Papers.” The book follows members of the Levy family, descendants of a printer named Sa’adi who lived a rebellious life in the 1800s and dispatched 14 children into a kind of tumult that he couldn’t have imagined. The account of this one Mediterranean clan, like the best micro-histories, contains much more than a family story, illuminating the forces that shaped the world we live in now.
Stein, a U.C.L.A. historian, has ferocious research talents — she collected papers in multiple languages from nine different countries on three continents — and a writing voice that is admirably light and human. She became so involved in the Levy universe that they now copy her on some family emails. All of this has produced a superb and touching book about the frailty of ties that hold together places and people.