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Family Papers

A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century

Sarah Abrevaya Stein


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ISBN10: 1250758173
ISBN13: 9781250758170

Trade Paperback

352 Pages



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A National Jewish Book Award Finalist

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.


Praise for Family Papers

"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

"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

"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)

“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, multi-generational 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 historian—and a storyteller—of 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

"A fascinating history . . . [with] incomparable sources . . . A masterful multi-generational reconstruction of a family's life."—Kirkus Reviews (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


Read an Excerpt


Does every generation believe it exists at a moment of transition? Looking around him, Sa’adi Besalel Ashkenazi a-Levi saw a world that scarcely resembled the one into which he was born. Young women and men dressed differently...

About the author

Sarah Abrevaya Stein

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 several 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

Caroline Libresco

Sarah Abrevaya Stein

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