Melancholy Recollections: On Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s “Family Papers”

By Elaine MargolinNovember 28, 2019

Melancholy Recollections: On Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s “Family Papers”

Family Papers by Sarah Abrevaya Stein

SARAH ABREVAYA STEIN, a professor of history at UCLA, has written a remarkable book that took her the better part of a decade. Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century is a rigorously researched chronicle of a large Sephardic clan, tracing its history from Ottoman Salonica through the present day. The author relied heavily on personal interviews with descendants willing to speak with her about their lives, along with a treasure trove of intimate letters, telegrams, photographs, and legal and medical documents that were miraculously saved in family archives. Her research uncovered this family’s comings and goings and their increasing trauma as modernity beckoned.

Stein, who specializes in Sephardic Studies, traces this family’s ancestry all the way back to Sepharad, also known as medieval Iberia, from which the majority of Sephardic Jews were expelled in the 1490s, during the Inquisition. For the next five centuries, they would find sanctuary under the auspices of the vast Ottoman Empire. When that empire crumbled, so did many of their dreams, and most of them fled elsewhere, once again looking for a safe haven. Stein provides a perfunctory introduction to their plight, then quickly delves into a series of biographical profiles, perhaps assuming that we understand or know more about these people than we do. It is a peculiar omission in her otherwise stellar narrative.

Readers eager to understand the emotionally fraught history of Jewish Sephardim would be wise to familiarize themselves with the topic before tackling Stein’s study. One might, for example, peruse Ilan Stavans’s incisive writings; Stavans is an Ashkenazi Jew who grew up in Mexico, among many close Sephardic friends. One of these friends told Stavans about a “magical” key his family passed from one generation to the next, which is said to be able to open the door of the abandoned house they were forced to flee when violently thrown out of Spain five centuries ago. Stavans shows how the Sephardim were further marginalized by the Ashkenazi Jews who condemned their romanticized memories of coexisting peacefully with Arab cultures under the ethnic umbrella of the Ottoman Empire. Sephardic Jews developed their own cultural preferences, including an embrace of Ladino over Yiddish, a fondness for spicy food, and unique liturgical practices. Even the music they cherished was radically different from the klezmer familiar to Ashkenazim; often they used instruments from their host cultures, whether Greek or Turkish or Moroccan, mastering the lute, the mandolin, the tambourine, and hand drums. Sometimes they invited Muslim musicians to partake in joyous wedding receptions. They were more accustomed to negotiating and compromising with other peoples and, for the most part, were more secular and opposed to fanaticisms of all kinds.

Several Sephardic Israeli authors provide glimpses into the lingering memories that haunt their diasporic community. These are not joyous memories of arriving in Jerusalem but rather melancholy recollections of their ancestors being forced out of Spain, and of their own exiles from Turkey or Morocco or Greece, where they had once enjoyed unprecedented freedoms. Haim Shiran left Morocco for Israel in 1970, but his 2013 memoir The Rock of the Origin is filled with nostalgic recollections of his homeland. Ami Bouganim has lived in Israel since he was 19, but his autobiographical novel Es-Saouira de Mogador (2013) features cherished remembrances of Jewish Mogador, whose history and geography he details with painstaking care. He recalls living harmoniously with Muslims and Christians until something seemed to go terribly wrong. Shelomo Elbaz left Marrakesh for Jerusalem at 33 but still feels like a stranger in his adopted land; his 2013 memoir, Marrakesh-Jerusalem: The Native Land of my Soul, expresses the identity confusion he still suffers as an Israeli Jew whose heart was left behind in Marrakesh. And Gavriel Bensimhon, in his own autobiographical novel Neurah be-hulzah kehullah (Young Girl in the Light Blue Shirt, 2013), set in Haifa, writes about his own barely suppressed longings for his homeland, Sefrou, which he left behind decades ago. All of these authors speak passionately about their birthplaces, despite the antisemitism they endured there.

While Stein seems hesitant to address the many mysteries that permeate the identity of Sephardic Jews, Israeli novelist Abraham B. Yehoshua tackles this issue head-on, writing about his forebears from Salonica with a startling immediacy. In his 2010 essay “Beyond Folklore: The Identity of the Sephardic Jew” from Quaderns de la Mediterrània, Yehoshua describes his Sephardic father’s tendency to dance the flamenco in front of his delighted Israeli grandchildren, who blush at his flamboyance. Yehoshua knows that identity has no logical or finite destination point but is instead an ongoing creation fraught with buried emotions and longings we often aren’t even aware of. He asks how he, an Israeli author, can remain obsessed with a past he never really knew yet which remains the driving force of his being:

[H]ow can the memory of Spain be retained as if it were a cherished memory of Jerusalem? How can it be that Jews, whose ancestors were cruelly banished from Spain in the late Middle Ages and lived in exile in Muslim or Christian countries, have insisted on preserving a Spanish identity of sorts for more than four hundred years? It is as if they had said to those who drove them out: you succeeded in expelling us physically from Spain, but you will never succeed in expelling Spain from inside of us.

We need to understand this yearning that Yehoshua writes about so eloquently before we turn to Family Papers. Grasping this background will give us a better insight into the patterns of thought and feeling expressed by the individuals captured in Stein’s collective portrait.

Stein begins her book by introducing us to Sa’adi Besalel Ashkenazi a-Levi, a thriving publisher in Salonica, where over 60,000 Jews once lived and thrived and 50 synagogues stood. Sa’adi was a pious man but also a freethinker of sorts, using his printing press to criticize rabbinical excesses, such as the high taxes imposed on kosher meat and other intolerances. As a young man, he would sing Turkish songs at wedding receptions, infuriating the rabbis. As an adult, he sent one of his daughters to Paris to study to become a teacher, a radical act at the time. Sa’adi was punished for his outspokenness and excommunicated, which broke his heart. As his vision was fading, he began writing a memoir during the 1880s, hoping to make amends to the Jewish community who had expelled him. He continued to publish a newspaper in Ladino, called La Epoka, that was progressive in tone; Stein included selections from it in her 2014 anthology Sephardi Lives: A Documentary History, 1700–1950 (co-edited with Julia Phillips Cohen).

Stein laments that she was unable to find out what happened to some of Sa’adi’s many children, who seem to have disappeared without a trace. She knows that at least two were murdered at Auschwitz; many others survived in faraway places where some succeeded more than others. Sa’adi’s son David, a skilled linguist and mathematician, was the director of the Ottoman Passport Office, in charge of issuing identity papers. It was an incredibly powerful job, since having the right papers often meant the difference between life and death as borders shifted and regions changed hands. After the Second Balkan War, when Salonica came under Greek control, Jews were shut out of civic life, causing David’s sons to flee. Leon chose Brazil, and Emmanuel went to France. Jewish emigration steadily increased in the years leading up to World War I.

Sa’adi’s daughter Fortunée remained in Salonica and married Ascher Jacob Salem, becoming a mother of six. She sent her children to Christian schools, while her husband, an importer-exporter, was able to maintain congenial relations with Christian and Muslim merchants. When their eldest son Jacques left for Manchester to establish a base of operations for the business there, he was arrested as a foreign national, just as World War I was breaking out, and imprisoned for four years.

Another of Sa’adi’s sons, Sam Lévy, was a newspaperman who dreamed of what Salonica once was — a place where Jews enjoyed unprecedented freedom and self-governance, but also a place that no longer existed except in his imaginings. He dreamed it could once again become a special site, a “free and neutral city” that was “neither Zionist nor Greek,” with a voice in the newly created League of Nations. He hoped it could become a city where Jews would be sheltered from the rising nationalism sweeping the globe. Like the Israeli authors mentioned above, he always saw his childhood home through a nostalgic lens, despite the realities that prevented him from returning there. The Christian Greeks ruled it now, and Jews were unwelcome. But Salonica remained, in his mind, a kind of personal Jerusalem.

One of Stein’s most unnerving discoveries was that Sa’adi’s great-great-grandson was a notorious Nazi collaborator, so feared and despised that the few remaining Jews in Greece after the war asked the authorities to execute him. After a hasty trial, he was killed in 1948.

Stein spends a great deal of time interviewing the descendants of Sa’adi in Lisbon, Manchester, Rio de Janeiro, California, and Greece. Many are very accomplished citizens — one a fine musician, another an ambassador, a few in politics, others thriving in businesses of their own making. She is struck by genetic similarities: the high cheekbones, the height, even the propensity for eye trouble. She admits feeling bewildered by their lack of zealousness over the news she brings of their past, but thinks perhaps that it is she who is too obsessed with what has come before. She writes wistfully:

These Levy descendants are not (in most cases) aware of their family’s complex past, and apparently are not eager to broker relations with one another. And perhaps this is in the nature of things? The folly may lie in the historian, hungry to chart a unique system of coordinates in the ether.

The Holocaust decimated large swaths of the Levy clan. Those who fled to Manchester fared better than those who chose Paris. After the war, relatives wrote to one another, but soon enough old family squabbles resurfaced; some thought their loyalty should be limited to other Sephardic Jews, while others thought it should extend to Jews in general. 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.

The book is graced with stark black-and-white photographs of Sa’adi’s descendants, usually dressed in their finest clothes, staring solemnly at the camera as if they knew something precious was expiring. But one picture is particularly striking: it seems to be of no one in particular but rather representative of the tenuousness of Jewish life as the Nazis soared to power. It is a photograph of a group of nervous-looking Jews standing on a crowded train platform at the Gare Montparnasse, looking helpless as an already overcrowded train is preparing to leave. They all gaze back and up at the cameraman, who appears to have summoned their attention somehow. We can really only see their eyes: dozens of terrorized glances staring back at us feebly. We know we are looking at people who have waited too long, many of whom are likely to die in the camps. And we weep once again for the familiar Jewish story of persecution and exile, a story that seems to have no ending.


Elaine Margolin is a book critic whose work has appeared in many venues, including The Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post, The Denver Post, and San Francisco Chronicle, as well as many literary journals. She lives in Hewlett, New York.

LARB Contributor

Elaine Margolin is a book critic whose work was appeared in many venues, including Washington Post, Jerusalem Post, Denver Post, and San Francisco Chronicle, as well as many literary journals. She lives in Hewlett, New York.


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