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.