Book details

Family Papers

A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century

Author: Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Family Papers

Family Papers


About This Book

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.


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Book Details

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.

Imprint Publisher

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



In The News

"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

"A masterpiece of historical research that reads like a novel . . . [Family Papers] is an intimate portrait of a family, reconstructed through a massive collection of their letters and documents. It’s also a chronicle of how their fates were shaped by the wars of the twentieth century, scattering the family from Greece to Western Europe, Israel, Brazil, and India." --Sally Abrams, The Times of Israel

"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)

"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

"Remarkable . . . Family Papers reflects the possibilities of modernity, the richness of Ottoman Jewry, and the nostalgia of diaspora consciousness. [Stein's] deeply intimate portraits of the Levy family present “'how this family loved and quarreled, struggled and succeeded, clung to one another and watched the ties that once bound them slip from their grasp.'” --Hilit Surowitz-Israel, Lilith

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

“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, multigenerational 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

About the Creators

Family Papers

Family Papers