Off the Shelf: History through letters by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

With the advent of the Internet, many people now stay in contact with family and friends through electronic means. Some discourage printing the letters and/or documents due to ecological concerns. Yet, it is physical documents that can help historians uncover what occurred in past decades and centuries. Take, for example, “Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century” by Sarah Abrevaya Stein (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Through the use of letters and other documents saved by family members, the author, a professor of history in Sephardic studies at UCLA, was able to write a multi-generational history of a family whose origins began in Ottoman Salonica and whose descendants moved to other parts of Europe, the Americas, India and Israel. 

Stein notes that the family documents and photographs she used in writing her work had been stored in at least nine countries on three continents as the family migrated over the course of the 20th century. These included “travel documents; naturalization papers; birth, death, and medical records; letters exchanged by relatives, lovers, and friends; business papers, even a baptismal certificate.” However, it’s not the separate documents that are of interest so much as the history they allow Stein to capture: “The Levy family papers catalogue the lives and losses of multiple generations, contain papers written in eight languages, and reflect correspondence among members of a single family spanning the globe. This is a Jewish story, an Ottoman story, a European story, Mediterranean story, and a diasporic story, a story of how women, men and children experienced wars, genocide and migration, the collapse of old regimes and the rise of new nations. The Levy papers also reveal 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.” 

The family history opens with Sa’adi Besalel Ashkenazi a-Levi, who lived in Ottoman Salonica during the late 19th century. At that time, Salonica had a large Jewish population with some claiming that 50 percent of people living in the city were Jewish. This community consisted of Jews who had been expelled from Spain centuries before; they brought their own language with them, a combination of Spanish and Hebrew, which is now called Ladino. At that point in time, there were more than 50 synagogues in the multi-cultural city that was also home to Muslims and Christians. According to Stein, “a Jewish industrial class, working class, and middle-class force fueled Salonica’s economy. Jews were prominent among both the stevedores who manned the port and the women, men, girls and boys who dried tobacco and shaped bricks in the city’s factories. Jews owned many of the shops, cafés, and bars that lined Salonica’s streets, and were teachers in the schools.” Additional occupations included newspaper production and writing, of which members of the a-Levi family took part.

Life changed when the city became part of Greece after the Balkan Wars. The military occupation during World War I created even more problems, causing some members of the family to emigrate. Even worse was the fire that destroyed whole sections of the city in August 1917. This greatly affected the a-Levi family fortune. Even more left their home and moved to other countries, but most stayed in touch through letters – sometimes sending money to help the family and, at other times, requesting funds be sent to them. They emigrated to other parts of Europe or traveled across the ocean to Brazil. Unfortunately, whole branches of the family disappeared during World War II. 
Stein tells this history by focusing on different members of the family, for example, using them as a way to portray what occurred to a particular individual, while also noting how this affected other members of the family. These vary in interest depending on the individual. One of the most interesting was the chapter about Sa’adi’s daughter Rachel (1862-1948), who traveled to different European countries as a teacher for the Alliance Israélite Universelle. After attending the Alliance’s school in Salonica, she was sent to Paris for teacher’s training, even though she was only 15 years old at the time. Her time with the Alliance was not always easy, as some schools had little funding and the pay was low. Rachel married another teacher and the two were required to write to the Alliance in Paris to explain matters relating to their school, but these letters also included a great deal of personal information. 

The career of Rachel’s brother, Shemuel Sa’adi/Sam (1870-1959),was also of interest, especially his involvement with radical newspapers of the time. During this period, different sections of the community debated about how best to secure the Jewish future: “Would Jews’ security and future best be served by socialism, Zionism, the bourgeois and reform-minded goals of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, or regional nationalism of one form or another?” The newspaper that published Sam’s articles was a voice of progress, and Sam thought that Ottoman Jews should modernize and embrace Western culture. He also leaned toward socialism, at first supporting the rights of the working class before abandoning this position and defending the rights of employers. 

Stein writes about too many members of the family to discuss in a short review. The chapter on the German collaborator in the family was striking, as was reading about what happened in Greece and France during World War II. Each chapter contains black-and-white photos of many family members, which will also help readers picture their surroundings. The book does include a hand-written family tree, although this was hard to follow. A clearer version of that would have made it easier to understand the family connections, as would have additional smaller family trees when portraying children and grandchildren. However, these are minor quibbles with a book that shows a clear picture of the Jewish Diaspora in the 20th century through the eyes of one family. 

At the end of “Family Papers,” Stein makes a poetic plea for writing on paper and keeping copies of those letters and documents. She believes that “letters are an inheritance. Their value and, the meaning we derive from them, are limitless. The longer we save them, the richer they become. The longer we save them, the better we understand one another, and ourselves.” In this age of instant communication, one doubts whether her plea will make a difference. Histories written about the 21st century may be the poorer due to the information that disappeared into cyberspace.