Family Papers and the Sephardic Twentieth Century with Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Sarah Stein joins the podcast to talk about her recent book, Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey through the Twentieth Century, and how looking closely at the history of one family can tell us the story of an entire century.

Sarah Abrevaya Stein is a Professor of History and holds the Maurice Amado Endowed Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA’s Department of History, and she also is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director of UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. Besides Family Papers, just a few of her many other notable books include Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce (2008), and Sephardi Lives, an incredible documentary history which she co-edited with Julia Phillips Cohen.

Family Papers is just phenomenal, and it’s gotten a lot of attention recently: The Economist named it one of the best books of 2019, and it was also a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Beyond the awards and accolades, Family Papers provides an entryway into an important discussion about diaspora histories, the pathways of Sephardic Jews across the twentieth century, and the importance of everyday historical materials. These “family papers” of the Levi family not only give us the book’s evocative title, but they also animate and give life to a tremendously rich story and bring us to think about our own place in history.

An edited transcript of the conversation can be read below.

Jason Lustig: I’m so glad to sit down with you and to talk about your book. I really enjoyed reading it. It’s such a pleasure. I was wondering if you could just start us off,  very briefly, by telling us a bit about why this story is so special: What is it about this family that tells us something really unique—something about them, that perhaps drew you to them? And where do you think that we learned something big about them, and about the broader history?

Sarah Abrevaya Stein: The family whose history I tell here, which spans roughly a century, is a global history. It follows a family through the dramatic events of the twentieth century, and the development of their own familial global diaspora. In some ways, it is a generalizable Jewish story. In some ways, it is a Sephardic story. In some ways, it is unique to the family whose history I tell.

Let me explain what I mean. It is a generalizable Jewish history in that, I would say, it maps a century of the dramatic world events and personal choices and transitions that Jews faced and confronted and underwent migration, state violence, warfare, shifting cultural and religious norms, shifting gender norms. All of this is prototypically Jewish. 

On the other hand, it is a uniquely Sephardic and Mediterranean story, a story that has to do with the end of the Ottoman Empire, the shifting primacy of the Ladino and Judeo-Spanish culture, the acquisition of European languages, even down to the timeline of Holocaust era, which of course is also a generalizable Jewish history, but it still is uniquely Sephardic and its contours. 

So it’s a Jewish story, and it is a Sephardic story. It’s a Mediterranean story, and an Ottoman story—and a post-Ottoman story. But I also think it is, as you said, unique to this family. I’ve often wondered, could one pull on the edges of any family and tell an equally rich, multigenerational story? I’m not sure that I know the answer to that question. But I will say that this family enabled that kind of project partly because they were historically a family of letters of editors of printers of teachers of journalists of writers, who, for so very long, treasured the written word, and saved the written word, and shared with one another through letters, the written word, even when the family stopped to hold fast to that traditional occupation of printing and editing. Those documents and also the photographs and the material objects that they were managed to preserve. 

They understood that they mattered and they passed through the family. I should mention to those who are listening who haven’t had a chance to look at the book that much of the sources for the book are in family hands. I also consulted many, many archives, but the families still continue to own and treasure their papers. 

I think that I was able to tell a particularly rich story, because members of the family played pivotal roles in modern Sephardic history, I made the decision that this was going to be a book that wouldn’t be outwardly driven by argument, as have some of my other projects, I did make the determination to focus on and to employ a means of storytelling. I was really interested in the idea of writing for a new kind of audience, writing a book that would appeal both to scholars and to general readers with an investment in Jewish history or Sephardic history or global history or family history. 

I also was struck that there are so many excellent books that tell epic stories of Ashkenazi families that allow us to follow families through the dramatic arc of the modern era, we really don’t have anything like that for the Sephardic world. I was intrigued by a very intimate window into modern Sephardic history that could be understood at the human level, the very personal level and through the really very intimate lives of individuals.  I thought that that is not only a narrative goal, but also is really a way of providing a kind of intellectual service to a broad readership.

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