The true story of a frayed and diasporic Sephardic Jewish family preserved in thousands of letters. As leading publishers and editors, they helped chronicle modernity as it was experienced by Sephardic Jews across the Ottoman Empire.
The account of this one Mediterranean clan, like the best micro-histories, contains much more than a family story, illuminating the forces that shaped the world we live in now ... Stein, a U.C.L.A. historian, has ferocious research talents — she collected papers in multiple languages from nine different countries on three continents — and a writing voice that is admirably light and human. She became so involved in the Levy universe that they now copy her on some family emails. All of this has produced a superb and touching book about the frailty of ties that hold together places and people ... The family papers that Stein has mined here, with great effort and a keen eye, illustrate history by zooming in as tightly as possible and showing, as she writes, '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.'
Genocide eradicated 98 percent of the Jews who remained in Salonica during the Second World War,' Ms. Stein writes. She leaves the reader to wonder about the reasons for this grim efficiency in a place that had been neither as passionately anti-Semitic as, say, Poland nor as bureaucratically competent as German-occupied countries in Western Europe. She does, however, offer a scene from one of those occupied countries and a sample of their lamentable competence ... Ms. Stein skillfully draws a map of this memory-scape and poignantly traces its travails.