The Story of a Sephardi Family, and the Transformation of the Middle East

Nov. 20 2019

In Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey through the Twentieth Century, Sarah Stein tells the story of the Levys, a Jewish family from Ottoman Salonika. Matti Friedman writes in his review:

Jews, [on the eve of World War I], made up most of [Salonika’s] population and ran its affairs. . . . [T]he young David Ben-Gurion, later the first prime minister of Israel, spent a year in Salonika and noted with amazement that a ship couldn’t leave on Saturday “because the Jewish workers at the port did not work on the Sabbath.” Salonika was, he declared, “the most Jewish city on earth.”

Sa’adi, the [Levy] family patriarch, died in 1903. By the time his grandchildren were adults, in the years after World War II, none could speak his language, the Judeo-Spanish dialect Ladino. His city Salonika, the Jewish port ruled by Muslim Turks, had become a Greek Christian city, Thessaloniki. The Jews were gone.

It’s hard to imagine a place like Salonika today, but its closest approximation in the present is not far away to the east, in Israel, a Mediterranean enclave that feels a lot like Greece and has a lively and fractious Jewish culture in constant contact with Islam. But unlike the working-class Salonika Jews who played a key role in the birth of Israeli ports and shipping, few members of [the Levy] family seem to have had much to do with the new state. They were creatures of a polyglot empire, and nationalism wasn’t their style. Their faith was in Western progress and good will.

After World War I, [Sa’adi Levy’s son] Sam, a journalist, had in fact written to the Versailles peace conference to propose that Salonika become “a free and neutral city administered by Jews” with a vote in the League of Nations: “a Jewish city-state that was neither Zionist nor Greek.” It was a great idea, and of course it was doomed along with the world he knew.

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More about: Ladino, Ottoman Empire, Sephardim, Thessaloniki

Is There a Way Out of Israel’s Political Deadlock?

On Tuesday, leaders of the Jewish state’s largest political parties, Blue and White and Likud, met to negotiate the terms of a coalition agreement—and failed to come to an agreement. If none of the parties in the Knesset succeeds in forming a governing coalition, there will be a third election, with no guarantee that it will be more conclusive than those that preceded it. Identifying six moves by key politicians that have created the deadlock, Shmuel Rosner speculates as to whether they can be circumvented or undone:

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Election 2019, Israeli politics