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

November 20, 2019 | Matti Friedman
About the author: Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His latest book is Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (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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