A Nod to Nostalgia: A Conversation Between Josh Kun and Sarah Abrevaya Stein

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MOTIVATED BY the desire to “think locally and write globally,” Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s award-winning, lyrical scholarship has explored modern Jewish history in unexpected places and forms, from the turn-of-the-20th-century, boom-and-bust, global ostrich-feather market to the intimate, everyday fashion through which Mediterranean Jews contributed to the shaping of the modern world. Her commitment to research is matched by her love of teaching. She is a professor of history at UCLA, where she holds the Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies and directs the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. She is the author or editor of nine books and has received many awards, including the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Jewish Book Awards, and the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award.

Stein’s latest book, Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey through the Twentieth Century (2019), shares the true story of a frayed and diasporic Sephardic Jewish family, which was preserved in thousands of letters. For centuries, the bustling port city of Salonica was home to the sprawling Levy family; as leading publishers and editors, they helped chronicle modernity as it was experienced by Sephardic Jews across the Ottoman Empire. The wars of the 20th century, however, redrew the borders around them, in the process transforming the Levys from Ottomans into Greeks. Family members soon moved across boundaries and hemispheres, stretching the familial diaspora from Greece to Western Europe, Israel, Brazil, and India. In time, the Holocaust nearly eviscerated the clan, eradicating whole branches of the family tree. 

In Family Papers, Stein uses the family’s correspondence to tell the story of their journey across the arc of a century and the breadth of the globe. The Levys wrote to share grief and to reveal secrets, to propose marriage and to plan for divorce, to maintain connection. They wrote because they were family. And years after they frayed, Stein discovers, what remains solid is the fragile tissue that once held them together: neither blood nor belief, but papers. Family Papers has been named a Best Book of 2019 by The Economist and Mosaic magazine and an Editors’ Choice Book by The New York Times, which writes that “Stein, a UCLA historian, has ferocious research talents […] and a writing voice that is admirably light and human […] All of this has produced a superb and touching book about the frailty of ties that hold together places and people.”

In this conversation, Stein discusses her new book with Josh Kun, author and editor of several books on music, cultural history, and Los Angeles, and a celebrated museum curator who has worked with SFMOMA, the Grammy Museum, the California African American Museum, and others. Professor of Communication and Journalism and chair in Cross-Cultural Communication at the University of Southern California, Josh is a 2016 MacArthur fellow and the winner of a 2018 Berlin Prize and a 2006 American Book Award. His latest book is The Autograph Book of L.A.: Improvements on the Page of the City (2019); a companion exhibit was mounted at the Los Angeles Public Library.

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JOSH KUN: I have begun reading your book Family Papers, and I’m hooked, sneaking pages between meetings and course prep. My questions for you, and our conversations about the material you touch on, could be endless, and I hope they will be at least ongoing. I relish this chance to finally be in dialogue after admiring your scholarship for so long.

So, to begin, I thought I would start with the first line I underlined, a line that begins the book: “This is the story of a single Sephardic family whose roots connect them to a place and community that no longer exist.”

Just yesterday I was playing my students “Groung,” a song recorded by the Armenian refugee Zabelle Panosian in 1917 in New York. It is a song about genocide, but it’s really about the emotional and psychological afterlives of genocide. As the collector and historian Ian Nagoski has said, “Groung” resonates with the trauma of realizing that all of the people you once knew are now dead, that the home you once knew as home can never be returned to.

Obviously, the Panosian story, like the story you tell in your book, is not limited to a single period. Those feelings and those traumas, and those attempts to respond to them and even suture them, are ongoing, and currently very much alive as we type. Though your book begins with a looking back, how much of it for you is also a means of reflecting on all the millions of people all over the world right now who are connected to places and communities that either no longer exist or exist in a way that makes them impossible to reconnect with?

SARAH ABREVAYA STEIN: Thanks for this evocative question to start us off!

I entirely agree with the thrust of your question. The modern world (and the women, children, men, and families who experience it) has undoubtedly been defined by displacement and migration (sometimes forced, sometimes voluntary), as well as loss and reinvention. In this sense, Family Papers is exploring not just a Jewish story but a fundamentally modern, human one.

The comparison you make with “Groung” is a fascinating one; it’s especially intriguing because it reinforces how differently Ottoman Jews and their Armenian neighbors experienced the late years of the Ottoman Empire and, in turn, came to harbor such different memories of the places whence they came. While Armenians remember with anguish the genocide and displacement of upward of a million and a half women, men, and children at the hands of the Ottoman regime, the same time and place was hospitable to Jews and subsequently evoked incredible nostalgia in Sephardic émigrés (though there were also Jews who were horrified witnesses of the violence directed against their Armenian neighbors).

Moving beyond the Sephardic/Armenian contrast, your question reminds me that the Sephardic saga at the heart of Family Papers reverberates with contemporary novels that are similarly concerned with families’ experience of displacement, loss, and inherited trauma. I think of Laila Lalami’s brilliant The Other Americans (2019) and the stunning work by your colleague Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (2015). These writers are grappling, as am I, with the attempt to breathe life into family and diasporic history, to explore the loss that is inextricable from it, and to celebrate the resilience that allows people to reinvent themselves (even if the shadow of the past looms large).

For me, family letters have been the crucial point of access to intimate histories of the 20th century. And this brings me, in turn, to ask a question of you that I think ties our work together. Your latest project, The Autograph Book of L.A., ponders why it is so important for people to be remembered — and why other people cling so earnestly to the written traces others leave behind. I see the same dynamics in the letters exchanged by the family at the heart of Family Papers. Over time, letters became, for them, the thing that made them a family: after their family tree had branched so far, and in so many geographical and cultural directions, little else could be said to bind them.

My question for you, then, is: Why is nostalgia so compelling? Why are people driven by the zeal to collect and save these written, yet ephemeral traces of the past?

I was so taken with your early admission in your book that you identify as a document hunter. In these days when documents are mostly synonymous with political battles, seizures, and displacements — documents as the policed and criminalized tools of belonging — it’s good to remember that there are other histories and other uses of documents that operate outside of governmental power. So, much of my work is inspired by cultural ephemera as a kind of alternative or counter-history, personal collections that offer intimate, even secret, engagements with survival and pleasure and memory in the face of loss. 

I’ve done projects now with formal collections held at the Los Angeles Public Library — sheet music, restaurant menus, and, most recently as you say, autographs — but it really began with my own personal collecting, as a teenager, of cassettes and LPs. Back then, I didn’t see them as historical windows per se, but as ways (to nod to something Walter Benjamin once said) of collecting myself. These musical documents became a register of my own identity, one that I could actively shape through a mix of reality and imagination, documentary and fantasy. 

Working with collections like turn-of-the-20th-century autographs connects back to this question you raise about nostalgia, a word that I find too often gets a bad rap, or is at least badly rapped. As your book explores, nostalgia has been thought of as a longing for home that no longer exists, but as Svetlana Boym so powerfully wrote, that doesn’t mean it’s purely retrospective. Nostalgia can be a tool for making a future out of the ruins of the past. Instead of what she calls “restorative nostalgia” that attempts to recreate a lost world as an absolute truth, there is also “reflective nostalgia” — nostalgia as a tool of critical inquiry, a way of reflecting on who we are. Was there ever really a home to begin with? What would even be the value of trying to restore it? How much of the past is required to live in the present? Who are we without a home? These are questions I love to think about (music is a great platform for them), and I feel them resonating all over your book. 

I wanted also to return to the specific Sephardic dimension of your work as it relates to these issues. Over a decade ago, I co-wrote a book about the history of Jews in America as reflected in 500 album covers (And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We Have Loved, 2008). It became immediately apparent that the easiest, most documented, Jewish-American history to tell is Ashkenazic, and most of the documents I was working with — 12-inch LPs — had little to say about the Sephardic experience in America. Have you found that to be true in your own research? If so, why do you think the Sephardic story has so often played second fiddle? Did that marginalization play a role in your own search for these papers?

I’m also so gripped by the complex intermixing of the past and the present. My work on the Levy family has led me to the homes of descendants the world over, some as young as teenagers, some in their 90s. It’s quite fascinating to consider the ways their family’s past does and does not matter to them: and the ways it influences the present without their even being aware. I actually close Family Papers with a meditation on just this complex point — why history matters to a family, and what we lose as we cease to honor letters as a tie that binds.

As for your last point, I am certainly motivated by the extent to which Sephardic history has been ignored in scholarly and popular writing. To tell Mediterranean Jewish stories, I think, allows us to diversify Jewish history. But equally importantly, it forces us to rethink the very texture of Jewish culture: its languages, food, and rituals (most obviously) as well as the (less obvious) ways parents relate to children, how intimacies take shape, or how historic lands and landscapes are remembered.

We began by discussing how the history of the family at the heart of Family Papers was paradigmatically modern, yet they also carried an Ottoman and Mediterranean watermark that I still see, however faintly, in descendants of the present day. This, I think, is what gripped me about their story over so many years. Their odyssey is a human one, a Jewish one, a modern one, yet also inescapably and uniquely Sephardic.

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Josh Kum is professor of Communication and Journalism and chair in Cross-Cultural Communication at the University of Southern California. His latest book is The Autograph Book of L.A.: Improvements on the Page of the City (2019).