By – April 10, 2023

Cyn­thia Ozick has said that, as sto­ry­tellers, we should use as much (Jew­ish) speci­fici­ty as pos­si­ble, and not look to erase it in order to appeal to an imag­ined, uni­ver­sal read­er. She used the metaphor of blow­ing into the nar­row end of the sho­far, which results in a resound­ing and mem­o­rable sound, rather than blow­ing into the wide end, which pro­duces a sound that is small and incon­se­quen­tial. What makes Eliz­a­beth Graver’s new book, Kan­ti­ka, such a strik­ing read is that she vivid­ly depicts the life and times of its hero­ine, the spir­it­ed Rebec­ca Levy, née Cohen, allow­ing the read­er an immer­sive read­ing experience.

The sto­ry of Kan­ti­ka, based on the life of Graver’s grand­moth­er, opens in Con­stan­tino­ple in 1907 and spans five decades, mak­ing stops in Barcelona and Havana but ulti­mate­ly end­ing in New York City in 1950. While mod­ern Jews every­where are suf­fer­ing as a result of the two World Wars, it’s also a peri­od of great upheaval for Sephardic Jews in Islam­ic lands — in this case, Turkey.

Through the spe­cif­ic expe­ri­ences of the Cohen/​Levy fam­i­ly, we learn about the tri­als and tribu­la­tions shared by this gen­er­a­tion of Jews: emi­gra­tion and immi­gra­tion, loss, nos­tal­gia, sep­a­ra­tion from fam­i­ly, war, and finan­cial loss and inse­cu­ri­ty. But we also bear wit­ness to the inti­mate and small joys that are found in dai­ly liv­ing, faith, work, friend­ship, and life-cycle events. 

One par­tic­u­lar delight is how the author fre­quent­ly incor­po­rates Ladi­no (with trans­la­tion) into the character’s dia­logue and thoughts. This not only lends authen­tic­i­ty to their lived, lin­guis­tic expe­ri­ence as oth­ers” (Jews in Turkey) and immi­grants (Sephardic Jews in Barcelona, then New York), but it also enrich­es our read­ing expe­ri­ence by invit­ing us to engage with the lan­guage that gave this com­mu­ni­ty its unique inheritance. 

Graver includes a fam­i­ly pho­to at the begin­ning of each chap­ter, which pro­vides anoth­er lev­el of (visu­al) wealth and anchors the nov­el to its non­fic­tion­al source. The author imbues her fam­i­ly his­to­ry with imag­ined exchanges, ges­tures, thoughts, and dreams, cre­at­ing mul­ti-dimen­sion­al char­ac­ters with whom it is easy to empathize.

In the end, Kantika’s hero­ine tri­umphs not in a larg­er-than-life hero­ic way, but in a way that makes her relat­able: She does not give up, and she fights for what she feels is right for her fam­i­ly and her­self despite chal­lenges, dis­ap­point­ments, and loss. This is the def­i­n­i­tion of a life well lived. 

Graver chose a fit­ting epi­graph — a Ladi­no proverb — for her nov­el: Deshame entrar, y me azere lugar/​Let me enter, and I’ll make a place for myself.” For it is not just the Sephardic char­ac­ters in Kan­ti­ka that carve out a place for them­selves, once they are able to enter Turkey, Spain, Cuba, and the US. We, too, are invit­ed to enter the sto­ry and make a place for our­selves, in the shared realm of human experience. 

Lis­ten to authors Jor­dan Sala­ma and Eliz­a­beth Graver in con­ver­sa­tion about Mizrachi and Sephardic dias­poric jour­neys, both in fic­tion and real-life, mod­er­at­ed by Stephanie Butnick.

Discussion Questions

Through a lyri­cal blend of fam­i­ly his­to­ry and fic­tion, Kan­ti­ka brings to life a multi­gen­er­a­tional Sephardic fam­i­ly and their per­pet­u­al search for home. The title ref­er­ences the Ladi­no (or Judeo-Span­ish) word for song” — and indeed, Eliz­a­beth Graver’s lyri­cal prose tells a beau­ti­ful tale that was inspired by the jour­ney of her head­strong grand­moth­er, Rebec­ca Cohen. Draw­ing on an inter­view with her grand­moth­er that she record­ed when she was twen­ty-one, as well as trav­els to the places where Rebec­ca lived and care­ful research into Sephardic folk­lore, Graver med­i­tates deeply on mod­ern Sephardic his­to­ry and culture. 

What is espe­cial­ly sig­nif­i­cant and joy­ful is that this his­to­ry and cul­ture are shown through the eyes of a resilient Sephardic woman who refused to bend to the expec­ta­tions of her soci­ety. We see Rebec­ca as a daugh­ter, a wife, a moth­er, a hard-work­ing seam­stress, and a step­moth­er who ris­es to the chal­lenge of car­ing for and giv­ing courage to her dis­abled step­daugh­ter so that she will spread her wings. Rebec­ca is also a singer, and in her gold­en years she sings in Span­ish, Hebrew, and Ladi­no. She sings the kan­tikas of her his­to­ry into the last days of her life. With inter­pre­tive read­ings of old fam­i­ly pho­tos mark­ing the start of each chap­ter, this acclaimed nov­el both edu­cates read­ers about the her­itage of the Sephardim and lifts our spir­its with its hope­ful mes­sage about human interconnectedness.