In 1954, an eleven-year-old Jewish Tunisian girl, Yafifa Nataf, is playing with friends in the ruins of Carthage when she finds a beautiful scroll hidden in pottery. Against the law and her own best judgment, she takes it. The document — which, unbeknownst to Yafifa, is a page of an antiphonary, or a liturgical book of music — torments her, fascinates her, imperils her, and guides her for years to come.
The Natafs are part of a close-knit extended family that has lived in Tunis for generations. Escalating political and religious tensions in the Arab Jewish world following the establishment of Israel force the Nataf family to flee to Montreal, Canada. Despite the danger it might pose to her family, Yafifa brings the scroll she has long kept hidden in her bag.
The Natafs are well traveled, but they still have difficulties starting a new life in North America – and their experiences as immigrants will resonate with many. As a young adult, Yafifa enrolls in the University, working towards a degree in Religious Studies. There she meets Gregory Edelstein, a young man studying antiquities. For the first time ever, she shares her secret about the scroll. Gregory identifies it as an antiphonary, and it begins to play an integral part in their relationship, their future, and the narrative to follow.
This engaging and heartfelt novel embraces Sephardic culture, food, dress, and religious observance. Ashkenazi traditions are also featured during a meeting of families at a Passover seder and other life-cycle events.
History enthusiasts will be treated to the ancient history of Carthage, Pope Gregory’s Church, and the science of antiquities. And the main characters’ 1964 visit to Israel reads like a travelog and guided tour. Indeed, while authors Jacqueline Semha Gmach and Stephanie Johnstone Steinberg paint beautiful portraits of Tunisia, Paris, and Montreal, they keep their gaze mostly on Israel – the sites, diversity, and vulnerability of the modern Jewish state.
Mirroring events from Gmach’s own life, The Antiphonary of Love captures the cultural, political, and historical mores of the fifties and sixties – and leads us to ask if inanimate objects have a soul.
Renita Last is a member of the Nassau Region of Hadassah’s Executive Board. She has coordinated the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Programming and Health Coordinators and as a member of the Advocacy Committee.
She has volunteered as a docent at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County teaching the all- important lessons of the Holocaust and tolerance. A retired teacher of the Gifted and Talented, she loves participating in book clubs and writing projects.