The Antiphonary of Love: The Call of the Scroll

  • Review
By – November 28, 2022

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.

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