Barcelona, Cour­tesy of the author

I was doing research for my nov­el Kan­ti­kasong” in Ladi­no — when I stum­bled upon a silent film from 1929 called Los judíos de patria españo­la,” or Jews of the Span­ish Home­land.” To my aston­ish­ment, it looked to con­tain unat­trib­uted footage of my rel­a­tives in Barcelona, where they’d moved in 1924 from Istan­bul. Before my eyes stood a smil­ing woman in a black coat (my grand­moth­er Rebec­ca?), and in front of her, two small boys (my uncles David and Al?), the younger with a mop of blond curls. There’s even,” read the cap­tion in Span­ish, a small ora­to­ry in cur­rent day Cat­alo­nia.” I knew from fam­i­ly sto­ries that my grandmother’s father, Alber­to Cohen, had spent more than a decade as the care­tak­er of a tiny, semi-hid­den syn­a­gogue on Car­rer de Provença. I knew they’d had a gar­den — it was his pas­sion — and there, in the film, was a beard­ed old man in a cardi­gan shuf­fling among his plants, col­lect­ing sticks.

Jews of the Span­ish Home­land,” Pho­to cour­tesy of the author

My grand­moth­er used to tell me how when her son Al (named after her father, as was the cus­tom) was small, he’d had a head­ful of blond curls, the col­or unusu­al for a Sephardic child. I’d seen a yel­low curl pre­served under glass next to his baby pho­to, the lock tied with a pur­ple ribbon.

In the film, the fam­i­ly is not named. My grand­moth­er was long gone by the time I start­ed writ­ing my nov­el Kan­ti­ka, which uses her migra­tion sto­ry as a spring­board. I emailed the link to the film to my uncle David, who was nine­ty-two and sharp as a tack, and called to ask him to check his email. Ten min­utes lat­er, he called me back: Holy cow! Where the hell did you find that? That’s me, walk­ing across the screen! That’s — ” his voice broke for a moment; he’d left Spain for New York at age eight, nev­er to see his grand­par­ents again “ — me at Provença, the cra­zi­est thing.”

I’d been work­ing on my nov­el for sev­er­al years by then. Or decades, real­ly, if you go back to 1985, when I was twen­ty-one and record­ed my grand­moth­er rem­i­nisc­ing about her life. Lat­er on, when I recount­ed the sto­ry to oth­ers, peo­ple were skep­ti­cal: Are you sure — they went to Spain? Cen­turies pri­or, dur­ing the Inqui­si­tion, Spain had slaugh­tered, expelled, and forced Jews to con­vert. However,there was a short-lived law in the 1920s that promised Span­ish cit­i­zen­ship to Sephardic Jews. My fam­i­ly had long flour­ished in Turkey, but after the col­lapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, they lost their for­tune and had few options.

Jews of the Span­ish Home­land” runs for a lit­tle over thir­teen min­utes and is a deeply strange affair – from the open­ing shot of the film­mak­er in thick, tri­an­gu­lar glass­es on a rooftop with a cam­era, to the plump rab­bi laugh­ing on a brass bed in the Balka­ns, to a man slit­ting the throat of a hen, and anoth­er man mov­ing along a row of seat­ed women, exam­in­ing teeth. The cam­era trav­els the tum­bled streets of the old Jud­erías of Tole­do, Cór­do­ba, and Sevil­la. And at 5.34¡mirar!–a lit­tle fam­i­ly, actu­al Jews liv­ing in Barcelona! I did some research on the film­mak­er, Ernesto Giménez Caballero, and found out that he start­ed as an avant-garde intel­lec­tu­al and even­tu­al­ly became a Fas­cist who tried to set Hitler up with the sis­ter of Pri­mo de Rivero, the dic­ta­tor of Spain. Some­where in between, Ernesto Giménez Caballero had the bright idea that Sephardic Jews, sup­pos­ed­ly nos­tal­gic for their lost home­land,” could be enlist­ed to help a weak­ened Spain regain pow­er in trade abroad, but his admi­ra­tion was short-lived. When the tide turned against the Jews, so did he.

In my nov­el, Ernesto Giménez Caballero knocks on the door of the unmarked lit­tle tem­ple. Rebec­ca pos­es for him. Her father, Alber­to, sens­es that some­thing is off and tells the film­mak­er to put his cam­era down. Giménez Caballero per­sists. Deals are made, bar­gains struck. Alber­to plays his ney, a Turk­ish flute made of reed, for the film­mak­er. They dis­cuss poet­ry. Rebec­ca flirts. Under­neath, some­thing else is hap­pen­ing. The scene is my inven­tion. In real life, I just know that my fam­i­ly was there, and so was he.

In 2021, as my uncle David lay dying in a hos­pi­tal bed in Chica­go, I Face­Timed him from Boston and read aloud to him from Kan­ti­ka. There he was in my nov­el, through the sto­ries he’d told me: a small, hap­py child in Spain catch­ing snails with his grand­moth­er on the rain-slicked streets; an angry boy strug­gling to learn Eng­lish in New York; a fright­ened sailor on an air­craft car­ri­er under attack in the Pacif­ic. He had no mem­o­ry of a tall film­mak­er train­ing a lens on him, but he remem­bered the giant palm tree at the hid­den tem­ple, the glass shards his grand­fa­ther installed in cement on the gar­den walls to keep intrud­ers out, and the Ladi­no kan­tikas his moth­er sang him: Durme durme sin ansia i dolor, sleep sleep with­out wor­ry or pain. It was our final con­ver­sa­tion (though I haven’t stopped talk­ing). Use my real name, my uncle said.

Eliz­a­beth Graver’s fifth nov­el, Kan­ti­ka, was inspired by the migra­tion sto­ry of her Turk­ish Sephar­ic grand­moth­er, whose jour­ney took her from Turkey to Spain, Cuba and New York. Turk­ish, Ger­man and audio edi­tions are forth­com­ing. Her nov­el The End of the Point was long-list­ed for the 2013 Nation­al Book Award and select­ed as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her oth­er nov­els are AwakeThe Hon­ey Thief, and Unrav­el­ling. Her sto­ry col­lec­tion, Have You Seen Me?, won the 1991 Drue Heinz Lit­er­a­ture Prize. Her work has been anthol­o­gized in Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­riesBest Amer­i­can Essays, and Prize Sto­ries, the O. Hen­ry Awards. She teach­es at Boston College.