“Kantika” by Elizabeth Graver

Elizabeth Graver (Photo: Adrianne Mathiowetz) Elizabeth Graver (Photo: Adrianne Mathiowetz)

Once upon a time, many of the largest cities in what was at the time called the “Near East” enjoyed the benefits of the presence of thriving Jewish communities. Constantinople, Aleppo and Baghdad were just a few cities with tens of thousands of Jews that have since dwindled down to almost a handful. In award-winning Elizabeth Graver’s new novel, Kantika, she writes about her grandmother’s Sephardic family from Constantinople. At the end of the book, she states that she decided to use family photos and real names to keep parts of her story true all while using creative license with ancillary details. 

The title of her novel means “song” from the Spanish-derived Ladino of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain centuries before. The book opens in 1907 Constantinople when the author’s grandmother Rebecca Cohen is a young girl, the daughter of a textile merchant named Alberto and his second wife Sultana. Graver’s lyrical prose sets the tone for the impressive story she’s about to tell.


This, this beautiful time, the time of wingspans, leaps and open doors, of the heedless, headlong flow from here to there. This, the time before thought, the world arriving not as lists or harkening back or future tense, but as breath-filled music—kantar, sing.


Kantika: A Novel, Elizabeth Graver (Metropolitan Books, April 2023)
Kantika: A Novel, Elizabeth Graver (Metropolitan Books, April 2023)

Rebecca studies at a convent school with other Jewish, Armenian, Greek, and Turkish students, but when it’s time for catechism, the Jewish students go to another room to learn their own religious history. (There are so few Muslim students, so those that do attend the school are excused for the rest of the day.)


It is led by Monsieur Eskenazi, who teaches them about Jews being chased and Jews being run out of town and Jews being brave, while an old nun dozes in the corner so they’re not left alone with a man.


Jews may enjoy a comfortable life in 1907 Constantinople, but that will soon change with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. Alberto has run his business into the ground and he and Sultana worry their sons will be conscripted into the army. There just doesn’t seem to be much of a future for Jews in Turkey, so Alberto tries to find a new home for his family. America is all but impossible. Cuba is a possibility and the couple’s oldest daughter, Corinne, moves there with her husband. Egypt and the UK are only possibilities for the wealthy. Alberto is not interested in Palestine. One day he learns of an opportunity in Spain, which may as well be Mars.


It was where his people were from and where they were not from. It was where they’d been massacred, accused of blood libel, rounded up in town squares to be assigned saints’ names or the names of trees. It was where—over four hundred years ago, for God’s sake—they’d left. But Spain was also the origin of his lingua de leche, spoken from the cradle on (though he preferred French), and the birthplace of his hero Maimonides, and a place of great poetry, and closer to Europe, or even in Europe, depending on how you thought about it.


Alberto is offered a job in a Barcelona synagogue as a shammash, or caretaker. In the 1920s, the Jewish population of Barcelona is tiny at about a hundred. Desperate, the family moves there, sans Corinne, and tries to make a new life. Rebecca is of the age to marry and the pickings are slim. There’s no question she’ll marry someone Jewish and it’s preferable to find someone around her age. When she meets Luis Baruch at the Barcelona synagogue, he seems to fit the bill. He’s six years her senior, originally from Adrianople in Eastern Turkey, and has a nice sister who becomes Rebecca’s friend. What could go wrong?

As it turns out, Luis suffered brain damage fighting in the Great War and is slow in the head. He leaves Rebecca for months at a time, looking for his next business venture in Morocco, the Canary Islands, and back in Turkey. The couple have two sons, David and Alberto, named after Rebecca’s father, but Rebecca is tired of being separated from her husband, slow or not. She brings her young sons on a harrowing journey to Adrianople in 1929 to reunite with Luis. By the time the three arrive, Luis is gone forever. There was no way for his family to get a message to Rebecca before she and her sons left Barcelona.


Rebecca doesn’t feel the need to remarry, but her parents worry about her and orchestrate a match with a Sephardic widower also from Turkey, now in New York, named Sam Levy. Sam isn’t just a random match, though. He’s an acquaintance of their older daughter Corinne, now in New York, and—maybe more significantly—was married to Rebecca’s childhood best friend from Constantinople who died in childbirth. It’s impossible for Rebecca to just sail to the US to join Sam, so they arrange to meet in Havana. Rebecca’s sons stay back in Barcelona with Alberto and Sultana.

The meeting goes well and the pair ends up marrying in Havana, itself a center of Jewish life in Latin America. When they arrive in New York, Rebecca learns that Sam’s daughter from his first marriage is severely disabled and Sam’s mother doesn’t take well to her new daughter-in-law. Rebecca is patient with both. The couple blend their families and also have a number of their own children, one of whom becomes the author’s mother. As war in Europe seems inevitable, Rebecca worries about her parents and siblings back in Spain. She applies for them to emigrate, but the US government is not open to Jewish resettlement and time seems to be running out.

Graver is proof that her grandparents’ hard work paid off, heartbreak and hardship, notwithstanding. Her family certainly saw its share of upheaval, first leaving Turkey and later trying to leave Spain. Although her family never seemed to feel secure in Spain, there was a time they thought they could always live in Constantinople, later Istanbul. With ethno-nationalism now on the rise in places that have long seemed safe for Jews, Graver’s story may also be viewed as a cautionary tale.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.