A Sephardic Family Odyssey From Constantinople to Queens

KANTIKA, by Elizabeth Graver

Of his refugee parents, the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen once observed that they had “experienced the usual dilemma of anyone classified as an other. The other exists in contradiction, or perhaps in paradox, being either invisible or hyper-visible, but rarely just visible.” The refugee, the immigrant, the outsider cannot merely be. She is either passed over or stands out like a sore thumb.

Elizabeth Graver’s fifth novel, “Kantika,” brings to life this duality through the story of an Ottoman Jewish family’s emigration from early-20th-century Constantinople to Barcelona, Havana and eventually New York. The novel raises the literary profile of the Sephardim, which remains less conspicuous in America than that of the Ashkenazi, in that formidable line from Henry Roth to Philip Roth. Largely inspired by her maternal grandmother, Rebecca, Graver has reworked family interviews, photographs and stories recorded on microcassettes into stylized historical fiction spanning nearly half a century.

While “Kantika” inevitably relies on tropes of Jewish immigrant literature, from questions of what and where home is to idolization of America as a land relatively unhaunted by the ghosts of European antisemitism, Graver is equally interested in the resilience of women as filtered through the lens of music, motherhood and disability.

We are first introduced to the Cohens as cosmopolitan, affluent Turkish Jews whose lives in turn-of-the-century Constantinople seem buoyant, even picturesque. Alberto and Sultana live at the top of a hill in the ethnically mixed Fener neighborhood, tending to a garden bursting with roses, crocuses, tulips and hyacinths. Their daughter Rebecca fraternizes with the daughters of Greek diplomats and attends a French Catholic school; an Armenian maid lovingly serves their meals. Early on, Graver’s narrator teasingly refers to the intra-Jewish cultural divide that marks the Sephardim as a more colorful branch of Judaism: “Later in life, Rebecca will encounter Jews for whom the Sabbath is a solemn, davening affair — no apricots in syrup or pomegranates with their bloody pearls, just gefilte fish trembling in slime.”

Their multiethnic, multisectarian Ottoman world (arguably somewhat romanticized by Graver) soon collapses, replaced by a bureaucratic Turkish nationalism, even as Turkey remains home to the Cohens: their birthplace, the site of Alberto’s garden, where his father is buried. Although the Ottoman Empire welcomed large numbers of Iberian Jewish exiles after 1492, some Ottoman Jews began to leave in the 20th century to avoid conscription into the army as well as to seek out better opportunities. After the Turkish government requisitions Alberto’s textile factory, he too relocates the bankrupt family to Barcelona with the help of the Jewish Refugee Relief Committee.

Ambivalent about returning to the country that had expelled their ancestors 400 years earlier, the family must rely on invisibility as a form of protection in Spain. Alberto, the raki-drinking businessman with a penchant for the poet Judah Halevi, becomes a humble shammash, or groundskeeper, of a tiny, unmarked synagogue. Rebecca marries another Sephardic Jew and has two sons but is forced to conceal her Jewishness, posing as Marie Blanko Camayor, a literal blank slate with a Parisian pedigree, to get work as a seamstress. A filmmaker, who will later become a fascist, pesters the family to appear as specimens with “authentic Sephardic features” in his “little film to educate Spaniards about the national treasure of the half a million Spanish Jews abroad.”

In Graver’s vision, migration is never simply a one-way street from the Old World to the Promised Land. Rather, her characters zig and zag, doubting, retracing and remembering the places that have shaped them. Alberto brings with him to Spain a suitcase of soil and bulbs from his Turkish garden, unable to let his literal roots go. Rebecca briefly returns to Turkey to look for her husband, an absentee father who is suffering cognitive issues from inhaling mustard gas, only to find him dead. Her sister emigrates to Cuba, hoping to get into America, and Rebecca herself stops in Cuba to marry her second husband, a more reliable partner with American citizenship, before finally landing in Queens.

Graver freely enters the consciousness of many if not all of her characters, channeling their superstitions, setbacks and successes. The novel focuses heavily on Rebecca, whose early naïveté blossoms into strong-willed determination. “I’m not a child, Papa. I belong to no one but myself,” her younger self declares, but her older self knows that she belongs to the many who need her. Including the children from her second marriage, she is mother to six, a feat that does nothing to sap her strength. Well into middle age, she wants “more chatter, more cuddling, more laughter and especially — is it odd for a woman her age, a mother of six? — more play.”

The amount of research that went into “Kantika” is plain to see: Botanical references to ruda, an herb also known as rue that Sephardic Jews have traditionally used as both medicine and a charm to ward off the evil eye, are sprinkled throughout. True to its title, which means “song” in Ladino (or Judeo-Spanish), Graver’s novel is also steeped in music. Rebecca has at her fingertips a broad repertoire of Spanish, Hebrew and Ladino songs, as well as Turkish lullabies, which she sings to her children both to shield them and to transmit her cultural heritage. At times, this exuberant musicality risks going too far and sounding like a fairy tale, and the omniscient narration can sometimes be overwhelming, as when the novel later veers into a side quest about David, Rebecca’s son, who is assigned to the U.S.S. Franklin during World War II.

Yet Graver’s ability to tenderly and humorously inhabit the mind of Rebecca’s disabled stepdaughter, Luna Levy, sets “Kantika” apart. Luna has cerebral palsy and Graver replaces the economic betterment motif of immigrant narratives with an account of Rebecca’s persistent and successful resolve to teach Luna not to lower expectations for herself: “Newmother tortures her. For the past month, she has been taking her through a set of exercises for an hour a day, but with Nona” — her grandmother — “gone, the hour becomes two, then three.” Rebecca’s tough love, however, is genuine and Luna soon embraces her hyper-visibility, merrily greeting others in her father’s shop in Queens: “Ahmlunalevy pleeezedtameeyoooo!”

That careful attention to individual speech underlines “Kantika”’s kaleidoscope of languages, accents and dialects. Graver weaves together snippets of Ladino, Turkish, French, Castilian, Catalan, Hebrew and English like one of Rebecca’s hand-stitched dresses. Helpfully translated so as not to lose the reader, these fragments enrich Graver’s fiction while also stressing one of its central questions: whether a language can stand in for home.

“Kantika” answers in the affirmative. Puzzled by the word aman in a Ladino song Rebecca sings, her husband, Sam, and daughter Suzanne hit the books: “ At the public library the two of them discovered that it meant woe is me in Turkish and Greek, ‘safety’ in Arabic and something akin to ‘believe’ in Hebrew, but when they came home and told Rebecca, she rolled her eyes and said just let it be, it means aman, so they left it untranslated.” Yet by the novel’s end, a lightly tragic note surfaces. As their lives in the United States take off, Rebecca’s American-born children can only muster “kitchen variety” Ladino. “Kantika” is thus also a gesture at preserving a language that, like Yiddish, is now endangered.

Queens is not exactly Fener, English is not Ladino, and Rebecca’s thriving garden of snap peas and sunflowers cannot replace her lost parents. Far from being a Pollyannaish tale of New World success, “Kantika” is a meticulous endeavor to preserve the memories of a family, an elegy and a celebration both.

Ayten Tartici is a lecturer in English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

KANTIKA | By Elizabeth Graver | Illustrated | 287 pp. | Metropolitan Books | $27.99

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