"Kantika" by Elizabeth Graver is the next One Bay One Book pick. (Screenshot/YouTube)
"Kantika" by Elizabeth Graver is the next One Bay One Book pick. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Jewish library picks ‘Kantika,’ novel about Sephardic immigrants, for annual book group

As a college student in the mid-1980s, Elizabeth Graver interviewed her grandmother about her colorful life. Rebecca Levy was born around 1903 into a wealthy Sephardic family in Constantinople (now Istanbul), worked as an embroiderer, married twice, had six children, lived in four countries and spoke multiple languages.

Three decades after Levy’s death in 1992, Graver published a work of historical fiction inspired by her grandmother’s stories of migration, family and resilience. That novel, “Kantika,” is the 2023-2024 selection for One Bay One Book, the Jewish Community Library’s annual community reading program that is now in its 12th year.

“Kantika,” which means “song” in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), is the first One Bay One Book novel that centers Sephardic characters. The 2015-2016 book, Primo Levi’s semi-autobiographical story collection “The Periodic Table,” includes a chapter about Levi’s Sephardic ancestors.

Beginning in November and continuing into 2024, JCL will host free, virtual lectures by scholars on the novel’s themes, including the Jewish experience in the Ottoman Empire, Spain and Cuba, as well as Sephardic life in New York.

In a review in The New York Times, Ayten Tartici wrote that the book “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.”

Howard Freedman, JCL’s director, said library staff chose “Kantika” in part because it tells a different story from the typical immigration-to-America tale.

“There are many American novels that portray Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, but very few that address the experience of Sephardic immigrants from the Eastern Mediterranean,” he said. “I hope ‘Kantika’ resonates with people who may recognize their own family stories in the protagonist’s journey, and that it can also offer a meaningful lens on a different Jewish history and heritage for those of us without a Sephardic background.”

Elizabeth Graver
Elizabeth Graver

Graver, an English professor at Boston College and author of four previous novels, said in an email that she feels connected to both the Sephardic heritage of her mother’s family and the Ashkenazi heritage of her father’s. “I grew up in a proudly Jewish but secular household, and my experience of both traditions has always been more cultural than religious,” she said.

As part of her research process for “Kantika,” she sat in on a Tufts University course in Ladino, which she heard her grandparents speaking when she was young. “Ladino was my mother’s first language and my maternal grandparents would sometimes speak it above my head, but I didn’t grow up speaking it,” she said.

She also consulted Stanford professor Aron Rodrigue, who specializes in the history and culture of Sephardic Jews, about Ladino and aspects of Sephardic life in the Ottoman Empire. In an email, Rodrigue called the novel “marvelously written and very evocative.”

Graver mixes details from her grandmother’s life with fictional characters and scenes in the book. She has described it as “an improvisation between fact, fiction, research, dreams, texts, photographs, real names and invented ones, my grandmother and myself.”

Graver will discuss “Kantika” and answer reader questions during a One Bay One Book event in the spring of 2024.

“I hope it leads people to think about their own family stories — each one singular, but collectively, in the context of Jewish diaspora, they’re enormously varied and rich,” Graver said. “What can we keep? What must we leave? How do we make a home?”

“Kantika” by Elizabeth Graver (Metropolitan Books, 340 pages). Available to borrow from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Library and to buy from Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and online retailers.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.