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An excerpt of Kantika, the new novel by Elizabeth Graver

An excerpt of Kantika, the new novel by Elizabeth Graver, who will join us for two conversations on Tuesday, April 25, at the University at Albany.



Constantinople, 1907 THIS, THE 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. Rebecca sings to the rhythm of the oars as the boat delivers her to school, and in school with the nuns—tournez vos yeux vers Jésus—and climbing ropes at Maccabi gymnastics, hand over hand and wrap your feet, girls, but what draws her up is less the instructor barking commands or the strength of her limbs than the unspooling thread of her own voice. In wordless tunes, nonsense sounds and ballads, in Ladino, French and bits of Turkish, Hebrew, Greek, she sings, as on the street the lemon man sings lemons, the Bulgarian sings pudding, the vegetable man sings eggplant, squash and artichokes—“fresh, cheap, ladies, how I wait for you with my aubergine!” She sings at school in chorus and for daily hymns, and at night her mother sings the children to sleep: “Durme durme, kerido ijiko…”sleep sleep, darling boy, though two of them are girls. If the dull-eyed nightingale rarely makes a chirp, still her father stops by its cage most mornings to try to coax it into song, and he sings at synagogue—“you’ve given me a throat that has not gone dry for calling out to you”—and one strange morning after services, he leads Rebecca to the ark (she has just turned eight, still more baby than girl in his eyes), and she sings to the men below and the women above, her voice as unwavering as the cushioned freedoms and unspeakable good fortune of her childhood (still, her grandmother sews a bonjuk bead to the underside of every collar to ward off the evil eye). Their house has three stories and is made of stone, which does not burn. Down the slope is Balat, where the poor Jews live, but her family lives at the top of the hill in Fener, their neighbors Greek diplomats, Armenian doctors, Jewish bankers and traders like her father, and it is with the daughters of these families and a few equally prosperous Muslim girls that Rebecca and her sister Corinne go to Catholic school. From their bedroom window, they can see the brick tower of the Greek School for Boys, and below it, the minarets of mosques, and beyond that, the Golden Horn with its blinking lighthouse and Hasköy and Galata on the other side. Downstairs, a stream of people come and go, the door more invitation than barrier, men arriving in the evening to join Rebecca’s father in prayer, and it is only after the guests kiss the mezuzah and file out into the dark that he locks the door and shuts the iron gate. On Sunday afternoons, her mother’s friends and relatives arrive to play cards, gossip and assemble baskets for the poor, and so-and-so might be a second cousin or a cousin’s cousin, or it’s Rebecca’s best friend, Rahelika, running up the stairs, or the dressmaker come for a fitting, or Oktay the music master instructing her father on the ney flute. During the week, her father is at the textile factory or out wandering the city, but on Fridays he returns to them, the house spotless, the children, too. Her mother covers her face, says the prayer and lights the candles, and as the wicks sputter and take hold, the sun goes down and the gleaming house falls quiet. Saturday wakes to sound and light. 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. Here, too, the meals are prepared ahead of time, and Gateel, the Armenian maid, arrives to start the fire, serve and wash the dishes, but the children are encouraged to dance and make merry on Shabbat, and in the afternoon, the family visits with relatives or takes a riverboat to the park, where the babies nap in a hammock tied to a tree, sometimes several babies to one tree, suspended like pendulous, damp fruit. For supper there’s cold fish with lemon and egg, and lokum for dessert, and toasted melon seeds to snack on, and the ball comes out for catch, the tambourine for song. Later, at home, they will light the braided candle, then snuff it with wine and laugh out loud to show the evil spirits that though Shabbat is over, joy remains and has no place for them. Hahaha, hahaha! Kyen no rizika, no rozika. Whoever doesn’t laugh, doesn’t bloom. For our final author event of the spring season, Elizabeth will join us for two conversations on Tuesday, April 25, at the University at Albany.


Tuesday, April 25

4:30 p.m. — Craft Talk

7:30 p.m. — Reading/Q&A

Moderator: Edward Schwarzschild, professor at the University at Albany and a fellow at the New York State Writers Institute.


Both events, free and open to the public, will take place in the Multi-Purpose Room, Campus Center West

University at Albany, 1400 Washington Avenue, Albany NY 12222. See parking map.

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.


Cosponsored by the English Department’s Creative Writing Program and Young Writers Program, and University at Albany Hillel.


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