Coming of Age as a Sephardi Refugee

Ashkenazi writers have produced serious coming-of-age novels ranging from Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers to Cynthia Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World, while North African Jews have given us such works as Albert Memmi’s The Pillar of Salt. But, writes Sarah Abrevaya Stein, nothing of the sort has captured the experience of the Ladino-speaking Sephardim of the Ottoman empire—until now.

Elizabeth Graver’s Kantika, a remarkable, lyrical work that conjures and embellishes the journey of the author’s maternal grandmother from Istanbul to Barcelona, Havana, and New York, is the novel that many of us have been waiting for. It is a beautiful work of historical fiction that tells the epic story of a modern Sephardi family with sensitivity, intimacy, and cultural responsibility.

Kantika’s protagonist, Rebecca Cohen, is the daughter of parents who are so prominent in the Istanbul Jewish community that they hobnob with foreign dignitaries. Her world is intensely Judeo-Spanish, but in the way of late Ottoman society, it is also socially fluid. She attends a Catholic, French-language school and her mother tongue, Ladino, is one among many that the family speaks.

[Yet] the Cohen family’s Istanbul idyll has a fatal flaw. Rebecca’s father, Alberto, once dignified and wealthy, has gambled away the family’s savings and become a drunk. He is now forced to approach the Jewish Refugee Relief Committee he once patronized as a supplicant, hoping they will help him take his family to France, England, or North America (he has no interest in Palestine and regards the Zionists as dangerous messianists). The community is financially depleted and focused on helping Jewish émigrés get legal papers to travel and find new jobs and lives abroad, not dissolute local millionaires who have squandered their fortune and good will. They eventually offer to help place Alberto in a position as a janitor of a tiny synagogue in, of all places, Barcelona.

And so, in 1925, Rebecca’s family improbably finds itself in the country that, five centuries earlier, expelled their ancestors.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Jewish literature, Ottoman Empire, Sephardim

Iran’s Calculations and America’s Mistake

There is little doubt that if Hizballah had participated more intensively in Saturday’s attack, Israeli air defenses would have been pushed past their limits, and far more damage would have been done. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack, trying to look at things from Tehran’s perspective, see this as an important sign of caution—but caution that shouldn’t be exaggerated:

Iran is well aware of the extent and capability of Israel’s air defenses. The scale of the strike was almost certainly designed to enable at least some of the attacking munitions to penetrate those defenses and cause some degree of damage. Their inability to do so was doubtless a disappointment to Tehran, but the Iranians can probably still console themselves that the attack was frightening for the Israeli people and alarming to their government. Iran probably hopes that it was unpleasant enough to give Israeli leaders pause the next time they consider an operation like the embassy strike.

Hizballah is Iran’s ace in the hole. With more than 150,000 rockets and missiles, the Lebanese militant group could overwhelm Israeli air defenses. . . . All of this reinforces the strategic assessment that Iran is not looking to escalate with Israel and is, in fact, working very hard to avoid escalation. . . . Still, Iran has crossed a Rubicon, although it may not recognize it. Iran had never struck Israel directly from its own territory before Saturday.

Byman and Pollack see here an important lesson for America:

What Saturday’s fireworks hopefully also illustrated is the danger of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East. . . . The latest round of violence shows why it is important for the United States to take the lead on pushing back on Iran and its proxies and bolstering U.S. allies.

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, U.S. Foreign policy