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A novel of Sephardic life revives the Jewish family saga

(JTA) — The very first Jewish book was a multigenerational Jewish family saga. But while the Bible went on to achieve some commercial and critical success, the genre doesn’t always get much love.

Consider the big best-selling books of the last century. Critics may debate the literary merits of bestsellers like “Exodus” by Leon Uris, “The Source” by James Michener and “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok, but cultural historians generally agree that each was an important indicator of Jewish tastes and preoccupations post-World War II.

But two other popular books of the era, both multigenerational Jewish family sagas, are rarely mentioned these days. Belva Plain’s novel, “Evergreen,” published in 1978, is a rags-to-riches story about a Polish-Jewish immigrant and her offspring. It spent 41 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list in hardcover and another 20 in paperback, and was made into a miniseries by NBC in 1985. Gloria Goldreich’s novel, “Leah’s Jour­ney,” also published in 1978, is also about an Ashkenazi  family that experiences most of the upheavals of the previous 100 years.

Although “Leah’s Journey” won the National Jewish Book Award in 1979, I’ve never seen it nor “Evergreen” on a list of the century’s best or “most essential” Jewish novels.  

And in truth, the qualities that make a book wildly popular aren’t always the ones that make it literary. A New York Times reviewer once described Plain’s books as “easy, consoling works of generous spirit, fat with plot and sentiment, thin in nearly every other way and almost invisible in character development.”

I brought all this baggage to my review copy of “Kantika,” Elizabeth Graver’s 2023 novel, described by its publisher as a “dazzling Sephardic multigenerational saga.” It’s about a wealthy Turkish Jewish family whose fortunes are reversed by the First World War and whose members are dispersed to Barcelona, Cuba and finally New York. And yet while it has all the drama one might expect from such journeys and the novels about them, it remains both lyrical and literary, and likely, if there is any justice, to stand the test of time. 

How Graver pulled it off is something she and I talked about last week, when I reached her in Cape Cod. (Graver, the author of five previous books of fiction, teaches creative and nonfiction writing at Boston College.) 

At the center of the novel is Rebecca, a privileged daughter of a Jewish factory owner in Constantinople who must constantly reinvent herself as a daughter, wife, mother, immigrant and businesswoman. The character is based on Graver’s own grandmother, and the story Graver tells is rich in details about the Sephardic heritage of her mother’s side of the family. There are snatches of Ladino dialogue and song lyrics, and organic depictions of Ladino folk and religious culture.

“I had interviewed my grandmother telling stories when I was 21,” said Graver, who is 59. “And I’ve been sort of haunted by but a little scared of telling the story.” Between research and trips to Turkey, Spain and Cuba, the book took her a decade to write.

Between research and trips to Turkey, Spain and Cuba, “Cantina” took Elizabeth Graver a decade to write. (Author photo Adrianne Mathiowetz)

She decided against a nonfiction version of her grandmother’s life, thinking the story would contain too many holes and force her to insert herself into what would then become a sort of literary memoir. Instead, the book is fiction stretched over a real-life scaffolding: Each chapter begins with a photograph of the relatives who inspired the book’s characters. 

One of the key relationships in the book is between Rebecca and her step-daughter, Luna, a willful, intelligent girl with a disability that affects her speech and movement. Rebecca dedicates herself to Luna’s education and what we would now call physical therapy, a set-up for shmaltz (or its Sephardic equivalent) if there ever was one. But just when you expect her to cue the string section, Graver often veers to show you how complicated and difficult people — even admirable people — can be. 

“Rebecca is beautiful, and has that power and strength but is a bit narcissistic. She kind of relies on surfaces but is really good at passing,” Graver explained. “And then she has this child whose body doesn’t allow her to do any of that, but who is also fiercely determined and passionate and smart. In the interplay, they reveal each other through their different points of view.” 

The book arrives at a time of renewed interest in Sephardic culture, and part of its appeal is that it is telling what to many American Jewish readers, fed a steady diet of the Ashkenazi experience, a fresh story. 

Kantika” is also a migration story, another genre that is very much of the moment. Graver herself teaches the genre, which includes works by Korean-American author Min Jee Lee, Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat  and Vietnamese-American Viet Thanh Nguyen.

I asked Graver if she was conscious of genre when she was writing the book, and wary of the way a sprawling family novel like hers might be received. 

“I don’t even like the term ‘family saga,’” said Graver, who, when I asked, wasn’t familiar with Plain or Goldreich. “It makes me wince, even though I suppose I have written one and I’m indebted to them in various ways. But I want the characters to be flawed and complex and for the turns that they take to come out of their intersections with both history and their own very particular circumstances. I think about big novels where there is a big social canvas and it’s not a story of triumph.”

Indeed, “Kantika,” unlike many novels of Jewish migration, is actually a story about a family’s economic decline. Ultimately, said Graver, she wanted to capture the story of her Sephardic family’s journey in all its complexity.

“I have a deep anxiety about being overly sentimental and wrapping things up too much,” said Graver. “I love fiction that gestures towards the complexity of real life.”

The post A novel of Sephardic life revives the Jewish family saga appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Argentina Court Blames Iran for Deadly 1994 Bombing of Jewish Center

People hold up pictures of the victims of the AMIA Jewish center bombing during a ceremony to mark the 22nd anniversary of the 1994 attack in Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 18, 2016. Photo: REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian

A new ruling by Argentina‘s highest criminal court has blamed Iran for the fatal 1994 attack against the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, declaring it a “crime against humanity” in a decision that paves the way for victims to seek justice, according to court documents released late on Thursday.

The judges ruled that the bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) — the deadliest of its kind in the country’s history that killed 85 people and left hundreds injured — was carried out by the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah and responded “to a political and strategic design” by Iran. The Iranian regime is the main backer of Hezbollah, supplying it with weapons, funding, and political support.

Representatives from Argentina‘s Jewish community said the court ruling was “historic” and “unique” because it opened the door for the victims’ relatives to bring lawsuits against the Islamic Republic.

President Javier Milei celebrated the ruling, saying this was a “significant step” that put an end to decades of “delays and cover ups,” in an official statement.

Argentina‘s judiciary has long maintained Iran was behind the attack, but joint investigations and Interpol arrest warrants have led nowhere. Iran has refused to turn over citizens convicted in Argentina. Tehran has denied involvement.

Prosecutors in the report charged top Iranian officials and Hezbollah members with ordering the bombing as well as an attack in 1992 against the Israeli embassy in Argentina, which killed 22 people.

“The significance of these grave human rights violations for the international community as a whole invokes a state’s duty to provide judicial protection,” wrote Judge Mahiques who argued for legal reform.

In 2013, Argentina and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding that sought to create a truth commission to investigate the attack, but the agreement never came into force and gave rise to a case against then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, for an alleged cover-up operation.

Judge Mahiques highlighted the figure of former prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was investigating the attack and was found dead at his home in January 2015 after fiercely criticizing Fernández de Kirchner for concealing Iran’s alleged responsibility in the attack.

“[Nisman] was very clear that all these circumstances were at the origin of the attack on the AMIA, which, taken to its ultimate consequences, could have had palpable results before this ruling,” Mahiques told local radio on Friday.

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European Parliament Denounces UNRWA Role in Inciting Violence and Antisemitism

A boy holds a placard as Palestinian Hamas supporters attend a rally against visits by Israelis to the Al-Aqsa mosque, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, May 26, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Antisemitic incitement and glorification of terrorism in Palestinian textbooks issued by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was a cause of Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, the European Parliament (EP) declared in a series of resolutions passed last week.

The resolutions mark the latest denouncement of the Palestinian education by the EP and some of the first to address strong evidence that over a dozen UNRWA staff aided Hamas’ raping and slaughtering of Israeli civilians. Together, they rued the possibility that European tax dollars were funneled into Hamas and called for a complete restructuring, as well as increased oversight, of the Palestinian education system to ensure that antisemitic themes are purged from curricula in the Palestinian territories so long as the institutions administering them receive European aid.

“Today the European Parliament condemned the problematic and hateful contents encouraging violence, spreading antisemitism and inciting hatred in Palestinian school textbooks,” German Member of European Parliament (MEP) Niclas Herbst  said in a statement praising the action. “The European Parliament reaffirmed in the context of despicable terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas on 7th October 2023 that education to hatred has direct and dramatic consequences on the security of Israelis, as well as the perspectives of a better future for young Palestinians. Therefore, the EP requests the Commission to closely scrutinize that no UNWRA funds are allocated to the use of such hateful materials.”

As The Algemeiner has previously reported, UNRWA textbooks are among the most antisemitic and inciting in the world. No discipline is untouched by the problem. From math to theology, to literature and science, their content promotes blistering hatred for Jews and Israel, indoctrinating students as young as six to commit their lives to “martyrdom” and inter-generational war. Compromise with Israelis is described as betraying Palestinian identity, suicide-bombings as intrinsic to it and a prerequisite for entry into heaven.

“In this bipartisan resolution, the European Parliament has rightly made the inevitable and tragic connection between the horrors of October 7 and the systematic indoctrination which has flourished for too long in Palestinian schools, the majority of which in Gaza are operated by UNRWA,” Marcus Sheff, chief executive officer of Israeli education watchdog Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (Impact-se), said in a press release on Thursday.

He added, “For years, we have warned that the textbooks taught to Palestinian children create the conditions for the barbarism we all witnessed. The EU Parliament is now saying, ‘Enough.’ We need a new Palestinian curriculum.”

Impact-se has been a leading critic of the role Palestinian curricula plays in stoking the embers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and fostering religious extremism. In March, the organization unveiled transcriptions of recordings confirming the roles of Yusef Zidan Sliman Al-Hawajri and Mamdouh Hussein Ahmad Al-Qek — both of whom were hired as educators by the organization — in Oct. 7, citing them as evidence that UNRWA has violated its mandate.

Its last report, published in March, revealed that textbooks issued by the Palestinian Authority teach girls that women are inferior to men and demands that they sacrifice their bodies and families for “jihad.”

“The characterization of women as inferior in Palestinian Authority textbooks reflects a broader and worrying narrative of bigotry in the curriculum, which is continuing to shape the outlook millions of Palestinian children,” Sheff said after the report was published. “Furthermore, it contradicts international treaties on gender equality that the PA itself has ratified. In particular, the emphasis on women’s participation in resistance activities as a warped form of gender equality sets a disturbing precedent.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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‘Does She Really Want to See America Die?’: Rashida Tlaib’s Refusal To Condemn ‘Death to America’ Chants Sparks Bipartisan Backlash

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) addresses attendees as she takes part in a protest calling for a ceasefire in Gaza outside the US Capitol, in Washington, DC, US, Oct. 18, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Leah Millis

On Wednesday, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) refused to condemn anti-Israel protesters who chanted “death to America” and “death to Israel” during a rally in her district, sparking bipartisan backlash.

At an “Al-Quds Day” rally in Dearborn, Michigan protesters chanted “death to America” and “death to Israel.” A speaker at the event also quoted Malcom X saying “We live in one of the rottenest countries that has ever existed on this earth.”

The speaker continued, explaining that “The chant ‘death to Israel’ has become the most logical chant shouted across the world today.”

Another speaker proclaimed “Israel is ISIS, they are Nazis, they are fascists, they are racists.”

Michigan’s 12th congressional district, which Rep. Tlaib represents, includes Dearborn.

At International Al-Quds Day Rally in Dearborn, Michigan Protesters Chant “Death to America!”; Speakers at the Rally: America Is One of the “Rottenest Countries” on Earth; Israel Is ISIS, Nazis, a Cancer

— MEMRI (@MEMRIReports) April 7, 2024

The initial incident sparked condemnation from both sides of the political aisle. The mayor of Dearborn, Abdullah H. Hammoud, wrote on Twitter/X that, at the rally, people chanted “statements that were unacceptable and contrary to the heart of this city.” 

“We reject all inflammatory and violent statements made at the gathering. Dearborn is a city of proud Americans; the hateful rhetoric heard on Friday does not reflect the opinion of the members of this community,” he continued.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates told The Daily Caller that “The White House condemns these abhorrent and Antisemitic remarks in the strongest terms. As [US] President [Joe] Biden has said, America is the greatest nation on Earth and a beacon to the world.”

Rep. Tlaib was approached by a Fox News reporter on Wednesday, who asked if she condemned the chants. She replied, saying she did not speak to Fox News and that the reporter was engaging in Islamophobic tropes in asking her the question — likely because she perceived the reporter as questioning the patriotism and loyalty of Muslim Americans to the US.

WATCH – Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Gaza) refuses to condemn ‘Death to America!’ chants at a rally in her home

— The First (@TheFirstonTV) April 11, 2024

The Algemeiner reached out to Tlaib’s office for clarification of her statement, but it did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement to The Algemeiner, Democratic Majority for Israel — a group that supports Israel from within the Democratic Party — said “Chanting ‘Death to America’ incites violence and is patently anti-American. All political leaders should be able to join the White House & Dearborn’s Mayor in denouncing this slogan.”

“Congresswoman Tlaib’s refusal to condemn those words is sadly telling,” DMFI added, asking “Does she really want to see America die?”

The Republican Jewish Coalition’s national political director, Sam Markstein, had harsh words for Tlaib, telling The Algemeiner, “It’s no surprise that Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib would refuse to condemn anti-America and anti-Israel chants.”

He described Rep. Tlaib as “a disgrace” who “should not be representing the people of Michigan’s 12th district in Congress.”

He argued, “House Democratic leadership has coddled and enabled her vicious antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric for years – it’s long past time for them to hold her accountable.”

The CEO of The Jewish Democratic Council of America, Halie Soifer, pushed back on The Algemeiner’s request for comment, saying: “with all due respect, do you ever cover what Donald Trump says about Jews or Israel? It’s antisemitic and incessant — nearly daily at this point.”

Earlier this week, former US President Donald Trump told reporters that Biden “doesn’t know if he is supporting the Palestinians but he knows one thing: he is not supporting Israel. He has abandoned Israel and any Jewish person that votes for a Democrat or votes for Biden should have their head examined.”

Trump: “Any Jewish person that votes for a Democrat or votes for Biden should have their head examined.”

— Republican Voters Against Trump (@AccountableGOP) April 10, 2024

Trump’s comments come just a week after she would not give a direct answer when asked if he stands with Israel “100%,” raising questions about what his Middle East policy may look like in a potential second term. He also said a few days ago that American Jews who vote for Biden do “not love Israel” and “should be spoken to.”

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