Across So Many Seas

  • Review
By – February 5, 2024

The expul­sion of Spain’s Jews by the Catholic mon­archs in 1492 end­ed an era of Jew­ish his­to­ry, but it also began a new one. Jews who refused con­ver­sion, or the dan­ger­ous option of con­tin­u­ing their reli­gious life in secret, had to flee their homes. They estab­lished them­selves in Turkey, Italy, North Amer­i­ca, and oth­er regions, bring­ing their lan­guage, Ladi­no (judeoes­pañol), and their rich and var­ied cul­ture with them. In her new mid­dle-grade nov­el, Ruth Behar traces the life sto­ries of four dif­fer­ent girls with roots in this expulsion.

In 1492, Ben­veni­da and her fam­i­ly emi­grate from Spain and set­tle first in Italy, then in Turkey. In 1923, Reina, a twelve-year-old girl who is part of Turkey’s long-estab­lished Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, is sent to live in Cuba when she fails to con­form to her community’s stan­dards. The nov­el then touch­es on Cuban Jews’ expe­ri­ence and their lives as exiles in the Unit­ed States, with sto­ries set in 1961 and 2003. Reina’s daugh­ter, Ale­gra, enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly sup­ports Castro’s rev­o­lu­tion until she real­izes its con­tra­dic­tions and its impact on her own life. And when Palo­ma, Alegra’s daugh­ter, trav­els to Spain with her par­ents and grand­moth­er, the his­to­ry of Sephardic exile and renew­al comes full circle.

Despite their unique per­son­al­i­ties and his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances, Ben­veni­da, Reina, Ale­gra, and Palo­ma all share cer­tain qual­i­ties. They are cre­ative, intro­spec­tive, deter­mined, and deeply loy­al to the Jew­ish tra­di­tions that’ve imbued their lives with mean­ing. Ben­veni­da and Reina are affect­ed by restric­tive gen­der roles, yet they face these lim­i­ta­tions with a courage that resounds through­out the sto­ries of Ale­gra and Palo­ma. With access to a broad­er range of oppor­tu­ni­ties, the lat­ter two char­ac­ters are aware of their matri­lin­eal lega­cy of strength and persistence.

Ale­gra, com­ing of age in rev­o­lu­tion­ary Cuba, con­fronts the para­dox of a soci­ety that rejects some types of oppres­sion only to insti­tute oth­ers. While her father’s oppo­si­tion to her par­tic­i­pa­tion in Castro’s lit­er­a­cy brigade ini­tial­ly seems unfair, she comes to under­stand his anger, and to suf­fer some dis­il­lu­sion­ment her­self. Although gen­er­a­tional con­flict plays a role in the novel’s ear­ly chap­ters, Paloma’s cul­mi­nat­ing trip to Spain high­lights the love and sup­port of her fam­i­ly mem­bers. Overt anti­semitism also becomes less cen­tral as the sto­ries progress, and most of the Jew­ish char­ac­ters’ inter­ac­tions with Chris­t­ian and Mus­lim char­ac­ters are positive.

Behar’s prose is melod­ic. She com­bines real­is­tic descrip­tions and dia­logue with pow­er­ful metaphors. Ben­veni­da, a young poet inspired by the tra­di­tions of Span­ish and Hebrew verse, cap­tures the impor­tance of lan­guage in pre­serv­ing expe­ri­ence: I promise myself I will hold onto my lan­guage, no mat­ter how far away we go, how many seas we cross, how dis­tant I am from the almond-scent­ed streets of this land.” In every chap­ter, Behar incor­po­rates Sephardic cus­toms and lan­guage, and she takes care to describe the com­plex con­nec­tions between the Spain that orig­i­nal­ly nur­tured the Sephardic com­mu­ni­ty and the cul­tur­al dif­fu­sion that took place in the dif­fer­ent lands in which they settled.

Giv­en that this is a nov­el for a mid­dle-grade audi­ence, some of the his­to­ry is nec­es­sar­i­ly sim­pli­fied. Read­ers who are engaged by the four girls’ sto­ries will be moti­vat­ed to learn more about Jew­ish, Chris­t­ian, and Mus­lim rela­tions in pre-expul­sion Spain; Jew­ish life in the Ottoman Empire and under Atatürk’s pres­i­den­cy; and the long Jew­ish pres­ence in Cuba. The wealth of infor­ma­tion about Sephardic life, pre­sent­ed through the point of view of each char­ac­ter, is at the core of this mov­ing novel.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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