An Island Called Home: Return­ing to Jew­ish Cuba

By – December 6, 2011

This book is com­post­ed of fas­ci­nat­ing vignettes of the com­mu­ni­ty of Jews encoun­tered by Ruth Behar on her many trips back to her birth­place. The author left Cuba as an exile at the age of five, along with the large exo­dus that began when Fidel Cas­tro came to pow­er. She began jour­ney­ing to Cuba to seek out the past, of which she had no mem­o­ries. Behar won­dered who and what was left to uphold the Jew­ish lega­cy of the island and record­ed her find­ings in this fas­ci­nat­ing book. 

Behar, who is an anthro­pol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and the recip­i­ent of a MacArthur Fel­lows award, describes the peo­ple and sights of her beloved home­land with com­pas­sion and an eye for col­or­ful detail. She includes inter­est­ing dial­o­gye from con­ver­sa­tions she has with the locals. Her book includes many poignant black and white pho­tos by award win­ning Cuban pho­tog­ra­ph­er Hum­ber­to May­ol, which enhance the per­son­al nar­ra­tives of indi­vid­u­als with­in the remain­ing Jew­ish community. 

This book was espe­cial­ly enjoy­able for me because I share the same her­itage and quest as the author and expe­ri­enced what she wrote about. My Yid­dish speak­ing grand­par­ents arrived in Cuba from Poland and Rus­sia before World War II and made suc­cess­ful lives there, rais­ing their fam­i­lies and work­ing hard. I left Havana in 1962 at the age of thir­teen months with my par­ents and most of our extend­ed fam­i­ly as refugees to the U.S. Like Behar, I grew up in a Cuban-Jew­ish-Amer­i­can immi­grant envi­ron­ment, speak­ing flu­ent Span­ish, eat­ing deli­cious Cuban spe­cial­ties, and lov­ing Lati­no music. I yearned for many years to vis­it the island where my pater­nal uncle still lives and see for myself what is left of the once thriv­ing Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty my par­ents told me so much about. 

Recon­nect­ing via email with my fam­i­ly in Cuba piqued my fer­vor to trav­el there. But hear­ing Behar present her book with a slide show of its pho­tographs a year ago was final straw to con­vince my reluc­tant moth­er to vis­it the for­bid­den” island of Cuba with me. Behar says, exiled Cubans have always been called gusanos, or worms by Fidel, and trav­el­ing back is high­ly restrict­ed by the U.S. My dream came true last Decem­ber as I par­tic­i­pat­ed in a Chanukah human­i­tar­i­an mis­sion with my Cuban-born moth­er. Like some Cuban Amer­i­cans, my father voiced strong neg­a­tiv­i­ty about return­ing to Cuba and didn’t join us. But my moth­er and I enjoyed the trip immense­ly, and she laughed and cried upon see­ing things she remem­bered or had for­got­ten in the last 47 years as we vis­it­ed all the land­marks that were mean­ing­ful in her life as a Cuban Jew. 

We were sad­dened by the neglect and dete­ri­o­ra­tion of the island’s infra­struc­ture, but this allowed us to see Cuba near­ly as it was 50 years ago when my par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion lived there. The Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty has shrunk from 15,000 to 1500. Only about 100 old timers are left to relay the past, helped by vis­it­ing Jew­ish com­mu­nal vol­un­teers from abroad. Aid is sup­plied by the many vis­i­tors like us who arrive at Jose Mar­ti air­port with suit­cas­es burst­ing with dona­tions of med­i­cines, clothes, and reli­gious objects. 

Our trip includ­ed all of Havana’s Jew­ish insti­tu­tions as well as a talk with David Tach­er, San­ta Clara’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty leader in the work-in-progress new Jew­ish cen­ter fund­ed by donors from abroad. In the fish­ing town of Caibarien we vis­it­ed the last remain­ing Jew­ish fam­i­ly and Julio Rodriguez Eli is pic­tured in the book. His son, like oth­er young Cubans includ­ing my cousin, has recent­ly made Aliyah. We enjoyed qual­i­ty time with my uncle whom I saw only once since 1962 because of estrange­ment in our fam­i­ly due to the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, a com­mon occur­rence in Cuban fam­i­lies. We met many of the per­son­al­i­ties depict­ed by Behar and although I read the book before the trip, I rushed to reread it upon my return, amazed that I had actu­al­ly seen much of what she nar­rat­ed in her stories. 

I am grate­ful that I have suc­cess­ful­ly accom­plished my goal to expe­ri­ence my birth­place, but like Behar, I was left with a strong desire for future vis­its. An Island Called Home is a snap­shot of Cuban Jew­ish life and well worth a read by any­one inter­est­ed in the beloved but mys­ti­fy­ing island so close to home in America. 

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams, mom, grand­mom, avid read­er, some­time writer, born in Havana, raised in Brook­lyn, resid­ing in Long Beach on Long Island. Long­time for­mer One Region One Book chair and JBC liai­son for Nas­sau Hadas­sah, cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ing Inci­dent at San Miguel with author AJ Sidran­sky who wrote the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion based on her Cuban Jew­ish refugee family’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Flu­ent in Span­ish and Hebrew, cer­ti­fied hatha yoga instructor.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Ruth Behar

  • Ruth Behar notes at the begin­ning of her book that her grand­moth­er Esther used to ask her before every trip, What did you lose in Cuba?” How does Ruth answer that ques­tion in her book? What did she lose in Cuba? What did she regain by return­ing to her birthplace?

  • What have you learned about the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Cuba from Ruth’s book? How has such a small group of Jews man­aged to sur­vive and thrive on the island? In what ways has the com­mu­ni­ty been affect­ed by immi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of mak­ing aliyah to Israel?

  • Ruth lis­tens to the sto­ries of a myr­i­ad of Jews liv­ing in Cuba and doc­u­ments their efforts to safe­guard Jew­ish mem­o­ry in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary soci­ety. Who do you feel are the most mem­o­rable indi­vid­u­als in her account?

  • Ruth’s search for her roots in Cuba is both intense and pas­sion­ate. Has Ruth’s book made you think about the mean­ing of home in a dif­fer­ent way? How does her quest for home com­pare and con­trast with the return jour­neys of Amer­i­can Jews who have gone to Poland and oth­er locales search­ing for their roots?

  • An Island Called Home defies clear-cut genre clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Mix­ing mem­oir, inter­views, anthro­po­log­i­cal med­i­ta­tions, and prose poems, Ruth cre­ates anoth­er way of telling the sto­ry of her jour­ney. How does Ruth’s writ­ing engage you as a reader?

  • While she might have told her sto­ry with words alone, Ruth choos­es to accom­pa­ny her account with black-and-white pho­tographs by the Havana-based pho­tog­ra­ph­er Hum­ber­to May­ol. How do Mayol’s pho­tographs com­ple­ment and enhance the book? Which pho­tographs did you find most com­pelling? Most haunting?

  • It’s also pos­si­ble to read An Island Called Home as trav­el writ­ing, or even as a sto­ry of a pil­grim­age. Does this book make you want to trav­el to Cuba? Has your curios­i­ty about the his­to­ry and cul­ture of Cuba been piqued by read­ing this book?

  • One of the provoca­tive aspects of the book is the account Ruth gives of the com­plex encoun­ters that often take place between Jews in Cuba and Amer­i­can Jew­ish vis­i­tors who go to the island on reli­gious mis­sions. Did you feel that Ruth’s sto­ries of these encoun­ters helped you to think more deeply about the mean­ing of tzedakah and the role of Jew­ish phil­an­thropy? What new under­stand­ings have you gained about the rela­tion­ship between priv­i­leged and less-priv­i­leged Jews?

  • In what ways do Ruth’s mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties as an immi­grant and a trav­el­er, a Cuban, a Jew, and an Amer­i­can, and as a woman, an anthro­pol­o­gist, and a poet, inform her vision of her life and her work?

  • What did you find most inspir­ing in Ruth’s sto­ry? What are the most valu­able lessons you have tak­en away from this book?