Toward the end of 1937, eleven-year-old Esther writes to her father in Cuba, begging him to allow her to leave Poland and join him in his new home. Like many other European Jews in the years leading up to World War II, he has sought refuge abroad and is planning to send for his family when he has established a business and can afford to pay for their passage. He agrees to Esther’s request, hoping that she will be able to assist him in his work. Ruth Behar’s moving novel for young readers invokes many familiar and resonant themes: the insecurity of new immigrants, the terrors of antisemitism, family relationships strained by wrenching changes. There are also unique dimensions to this book, based partly on the author’s family history. Behar’s lyrical descriptions of Cuba, and her perspective as a professional cultural anthropologist, form a rich background to Esther’s story.
The novel is written in the form of letters from Esther to her sister Malka. Esther describes the startling contrast between life in Govororo, their Polish village, and Agramonte, the Cuban town where she and her father live separated from any Jewish community. The reader watches Esther’s gradual transformation, as she exchanges woolen dresses for cotton ones and sandals, enjoys a provisional Seder meal with guava jelly and sugarcane, and observes Hanukkah with a menorah made of soda bottles. Esther embraces change while maintaining a strong attachment to her Jewish identity. While at first her new home seems like a tropical haven of warm and welcoming neighbors, Esther learns that even in Cuba, resentment of the small Jewish population can take menacing forms. Esther’s honesty and self-expression in her letters resonates through each surprising turn in the narrative.
Unlike her father who is at first skeptical of his daughter’s interactions with so many different kinds of Cubans, Esther will not accept the barriers of social, racial, and economic divisions in her community. Her friendships include people of African and Chinese descent, immigrants, and people whose ancestors had been enslaved. She forms a warm attachment to Doctor Pablo and his wife, Graciela, members of the island’s elite, and also with factory workers who take action to assert their rights. Each character is an individual, not merely a representative of his or her group. Behar offers carefully researched evidence of specific cultures and historical events, with each aspect of Esther’s life integrated into this background. When Esther becomes a designer and seamstress, the dresses she creates are so vividly portrayed that they seem to leap off the page.
At the center of Esther’s development as a young adult and a Jew is her encounter with Cuba’s religious syncretism. Some of Esther’s closest friends in Agramonte are devout Christians, but their beliefs and practices incorporate African traditions into those of Spanish Catholicism. Esther is struck by their deep love for the Virgin Mary/Yemayá, a unique figure that blends their two cultures. Without any sense of dissonance or disloyalty to Judaism, she comes to appreciate her neighbors’ assurance that Yemayá’s maternal protectiveness extends to Esther and her family. As Esther learns Spanish, she comes to identify with the universal message of Cuban national hero and poet, José Martí, particularly with his famous lines, “Vengo de todas partes/y hacia todas partes voy” (I come from many places,/ And to every place I go). In Behar’s novel, the Jewish experience of flight and arrival is crystallized in this poem and in the particular challenges and joys of Jewish life in Cuba.
This highly recommended story includes an illuminating “Note from the Author,” and a list of additional resources.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.