Trav­el­ing Heavy: A Mem­oir in between Journeys

By – April 30, 2013

Ruth Behar is a cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gist who has lived in and close­ly stud­ied unusu­al spots in rur­al Spain and Mex­i­co. She has also writ­ten exten­sive­ly about the peo­ple of her exot­i­cal­ly time-warped birth­place, Cuba. In her 2007 book, An Island Called Home: Return­ing to Jew­ish Cuba, she doc­u­ment­ed via inter­views, essays, and pho­tos tak­en on her mul­ti­ple vis­its to the then prac­ti­cal­ly off-lim­its island, the lives of many Cubans who are con­nect­ed to Judaism. Behar was taught at uni­ver­si­ty that the work of an anthro­pol­o­gist requires total objec­tiv­i­ty. She said that she sought to acquire the author­i­ta­tive voice of the anthro­pol­o­gist who relent­less­ly seeks infor­ma­tion and noth­ing else.” While work­ing on her doc­tor­ate, Behar thought that in order to suc­ceed she should sup­press her cre­ativ­i­ty, her style of writ­ing poet­i­cal­ly and describ­ing things with a sense of enchant­ment.” Lat­er she real­ized she’d have to reshape anthro­pol­o­gy pre­cise­ly so it wouldn’t kill my soul.”

In her lat­est book, Trav­el­ing Heavy, the author doesn’t hold back, open­ing up her heart ful­ly and hon­est­ly. The author’s atyp­i­cal parent­age is a result of the union between the Cuban-born chil­dren of Ladi­no speak­ing Sephardic grand­par­ents and Yid­dish speak­ing Ashke­nazi grand­par­ents; in Cuba, mar­riage between the dif­fer­ent class­es of a Tur­co (Turk­ish/​Spanish descent) and a Pola­ca (East­ern Euro­pean) caused great con­flict for the fam­i­ly. This short mem­oir is com­prised of vignettes of the author’s per­son­al ambi­tions, fail­ures, and suc­cess­es. There are descrip­tive tales relat­ing rela­tion­ships with her grand­par­ents, par­ents, aunts, uncles, and cousins and the stead­fast sup­port of her hus­band and son. She delves into secrets she has kept from her moth­er in order to fol­low her dreams with­out being ques­tioned. She describes the deep hurt she felt at her extend­ed family’s vocal rejec­tions of her writ­ings about them. She dis­cuss­es her fears and the super­sti­tions she uses to keep them at bay.

Though filled with humor and self depreca­tion, Trav­el­ing Heavy points to seri­ous themes. From Behar’s her­itage trip to Goworowow, Poland; to a bizarre pil­grim­age with total strangers who share the same last name to the for­mer­ly Jew­ish town of Bejar, Spain; to obses­sively stud­ied med­ical details con­cern­ing her son’s knee surgery, to con­tin­u­al over-packed over­seas jour­neys, the read­er is brought into the author’s whirl­wind world. The writ­ing is emo­tion­al, nos­tal­gic, thought­ful, heav­i­ly spiced with Span­ish, and pep­pered with black and white photographs.

I have tried to be an objec­tive book review­er, thus far. How­ev­er, as a Cuban born Jew who wrote about accom­plish­ing my own longed-for jour­ney to the same Caribbean island my fam­i­ly called home,” I admit to an eager inter­est in Ruth Behar’s obser­va­tions. I hun­gri­ly absorbed the expe­ri­ences of her con­tin­ued quest, but I am sure that an objec­tive read­er inter­est­ed in trav­el and a writer’s intro­spec­tion will be drawn in equal­ly by her allur­ing tales and sto­ry­telling style.

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 claims, Trav­el­ers are those who go else­where because they want to, because they can afford to dis­place them­selves. Immi­grants are those who go else­where because they have to.” What do you think about this dis­tinc­tion? Would you define the trav­el­er and the immi­grant in the same way? Do you think Ruth’s expe­ri­ence as a child-immi­grant made her a more com­pas­sion­ate traveler?

    • Ruth offers a strong por­trait of diver­si­ty with­in her Jew­ish fam­i­ly. How did she nego­ti­ate a mixed Yid­dish-Sephardic-Cuban Amer­i­can identity?

    • In El Beso,” Ruth tells the sto­ry of her first kiss. What were the plea­sures and fears she expe­ri­enced as an inno­cent girl attract­ed to a non-Jew­ish Puer­to Rican boy? What mean­ing does she give to the sto­ry as a grown woman look­ing back?

    • In her sto­ries, The Book” and The Day I Cried at Star­bucks on Lin­coln Road,” Ruth address­es the ques­tion of how her rel­a­tives have react­ed to her writ­ing. What are the per­ils of writ­ing about one’s own fam­i­ly? Do you think Ruth respond­ed fair­ly to the crit­i­cisms of her relatives?

    • Ruth explores her role as a moth­er in A Tan­go for Gabriel.” How did you react to her sto­ry? Was she uncon­scious­ly play­ing the role of the Jew­ish mother?”

    • Work­ing as a cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gist, Ruth dis­cov­ers the kind­ness of strangers who open their lives to her. What impact have her rela­tion­ships with strangers in Spain and Mex­i­co had on her own life?

    • In The First World Sum­mit of Behars,” Ruth engages in a col­lec­tive approach to cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gy by con­verg­ing on the Span­ish town of Béjar with oth­ers who share the Sephardic last name, Behar. What does she learn about her iden­ti­ty and her­itage through her par­tic­i­pa­tion in this unusu­al summit?

    • While in Poland, Ruth meets Mr. Gryn­berg, who is quite elder­ly but still in good health. Amaz­ing­ly, he is from the same shtetl as her mater­nal grand­moth­er. How does the Goworowo memo­r­i­al book help to cre­ate an inti­mate and pro­found, if fleet­ing, sense of kin­ship between Mr. Gryn­berg and Ruth?

    • The Free­dom to Trav­el Any­where in the World” focus­es on the sto­ry of a young Cuban Jew­ish woman named Danay­da, who is of mixed Sephardic and Afro- Cuban back­ground. Ruth first meets Danay­da as a child in Havana in 1993 and over the years she observes Danay­da as she grows up and even­tu­al­ly makes aliyah to Israel. How does Ruth feel about being a long-term observ­er of Danayda’s life? Why does Ruth say that all she can offer Danay­da is the wit­ness of her eyes?

    • In the final chap­ter of her book, Ruth writes, Old lit­tle girl that I am, I’ve often wished my par­ents could hold my hand as I tot­ter in high heels along the bro­ken streets of our Havana.” Why does she describe her­self as an old lit­tle girl? Why does she long so fer­vent­ly for her exiled par­ents to vis­it Cuba with her?

    • Would you say that Trav­el­ing Heavy is an unusu­al mem­oir? Why do you think Ruth called it a mem­oir in between journeys?”

    • Ruth has called her­self an anthro­pol­o­gist who spe­cial­izes in home­sick­ness. How does her search for home inform her sense of self, her anthro­pol­o­gy, and her writing?