Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in between Journeys

Duke University Press  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.

Book Trailer

Discussion Questions 

 Courtesy of Ruth Behar

  1. 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?

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

  3. 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?

  4. 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?

  5. 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?”

  6. 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?

  7. 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?

  8. 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?

  9. “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?

  10. 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?

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

  12. 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?

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