This week, Ruth Behar, the author of An Island Called Home: Return­ing to Jew­ish Cuba and Trav­el­ing Heavy: A Mem­oir In Between Jour­neys, blogs for The Post­script on her Jubana grand­moth­er and trav­el­ing to Cuba. 

The Post­script series is a spe­cial peek behind the scenes” of a book. It’s a juicy lit­tle extra some­thing to add to a book clubs dis­cus­sion and a read­er’s under­stand­ing of how the book came togeth­er. 

To host” Ruth at your next book club meet­ing, request her through JBC Live Chat

Through­out the 1990s, when my grand­moth­er Esther, my Baba, was still alive, I’d stop in Mia­mi Beach to vis­it her on my way to Cuba. I was lucky to know all four grand­par­ents. But Baba, my mother’s moth­er, lived the longest, to the age of 92. In her, I saw my clos­est mir­ror, for she was a thinker and an inde­pen­dent woman.

If I flew in ear­ly in the day, I’d drop my things in the guest room, where Baba liked to watch Divorce Court,” and go run­ning to Pub­lix to buy gro­ceries for her. She always claimed she didn’t need any­thing, but the refrig­er­a­tor was emp­ty and she was out of toi­let paper. When I returned car­ry­ing sev­er­al bags, she com­plained, Who is all this for? I don’t need any­thing.” Say­ing thank you” didn’t come eas­i­ly to Baba. She only had respect for women who weren’t needy. Noth­ing was more pathet­ic to her than a woman so weak she could drown in a glass of water.” Baba tried hard to be tough. But I knew her secret: she suf­fered from ter­ri­ble night­mares, chased into dark alleys from which there was no escape.

Baba was part of a gen­er­a­tion of Jew­ish immi­grants who set­tled in Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s. Sephardic Jews from Turkey and Ashke­nazi Jews from Poland came on the eve of the Holo­caust and found Cuba to be a hos­pitable place. With­in a few decades, they built a vibrant Jew­ish world and had no wish to go north to the Unit­ed States. Their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren were born hap­py and healthy in Cuba, and they expect­ed to remain on the island for generations. 

Then Fidel Cas­tro came along in 1959. First he snatched up the busi­ness­es of the wealth­i­est peo­ple, most­ly Amer­i­cans and some Cubans, includ­ing a few Cuban Jews. Soon after, he took away lit­tle mom-and-pop shops. The major­i­ty of the Jews had poured their hopes into these shops, think­ing they offered a secure liveli­hood. That was true for Baba and Zayde; they had a lace store in Havana, below their walk-up apart­ment, where they spent every wak­ing moment, and los­ing it was dev­as­tat­ing. Along with most of the Jews of Cuba, my fam­i­ly fled to the Unit­ed States. But the mem­o­ry of the island scratched at our hearts.

Baba was from Goworowo, a shtetl near War­saw. She had the yizkor book from her home­town and peri­od­i­cal­ly she’d bring it down from the shelf and reread the sto­ries of those who’d per­ished in the Holo­caust. She got togeth­er with Yid­dish-speak­ing friends from Cuba every Sat­ur­day after­noon to play kalukah, after attend­ing Shab­bat ser­vices at the Cuban-Hebrew Con­gre­ga­tion. Amer­i­can Jews had giv­en Cuban Jews the cold shoul­der when they arrived in Mia­mi, so the Jubans” had built their own syn­a­gogue a few blocks from Lin­coln Road. On a wall inside the sanc­tu­ary hung a pic­ture of their beloved syn­a­gogue in Havana, the Patronato.

I nev­er learned Yid­dish, but for­tu­nate­ly Baba loved speak­ing Span­ish as much as I did, so that was the lan­guage we spoke to each oth­er. We should have spo­ken of pro­found things — of life and death, of loss and grief, of laugh­ter and long­ing — but I was in a rush. Mia­mi was a stopover for me on my way to Cuba.

Baba didn’t like that I was going to Cuba so much. She could under­stand going to Cuba for one or two vis­its. More than that seemed unnec­es­sary, even sus­pi­cious. But I was obsessed with the small Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty on the island. Where once there had been 15,000 Jews, a thou­sand were left, almost all of mixed her­itage or mar­ried into the faith. I want­ed to learn all I could about these Jews who lived under trop­i­cal com­mu­nism. They were more intrigu­ing than Jubans” like Baba, who lived in Mia­mi Beach weighed down by their mem­o­ries of all the hopes and dreams they’d had to leave behind. 

Now I think back to all those times I said good­bye to Baba at the door of her mod­est apart­ment, six­teen blocks from the seashore, and I real­ize I lost my chance to learn her sto­ry and the sto­ry of her gen­er­a­tion. There were so many ques­tions I nev­er got to ask. What had it been like to arrive in Cuba in a woolen coat and feel the lush heat of a Caribbean island caress your skin? What trop­i­cal fruit had been most amaz­ing to encounter — a man­go, a gua­va, a papaya, a banana? How did it feel to bathe in the ocean for the first time? To hear the trance-induc­ing beat of the drums call­ing the African saints, which can be heard in every cor­ner of Cuba?

I try not to have too many regrets. I know I absorbed a great deal from Baba through the years. She didn’t live long enough to see my book, An Island Called Home, but she would have read it with as much devo­tion as she read the nov­els of Danielle Steele. She adored books and passed that pas­sion on to me.

Baba would shake her head watch­ing me schlep­ping the huge suit­cas­es I took to Cuba filled with gifts. As I went out the door, she warned, You’re going to get a kileh!” That was Yid­dish for her­nia. Now I know we each car­ried a dif­fer­ent sort of heav­i­ness that made us vul­ner­a­ble. She was weighed down by mem­o­ries, and I was going to Cuba in search of memories. 

So many years lat­er, I still trav­el back and forth to Cuba. Want­i­ng to be strong for Baba’s sake, I nev­er did tell her how there’s a part of me that’s always a bit scared about going to Cuba. What if a cat­a­stro­phe befalls me there, will I be able to flee, as we did when I was a child? But I kept silent. I didn’t want to seem like one of those women that can drown in a glass of water.” Now I imag­ine Baba looks out for me. She’s my guardian angel, mak­ing sure I come back in one piece.

Relat­ed Content:

Ruth Behar was born in Havana to a mixed Ashke­nazi-Sephardic fam­i­ly, grew up in New York, and became the first Lati­na to win a MacArthur Genius Grant. An anthro­pol­o­gist, poet, film­mak­er, and writer, she is the author of the trav­el mem­oir An Island Called Home: Return­ing to Jew­ish Cuba, and the award-win­ning com­ing-of-age nov­el Lucky Bro­ken Girl. Her new nov­el Let­ters from Cuba, is inspired by her grand­moth­er’s sto­ry of escap­ing Poland to make a brand-new life in Cuba. A grad­u­ate of Wes­leyan and Prince­ton, Behar lives in Ann Arbor, where she is a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michigan.