A lets go attitude to life

Alejandro Modena hasn’t had as many lives as the proverbial cat. But he’s getting there.

The 70-year-old Burlingame resident is the quintessential wandering Jew. Born on a kibbutz in pre-state Israel, he later lived in pre-Castro Cuba, with a detour in Jamaica before settling permanently in the Bay Area.

Modena has seen war and bloodshed, acts of treachery and acts of surpassing kindness. He didn’t miss a thing, and now he has set it all down in a newly published autobiography, “Yalla!”

The title is Arabic for “let’s go,” which is fitting considering his lifelong penchant for moving on. The book covers his life story from birth until his arrival in America in the early 1960s.

That life began in 1935. His Italian father and Polish mother were escapees from Nazi tyranny. Modena grew up in Jerusalem at a dangerous but exciting time in history. His best friend was Ali, an Arab Muslim boy with whom Modena did everything.

As the War of Independence heated up, Ali became a precursor to today’s suicide bomber, blowing himself up with a grenade intended for the entire Modena family.

“I didn’t believe he died,” recalls Modena. “I then went to his grave, which said buried there was a young patriot fighting for freedom.”

The Modena family didn’t stick around to be part of the new state of Israel. In 1949, they moved to Havana, Cuba, where Modena’s parents opened a garment factory. Cuban Jewish life flourished in those days, but most of the Jews fled when Castro came to power.

Despite his modest means, Modena enjoyed Cuban life. He made friends with a dashing American expatriate named Ernest Hemingway and joined thousands of fellow Cubans cutting cane in the sugar fields. But ultimately, Fidel Castro — and a desire for a better life — drove him into exile once more.

(On a trip to Cuba 50 years later, Modena found attached to the doorpost of his old family apartment the same wooden mezuzah, still in remarkably good shape.)

After attending the University of Miami and teaching at a school in Jamaica, Modena moved to the Bay Area in 1961, where he has been ever since. That’s where the book ends, but not his story. Modena went on to teach special needs classes in the San Jose and Morgan Hill school districts for several years before joining his in-laws’ import/export business. He remained there for 30 years.

In 1998, Modena’s first wife died. Her time in a convalescent hospital became the subject of Modena’s first book, “Forgotten People.” He subsequently remarried, and it was his second wife, Barbara, who suggested he write down his life story.

Modena is a longtime member of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He has two grown children and a couple of grandchildren as well.

Though the events chronicled in “Yalla!” took place decades ago, they still feel fresh to Modena. “I’m a survivor,” says Modena. “The reason I wrote the book is so my kids and grandchildren will know the story of my life.”

“Yalla!” by Alejandro Modena (349 pages, Robert D. Reed Publishers, $24.95).

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.