Anthropologist keeps returning to her homeland to gather Cuban Jewish stories

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On a typical Jewish mission to Cuba, visitors arrive laden with such items as toothpaste, aspirin, soap and boxes of matzah. They visit Havana’s synagogues and meet leaders who are determined to rebuild the Jewish community, despite its dwindling population.

But when cultural anthropologist Ruth Behar returns to Cuba, which she left in 1961 at the age of 4, she arrives with her notebooks and her ears, recording the life experiences of those who remain. In addition to meeting with Jewish community leaders, she ventures into the homes of cultural Jews who rarely visit a synagogue. Some are Marxists who stayed because they supported the 1959 revolution.

Ruth Behar

Behar, a filmmaker, poet and professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, will share those stories in a program titled “Returning to Jewish Cuba,” on Nov. 1 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Raised and educated in America, Behar retained only “visceral memories” of Cuba from her youth — “those lodged in my muscles” and in family albums, she said during a video call from Buenos Aires, where she was presenting a lecture to the Centro de Investigación y Defusión de la Cultura Sephardi.

Her own heritage is mixed, with Turkish roots on her father’s side, Eastern European on her mother’s. On her website, Behar calls herself “a cultural anthropologist who specializes in homesickness.”

Determined to reclaim her forgotten past, in the 1990s she began returning to Cuba periodically, a country her parents have never revisited. “An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba,” published in 2007, tells the story of her own odyssey and those of the Jews who remain in Cuba. Behar also explores these themes in her 2002 documentary, “Adio, Kerida” (Goodbye, Dear Love), and in “Traveling Heavy,” scheduled for spring publication.

She and her husband, fellow anthropologist David Frye, live in Ann Arbor, Mich., where their 26-year-old son, New York filmmaker Gabriel Frye-Behar, was born and raised.

But Behar still views herself as a temporary resident whose real home is Cuba.

Spanish, she said, is “the language of heart and home,” the language she still speaks with her parents. English is the language of school and the workplace. “When I hear Spanish, I become overjoyed,” she said.

Behar focuses her research on Latin American cultures, and she has earned the prestigious MacArthur Foundation award as well as Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships. Much of her work has been about Cuba. Like her own family, Cuban Jews are largely descended from early-20th-century émigrés from Europe and the Ottoman Empire. At first, they viewed the island as a way station en route to the United States, but many remained until the revolution. Behar’s family left in 1961, after the United States severed relations with Cuba and the botched Bay of Pigs invasion that ensued. Unable to immigrate to the United States, they went to Israel, moving to an Ashkenazi kibbutz, but her Sephardic father was unhappy there. A year later, they left for New York.

Today Cuba’s Jewish population, which reached a high of 15,000 to 20,000 after World War II, has dwindled to less than 1,500, and Jews continue to leave each year for North America, Israel and other Latin American countries.

Those who stayed, according to Behar, remained for the same reasons as other Cubans: “roots, culture, land and language. A lot of people prefer the known world” to the unknown, or have a family network in Cuba. In addition, she noted, those who are successful professionals in their 40s or 50s “might be able to make it somewhere else, but [fear] they’d be sent back to the bottom.”

Participants in the Jewish community are “truly Jews-by-choice,” she said, returning to a religion their Marxist parents rejected. In Cuba, intermarriage is the norm; few of the women are born Jewish and many of the men are Jewish only on the paternal side, undergoing a halachic conversion at midlife or later. “Because Cuba has been so secular,” Behar said, the non-Jewish women they marry “are not fiercely Catholic or Protestant” and are willing to convert, often becoming active in synagogue life.

Behar enjoys meeting up with nonobservant Jews, including academics, Marxists or both. One tried to gift her with a stash of historic Castro posters. Another, who accompanied her to a May Day rally, voiced his discontent with the synagogues, which he said offer material goods to lure worshippers.

And yet material goods are needed. Cuban Jews “appreciate the soap and toothpaste and clothing,” Behar said, but they could also use Jewish magazines, books, films and CDs.

“In my case,” she said, “I don’t bring charity. I bring stories, I gather testimonies and pass them on.”

Ruth Behar will speak on “Returning to Cuba” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1, at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. $12-$15. or (415) 292-1233.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].