Of Places Left Behind: An Anthropologist Explores Jewish Cuban Diasporas

From: University of Michigan | By: Ruth Behar
Picture of Ruth BeharEDITOR'S INTRODUCTION |The artistic and scholarly work of Cuban-born anthropologist, poet, and filmmaker Ruth Behar [right] tackles themes of expulsion, departure, and exile — themes that lie at the crux of her identity as a Sephardic Jew from Cuba. In this interview, Behar turns to the "places left behind" in her own personal and larger cultural past, and discusses her ongoing search for identity and home. Behar traces the diasporas of the Sephardic Jews from Spain to Cuba, as well as her own family's move from Cuba to New York after the revolution, and discusses how displacement is both central to her work and to the field of anthropology in general.

Fathom: In your poem Survivals, the ambiguity of the opening lines — "I am a child / of so many places / left behind" — invites a reading that both the narrator and the places are left behind. As exile and displacement seem central to both your creative and anthropological work, where and how do you consider "home."

Read the poem Survivals in English or Spanish by Ruth Behar.

Ruth Behar: I am still considering where home is and have not made a final decision yet. I think of myself as being very much in process around the question of home. I think I have multiple homes, and do not think I have just one at this point. I never expected to spend 15 years in Ann Arbor. When I first came here, I was on a fellowship and thought that after three years I would move on; surprisingly, I ended up staying here. So without even really trying, Ann Arbor has become a home. My son was born here. This is where he has gone to school. He loves Ann Arbor and so, as a result, I have come to really think of this as a kind of home. It is where my house is. I do not know if it is where my home is, but it is where my house is, and I do make a distinction there. I think home for now is here, but I think the attachment to the place where you are born — in my case, Cuba — is always a strong one.

Che Guevara for SaleFurthermore, when you add the politics and the emotions that were stirred by the Cuban Revolution and by leaving Cuba as a child, there is a whole other deep sentimental attachment to that place. I was not able to decide as a child whether or not I would get to grow up there; my parents decided that we would leave after the revolution. That is a profound thing and it is one of the reasons that I have wanted to re-engage and reconnect with Cuba now as an adult woman. I have a whole fantasy of the parallel life that I might have had in Cuba.

On the other hand, even though I grew up here, my parents and family always spoke about Cuba. Even though we are Jewish, we spoke in Spanish; and so there was the connection to the Spanish language. We ate Cuban food; we went to Cuban restaurants. My parents danced to Cuban music. There was this connection to Cuba that was always very strong and yet very mysterious because we couldn't go back to the country. We were — all Cubans were — abnormal immigrants in that sense because none of us can just get on a plane and go home when we feel like it because of the embargo. In fact, Cubans are only allowed one trip to Cuba a year and that has to be for a strong humanitarian reason. We are not like other Latinos where, if you are from Mexico, you can go back to Mexico and visit your family if you have the means to do so.

As a result, that taboo on going back and the whole politics surrounding this forbidden island creates an even stronger attachment, which I think is why so many Cubans in this country are so unable to let go of Cuba because they lost it in a double sense. They lost it because they had to leave, and then they lost it because they cannot easily go back. We are forced to really create a Cuba of our own imaginations, to create this imaginary homeland. When you ask me what home is, Cuba is home; but then home does not necessarily have to be on the island. Cuba can be home and that Cuban home can actually be in Ann Arbor.

Fathom: Who are the Sephardic Jews, and how did they settle in Cuba?

Behar: The Sephardic Jews left Spain in the fifteenth century. In 1492, when the conquest of the Americas was taking place, the King and Queen of Spain ordered the expulsion of the Jews. This is a period of increasing orthodoxy, of doing away with the kind of pluralism that had existed in Spain, where you had Jewish, Muslim and Christian people coexisting and interacting with one another on a day-to-day level, and also on a scholarly and philosophical level as well. At the end of the fifteenth century, Spain decided for various reasons that this kind of heterodoxy was not acceptable and chose instead to make Spain a completely Orthodox Catholic nation. The Sephardic Jews were basically given two options: either to convert to Catholicism or leave the country.

The Sephardic Jews are those, then, who descend from Spain and Portugal but who chose to leave in order to maintain their Jewish identity. During this period, the Ottoman Empire openly welcomed these Jews, understanding that these people were talented in business and philosophy. While many of these Jews ended up living in Turkey and Morocco and other places, they maintained their connection to the Spanish language. They continued to speak the Spanish that they took with them in the fifteenth century and over time this becomes another language called Ladino, which is an old Spanish mixed with Turkish and other languages acquired in this Diaspora. These Sephardic Jews maintain their connection to Spanish customs, Spanish folklore, and a rich Sephardic tradition of music.

Later, in the twentieth century, when Turkey became an independent nation it also became increasingly more nationalistic. During this time, many Jews began to feel threatened and worried that their identity and culture would not be so easy to preserve. Many of the men, in particular, did not want to serve in the Turkish Army. So for various reasons — including the economic and social upheavals that follow the First World War — people start to immigrate to Cuba in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Templo Union Hebrea Chevet AhimCuba openly accepted European Jewish immigrants at a time in which the United States was closing its doors to these immigrants as a result of the 1924 Immigration and Nationality Act. A good number of Jews from throughout Eastern and Southern Europe who were trying to leave Europe ended up migrating to Cuba, Mexico and Argentina because those countries opened their doors to European immigrants — including Jews — whereas the United States closed its doors to Jewish immigrants at this time. The Latin American nations were trying to "whiten" their populations and so they accepted more European immigrants out of fear that their nations would become "darker." In Cuba, particularly, they were afraid that the rise of the black population at the end of the nineteenth century would create a black nation like Haiti. This is a period also which sees a large immigration from Spain to Cuba. A lot of Cubans are actually children and grandchildren of Spanish immigrants who came over at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. That is how the Sephardic Jews end up in Cuba.

There is an immigration circuit too, that we see today from Latin American nations, where people relocate to Cuba, have some success, and write back to relatives and friends, who in turn move there. What I found curious is that a lot of the Sephardic Jews in Cuba come from the same region and town in Turkey. Clearly this kind of immigration circuit was going on.

Fathom: How do the different Jewish communities within Cuba interact?

Behar: In Cuba, there were both Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews. The Ashkenazi Jews generally came from Poland and Russia; the Sephardic Jews largely from Turkey. These two Jewish communities intersect in Cuba, and even though they are all Jewish, they have very different views of Jewish identity. They come from very different cultures. They speak different languages. The Ashkenazi Jews speak Yiddish; the Sephardic Jews do not speak Yiddish, they speak Ladino. They have no connection to Yiddish. Both communities are quite different. In my particular case, my mother is Ashkenazi and my father is Sephardic. I grew up with the conjuncture of these two Jewish cultures and, as a result of their marriage, was able to see that Jewishness is not a single monolithic identity. In fact, there is a lot of multiculturalism within Judaism.

 The Jewish Tribe of Seafarers In my own family, I could see the differences between my father's culture and my mother's culture. They were both born in Cuba, but they brought these different Jewish cultures to their identity. I am the product of this mixture of all these places left behind.

I am in all these different places — in Poland, in Russia, in Turkey, etc. — and I am the crossroads of all these different places that came together in Cuba and then continued in our next migration to the US. My sense of being from so many places left behind stems from the fact that I am a child of two Diasporas — I am a child of the Diaspora from Europe to Cuba and then a Diaspora from Cuba to the United States.

Fathom: Do you find that these places left behind, these displacements, serve as a source from which you draw your creative and academic energy?

Behar: This had a big impact on me because anthropology is about displacement and I grew up knowing what displacement was. Further, anthropology is about displacing yourself to try to understand another place. Your position is that of someone who is coming from the outside to a place, while trying to become an insider of that place through ethnography, which is the work of developing close relationships with people who agree to become the subject of your observation and study.

I am somebody who understood displacement from an early age. We had actually left Cuba for Israel, where we lived for a year before we migrated to New York. So I spoke Spanish and then I spoke Hebrew, and then English became my third language. In New York, I was placed in public school in a first grade classroom; I was suddenly mute because I didn't know English. My parents could not help me because they did not know English either. I experienced first hand the sense of being displaced. I think this had a huge impact on my decision to become a professional observer of displacement by going into anthropology.

It also affected my poetry, and now my filmmaking. Poetry requires a disciplined look at language and to figure out what is it that you want to say requires precision. This has always created a state of anxiety for me as I tried to think about who I was in terms of language. I grew up speaking Spanish and still speak Spanish to my parents. In my home environment, I am a Spanish speaker. However all of my education was in the English language. So while my whole academic upbringing was in English, my whole sentimental upbringing was in Spanish. The discipline poetry requires forces me to think about language, and to think of myself as being a person in translation constantly, because so many of the deep feelings that I experienced came through Spanish rather than through English. I present them in English because I am more comfortable writing in English; it is the language I use more frequently in my professional life. English is the language of my becoming smart, whereas Spanish is more the language of my sentiment and of my heart.

I am always dealing with these issues of translation. It is one of the reasons that I called my book about a Mexican woman's story Translated Woman because I was always so aware of these questions of being a translated person. One of the things you do as an anthropologist is to translate experiences across cultural borders. You experience something in another language, in another culture, and then you have to figure out how to translate that for the audience back home, which in my case is an English-speaking world.

Translation has always been a very keen experience for me because I used to translate for my parents. I learned English before my parents, which typically happens with immigrant kids. I picked it up in a year or two in school; I had to in order to survive as a kid. My parents took longer. My mother took a long time because she was a housewife and all her friends spoke Spanish with her. So I would translate for my mother. It forced me to become an adult and to become more independent much more quickly. While it forced me to constantly think of moving between languages, it also made me very conscious of language, which is one of the reasons that I also love to write. Writing is difficult for me, but it is also very fulfilling when I feel I can translate my ideas into my writing.

Fathom: When your parents moved to New York, did they find a Sephardic Jewish community there?

Behar: They did, though not right away. Initially, we were out of place in the Jewish community in New York. We were in Queens where the community was largely made up of Ashkenazi American Jewish people, who found us very strange because we spoke Spanish. People always thought we were Puerto Ricans and as such assumed us to be Christian. We were confusing to them because we appeared to be Puerto Ricans but claimed to be Jewish. Initially we had a hard time finding a place in the Jewish community in Queens.

With the passage of time, a Sephardic Jewish community, largely Cuban, developed in Brooklyn and we would go to services there. In fact, my brother had his Bar Mitzvah with a Sephardic Rabbi, who had been a Rabbi in Cuba and had been transplanted to Brooklyn. We had settled in Queens and eventually, over time, a Sephardic community also started developing there. The Rabbi of a congregation there is a Sephardic Rabbi from Morocco, and it is very interesting because he speaks "Ladino" — he speaks Spanish through his Sephardic ancestry, although he is Moroccan. As a result of this experience, my parents started connecting with a larger multicultural Sephardic community that does exist in New York, and that is the congregation that they go to now. Still, there are not very many people from Cuba or from Latin America; it is largely Moroccan and there is also an Uzbeki component of that community now, too. They are not exactly Sephardic, but they are outside of the Ashkenazi mainstream — outside of the kind of Eastern European mainstream that tends to be more dominant in the representation of the Jew in the United States.

Fathom: How has working in the medium of film impacted your role as an artist and anthropologist? Are there particular advantages film affords?

Behar: Filmmaking is wonderful. It is so exciting that we have this medium readily available now; mini DV (digital video) and digital technologies have revolutionized this field by allowing many more of us to make videos and to get them out there. For me, it was a great experience, and was something that I had always wanted to do. As a student, I was very interested in photography and loved visual media. It was rewarding to finally be able to make a film about Cuba after 10 years of visits.

Film is a crucial medium for anthropologists to explore. It is a direct and an engaging way to represent other cultures and to represent our relationships with people in other cultures. In my own film, I chose to always be inside the frame rather than behind the camera. I wanted to be in the scenes so that people could actually see how I interact with the subjects of my film and of my ethnography. In film, you can bring together voice, music, gestures; the whole richness of a place and of people's voices can be shown so much more forcefully in film.

The other very exciting thing about film is its potential to bring anthropology to a larger public. Many anthropologists are concerned about how to bring anthropological insights to a larger public, and this medium has even greater potential to do so, even more than a lot of our writing. We live in an age that is so saturated with media and where many are so media literate. We watch TV. We watch documentaries on PBS. We go to the movies. This is really the medium of our time, even more than writing.

No matter what medium we are using, however, it all comes down to having a good story to tell. What film can do is to present all of this in a very direct and engaging way. People are more likely, in my case, to go see my video about the Sephardic Jews of Cuba than they are to go hear a lecture about the same subject. While I can make my lecture just as interesting as my film, people are more likely to sit and see a video because it is presented in a medium that they are familiar with. I have been able to show Adio Kerida in the Cuban community and the Jewish Cuban community, and it is something that everybody feels they can comment on. People feel confident about being able to comment on a film. This has to do with having literacy in this medium. Film is a form that can create public discourse, probably more so than our scholarship. In that sense, it is a very important form in which for us to work, in addition to our scholarship.

Relevant Links

Ruth Behar's Home Page