For Ruth Behar and her family, Cuba is not only a place of birth, but a site of refuge.
Last December, Ann Arbor resident Ruth Behar returned to Havana, her place of birth, to put the finishing touches on her newest novel, Letters from Cuba. She stayed in the same apartment building where she lived her first five years until 1961 — when her family left the island two years after Fidel Castro took over.
During her visit, the author worked in the nearby park she went to as a child, using public Wi-Fi to go over final editorial changes. The neighborhood is just a half-block from Temple Beth Shalom, also known as the Patronato Synagogue, a major hub of the Jewish community built just years before Behar’s birth.
She said the nostalgic location for the visit was intentional.
“I wanted to feel the island right before my book went to press,” said Behar, a writer, anthropologist and the Victor Haim Perera Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. She is the first Latina to receive a MacArthur “Genius” Grant.
“I wanted to be there in Cuba again as I was letting the book go,” she said.
For Behar and her family, Cuba is not only a place of birth, but a site of refuge. Her great-grandfather Abraham Levin journeyed there from Poland in 1924 during the rise of antisemitism in Europe. He lived in the rural Cuban village of Agramonte.
Behar’s Letters from Cuba, geared toward middle-grade students, was inspired by the true story of her maternal grandmother, Esther, a Polish Jew who journeyed by ship alone at age 17 in 1927 to join her father in Cuba. There, she helped make enough money to bring over the rest of her family from Poland, on the eve of the Holocaust.
The book features fictional letters from Esther to her younger sister, Malka, and imagines the experience of Esther as a young Jewish immigrant in a foreign country. Behar said that fiction became the perfect outlet for a Jewish immigration story that history does not have much record of. Instead, she used details heard in family stories, like the bread and bananas her great- grandfather sustained himself on upon arrival.
“That was a clue to how these new immigrants were taking care of themselves,” Behar said. “It showed how they were gently immersing themselves, trying the fruit of this new culture, while still trying their best to follow the kosher traditions of the old country.”
In addition to her grandmother’s story, Behar said she was motivated to write the book by the climate of hostility toward immigrants exhibited by the Trump administration. She saw connections between her family’s migration patterns and current events.
“It brought the past and the present together for me,” said Behar. “I thought, ‘My own family went through this.’”
In the 1920s, when Behar’s family was trying to escape persecution, the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 set quotas on how many people could come to the country from Southern and Eastern Europe.
“My family was unwanted here, so our American lives began in Cuba,” she said.
After Communist revolutionary Castro seized power in 1959, Behar said 94 percent of the Jews in Cuba left. Until her immediate family could obtain American passports, they spent a year in Israel living on a Spanish-speaking kibbutz. The family then immigrated once more to join her maternal grandparents in Queens, N.Y.
“I can actually remember looking out [the] ship’s window and seeing the Statue of Liberty when we arrived,” Behar said.
There, they joined a sizeable community of Jewish Cubans, and Behar worked hard to learn English. Still, she held onto her love of Spanish, and eventually pursued a career that allowed her to engage with her passion for language and diversity.
“As a cultural anthropologist, I have this intellectual passport that not only allows but encourages me to connect with the places I write about,” she said.
As part of her anthropological research and writing, she has lived and worked in Mexico and Spain. She has also made many return trips to her native Cuba.
“I do research there on the Jewish community, art and literature, and try to reconnect with the place I was born,” she said.
Haven from the Holocaust
Now, Behar enjoys a home base in Ann Arbor, where she teaches courses on Cuba and its diaspora and the concept of home at the University of Michigan. For herself, the concept of home evokes feelings of gratitude. She recognizes Cuba as the sanctuary that saved her family from a possible death in the Holocaust.
In Letters from Cuba, Behar aims to repaint this picture of the island as a center of welcome for many Jews. She said when it comes to Jewish migration to Cuba, scholars focus on the story of the SS St. Louis, a German luxury ship that carried more than 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in 1939. Only a handful were allowed entry into Cuba upon arrival. Behar believes this tragedy is out of character for the diverse country.
“I wrote this book in contrast to those stories,” Behar said. “I wanted to show that Cuba did offer sanctuary to very many Jews, that the majority, in fact, did find refuge.”
Behar also hopes the book will fill a gap in children’s learning, to deliver them the diverse kind of anthropological material she teaches to her students at the University of Michigan.
“They’ve read a lot of World War II stories,” Behar said. “They’ve read a lot of immigrant stories. But they don’t know the stories of Jews who went to Cuba.”
In sharing this history, she believes the novel will teach young readers to have compassion toward other immigrant children and hopefully make her readers better citizens of the world.
Perhaps most integral to Behar’s newest literary adventure, however, is remembrance. As remaining Holocaust survivors pass on, and as Behar worries about what she sees as a new climate of fascism, the author wants to make links between past and future traumas.
“We have to do everything we can to bring this historical memory into the present so young people can see it in relation to the contemporary struggles occurring,” she said. “We have to be able to connect all these things and understand how past and present are always in relation to one another.”