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Ruth Behar On Cuban Travel, Diplomatic Relations, and Exile

Ruth Behar by Gabriel Frye-Behar

For Cuban-born author and University of Michigan anthropology professor Ruth Behar, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba have translated into uniquely exciting opportunities to create cultural bridges.

I had a chance to speak with Behar in Miami before she went to a groundbreaking cultural interchange event with Cuban and Cuban-American artists discussing emergent transnational relations. These events were once rare and even taboo because of the Cuban embargo and frigid official relations with the island nation. For Cubans like Behar’s family who left the country after the 1959 revolution, engaging with Cuba and Cubans was (and is still) out of the question because it means support of Fidel Castro and his Communist dictatorship that took their property, livelihood and home.

Behar described feeling a diminished sense of tension she has portrayed in her personal and anthropological writings of her trips to Cuba. She left with her family as a five-year-old because of the country’s Communist Revolution and settled in New York City. “My family was upset and angry that I would go,” said Behar, who was born in Cuba in 1956. “My mother would say, ‘There are Communists there!’”

Feeling comfortable on the island and her family’s acceptance has been a constant struggle for Behar as she has focused on portraying the Jewish experience in Cuba. She never uses the term “Jubans.” Her books An Island Called Home and Traveling Heavy chronicle her family’s heart-wrenching experiences as refugees and her emotional return journeys to Cuba to seek out the remaining Jews there.

The changing relationship between the U.S. and Cuba and the growing interest among Americans in the island nation known as a place where time has stood still was made very clear to Behar when 400 people attended a panel she moderated for the Miami Book Fair International called “Bridges to/from Cuba: Lifting the Emotional Embargo.”

In the past, that panel would have surely drawn Cuban exile protesters objecting to engaging the dictatorial regime of Fidel Castro. Diplomatic changes have allowed Cubans and Americans to travel more freely. The relaxed policies in Cuba have allowed small businesses and religious life to flourish. These changes have given Behar license to push her cultural work in different directions.

“Before [the change in policy] I was not sure I belonged, now I feel a part of it,” said Behar. “Before [the opening of the U.S. Embassy, when I visited] I had a fear that I could get lost. [And could never be found.] Now with the restoration of relations, I feel safer. Obama has recognized the Cuban American experience. Now it’s like I have permission. And it feels like a more open society.”

Behar focuses on the Cuban Jewish experience for personal, spiritual, and anthropological reasons. “In part, I am trying to understand my own heritage as a member of the Cuban Jewish community,” she said. “Every Jew I meet in Cuba offers me an example of a parallel life on the island that might have been mine had my family chosen to stay. I feel a deep spiritual connection with the Jews of Cuba and with Cuban Jews in the diaspora because we have all come from the same island with its unique history and dreams. I am also interested in the complexities of the community's history and culture and approach those aspects from my perspective as a cultural anthropologist.”

The majority of Cuba’s 1,000 remaining Jews live in Havana, where there are three synagogues. There are smaller Jewish communities in the provincial cities of Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Camaguey, Sancti Spiritus, Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo, and Manzanillo. The major Jewish holidays are celebrated by all the communities in Cuba. An Argentine rabbi visits regularly to assist the community but there is no permanent rabbi on the island.

“I feel enormous gratitude to the Jewish community in Cuba for preserving the heritage of my ancestors while revitalizing Jewish culture and passing it on to new generations,” said Behar. As a frequent traveler to Cuba, she seeks shared bonds of culture and memory. Her very personal research is marked by the search for home in our global era. Now the political changes have made Behar feel more comfortable with her frequent movement between the U.S. and Cuba.

She is exploring plans to develop more cultural events for and with Cuba’s Jewish community. At the core of her plans is storytelling. She hopes to create cultural bridges between Jews in Cuba and Jews in the U.S. and beyond, as well as providing information about Jewish Cuban literary, artistic, and musical culture to the general Cuban public. This kind of Jewish outreach is rare in Cuba, Behar said. But she has found that there is great curiosity among the general population on the Jewish presence in Cuba and a desire to learn more.

“I see myself as being a part of transforming Cuba,” Behar said. “I see myself as a cultural activist. I represent someone who connects people.”

A veteran Cuba trip leader and guide, Behar’s concerns about the booming tourism to Cuba are complex. This coming winter, Behar will lead her third Cuba trip for supporters of the Yiddish Book Center based in Amherst, Massachusetts. On the excursion, the group goes to synagogues and meets with Cuban Jews so they can hear their stories. On these trips Behar takes the Yiddish lovers to the Ashkenazi main synagogue el Patronato, which maintains a library of Yiddish books.

“It’s a joy to go to the Patronato and point to the building across the street and tell them: ‘That’s where I lived,’” she said. “Maybe it’s helped me to feel: ‘That’s my city. I know the monuments and the streets.’”

Topics: Jewish History
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I read it for the first time.

Since my first footsteps on Cuban soil in 2001, I have been weaving delicate visual and aural strands of connection between Cuba's Jewish-interfaith communities and others throughout the Diaspora. My portfolios need editing, scanning and more opportunities for sharing. We and our many colleagues could build amazing bridges, together.

How to cite this page

Weinstein, Dina. "Ruth Behar On Cuban Travel, Diplomatic Relations, and Exile." 20 May 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 26, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/ruth-behar-on-cuban-travel-diplomatic-relations-and-exile>.

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