An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba

An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba

by Humberto Mayol, Ruth Behar
     
 

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Yiddish-speaking Jews thought Cuba was supposed to be a mere layover on the journey to the United States when they arrived in the island country in the 1920s. They even called it “Hotel Cuba.” But then the years passed, and the many Jews who came there from Turkey, Poland, and war-torn Europe stayed in Cuba. The beloved island ceased to be a hotel, and

Overview

Yiddish-speaking Jews thought Cuba was supposed to be a mere layover on the journey to the United States when they arrived in the island country in the 1920s. They even called it “Hotel Cuba.” But then the years passed, and the many Jews who came there from Turkey, Poland, and war-torn Europe stayed in Cuba. The beloved island ceased to be a hotel, and Cuba eventually became “home.” But after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the majority of the Jews opposed his communist regime and left in a mass exodus. Though they remade their lives in the United States, they mourned the loss of the Jewish community they had built on the island.

            As a child of five, Ruth Behar was caught up in the Jewish exodus from Cuba. Growing up in the United States, she wondered about the Jews who stayed behind. Who were they and why had they stayed? What traces were left of the Jewish presence, of the cemeteries, synagogues, and Torahs? Who was taking care of this legacy? What Jewish memories had managed to survive the years of revolutionary atheism?

            An Island Called Home is the story of Behar’s journey back to the island to find answers to these questions. Unlike the exotic image projected by the American media, Behar uncovers a side of Cuban Jews that is poignant and personal. Her moving vignettes of the individuals she meets are coupled with the sensitive photographs of Havana-based photographer Humberto Mayol, who traveled with her.

            Together, Behar’s poetic and compassionate prose and Mayol’s shadowy and riveting photographs create an unforgettable portrait of a community that many have seen though few have understood. This book is the first to show both the vitality and the heartbreak that lie behind the project of keeping alive the flame of Jewish memory in Cuba.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

A professor at the University of Michigan, Behar seeks a better understanding of her roots and of the Jewish experience in her native Cuba. Traversing the island, Behar becomes a confidante to myriad Jewish strangers. Through one-on-one interviews and black-and-white images taken by her photographer, Humberto Mayol, she uncovers the diasporic thread that connects Cuban Jews. Familial stories of wandering beginning in the 1920s tell of displaced Polish and German Jews-escapees from anti-Semitism and Auschwitz-opening mom-and-pop shops in La Habana Vieja, becoming peddlers, replacing Yiddish with Spanish and settling into Latino life only to be uprooted within decades. An estimated 16,500 Jews lived in Cuba in the late 1950s, when a mass exodus to Miami and New York took place-a reaction to Castro's budding communist revolution. This diligent recounting and pictorial collage of interviews with adolescents, the aging, the impoverished and the political by Behar preserves in memory the people and places that make up Cuba's Jewish story. (Nov.)

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Library Journal

Behar (anthropology, Univ. of Michigan; The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart) spent her earliest years in Cuba before her family left during the 1960s Jewish exodus when Castro took over the country. The exodus seemed to spell the end of a remarkable symbiotic 20th-century experience of formerly European Jews who became Cubans. Behar returned to Cuba as a professional anthropologist many times and what she found there surprised her: although small in number and quite assimilated, a Jewish community still remains. This book documents her experiences with wonderfully telling photographs by award-winning Havana photographer Mayol and short descriptive chapters focusing on some fascinating Cuban Jewish people and places. Behar weaves in autobiographical comments through her visits to old Jewish cemeteries and other buildings and scenes that played a role in her own family saga. Readers will be charmed and enthralled by her deeply felt tales. Recommended for libraries with strong ethnic and/or Jewish studies collections.
—Paul Kaplan

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780813543864
Publisher:
Rutgers University Press
Publication date:
10/01/2007
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
507,671
File size:
9 MB

What People are saying about this

"Ruth Behar’s An Island Called Home is a kaddish, an offering, dedicated to the exiles and to the children of the exiles and for those wandering still, searching for their homes. May they ‘not be given up for lost.’"
---Sandra Cisneros, author of Caramelo

"A fascinating and vital memoir about a rarely glimpsed cultural force in Cuba; both personal and far-reaching. An Island Called Home digs deep to reveal new things about the collective soul of the Cubans."
---Oscar Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

Meet the Author

Ruth Behar is a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellows award, she is the author of The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart and director of the documentary, Adio Kerida (Goodbye Dear Love). Ruth's website is ruthbehar.com

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