Home Is Where the Heart Is and Where the Soul Finds Its Spirit

Ruth Behar is the author of "The Vulnerable Observer--Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart" and the editor of an anthology, "Bridges to Cuba--Puentes a Cuba" (University of Michigan Press). The author at age 3 in Havana

Unlike the Cuban Americans who returned to Cuba for the first time during the pope's visit, for me the trip back was almost routine. Over the last few years I have become a frequent traveler to Cuba. I go, in part, to get over my fear of going. My family fled Cuba during the tense period following the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. I was a child then, and I grew up with an acute sense of paranoia about visiting the country where I was born. Just in case I find myself there for the imagined apocalyptic closure to the drama of Cuba's revolution, I always go legally, with the U.S. government's permission, an anthropologist visiting as a "field site" the land I can no longer be part of.

Although I am, indeed, doing research in Cuba, each trip awakens more soul-searching, a deeper quest for connection to the history and struggle of those who stayed. At the same time, my privilege as a Cuban living abroad, with access to dollars and with the ability to come and go, becomes more starkly obvious with each visit. I make vows I can't keep. Ridiculous vows that won't clean my conscience. I vow not to buy any tourist tchotchkes, but feeling obliged to return home with some gifts, I acquire several grotesque papier-mache Cubanita dolls with Carmen Miranda-style baskets of fruit on their heads. I tell myself I will not ride the "bicitaxis," the one-man-bicycle-powered carriages that to me are the cruelest emblem of Cuba's new pauperization, and yet I end up taking one, because it is both so cheap and so rico a way to traverse the Malecon, the sea wall promenade that curves around Havana.

After years of these visits, I have come to understand that I have a debt to Cuba, that what connects me irrevocably to the island is the basic fact of my survival. I am the granddaughter of Jewish emigrants who arrived in Cuba after the United States closed the door to Jews with the 1924 Immigration and Naturalization Act, the same year, not accidentally, that the United States created the Border Patrol to monitor and limit the entrance of Mexicans to a territory that a century earlier had been theirs. My family was among those Jews escaping pogroms and growing nationalisms in the aftermath of World War I, who were forced to imagine a future for themselves in the other America south of the border. I descend from Jews who found a welcome and tolerant home in Cuba and only because of this did not perish.

But the terms of our survival depended, yet again, on the ugly logic of race. Fearing that the growth of the black population during the final years of slavery and the prominent role played by Afro-Cubans in the wars for independence would lead them to take over the island, the Cuban government encouraged massive immigration of European workers and their families, Jews included. Even Jews, like my family, not permitted into the U.S. were white enough to dilute "the black peril" and forestall the possibility of Cuba becoming a black nation.

My mother's Polish Jewish family, headed by my great-grandfather, Abraham Levin, a rabbi, settled in Agramonte, a sugar-growing town in the province of Matanzas, where they set up a general store and sold everything from pins to mattresses. For many years they were the only Jewish family in a region known in Cuba as "little Africa" because of the strong and vital presence of African cultural and religious roots left by the many slaves brought there to work the cane.

On my earlier visits to Agramonte, I went in search of people's memories of my family, but as the pope prepared to bless Cuba, I wanted to acknowledge the presence of the African spirits around whom my family dwelt in blissful and dangerous ignorance. And I was graced, profoundly, by being brought inside four of the remaining casas de fundamento in Agramonte--houses where descendants keep the sacred stones of the Santeria religion that once belonged to ancestors bound into slavery, stones on which have been poured the blood sacrifices of generations. My hosts in Agramonte invited me to lift the bell that lay on the ground near the bowls holding the stones and ring it to honor the spirits and ask of them what I needed. I rang the bell. And, with tears in my eyes, I gave thanks.

Long before I was born, my family left Agramonte for Havana, seeking a more active and less isolated Jewish life. Among the places I never fail to visit in Havana is the synagogue on 15th and I streets, just down the block from where I spent the early years of my childhood. Known as the Patronato, it is the most architecturally ambitious of Havana's four synagogues. Built in the early 1950s, at a time when Cuba's community of 15,000 Jews had finally settled into permanent island life, the Patronato was quickly abandoned when Fidel Castro came to power and nationalized the many small Jewish businesses that had taken root in Old Havana. From the balcony of our modest two-bedroom apartment, we could see the distinctive tall and sweeping arch outside the synagogue. It was meant to evoke the rainbow that came after the Flood, a metaphor for what the Jews of Havana had struggled to attain and for their hope--so soon to be crushed--of permanence.

On my last Friday night on this latest visit to Havana, as I headed to the Patronato for Sabbath eve services, I unexpectedly caught sight of the pope in the popemobile. How otherworldly he looked, dressed all in white, seated within his transparent nest of red velvet. A chill went down my spine as I caught myself returning his wave and cheering with the rest of the crowd. As a student of religion, I had felt a tremendous need to be in Cuba during John Paul II's visit, and yet I was ambivalent about what the pope represented to me as a Jew. As an anthropologist, I had studied popular Catholicism in Spain and Mexico, where, like a conversa before the Inquisition, I frequently hid the fact of my Jewish identity so as not to call attention to myself. What a painful silencing this was, knowing that my paternal Sephardic ancestors had chosen expulsion from Spain to maintain their Jewish identity. I had learned to recite the rosary, become expert at falling to my knees as the priest raised the Host at the culmination of the Mass. In Castro's Cuba, which proclaimed itself a society that believed only in the power of human labor and human striving, I had to admit I felt more comfortable as a Jew than in any other Spanish-speaking country I had known. But perhaps there was nothing to worry about. Wasn't this the pope who had called the Jews his elder siblings?

When I arrived at the Patronato there were about 30 people in the small chapel waiting for services to start. I took a seat and waited too. Suddenly, Adela Dworin, the Patronato's librarian and secretary, turned and asked me to light the Sabbath candles, which had been placed on the bima. I trembled, but I stepped to the front. I lit the candles according to custom, closed my eyes and said the prayer, one of the few I know by heart in Hebrew. And I thought, how beautiful the light is in a country where bulbs are precious and blackouts are all too common. And I also thought, how profound has been my loss of Cuba, but also how profound is the grace of what I have regained.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World