Until the moment I said “hello” to Ruth Behar via telephone, I had been a silent admirer, an ardent fan, an inspired member of her unofficial fan club. As a fellow Latina Jew and founder of a website that collects stories about Latina Jews, the opportunity to interview Ruth Behar for her upcoming visit to the JCC of San Francisco on November 1, 2012 was quite literally, the thrill of a lifetime.
In preparation for my interview I spent the day reading An Island Called Home (2007), her wonderfully moving book about Cuba that is a collaboration with Cuban photographer Humberto Mayol. I also re-read several of her essays and poems and spent several hours online learning more about her accomplishments, not the least of which include Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships and a MacArthur Foundation award. I had so many topics I wanted to discuss with her – religion, motherhood, marriage, identity, politics, consumerism, spirituality, raising children – and they were all swirling in my head, such that when I heard her voice on the other end of the phone I had to exercise profound self-restraint.
But her voice and opening words, “It’s so nice to meet you,” conveyed such poise, calm and thoughtfulness, that I immediately leaned back into my chair, planted my feet on the rug, and asked her about her upcoming book, Traveling Heavy, scheduled for publication in the spring of 2013.
Traveling Heavy is a memoir written in between journeys,” she said. “The first part of the book contains stories about me as an immigrant child. It explores my awareness of many identities – trying to understand what this means,” and recounts the conflicts with her family that formed part of her journey towards self-understanding.Part two of the book examines her work as a “professional traveler” – that is, as a cultural anthropologist whose field work began in Spain and Mexico and eventually led her to Cuba in 1991 on the journey of self–exploration that has now lasted 21 years.
“I have to depend on the kindness of strangers in my work and they have always been very kind,” she said.
Part three is about the goodbyes, which, for her, are always hard.
“Being close to people from different parts of the world, always being at home and displacing oneself, always having to say goodbye, is a part of [the field of] anthropology,” she explained.
These goodbyes, exacted in the performance of her profession, are paralleled in some ways, she said, by those that that took place in the Cuban diaspora – the huge goodbyes the Jews of Cuba had to make first in leaving their homelands for Cuba and then again when, after the Cuban Revolution, many Jews left the island.
“The bigger point of the book,” she explained, “is that all of us are searching for connections -– how to make connections that define our reality.”
I used the topic of “connections” to tell her how compelling I found the connection she makes between herself as an anthropologist - always seeking bits of “handouts” from people about their lives - and Salomon the schnorrer, the infamous and charming well-known Jewish beggar in Havana about whom she writes in one essay.
“I didn’t want to put him down and put a value judgment on him, especially because what he does is similar to what I do. I want people to give me information for free; he wants noodles...we’re not that different from one another,” she said, laughing.
Balancing motherhood with her career was always important to Behar.
“My son traveled to Spain with me, he traveled to Mexico with me and he travels to Cuba with me,” she said. Gabriel, now 25, is fluent in Spanish and on a recent trip to Cuba, Ruth proudly recounted, “I saw him explaining things to American travelers (about Cuba). I was able to pass on my passion to him.”
As the producer and director of the film Adio Kerida (2002), a personal documentary about the search for identity and memory among Sephardic Jews with roots in Cuba, Ruth was able to pass on her love of film as well: Gabriel has recently received his film degree from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU). Gabriel even shot a bit of the footage of the boulevard known as the Malecon in Cuba.
Discussing her career on a previous radio interview, she had said that her work had given her “a bigger heart, a better sense of what her family and her community lost in leaving Cuba.” When I heard that statement, I immediately thought: her heart ‘grew’ to hold her sorrow.
“What do you do with the sadness?” I asked speculatively.
“When I wrote The Vulnerable Observer (1996) the topic was loss,” she admitted. “I have been obsessed with loss for a very long time. I am in also in awe of the Jewish world that the Jews created in Cuba in a very short period: Yiddish theater, synagogues, schools. They left so much behind… there was so much left behind to build on. They were leaving and putting up the last stones in one of the synagogues. It is a story of regeneration.
“There is a Cuban saying, ‘You plant the roses but you don’t know who is going to pick them.’ The story of the Jews of Cuba is a story of loss and a story of how things aren’t lost – you think they are lost but they aren’t.” Given that the issues of possessions and consumerism inform any discussion of the differences between life in Cuba and in the U.S., it is no surprise that having or not having “things” plays a role in several of the stories in An Island Called Home.
"Can you talk more about "things?" I asked. In response, she described a book of meditative prose poems that she published in a bilingual edition in Cuba. Titled Todo lo que Guarde (Everything I Kept), she explained that it is about the meaning we give to material possessions and the desire to hold on to things we should be able to let go of. The poem, “Apples,” (below, at the end of this article) provides a strong example of the mental wrestling connected with the prospect of a purchase in Cuba, given the complexities of the market and monetary system.
In the last chapter of An Island Called Home, there is a line in which Ruth is reflecting on the new Hotel Raquel in Cuba, whose rooms are all named after a biblical character or biblical place. As she stands in the hotel looking at the names on the hotel doors, she wonders, “Is this what’s left for people like me, people who are always looking back?”
I took that reference as an opportunity to switch the question and ask her what she’s looking forward to. She seamlessly rolled out her top five anticipations:
"One: the travel abroad program I’ve developed for students to study for three months in Cuba," she said. "Two: seeing my son Gabriel develop as an adult. Three: a novel I am working on, Havana Nightgowns. Four: an autobiographical young adult story I am writing about a 9 year old girl who is bedridden for a year and how her life is transformed. And, lastly, middle age. I want to age gracefully. My parents are active; I hope I will be lucky enough to be like that and keep growing and thinking and writing... and traveling.”