Monday, March 17, 2014

Traveling Heavy: a memoir in between journeys by Ruth Behar 2013

"The writing is emotional, nostalgic, thoughtful, heavily spiced with Spanish, and peppered with black and white photographs." from a review posted on The Jewish Book Council blog by Miriam Bradman Abrahams

Ruth Behar, anthropology professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and recipient of a
MacArthur Award, has written an interesting memoir that focuses on her sense of identity as a Jewish Cuban immigrant in America. Her father’s family was originally from Turkey and her mother’s family was from Poland. She explains that the marriage between a Sephardi and an Ashkenazi in Cuba was considered a mixed marriage and was not common.

Behar focuses on the geography of her life – seen through the lens of an anthropologist. She writes about her life in the United States where she arrived after a short detour to Israel once her family fled Cuba at the time of the revolution. She spent a childhood during which she felt most painfully robbed of her language which is such a large part of identity. She also writes of her life as an academic in Ann Arbor where she has put down roots in American soil.

One of the most interesting and entertaining sections of the book is one that deals with the author’s Sephardic family name: Behar. In 2004 when she receives an invitation from a man named Iako Behar, a Jewish Bulgarian living in Mexico, to a “Behar Summit” in Bejar, Spain, she decides to attend. All those named Behar, Bejar, Vejar, Bejarano, Becherano that the organizer can find have been invited and over sixty attend from all over the world. The town, which has a former Jewish section, is like many other small towns now devoid of Jews, and trying to link any Behars with the town and with each other is the subject of many conversations. In addition, a Mexican Jewish genealogist, Alejandro Rubenstein, who was invited to speak, presents more food for thought about the origin of the family name – a thought-provoking lesson in naming for anyone interested in genealogy.

Interested in her Ashkenazi roots, and in possession of an original handwritten copy of the Yizkor book from her grandmother’s town, she visits Poland and in some ways has an eerily similar experience in the small town of Goworowo to the one that she had in Bejar, Spain. Whether expelled or killed at the time of the Inquisition in Spain, or rounded up and killed by the Nazis in Poland, Jews who had inhabited these towns were invisible ghosts, barely acknowledged in the towns, though a Jewish museum was being built in Bejar.

Behar’s ties to Cuba are strong, despite the fact that she left when she was quite young, and she returned as early as 1979 as soon as scholars were given an opening to travel there. Much of her anthropological work has been based in Cuba and she has taken student groups there. She gives an interesting overview of living conditions in Cuba today which she contrasts to the way she lives in the states. She also  writes about the Cuban Jewish community which was the subject of another book (the subject of an earlier post - see below) that she published in 2007.

To read an earlier post of Ruth Behar's book about The Cuban Jewish community, click here.
To read an article from the New York Times about reclaiming Spanish citizenship, click here.

Ruth Behar has respected the privacy of many family members by not citing their names. In some instances she states she changed their names.

Alberto Behar
    Ruth Behar – daughter of Albertico; married to David; author
       Gabriel – son of Ruth and David
    Morris Isaac Behar – son of Alberto
Abraham Levin – author’s maternal great grandfather
Hannah Gallant – author’s maternal great grandmother

Friends and Acquaintances
Gedale and Hannah Grynberg – Goworowo, Poland
    Yitzhak Grynberg – son of Gedale and Hannah
David Melul – Barcelona, family from Morocco
Jose Levy

Those whose names she met that the author met at the Behar summit:
Iako Behar – Bulgarian Jew living in Mexico; son Mario, grandsons Moris and Yaakov
Yakov Behar and son Ronen – Canada
Craig Behar – Arizona
Bob Behar – Washington
Marco Bejanaro – Israel
Yehuda Behar – Israel; married to Anat
Eugenia Behar – Mexico; niece Mayra; nephew Ezra Bejar, California
Caroline Behar – Paris
Andrew Behar – Los Angeles; grandparents from Ankara, Turkey
Richard Behar – New York City; cousin of Andrew; grandparents from Ankara, Turkey
Leon Behar – Colombia, now South Africa; married to Marta; son Alberto
Claudia Behar – Paris; parents from Egypt

Queens, NY
Canarsie, NY
Miami Beach, Florida
Silivri, Turkey
Miami Beach, Florida
Agramonte, Cuba
Havana, Cuba
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Goworowo, Poland

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