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

Monday, March 3, 2014

My Dear Hindalla, Remember Me: Letters from a Lost World, May 1937 – January 1940 by Marlene Englander 2012

"A moving and beautiful true story of love and friendship unfolds through letters written between two young people." from a review by Leslie Shafran in the Cleveland Jewish News 11/1/2012

This large format paperback book consists mainly of a series of 28 letters, reproduced in Yiddish and translated into English (by the recipient), written by Nachum Berman to Hinda Zarkey. Having grown up in the small town of Widze, which was then in Poland but is now in Belarus, Hinda Zarkey relocated to the larger town of Seduva in Lithuania in 1935 when she was twelve years old to attend junior high school. It was there, where she lived with her mother’s sister and her family, that she met Nachum Berman who was a young pharmacist working in her aunt’s pharmacy.  In 1937 she immigrated with her aunt’s family to Cleveland, Ohio. Berman stayed behind, continuing to work in the pharmacy.

Berman wrote regularly and Hinda Zarkey responded, but only his letters to her survive. The letters are part of an ongoing conversation between the two. Berman tells her what books he’s reading, what plays and movies he’s seen, how work is going, how he hopes to spend his vacation. He makes suggestions to her about what she might like to read and he encourages her in her studies. He also chats about people he’s seen who send their regards and asks her questions about life in America. But as time moves on his letters take on, first a melancholy tone, and then one of desperation. For example, he writes early on about the pleasure he receives from a radio he’s bought, but then later he writes about being glued to the radio in order to follow the awful news. He is looking for a way out and knows it’s not going to be easy.

Marlene Englander, Hinda Zarkey Saul's daughter, has created this book out of Nachum Berman’s letters to her mother to which she has added a lot of ancillary material. She and her mother annotated the letters which are included as endnotes.  She also included many family photos as well as introductory material explaining her motivation for working on and publishing the book. She also gives the readers some background material on towns that play a major role in the story as well as an abbreviated family history. Crucial to Englander’s immersion in her mother’s story is a “roots” trip she took in 2010 where, most significant  to her, she visited Widze and Seduva. Back home she tried to find more specific information about the fate of her mother’s family who stayed behind in Widze and the fate of Nachum Berman. She includes facsimiles of documents filed at Yad Vashem and an extensive list of the sources she consulted for her research.

This book has an immediacy not often found in Holocaust memoirs because it includes letters in the original Yiddish as well as in translation. The everyday discussions in the letters bring the 1930s to life in Nachum Berman's corner of the world which is enhanced by the accompanying photos.

To read an article about the Holocaust in Lithuania click here.

Zvi Hirsch Kagan – married Doba Himmelfarb
    Chana Kagan – daughter of Zvi Hirsch and Doba; married Alchonan Zarchi
         Hinda Kagan – daughter of Chana and Alchonan; married Jack Saul
             Marlene Saul – daughter of Hinda and Jack; married Jon Englander
              Kenneth and Howard Saul – sons of Hinda and Jack
         Gita Kagan – daughter of Chana and Alchonan
    Goda  Kagan – daughter of Zvi Hirsch and Doba; married Samuel Bardon
         Yvette Bardon – daughter of Goda and Samuel; married Shale Sonkin
     Rachel, Isaac, Joseph Kagan – children of Zvi Hirsch and Doba

Leib and Lifsha Zarchi – parents of Alchonan Zarchi
Rachmiel Gordon – his mother was Zvi Hirsch Kagan’s sister
     Ralph and Gloria Gordon – children of Rachmiel

Friends and Acquaintances
Faiva and Freida Berman
     Nochum Berman – son of Faiva and Freida
Aron Bank
Shlomo and Liuba Brett
     Milke Brett – daughter of Shlomo and Liuba
Moshe Bret – son of Shlomo and Liuba
Zalman Davidowitz
     Sioma Davidowitz – son of Zalman
Velvel Feifert
Yudel Friedlander
     Elke Friedlander – daughter of Yudel
Nechama Hak
Malke Kaplan
Freidele Mel
Shaya and Chava Mellman
      Lola Mellman – daughter of Shaya and Chava; married Myron Friedman
      Ania Mellman – daughter of Shaya and Chava
Raisa Payim
Shulamit Rabinowitz
Bassia Ulfskyer
Herschel Ulfsky – brother of Bassia
Shlomo and Liuba Brett
Gnessa Yosem

Ponevezh, Lithuania
Widze, Poland (now Vidzy, Belarus)
Seduva, Lithuania
Cleveland, Ohio
South Euclid, Ohio
Shaker Heights, Ohio
Gary, Indiana