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An Island Called Home

Returning to Jewish Cuba

Ruth Behar

Publication Year: 2007

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.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-xi

Map of Cuba

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pp. xii-xiii

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Running Away From Home To Run Toward Home

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pp. 1-36

That’s what my grandmother Esther, my Baba, said every time I’d see her in Miami Beach on my way to yet another return visit to the island I had left as a child. Actually, she’d say it in Spanish: “Otra vez a Cuba? Qué se te perdió en Cuba?” Baba’s mother tongue was Yiddish, but we spoke to each other in Spanish. ...

Part One: Blessings for the Dead

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Chapter 1: Looking for Henry

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pp. 39-44

The first Jew I went looking for in Cuba was a ghost named Henry Levin. He was gone before he could celebrate his bar mitzvah and claim his Jewish heritage. The son of my great-uncle Moisés and great-aunt Zoila, my second cousin Henry died an untimely death on the eve of his twelfth birthday in 1954. ...

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Chapter 2: A Kaddish for The Jews Who Rest in Jewish Cemeteries in Cuba and for Raquel’s Mother Who Does Not

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pp. 45-54

It is only after many visits to Henry’s grave that I learn there is another Jewish cemetery, across the train tracks in Guanabacoa—the Sephardic cemetery. Built in 1942, it is watched over by an Afrocuban family who live next door to the train tracks. Despite the family’s vigilance, they tell me that Jewish bones are often ...

Part Two: Havana

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Chapter 3: A Tour of Havana’s Synagogues

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pp. 57-72

She looked at me wistfully and said, “A block from our apartment. Not even a block. We could see it from our two bedrooms and from the terrace. It was called the Patronato. It was the prettiest synagogue in Cuba. It was new when we moved next door. We lived so close, we saw it every day. I never thought a day would come when I wouldn’t see it again.” ...

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Chapter 4: The Kosher Butcher Shop

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pp. 73-75

The most photographed kosher butcher shop in the world has to be the kosher butcher shop around the corner from the Adath Israel synagogue on Calle Cuba, between Acosta and Jesus María. Foreign observers are continually amazed to learn the shop is open for business in Castro’s Cuba. ...

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Chapter 5: The Shirt That Holds Sadness

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pp. 76-81

When I arrive at the Patronato, I walk past the bronze José Martí bust at the entrance, past the framed picture of the great medieval Sephardic doctor and philosopher Maimonides, past the framed picture of Einstein, and go directly inside to the library. There are an assortment of books in Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew, and English, ...

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Chapter 6: Los Prinstein

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pp. 82-87

Marlen leads Shabbat services on Saturday, teaches Hebrew to the children in the Sunday school, and is one of the leaders of the Israeli folk dance group. In addition, she teaches in the provincial cities of Campechuela and Manzanillo, preparing children who are of bar mitzvah age and adults who wish to convert to Judaism. ...

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Chapter 7: In The Realm of Lost Things

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pp. 88-93

Alberto Behar Medrano, a computer engineer, lives with his wife, Carucha, in the house that belonged to his grandparents, who passed away more than twenty years ago. Located in a quiet neighborhood not far from Havana, the house opens onto the living room where big old rocking chairs rest on pink and brown tile floors ...

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Chapter 8: How to Pack Your Suitcase

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pp. 94-99

Mechulam—no one ever calls him by his first name—has retired recently from his job as a pediatric neurologist. He has a scruffy demeanor but a kind gaze, always looking intently at you with harried eyes over his large glasses. He is a man who finds it natural to worry about the needs of others. ...

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Chapter 9: Enrique Bender’s Blue-Green Eyes Remind Me of My Grandfather

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pp. 100-107

Enrique looks and even sounds like my maternal grandfather, Máximo Glinsky. My beloved Zayde had blue-green eyes, the sweet temperament of a man who could lull cranky babies to sleep, a head of cottony white hair, and he spoke Spanish with a Yiddish accent. Enrique is shorter than my grandfather was, ...

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Chapter 10: The Dancing Turk

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pp. 108-111

Pilar Little Bermudez hides her years very well. When we go to visit her at her Vedado apartment, she wears a dress with an orchid print, gold earrings, and a gold necklace. Her white hair is freshly brushed. As she says, “Even though I’m ninety, the moment I wake up I get dressed and put on my makeup.” ...

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Chapter 11: Monday Morning in Luyanó

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pp. 112-115

Sara Elí Nassy and her daughter, Victoria Cohen Elí, were regulars at Shabbat services at the Centro Sefaradí and over the years I had often sat and talked to them at the lunch following services. These conversations always followed the same pattern: Sara would try to tell me about her life, while Victoria excitedly interrupted ...

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Chapter 12: Danayda Levy’s School Report

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pp. 116-119

I have known Danayda Levy since she was two years old. In the early 1990s I’d see her with her father, José, who diligently brought her to the Patronato for Jewish schooling at the Sunday morning escuelita. A white Jewish father with a black Jewish daughter was not a common sight around the Patronato in those days and Levy ...

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Chapter 13: May Day with a Jewish Communist

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pp. 120-125

I can’t think of another Jew in Cuba with whom it would be more appropriate to attend this annual civic ritual. Fabio is often called Fabito to distinguish him from his father, also named Fabio Grobart, a Polish Jew (born Yunger Semjovich) who arrived in Cuba at the age of nineteen and committed himself to the struggle ...

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Chapter 14: The Whispering Writer

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pp. 126-128

He is very soft-spoken, but not shy. He just seems to be whispering every time he talks, as if he’s perennially in a crowded movie theater and raising his voice would be a disturbance to those around him. There’s a sweetness to his expression and when he smiles he scrunches his eyes and winks impishly. ...

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Chapter 15: The Three Things José Martí Said All Real Men Must Do

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pp. 129-132

I’m able to make an appointment to see Enrique Oltuski Osacki on a Friday afternoon at his office in Jaimanitas, close to the Marina Hemingway, after several phone calls to his wife and several to his secretary. It’s an accomplishment that at the last minute I’ve managed to pin down a time to meet ...

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Chapter 16: Einstein in Havana

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pp. 133-137

José Altshuler Gutwert and Ernesto Altshuler Alvárez are an unusual father and son. For one thing, both are accomplished scientists. José Altshuler, the only child of a Polish mother and a father from Belarus, is an electrical engineer by training who grew up in Old Havana. By the time he finished high school in 1947, ...

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Chapter 17: Salomón the Schnorrer

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pp. 138-140

He’s the community’s resident schnorrer—Yiddish for freeloader, moocher, beggar. He specializes in asking foreigners—especially women—for handouts. He’ll present a foreign woman with a wilted rose, or any flower he finds while wandering around the city, utter a few flattering words, and ask for a gift in return. ...

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Chapter 18: Mr. Fisher’s Twice-Yearly Gifts

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pp. 141-144

The synagogue is Orthodox and the men and the women sit separately. Religious services begin early and at nine a.m. the pews are already almost all full. Usually there are plenty of seats on a weekday morning. I see people praying, but most are half-dozing, distractedly looking around. ...

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Chapter 19: Becoming Ruth Berezniak

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pp. 145-149

Hours later, in the kitchen of the Adath Israel synagogue, there is an intoxicating aroma of boiled milk from the café con leche offered to the congregants after morning services. Nelsy Hernández Reyes is alone and sitting at an empty table, lost in thought. ...

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Chapter 20: After Everyone Has Left

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pp. 150-152

The shuttered door to the balcony is open and the evening breeze feels soft as a silk scarf. The last rays of sunshine want to illuminate the old photographs that Myriam Radlow Zaitman has spread out on the dining table in her apartment in the neighborhood of Santo Suárez. ...

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Chapter 21: The Ketubah That Became a Passport

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pp. 153-157

“From our garden,” she announces proudly, leading the way to the patio behind the house, where her husband, Pedro Mauriz García, is busily sweeping up the debris of leaves from the mango tree. Sara points out how he has built an outdoor fountain, planted flowers in pots, and hung a loveseat-swing between two poles. ...

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Chapter 22: When I See You again There Will Be No Pain or Forgetting

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pp. 158-160

Daniel Esquenazi Maya, a retired stevedore, has lived in the same rooftop apartment in Old Havana since 1957. He and his late wife used to rent the apartment, but the owners of the building left following the Revolution, and afterward Daniel, along with the other poor tenants of the building, ...

Part Three: Traces

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Chapter 23: Traces

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pp. 163-170

They are the keepers of the Torahs brought from Turkey, which are conserved in the Centro Sefaradí in Havana. Their breastplates are beautiful works of filigree silver, with crowns and mini-arks that have little doors that open, revealing tiny Torahs inside. ...

Part Four: In the Provinces

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Chapter 24: Simboulita’s Parakeet

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pp. 173-178

Julio Rodríguez Elí was a teacher for thirty-three years in Caibarién. He started his career working in a secondary school and kept moving up the ladder until he became a principal and a regional director of the schools he helped to found in the countryside. But in the years before the opening to religion in Cuba, ...

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Chapter 25: Seven Jewish Weddings in Camagüey

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pp. 179-182

We have spent the night in Caibarién and we’re visiting again with Julio Rodríguez Eli. He has a dilemma: he needs to figure out what he’s going to wear to his own Jewish wedding. Julio and his wife, María Elena Gónzalez García, are already married by Cuban civil law and they have two children, ...

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Chapter 26: Che Waits for a New Frame

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pp. 183-186

Given Samuel’s admiration for Che, it is almost to be expected that in the family portrait from 2003, showing Samuel with his wife, daughter, and grandson, it looks as if Che is one more member of the family. It is Che’s arms, rather than Samuel’s, that seem to be embracing his wife and his daughter. ...

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Chapter 27: Pearls Left in Cienfuegos

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pp. 187-192

It is May 2004 and I’m in Cuba as a study leader for one of Aryeh’s groups. The group I’m with is one of his extra groups, and my fellow travelers, sophisticated middle-aged and older Jewish New Yorkers, feel lucky to be in Cuba. For my part, I’m in awe of a few of the women. Their svelte bodies look like ...

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Chapter 28: The Moses of Santa Clara

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pp. 193-201

Like a modern-day Moses, David Tacher Romano is filled with a sense of mission and purpose about the destiny of the Jewish people. Maybe part of his zeal comes from breathing the air of Santa Clara, the city in Cuba most closely associated with the legacy of Che Guevara. When Che was killed in Bolivia in 1967, ...

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Chapter 29: A Conversation Next to El Mamey

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pp. 202-203

Alberto Esquenazi Aparicio riding his bicycle in the city of Santa Clara is an ordinary Cuban doing his errands. I happen to know he’s a Jew from seeing him at the Kabbalat Shabbat services the night before, so I wave him down. I start asking him questions by the El Mamey store, which has a freshly painted façade ...

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Chapter 30: Villa Elisa

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pp. 204-209

José Isidoro Barlía Loyarte, a math teacher who acts as the president of the Jewish community of Sancti Spíritus, had given me his address on the phone. I hadn’t bothered to ask for directions because I’d become spoiled enough to think we’d be able to take a taxi to his home. ...

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Chapter 31: The Covenant of Abraham

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pp. 210-212

David Pernas Levy is a man of unquestionable revolutionary credentials. He fought in the Escambray against counterrevolutionaries in the early 1960s, served in Angola in the late 1970s, worked for years as an adviser on economic and labor issues in the Ministry of Commerce, and cut thousands of pounds of sugarcane. ...

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Chapter 32: Salvador’s Three Wives

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pp. 213-215

We’ve come to Manzanillo to look for Jews. Salvador Behar Mizrahi, I’ve been told, is one of the registered Jews among the dozen or so who remain in this port city on the southern coast of Cuba. We arrive without warning at his home, and his wife, a gregarious woman in a housecoat, doesn’t seem at all concerned ...

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Chapter 33: A Beautiful Pineapple

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pp. 216-219

It is May 2005 and Julio César Alomar Gómez is at the synagogue in Santiago de Cuba arranging on a table some pictures and posters that will form part of an exhibit about the Holocaust for the next day’s Yom HaShoah remembrance. The Joint Distribution Committee has provided him images of the Warsaw Ghetto, ...

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Chapter 34: The Last Jew of Palma Soriano

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pp. 220-226

Eugenia and I sit side by side in the van that belongs to the synagogue of Santiago de Cuba. It is ten o’clock in the morning and, just as she promised, Eugenia is taking me to Palma Soriano, a town an hour away from Santiago, so I can meet Jaime Gans Grin, the only Jew who still resides there. ...

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Chapter 35: The Mizrahi Clan in Guantánamo

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pp. 227-232

For years I’d been hearing about the Mizrahi clan in Guantánamo. They were all descendants of two Turkish immigrants, Isidoro Mizrahi Mizrahi and his cousin, Elias Mizrahi Nifusi. During the search in the early 1990s for all the Jews still left on the island, the members of this numerous clan were brought back to the Jewish fold. ...

Part Five: Shalom to Cuba

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Chapter 36: Departures

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pp. 235-244

The Jewish community in Cuba is elusive. Inhabited by people who can turn into ghosts overnight. You never know who among the Jews still there— people that on the surface appear to be standing with two feet solidly planted on Cuban soil—have filled out papers to leave for Israel. ...

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Chapter 37: My Room on Bitterness Street

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pp. 245-256

It takes me a moment to place María Elena. We have talked little, but I have seen her at the synagogue and know her to be among the women recently converted to Judaism who avidly attend religious services. She probably never expected to end up a Jew when she and Alberto were young revolutionaries studying together in Russia. ...

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How This Book Came to Be a Photojourney

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pp. 257-264

I think it was my obsession with the old black-and-white photographs from Cuba that nurtured in me a love and appreciation for the medium of photography. As a graduate student I studied black-and-white photography and learned to develop and print my own photographs. I adored large-format cameras and lugged them with me ...


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pp. 265-278


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pp. 279-282


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pp. 283-288


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pp. 289-292

List of Photographs

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pp. 293-298

About the Author and Photographer

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pp. 299

E-ISBN-13: 9780813543864
E-ISBN-10: 081354386X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813541891

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 146
Publication Year: 2007