Ruth Behar is the documentarian behind the film Adio Kerida: A Cuban Sephardic Journey. Born in Havana, she left Cuba with her family in 1959 following Fidel Castro’s rise to power, and grew up in New York City. Behar is now an award-winning professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan and was named one of the 50 Latinas who made history in the twentieth century by Latina Magazine. In addition to writing and editing several major scholarly works, Behar has published her own personal essays, poetry, and short fiction. Her newest book, An Island Called Home: Returning To Jewish Cuba, recounts her journey back to Cuba and the Jewish communities she discovered there.
The Jewish Channel caught up with Behar to get her take on Cuba under a new Castro, and what that means for the Caribbean island’s Jews.
How was Fidel Castro viewed by the Cuban Jews you interviewed for your film?
I worked on my film between 1999-2002, at a moment when Fidel Castro was still actively ruling Cuba. Most people in Cuba, out of a combination of habit and fear, tended not to talk about Fidel Castro openly. They used the common gesture of bringing their hands to their chins and pretended to be stroking an imaginary beard whenever they wanted to speak about “Him.” I didn’t want to create any problems for the Cuban Jews I interviewed on the island, so I steered away from politics and focused on questions about Cuban Sephardic heritage. Some of the people I interviewed later made aliyah to Israel and I followed up with them there after the completion of the film. They then spoke more openly about Fidel Castro and expressed their dissatisfaction, not so much with him, but with politics in general.
So in the section of the film about Cuba, no one brought up Fidel Castro. But when I interviewed my Sephardic Cuban father, who lives in New York with my Ashkenazi Cuban mother, I mentioned that it was widely rumored that Fidel Castro had a Sephardic Jewish grandfather from Turkey. My father is fiercely anti-Castro and I was curious to see how he would react to this remark. Although he definitely was surprised, he continued to nibble on the range of delicious finger foods my mother had set out on the dining table. Finally, he shrugged and said that it didn’t matter whether Fidel Castro was Jewish or not. After all, my father exclaimed, he now lives in USA!
What does his relinquishing of power to brother Raul mean for the future of Cuba’s Jews?
The relinquishing of power to Raul Castro isn’t going to bring about any immediate changes in the life of the Jews in Cuba. The Jewish community in Cuba depends on the economic, moral, and educational assistance of American Jewish organizations and missions. So long as that support continues, the community will not be threatened. Major changes in Cuban Jewish life will only come about when diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States are normalized, allowing for the free flow of people, ideas, and goods between the two countries. Once that occurs, many more American Jews, included those of Cuban Jewish background, will travel to Cuba. No one can predict exactly what will happen then, but I expect there will be many more people involved in preserving Cuban Jewish heritage and in building new Jewish institutions on the island.
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