Review: An Island Called Home

A Review by Claire Midenberger.  Written for ANTH 300 (Feb. 2011).

“How many Jews are there in Cuba?” “About a thousand.” I was surprised to be greeted with this question (and be able to provide an answer) as soon as I began describing the book An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba, because I had just read an account of the author, Ruth Behar, being asked the very same question. The very fact that it is recurrently the first question asked is particularly important. It evinces the reality that very little is known by the general public about the Jews in Cuba: how they came to be there in the first place, how they are holding on to their traditions in Castro’s Cuba, and what it means to be Jewish in Cuba today.

In 1881, Jewish immigrants were legally allowed to enter Cuba for the first time, and the new Cuban constitution in 1897 decreed freedom of religious belief and worship, but it was not until the First World War that large numbers of Jews were settling on the island. Sephardic immigrants escaped to Cuba from the Ottoman Empire beginning in 1914, and Ashkenazic immigrants, turned away by the American Emergency Quota Act of 1921, began arriving soon after. When Cuba established relations with the Soviet Union in 1960, U.S.-owned businesses were seized and a trade embargo was imposed. Ninety percent of Cuba’s Jews emigrated, and for the next 30 years, the remainder were not allowed to practice Judaism under the atheist, communist state.

In the early 90s, Cuba was declared a secular state, and Communist Party Members were allowed to practice a religion if they choose. Jewish projects originating in the U.S. and Canada supported the restoration of cultural programs and traditional practices through donations, however, hundreds of Jews still chose to emigrate; many repatriated to Israel. Those that have remained face the difficult task of rebuilding their community, redefining themselves, and adapting Jewish traditions to a novel framework.

Behar’s intensely personal ethnography of Jewish Cubans begins with her own search for closure in the death of Henry Levin, a young relative whom she had never met but who was “a trauma of such dimensions that we all carried his memory with us into our second diaspora in the United States.” Her repeated trips to the country she escaped as a child eventually evolved from a private search for long-lost memories into a shared, communal pursuit of how to adapt erstwhile Jewish traditions within even the most antithetical of contexts.

An Island Called Home is not a traditional book. Behar worked with a photographer, Humberto Mayol, to produce a photo journal in an effort to “convey visually the mesh of Jewishness and Cubanness.” The partnership is effective because Behar and Mayol are each insiders and outsiders in their own way, as a Jew and as a Cuban, respectively. Behar is in an especially fascinating position because she is an anthropologist in her native land; she is capable of making connections, both holistically and with her informants, only from in between, as an insider and as an outsider. Most of the photos are taken in the same manner: the people were asked to pose with their photos and Jewish documents. These images of “unrehearsed moments of self-awareness and reflection” powerfully impress upon the reader the sentiments of loss, hope, and pride. Behar was careful to insure that the photos did not only depict the “heroic story of the Jewish rebirth in Cuba,” but also the underlying story of loss and the Jewish identity outside of religion.

Nor is an Island Called Home a traditional ethnography. As an ethnographic text, it might be construed as a modernist interpretation, and unfortunately, this entails attracting the standard criticisms of modernist ethnographic writing; the reflexive style involves the input of the author throughout the study, and in this case, Behar makes the anthropologist-informant dialogue the primary interest of the text, which makes it difficult to generalize beyond Behar’s very personal experiences. Even though Behar’s text risks becoming too self-indulgent, she successfully conveys her message by manipulating the form of a text and remaining conscious of the research process itself. There is an immediate sense that this is her journey and not ours, but the reciprocity of perspectives and the strength of the imagery (both textual and photographic) is deeply compelling; it is the very subjective human element that draws you in and makes you reflect on the common urge to define oneself and make sense of the world.