Ruth Behar’s new middle-grade gem, Letters From Cuba, is set in the Cuba of the late 1930s and thus predates all the Revolutionary reasons why our Cubans come and go.
letters from cuba

When it comes to the Cuba storyline, you typically have two choices: the Cuban character either stays or the Cuban character goes. 

It isn’t often that you get a storyline where the character actually becomes Cuban?  

 And when I say ‘becomes’ I mean, an entire Jewish family migrates to Cuba and becomes, well, Cuban. 

Once upon a time, Cuba welcomed thousands of Jewish immigrants and Ruth Behar’s family was among them. 

Ruth Behar’s new middle-grade gem, Letters From Cuba (Penguin Random House, 2020, 272 pgs), is set in the Cuba of the late 1930s and thus predates all the Revolutionary reasons why our Cubans come and go. The book, however, offers a rare glimpse and borderline fairy tale of how Cuba could and would welcome immigrants. Because once upon a time Cuba did welcome immigrants. Once upon a time, Cuba welcomed thousands of Jewish immigrants and Ruth Behar’s family was among them. 

As a professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Behar is a scholar of Jewish-Cuban heritage and has long been fascinated by her Jewish-Cuban roots. One half of Behar’s family is Turkish-Sephardic and the other is Ashkenazi-Polish. Letters from Cuba chronicles the Ashkenazi-Polish side and follows twelve-year-old Esther, named for Behar’s maternal grandmother, on her journey from Poland to Cuba. 

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We meet Esther on the eve of World War II when she writes to her father in Cuba and asks that he send for her so that she can help him earn enough money to bring over the entire family from Poland. Within weeks of her plea, she is aboard a ship en route to Cuba, writing her sister Malka letters so that Malka can share in her immigrant experience, but mainly because writing the letters “will make the days bearable until you arrive.” 

Esther is confident that she is the only one who can help her father earn enough money to send for the rest of the family. She is entrepreneurial in spirit and talented at sewing and when she meets a Jewish store owner in Havana, she is given the chance to sell her designs for a good price in the store window. 

In 1924, the United States passed an immigration law that limited the amount of aliens from targeted countries, and Polish Jews were among the most unwanted, and thus fled to Cuba by the thousands.

The fortuity is not without its snags, however. Rifka Rubenstein, the Havana store owner, will not allow Esther to take credit for the dresses. She tells Esther that, “it would be better if the women didn’t know a Jewish refugee girl from Poland is making their dresses.” Although Esther outwardly wants to protest, she writes privately to Malka that she and her father need the money and thus agrees to the painful sacrifice of selling her art without her name. 

This epistolary (letter writing) structure is an effective storytelling device. Esther records conversations, events and experiences as they happen but also includes the reader in her thought process. This inclusion establishes Esther as a reliable and trustworthy narrator. She gives her emotions and private thoughts quite freely and we as readers are more connected to her as a protagonist than we might otherwise be in a straightword narrative. Through the epistolary form, we as readers also assume the identity of that second person: the “you” to whom Esther is writing. Readers are ever so rarely invited to play such an active role in a book and the call is a refreshing challenge. 

Aside from the agony surrounding the M.S. St. Louis; a ship of over 900 Jewish passengers that Cuban, Canadian and United States officials turned away at the ports, Cuba was a sanctuary for Jewish refugees. In 1924, the United States passed an immigration law that limited the amount of aliens from targeted countries, and Polish Jews were among the most unwanted, and thus fled to Cuba by the thousands. Though many Jews settled in Havana, Behar chose to settle the fictional Esther and her father in Agramonte, a small village known for its sugar cane plantations in Matanzas. 

The intersection between Esther and her father’s Jewish heritage and the strong presence of the Afro-Cuban traditions in Agramonte adds a rich dimension to an already complicated exile narrative. Esther’s father repeatedly tells Esther not to forget that she is Jewish. He warns her not to put down roots because they will just have to leave Agramonte for Havana one day, highlighting the daily emotional agony and upheaval of Jews in exile.  

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Although she pays mind to her father’s soft orders and anxieties, Esther feels divided. The Cubans in Agramonte welcomed Esther and her father with open arms, offering immediate friendship, thoughtful gifts and invitations to share in their traditions. They are also curious about her Judaism, which she writes as a stark contrast to the persecution and hatred that she experienced by being Jewish in Poland. When she asks her father if she can invite the Cubans to their Passover seder, he challenges her request because the Cubans are not Jewish. 

Although Ruth Behar’s novel takes place nearly one hundred years ago, its themes and messages are universal and timeless. How many Esthers do we have trying to make it in our country and is our country as warm to Esther as Cuba was? 

It is in the exchanges between Esther and her father that Ruth Behar takes a deep and courageous dive into some of the seldomly-talked-about barriers that some Jews built into their immigrant experience. Esther confesses in her letters to Malka that she is glad that she and her father moved first to Agramonte because, “I would never have met Francisco or Manuela if Papa and I had come straight to Havana and only been among Jews. I would have lived in Cuba without really knowing Cuba.”

Not that all is paradise for a Jew in Cuba. While living in Agramonte, Esther and her father encounter a Cuban named Señor Eduardo who is vicious, violent and open about his hatred of Jews. It is only in the letters regarding Señor Eduardo that Esther’s writing voice quivers and shakes, communicating the effect and torment of anti-Semitism on a Jew. 

Fortunately, Esther is able to hold onto the fact that “most Cubans are not like Señor Eduardo.” This observation proves true, for when the other Cubans learn about Señor Eduardo’s actions against Esther and her father, they band together because “we must not lose our beautiful island to people who want to spread hatred.” 

“To the country that gave my family the chance to survive, the chance to be alive, was such a beautiful gift.”

Ruth Behar

Lines like these make a modern reader wonder where we can find these Cubans today. Although Ruth Behar’s novel takes place nearly one hundred years ago, its themes and messages are universal and timeless. How many Esthers do we have trying to make it in our country and is our country as warm to Esther as Cuba was? 

As are so many of Esther’s questions, that one, too, is not meant to be answered. 

Letters From Cuba is a far-reaching novel that not only unpacks the heart of the Jewish immigrant experience in Cuba, but shines a light on what could be a country’s future immigration stance and policy. Cuba today is far more famous for its emigrants than immigrants, but Behar resurrects a portrait of an island that served as a safe haven for those wounded by their homelands. 

And by far, the most beautiful moment in this beautiful book takes place in the acknowledgments, where author Ruth Behar thanks Cuba.

“To the country that gave my family the chance to survive, the chance to be alive was such a beautiful gift.”

How often do you read that Cuba storyline?

letters from cuba
Photo credit: Ruth Behar

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