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Cuban Jews

by: Miriam Felton-Dansky - Last updated: 2003-10-09

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Before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Cuba had a thriving Jewish community, composed mainly of immigrants who had originally planned to journey on to the United States. But in the wake of the Cuban Revolution over 90 percent of Cuba’s 12,000 Jews left the island.

In the following decades, a painful rift developed between those who left and those who stayed, and as the new Americans turned their backs on Cuba, the remaining Jews struggled to keep their community alive.

"If we ever meet again/It should not be to question but to celebrate life," sings a departing lover in the title song of Ruth Behar’s film, Adio Kerida (a Ladino phrase meaning, "Goodbye my dear one"). These lyrics bracket the movie: we hear them at the opening as a boy splashes in a fountain in the Havana rain; they are sung gruffly at the end by Behar’s parents in their Queens apartment. The film connects these two worlds, purposely juxtaposing images of past and present, Cuba and New York.

"My film," writes Behar in an essay, "would create a bridge that doesn’t yet exist in reality." A Macarthur Foundation "Genius" award recipient and a specialist on Cuban Jews, Behar is certainly qualified to attempt such a union. But Adio Kerida does not dig any deeper. What future is there for Jews in Cuba? How could a larger reconciliation take place? This is a complex subject, and it deserves a complex film.

Instead, Behar gives us an adoring family portrait. In 1961, Ruth Behar’s parents left Cuba and never looked back. Though Behar’s documentary takes the entire Cuban Jewish community in its sweep, the film is above all their story. It traces the Behar family from Cuba to Queens, at times diverging to follow Jews in present-day Havana into their tiny apartments and run-down synagogues.

The film follows Behar as she returns to Cuba after many years’ absence. She interviews her parents’ friends, her childhood nanny, and others from her own past. This is why, she says, the interviewees are so "intimate" with the camera: she is one of them. With Adio Kerida, Behar does not want to analyze, but to identify.

Even when the film expands in scope, Behar’s interest remains self-definition. She interviews Sephardic Jews and other Jews on the margins of the community—a boy who has both Afro-Cuban and Jewish heritage, a girl who is Jewish but whose family includes Jehovah’s Witnesses and a practicing Santeria. Yet these encounters do not lead to any deeper social critique. Their purpose is purely reflexive—the child of an Ashkenazic mother and a Sephardic father, Behar experienced the tension of mixed heritage first-hand.

Asked who her intended audience was (Cubans or Americans? Jews or non-Jews?) Behar simply answers, "My father." Despite its shortcomings, that intimate approach resonates with other Cuban Jews. At a screening of Adio Kerida’s at the 92nd Street Y in New York, one man said Behar had told his life story; a woman confessed to a fascination with all things Cuban, though her family left long ago; another man claimed to be Behar’s long-lost relative.

Toward the film’s end, Behar captures an on-screen greeting from a long-estranged Cuban friend of her father’s. He says not to worry: they were young; now they are old, but still alive. "There is no problem," he says. His statement is so simple it hurts. And maybe this is how the rift can begin to heal; a kind word can do what the sharpest analysis cannot, and Adio Kerida is nothing if not a kind word towards a mythical beloved, the Cuba of Ruth Behar’s past.

For more about Ruth Behar, visit www.ruthbehar.com


First published in New Voices