Hotel Cuba

By – December 27, 2023

Immi­grant sto­ries hold peren­ni­al appeal for many Amer­i­can Jews. We know the famil­iar beats: dirty ships, Ellis Island name changes, crowd­ed apart­ments, trains, the tug of the Old Coun­try, and the allure of the new. For many of us, these are our his­to­ries — and as we read nov­els detail­ing such expe­ri­ences, we con­nect not only with these fic­tion­al char­ac­ters, but also with our own fore­bears. Aaron Hamburger’s Hotel Cuba sits com­fort­ably with­in this genre while still being com­pul­sive­ly read­able and fresh.

Sis­ters Pearl and Frie­da are plan­ning to flee to Amer­i­ca from their Pol­ish shtetl after World War I and the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion. Pearl is in her mid-twen­ties and sees her­self a frumpy, stal­wart old maid — though she has an eye for fash­ion that sug­gests a deep-seat­ed sophis­ti­ca­tion. She essen­tial­ly raised Frie­da, a pret­ty, hope­less roman­tic. When US immi­gra­tion rules change, the sis­ters reroute to Cuba. It’s only nine­ty miles from Amer­i­ca; how hard can it be, they think, to make it to the US from there?

What fol­lows sheds light on the lit­tle-known Jew­ish dias­po­ra com­mu­ni­ty of Cuba. Hamburger’s depic­tion of 1920s Havana is sul­try, vibrant, and bril­liant­ly drawn. It’s a delight to watch Pearl blos­som like a hibis­cus flower there. Her skill with the sewing nee­dle leads her and Frie­da to an employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ty with an intrigu­ing fam­i­ly. The fas­ci­nat­ing mix of Jew­ish, Amer­i­can, and Cuban cul­tures push­es Pearl, some­times reluc­tant­ly, to exam­ine the val­ues and famil­ial expec­ta­tions with which she’s grown up. As she sails across the Atlantic, Pearl mus­es about hav­ing free­dom. In Havana, she encoun­ters a ver­sion of it that is imper­fect and raw, as all ver­sions of free­dom are.

Pearl is a strik­ing char­ac­ter: she’s muta­ble yet stub­born, unre­fined yet cul­tured, closed yet con­fi­dent. From the begin­ning onward, we come to know her in all her com­plex­i­ty. Ham­burg­er skill­ful­ly por­trays Pearl’s poten­tial, as well as the depths and con­tra­dic­tions that are always there below the sur­face but that are only some­times allowed to emerge. This heart­ful char­ac­ter­i­za­tion holds read­ers close, even after we’ve left the lush shores of Havana for the streets of New York (and a thrilling romance). The end of Hotel Cuba may take us to a place that many of us have been before, but by that point, we would fol­low Pearl anywhere.

Jessie Szalay’s writ­ing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Aspara­gus, The For­ward, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Trav­el­er, and as a notable in the Best Amer­i­can Essays of 2017. She lives in Salt Lake City where she teach­es writ­ing in a prison edu­ca­tion program.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Aaron Hamburger

  1. Con­sid­er the title Hotel Cuba. What does it mean to you? To what extent is Pearl’s stay in Cuba a tem­po­rary stop in her life’s jour­ney and to what extent has it left its mark on her char­ac­ter and the direc­tion of her life?
  2. Think about the sac­ri­fices Pearl and her sis­ter Frie­da must make in leav­ing their home and adapt­ing to a new way of life. Would you be able to make sim­i­lar sac­ri­fices in your own life? What are the costs of those sac­ri­fices for the two sisters?
  3. Pearl is an artist with nee­dle and thread. How do the clothes she works on and wears relate to what’s hap­pen­ing in her life and her mind through­out the nov­el? What do you think will hap­pen to her career at the end of the book?
  4. Com­pare Pearl’s var­i­ous attrac­tions and love inter­ests in the nov­el. Do you think she ulti­mate­ly made the right choice in terms of romance?
  5. Frie­da makes sev­er­al key life choic­es in the nov­el. Pearl has strong opin­ions about her sis­ter and the direc­tion of her life. Do you think Frie­da has made the right choic­es for her­self in the end? How do you think her mar­riage will turn out?
  6. How has Pearl’s time in Key West affect­ed her? What does she take away from the Singer fam­i­ly? And what did you make of the mys­te­ri­ous Rab­bi Singer?
  7. What do you know about the his­to­ry of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Cuba? Do a quick search online to find out more. What do you imag­ine might have hap­pened to Pearl if she’d decid­ed to stay in Havana rather than immi­grate to the U.S.?
  8. Com­pare Pearl’s sto­ry to oth­er immi­grant sto­ries you’ve read as well as con­tem­po­rary debates about immi­gra­tion. How do we bal­ance com­pet­ing con­cerns regard­ing immi­gra­tion in a fair and just way?
  9. This book was inspired by the true sto­ry of Aaron Hamburger’s grand­moth­er. In writ­ing it, the author con­sult­ed record­ed inter­views with his grand­par­ents and did exten­sive research to fill in miss­ing details he was won­der­ing about. He also says that he want­ed to uncov­er more than just bio­graph­i­cal facts. I want­ed to breathe life into my grandmother’s expe­ri­ence, to find out what she ate, how she felt, what her impres­sions were of life in such a unique place.” What sto­ries do you know about your own fam­i­ly his­to­ry? Has it been pre­served in any way? What do you imag­ine might have got­ten lost in those sto­ries that could be brought back to life through research or imagination?

Enhance your book club! Lis­ten to a Spo­ti­fy playlist that Aaron cre­at­ed for the book or make some moji­to cookies.