Let­ters from Cuba

  • Review
By – August 24, 2020

Toward the end of 1937, eleven-year-old Esther writes to her father in Cuba, beg­ging him to allow her to leave Poland and join him in his new home. Like many oth­er Euro­pean Jews in the years lead­ing up to World War II, he has sought refuge abroad and is plan­ning to send for his fam­i­ly when he has estab­lished a busi­ness and can afford to pay for their pas­sage. He agrees to Esther’s request, hop­ing that she will be able to assist him in his work. Ruth Behar’s mov­ing nov­el for young read­ers invokes many famil­iar and res­o­nant themes: the inse­cu­ri­ty of new immi­grants, the ter­rors of anti­semitism, fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships strained by wrench­ing changes. There are also unique dimen­sions to this book, based part­ly on the author’s fam­i­ly his­to­ry. Behar’s lyri­cal descrip­tions of Cuba, and her per­spec­tive as a pro­fes­sion­al cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gist, form a rich back­ground to Esther’s story.

The nov­el is writ­ten in the form of let­ters from Esther to her sis­ter Mal­ka. Esther describes the star­tling con­trast between life in Gov­oro­ro, their Pol­ish vil­lage, and Agra­monte, the Cuban town where she and her father live sep­a­rat­ed from any Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. The read­er watch­es Esther’s grad­ual trans­for­ma­tion, as she exchanges woolen dress­es for cot­ton ones and san­dals, enjoys a pro­vi­sion­al Seder meal with gua­va jel­ly and sug­ar­cane, and observes Hanukkah with a meno­rah made of soda bot­tles. Esther embraces change while main­tain­ing a strong attach­ment to her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. While at first her new home seems like a trop­i­cal haven of warm and wel­com­ing neigh­bors, Esther learns that even in Cuba, resent­ment of the small Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion can take men­ac­ing forms. Esther’s hon­esty and self-expres­sion in her let­ters res­onates through each sur­pris­ing turn in the narrative.

Unlike her father who is at first skep­ti­cal of his daughter’s inter­ac­tions with so many dif­fer­ent kinds of Cubans, Esther will not accept the bar­ri­ers of social, racial, and eco­nom­ic divi­sions in her com­mu­ni­ty. Her friend­ships include peo­ple of African and Chi­nese descent, immi­grants, and peo­ple whose ances­tors had been enslaved. She forms a warm attach­ment to Doc­tor Pablo and his wife, Gra­ciela, mem­bers of the island’s elite, and also with fac­to­ry work­ers who take action to assert their rights. Each char­ac­ter is an indi­vid­ual, not mere­ly a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of his or her group. Behar offers care­ful­ly researched evi­dence of spe­cif­ic cul­tures and his­tor­i­cal events, with each aspect of Esther’s life inte­grat­ed into this back­ground. When Esther becomes a design­er and seam­stress, the dress­es she cre­ates are so vivid­ly por­trayed that they seem to leap off the page.

At the cen­ter of Esther’s devel­op­ment as a young adult and a Jew is her encounter with Cuba’s reli­gious syn­cretism. Some of Esther’s clos­est friends in Agra­monte are devout Chris­tians, but their beliefs and prac­tices incor­po­rate African tra­di­tions into those of Span­ish Catholi­cism. Esther is struck by their deep love for the Vir­gin Mary/​Yemayá, a unique fig­ure that blends their two cul­tures. With­out any sense of dis­so­nance or dis­loy­al­ty to Judaism, she comes to appre­ci­ate her neigh­bors’ assur­ance that Yemayá’s mater­nal pro­tec­tive­ness extends to Esther and her fam­i­ly. As Esther learns Span­ish, she comes to iden­ti­fy with the uni­ver­sal mes­sage of Cuban nation­al hero and poet, José Martí, par­tic­u­lar­ly with his famous lines, Ven­go de todas partes/​y hacia todas partes voy” (I come from many places,/ And to every place I go). In Behar’s nov­el, the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence of flight and arrival is crys­tal­lized in this poem and in the par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges and joys of Jew­ish life in Cuba.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed sto­ry includes an illu­mi­nat­ing Note from the Author,” and a list of addi­tion­al resources.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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