Author’s grand­par­ents and their kids

All pho­tos cour­tesy of the author

Before I began writ­ing my new nov­el, Across So Many Seas, all I knew was that I want­ed to write a sto­ry about four Sephardic Jew­ish girls, liv­ing in four dif­fer­ent times in four dif­fer­ent places. Some­how their sto­ries would inter­sect, though I wasn’t sure exact­ly how. I want­ed it to be a nov­el that kids as young as ten years old could enjoy and hoped it might have crossover appeal for adults.

These were the first notes I wrote to myself:

In each gen­er­a­tion, a twelve-year-old girl is caught in the web of history:

Some­thing all share — the dream of a just, tol­er­ant world … 

The words of a lost song … 

A need to forgive … 

The bonds of family … 

And a her­itage of seek­ing free­dom that goes back five cen­turies to Spain … 

With these sparest of notes as my guide, I came up with four char­ac­ters: Ben­veni­da, liv­ing in Tole­do, Spain in 1492; Reina, liv­ing in Silivri, Turkey in 1923; Ale­gra, liv­ing in Havana, Cuba in 1961; and Palo­ma, liv­ing in Mia­mi, Flori­da in 2003

I drew inspi­ra­tion from both the dis­tant and more recent past. I was curi­ous about how the expul­sion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 was expe­ri­enced by young peo­ple, espe­cial­ly girls. There is scant infor­ma­tion in his­tor­i­cal accounts, but I did find a 1492 chron­i­cle penned by a Span­ish priest who observed Jew­ish peo­ple tak­ing to the road look­ing for a port from which to sail across the sea to a safe har­bor. He felt pity for these expelled Jews and not­ed that there were priests along the way who offered them a last chance to be bap­tized so they could stay in Spain. But few accept­ed the offer. The rab­bis, he not­ed, encour­aged the com­mu­ni­ty not to lose their faith, and they made the women and young peo­ple sing and play tam­bourines and tim­brels to keep up their spirits.” 

This led me to imag­ine a Sephardic girl singing a Span­ish love song and play­ing her tam­bourine as she leaves her beloved home of Tole­do, Spain. I set this sto­ry in Tole­do because, in medieval times, it was a city of great spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, where Jews, Chris­tians, and Mus­lims coex­ist­ed in peace. In Tole­do today, there is a beau­ti­ful­ly pre­served four­teenth-cen­tu­ry syn­a­gogue that is now the Museo Sefardí, the Sephardic Muse­um, which I have vis­it­ed many times and always found mag­i­cal. And so the char­ac­ter of Ben­veni­da — which means wel­come” in Span­ish — was born. The book begins with her expul­sion and depar­ture. Heart­bro­ken, she sings as she leaves, and her old friends, recent con­verts to Catholi­cism, throw rocks at her. But she is not sim­ply a girl who sings. She is also a girl who reads and writes, hav­ing been taught by her moth­er, who comes from a fam­i­ly of print­ers. She secret­ly writes poems and tucks one into the wall of the court­yard of their home in the Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood of Tole­do. Even­tu­al­ly, she and her fam­i­ly arrive in Con­stan­tino­ple (today Istan­bul), where she hears an oud being played for the first time. She is drawn to its haunt­ing sound and vows to learn to play it. 

My oth­er source of inspi­ra­tion came from my pater­nal grand­moth­er, Rebe­ca, my Abuela. She was a Sephardic Jew from the Turk­ish town of Silivri, on the out­skirts of Istan­bul. She had two younger sis­ters and a broth­er. In the mid-1920s, her fam­i­ly sent her alone to Cuba. Many years lat­er, when she was old, she was reunit­ed with her sis­ters, but she nev­er saw her par­ents or broth­er again. A mar­riage, the sto­ry goes, had been arranged for her, but by the time she arrived in Havana, it was too late: the man had already mar­ried some­one else. She went to live with an uncle, her only rel­a­tive in Cuba. To pass the time, she sat in the entrance­way of his build­ing, sang Sephardic love songs, and accom­pa­nied her­self on an oud she had brought from Turkey. Her singing attract­ed anoth­er Sephardic Jew from Silivri — a man named Isaac, who would become her hus­band and my Abue­lo. They lived in a ten­e­ment on Calle Ofi­cios, over­look­ing the port of Havana. From their bal­cony, they could see the fer­ry trav­el back and forth to the town of Regla across the bay. Abue­lo was a ped­dler and made just enough to sup­port their four chil­dren. My father, the third child, recalls see­ing Abuela’s oud hang­ing from a nail on the wall of their apart­ment. He says she was too busy to play it or to sing. 

This sto­ry stayed with me, and I wove all of it — the oud, the singing that attract­ed my Abue­lo, the mys­tery of why Abuela was sent away, and the bal­cony look­ing out at the sea — into Across So Many Seas. Abuela’s sto­ry led me to imag­ine a melan­choly Sephardic girl in Silivri named Reina (“queen” in Span­ish), who tells her sto­ry in the sec­ond sec­tion of the book. Reina dis­obeys her father by singing and play­ing the oud for a group of neigh­bor­hood boys, dar­ing to give her­self more free­dom than he thinks a girl ought to have. As pun­ish­ment, he ships her off to Cuba. She is promised to a Sephardic man who will wait three years and mar­ry her when she is fif­teen. She brings her oud with her to Cuba, where she sings a song of a girl’s yearn­ing for free­dom, a song about a girl lost in the mid­dle of the sea, which recurs through­out the book:

En la mar hay una torre

en la torre una ventana,

en la ven­tana una hija

que a los marineros llama

In the sea there is a tower,

in the tow­er there is window,

at the win­dow a daughter

who calls to the sailors.

I then had to imag­ine who Reina’s daugh­ter might be. I want­ed a girl who would stand in con­trast to Reina, and so Ale­gra (“joy” in Span­ish) was born. It is the time of the Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion, and Ale­gra is full of ide­al­is­tic dreams. She’s excit­ed to par­tic­i­pate in a lit­er­a­cy cam­paign that will bring read­ing and writ­ing to peo­ple in the coun­try­side, and Reina gives her per­mis­sion to go. After hear­ing the rea­son why her moth­er was sent across the sea to Cuba, Ale­gra is stunned by how things have changed for girls in her gen­er­a­tion. She loves the work of teach­ing lit­er­a­cy, tak­ing joy in watch­ing peo­ple in the coun­try­side learn to read and write. She nev­er sus­pects that she will have to leave Cuba. But the author­i­tar­i­an­ism of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment soon catch­es up with her and her fam­i­ly. She too will cross anoth­er sea, to Miami.

Who, I won­dered, would be Reina’s grand­daugh­ter, Alegra’s daugh­ter, and a pos­si­ble descen­dant of Ben­veni­da? A girl named Palo­ma came to mind. She tells her sto­ry in the last part of the book, which con­nects all four nar­ra­tives. Palo­ma, mean­ing dove of peace,” is intrigued by old songs in Ladi­no, the endan­gered Judeo-Span­ish lan­guage that her grand­moth­er, Reina, grew up speak­ing in Turkey. Palo­ma is a keep­er of mem­o­ries: she holds on to every sto­ry that her moth­er has shared with her. Palo­ma is also con­nect­ed to the African her­itage of Cuba through her Afro-Cuban father, Rolan­do, a con­vert to Judaism. I was able to draw on my anthro­po­log­i­cal work inter­view­ing Afro-Cuban Sephardic Jews in Cuba to fash­ion this part of Paloma’s identity. 

When Reina, Ale­gra, Palo­ma, and Rolan­do go on a trip to Spain, they decide to vis­it Tole­do. Paloma’s great-grandmother’s last name was Toledano; maybe, they think, they have a con­nec­tion to this city. They make their way to the Museo Sefardí in Tole­do, where the past and the present con­verge in eerie ways. An oud is wait­ing there to be dis­cov­ered by Reina — as is a mes­sage from a dis­tant ances­tor, whom the muse­um guide, Mari Luz, thinks may have been named Ben­veni­da. Mari Luz, who is Catholic, won­ders if her own fam­i­ly might descend from hid­den Jews. It is here that Palo­ma real­izes that some of her ances­tors may have been con­ver­sos.” She mar­vels as Mari Luz lights Shab­bat can­dles on Fri­day night to remem­ber the Jew­ish peo­ple who were expelled from Tole­do. I myself know Spaniards who cel­e­brate Shab­bat as a means of seek­ing his­tor­i­cal repa­ra­tion, and I find it a mov­ing and hope­ful ges­ture of allyship.

Author’s par­ents’ wed­ding dance, 1956

When I set out to write Across So Many Seas, I didn’t know how to write a nov­el told from mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives. I’d nev­er done it before. But by writ­ing, I taught myself how to write. The release date of the book is Feb­ru­ary 6, which hap­pens to be my mother’s birth­day. Against her Ashke­nazi family’s advice, she chose — at the young age of twen­ty, in Havana, Cuba — to mar­ry a Sephardic man, a tur­co” with whom she had fall­en mad­ly in love. And because of that brave deci­sion, I can claim a Sephardic her­itage. So I owe the writ­ing of this book to her in many ways. 

Com­bin­ing his­tor­i­cal research about 1492 and my desire to hon­or the mem­o­ry of my Sephardic grand­moth­er, this book rep­re­sents the deep respect I have for the many seas my ances­tors crossed so I could be alive today. I release it into the world with the hope that it will uplift read­ers in a moment when our spir­its are so in need of being lift­ed up.

Ruth Behar, the Pura Bel­pré Award-win­ning author of Lucky Bro­ken Girl and Let­ters from Cuba, was born in Havana, Cuba, grew up in New York, and has also lived in Spain and Mex­i­co. Her work also includes poet­ry, mem­oir, and the acclaimed trav­el books An Island Called Home and Trav­el­ing Heavy. She was the first Lati­na to win a MacArthur Genius” Grant, and oth­er hon­ors include a John Simon Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship and being named a Great Immi­grant” by the Carnegie Cor­po­ra­tion. An anthro­pol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, she lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.