Five years ago, I began to write the sto­ry that would become my debut pic­ture book, Tía Fortuna’s New Home; in Span­ish, El nue­vo hog­ar de Tía For­tu­na. I had a sim­ple goal: to intro­duce young read­ers to Sephardic cul­ture as a liv­ing cul­ture. Children’s books about Jew­ish iden­ti­ty tend to focus on Ashke­nazi cul­ture. If Sephardic Jews are por­trayed at all, they are usu­al­ly rep­re­sent­ed as mired in the his­tor­i­cal past of medieval Spain. They rarely get to be robust­ly alive in the present. I want­ed to offer a dif­fer­ent narrative.

I am Ashke­nazi on my mother’s side and Sephardic on my father’s side. My mater­nal grand­par­ents were from Rus­sia and Poland, my pater­nal grand­par­ents were from Turkey. On the eve of the Holo­caust, they all made their way to Cuba and found refuge on the island. My par­ents, both born in Cuba, had every expec­ta­tion they would raise my broth­er and I in Havana and that we’d stay for many gen­er­a­tions. But after the 1959 rev­o­lu­tion and the turn to com­mu­nism, our fam­i­ly left Cuba, along with the major­i­ty of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty — leav­ing behind syn­a­gogues, Torahs, and a world that had seemed per­ma­nent. The uproot­ing was dev­as­tat­ing. We’d lost our trop­i­cal promised land.

I grew up in New York with both Jew­ish cul­tures, hear­ing Yid­dish, Ladi­no, and Span­ish. I was clos­er to my mother’s side of the fam­i­ly and knew my father’s less well. Still, I was intrigued by the Sephardic cul­ture that I learned about in every­day encoun­ters. For exam­ple, my Sephardic Abuela called me Ruti­ka, using a Ladi­no form of endear­ment. I loved the Span­ish lan­guage and was enchant­ed by the way she and Abue­lo spoke; I didn’t know it was called Ladi­no, or Judeo-Span­ish, when I was young. Lat­er I real­ized that the musi­cal­i­ty of their Span­ish nos­tal­gi­cal­ly recalled Spain, for the Sephardim are a peo­ple who kept speak­ing the lan­guage of those who expelled them. That is why the Sephardim have been called Spaniards with­out a country.”

Sephardic her­itage can be very melan­choly. The emo­tion­al inher­i­tance of loss and long­ing — of the leg­endary expul­sion from Spain in 1492 — infus­es our songs, or kan­tikas, in Ladi­no. Both beau­ti­ful and tear­ful, these melodies are filled with grief about unful­filled love. I didn’t want to bur­den chil­dren with a sor­row­ful tale. I need­ed to find a joy­ful and poet­ic way to share what it means to be Sephardic and to con­nect it with the Cuban her­itage through which it had been passed on to me.

Inspired by my rela­tion­ship with my father’s younger sis­ter, Tía Fan­ny, I decid­ed to cre­ate a fic­tion­al sto­ry about a lit­tle girl named Estrel­la who has come to help her Sephardic aun­tie in Mia­mi Beach say good­bye to her pink casita on the beach as she pre­pares to move to a new home in an assist­ed liv­ing facil­i­ty. My real-life Sephardic aunt doesn’t live on the beach, but she is a few blocks away from the ocean, and lives by her­self. She has no plans of mov­ing to an assist­ed liv­ing facil­i­ty and was a touch upset that I had dared to imag­ine her in such a place.

After Tía For­tu­na clos­es the door to her pink casita and pock­ets the key, she says good­bye to the palm trees and they whis­per back adiós, adiós, adios.

In fact, I had vis­it­ed a home for the aged in Mia­mi and met an elder­ly Sephardic lady who chose to move there after becom­ing blind; she felt very well cared for and enjoyed the scent of the flow­ers in the sur­round­ing gar­den. I reas­sured Tía Fan­ny that my book is a work of fic­tion and only parts of her life are reflect­ed in the book. One is the love­ly tra­di­tion she has of serv­ing me pota­to and cheese borekas when­ev­er I vis­it her in Mia­mi Beach. These deli­cious turnovers are the portable food of a peo­ple who were forced to move from place to place and find home. The most impor­tant ingre­di­ent they con­tain is esper­an­za, as Tía For­tu­na tells Estrel­la in the book, because their ances­tors found hope wher­ev­er they went. When I eat borekas with my real-life aunt, she tells me fam­i­ly sto­ries and shares proverbs in Ladi­no; like lit­tle Estrel­la, I feel myself immersed in the mag­ic and the beau­ty of Sephardic culture.

As I thought about how to rep­re­sent Sephardic cul­ture, I also thought about how Mia­mi Beach was chang­ing. This is the sec­tion of the city where Cuban Jews found a new home and built Span­ish-speak­ing syn­a­gogues recall­ing the ones they left behind. Over the years, the hum­ble build­ings and cot­tages on the beach where many have lived have been demol­ished to build lux­u­ry res­i­dences and hotels. In the past, Sephardic Jews faced the chal­lenge of expul­sion, and now many would face the chal­lenge of gentrification.

I decid­ed this would be the case with Tía For­tu­na. After los­ing Cuba, tak­ing the mezuzah and the key to her apart­ment in Havana as a keep­sake, now she must leave her beloved cot­tage at the Sea­way — an actu­al build­ing that has since been torn down to cre­ate mul­ti mil­lion dol­lar apart­ments at a new com­plex. Lit­tle Estrel­la is sad and wants to vis­it Tía For­tu­na at the Sea­way for­ev­er, but her aun­tie hides her sad­ness and tells her niece they must enjoy each day as it comes; Tía For­tu­na wears sev­er­al lucky eye bracelets and keeps many ham­sas around, pray­ing for mazal bueno.

After Tía For­tu­na clos­es the door to her pink casita and pock­ets the key, she says good­bye to the palm trees and they whis­per back adiós, adiós, adios. Estrella’s moth­er arrives and they dri­ve off to Tía Fortuna’s new home. Again, Tía For­tu­na insists on find­ing hope and accept­ing a new begin­ning. Though now far from the sea, there are banyan trees that she hugs and that whis­per back hola, hola, hola. And the but­ter­flies flut­ter. As Estrel­la excit­ed­ly asks when she can vis­it again, her aun­tie whis­pers, Mashal­lah, God will­ing, as my Abuela and Abue­lo would say, nev­er assum­ing anoth­er day was a giv­en, treat­ing each day as a blessing.

Just before Estrel­la departs with her moth­er, Tía For­tu­na gives her a spe­cial gift — the key to the Sea­way. What bet­ter sym­bol of the Sephardic lega­cy? The leg­end goes that the Sephardim took the keys to their hous­es with them when they left Spain with bro­ken hearts. Even young Estrel­la has come to under­stand the loss of home, and how the key can spark mem­o­ries in our hearts, per­haps the only home that no one can take away from us.

Ruth Behar was born in Havana, Cuba and grew up in New York. She has lived in Spain and Mex­i­co and has returned to Cuba to build bridges around cul­ture and art. She is the author of the prize-win­ning mid­dle grade nov­els, Lucky Bro­ken Girl and Let­ters from Cuba, as well as the pic­ture book, Tía Fortuna’s New Home, which have all been PJ Library selec­tions. Her new pic­ture book, Pepi­ta Meets Bebi­ta, was co-authored with her son, Gabriel Frye-Behar, and address­es tran­si­tions in a new fam­i­ly. Her lat­est mid­dle grade nov­el, Across So Many Seas, a work of Sephardic his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, will be released in Feb­ru­ary, 2024. She lives in Ann Arbor, where she is a Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor of Anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michigan.