May 2013

Jane Shmidt

nonfiction

Traveling Heavy by Ruth Behar

In a diary entry on January 8, 1914, Franz Kafka wrote, "What do I have in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself [...]" Of the material published by Kafka, a memoir is yet to be discovered. However, if Kafka had ever written a memoir, it would certainly have featured his persistent alienation. As a Czech in Austro-Hungary, a German-speaker in a country of Czechs, a Jew among Christians, an atheist among Jews, detached from his pragmatic family, Kafka was a perpetual misfit. His enduring status as a minority might have generated a memoir about longing for an unfragmented experience of wholeness, for a homeland.

In her memoir, Traveling Heavy, Ruth Behar displays her Kafkaesque dislocation. She descends from a long line of travelers by necessity, exiled from their homelands for reasons both political and social. Her Jewish great-grandparents settled in Cuba when Hitler was being named Führer. A month after the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, the young Behar was taken from Cuba, and in 1962, a few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, Behar's family landed in New York City -- her borrowed homeland. Settling in New York as a little girl, Behar is ubiquitously alienated, marginalized. She is a Spanish speaker among English speakers, a Cuban among Americans, a Jew among Christians, and as a daughter of an Ashkenazi mother and a Sephardi father, she is continually torn between the customs of the two. She too is a perpetual misfit.

The memoir opens with her preparations to travel back to Cuba. Quickly we learn that she despises packing, longs to avoid flying, and fears that she will be unable to return to the house in Michigan she has built with her husband and son. And yet, our "neurotic nomad" often subjects herself to the pain of packing her suitcase, to the struggle of "letting go of the material world" for the sake of visiting the country from which her family escaped when she was too young to remember.

Several years earlier, Behar is invited to attend a most unusual gathering: a World Summit for people with the last names Behar, Bejar, Vejar, Bejarano, and Becherano. The summit is to take place in Bejar, Spain, because the Behars "were Sephardic Jews scattered around the globe," considered to be descendants of exiles from "Sepharad (or Sefarad), the Hebrew word for Spain." What do the Behars, Bejars, and Vejars have in common aside from a Jewish ancestry, meeting in a city that bears their name? Their most distinguishing common denominator is that despite residing in various parts of the world for several generations, they sense that they are a people without a country, lacking a material, visible tie to the past.

The Jewish search for home in Spain can best be compared with Aristophanes's depiction of the lovers' plight in Plato's Symposium: The Jews lived in Spain and prospered, but in their prosperity they became proud and neglected to worship the king and queen. As punishment, the king and queen expelled the Jews from their land, dividing them in half and forcing them to leave a part of themselves behind. And so, the Jews are fated to be perpetually gnawed by the sense that they are incomplete and long to reconnect with that missing half, only to be found in the land from which they were exiled. The Behars are plagued by nostalgia for an inherited memory, mourning the loss of home and their amputated half, which their ancestors must have abandoned in the rush of gathering their material possessions. The Behar summit grows into the Jewish search for a homeland, for the moment when all the languages of the Jewish diaspora might ultimately converge into one.

Sadly, the genealogist invited to investigate the ancestral origins of the Behars casts grave doubt on their Bejarian origins. Not only is the city taken away as a potential lost homeland, but also Spain, along with their identity as Sephardim, is dismissed, for the genealogist discovers that the Behars are more than likely to be descendants of Ashkenazi Jews who, having migrated to Turkey in the nineteenth century, assumed Sephardic customs. Thus, the Beharian quest for home ends without a resolution, without closure. And it is particularly at this impasse that the Behar summit episode speaks to every immigrant's sensibility of what exile means. The idea of returning home is an "illusory quest" for Eden, which belongs not in memory, but in the imagination, and the search for lost identity is an eternal Platonic longing for wholeness. One can never really return there -- "there is no there there," to borrow a phrase from Gertude Stein. For the Behars, the imaginary lost homeland is dismissed by empirical evidence, but what they are unwilling or unable to surrender is the hope of its recovery, along with their final redemption. The perennially homeless are fated to continue their search despite evidence that history has erased all traces of home.

While Behar investigates all potential lost homelands, Cuba is the true object of her lovesick obsession. She has dedicated her body of work to the Cubans living on the island, as well as those of the diaspora. Her last book, An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba -- part memoir, part ethnography -- is dedicated to the search for Jews in her place of birth. The Cuba Behar visits is not the country of her childhood, not the country of memory, which exile has erased. She describes the island before the revolution as a "safe haven," an "enchanted world" for the Jews -- an Eden, if you will. This is the Cuba which Behar's family is forced to abandon, and she is nostalgic for that mirage. And yet her ethnographic account features a trend among the Jews who have remained on the island to immigrate, choosing to forfeit the paradise she hopes to recover. Although these Jews have not been uprooted during their lifetime, their diaspora is ingrained, inherited from their ancestors who, once exiled, have been doomed to eternally seek a place of wholeness where they are "one people."

"¿Que se te perdió en Cuba?" What did you lose in Cuba? Her grandmother asks her each time she travels, reminding Behar that the abandoned country bears no relationship to the ever-elusive homeland. Yet, in efforts to grasp her situation, Behar returns to Cuba every winter and "forever re-enacts [her] departure," reproducing the experience of loss and fear. By this repeated practice of leaving Cuba she might recollect some part of what suffering the loss of her home has meant, and through that awareness the past event may be stripped of its indomitable anguish. She travels to master the memory of exile, and in so doing, attempts to recuperate the lost self.

On a stylistic level, Behar's prose imitates her preoccupation with the melancholy past, the sense of loss that is never forgotten. While she describes the Jews who remain in Cuba, she does not neglect to identify the island with the phrase "that my family had abandoned." She also wishes us to remember that this is a community of Jews "that might have been mine had we stayed." The tendency is to conclude the sentence with a subordinate clause that modifies the subject to remind us of its significance to Behar's past. The most significant element of the sentence is veiled within this subordinate clause, as a "by the way," or "in case you forget." Such sentences are retrospective, returning to the time diaspora splits her identity or the Inquisition or the Holocaust scatters the Jews all over the world: "how had Danayda's beautiful and talented older sister fared in a country I associated mainly with the Holocaust?" (italics mine).

In the final chapter of her memoir, Behar offers us "a Cuban goodbye," which is prolonged by renewed discourse. She is unable to conclude her memoir, as she has not discovered what has been lost in Cuba. The implication of her deferred ending is clear: there is no revelation to be had. Experiences just pass and no grand truth is to be gleamed from them. Despite the dissatisfaction, such an ending is arguably more plausible. As she admits in An Island Called Home, "the only true home" is the one for which the exiled must continue to search "inconsolably."

Much like her compulsion to travel, Behar's object of obsession is writing about her ever-fruitless search for a land that no longer exists. She wishes to write about her experience with Cuba because it allows her to fashion herself as a character in Cuba, to fashion a life there. When Franz Kafka wrote, "All I am is literature, and I am not able or willing to be anything else," he was attesting to the writer's ability to construct his identity and to generate a homeland on the page. In writing, the distance between the world and the self collapses, and the latter becomes a medium through which the former can be understood; the world becomes a function of the self. Thus, writing becomes the solution to the search for identity. Like Kafka, Behar takes part in self-creation. Through the act of composing a memoir about her search, she writes the lost homeland and the lost self into existence.

Traveling Heavy by Ruth Behar
Duke University Press
ISBN: 978-0822354673
240 pages