Family Matters: Such Good Thieves
A unique inheritance bequeaths a sense of strength and belonging to a scholarly descendant of Cuban Jews who came to America.
When I was coming of age in New York in the early 1970s, my Cuban Jewish immigrant family was still struggling to make ends meet. Practical people who sold fabric, envelopes and shoes, they were very concerned about my dreamy-eyed ways.
The only activity I enjoyed was reading novels and books on philosophy and history. This seemed a total waste of time to them. After I told the family I hoped to become a scholar and writer, they truly started to worry. For my gregarious, joke-telling, salsa-dancing family, my desire to read books day and night, in total silence, seemed a lonely, sad and gloomy pursuit.
“That’s silly. If you’re so smart, you should be a lawyer or a doctor,” they said. Or even, “Why work so hard? Stay home, a man will come and marry you.”
There was only one dissenting voice, that of my Baba, my maternal grandmother, Esther Glinsky. “Let her be a scholar and a writer if she wants to be,” Baba said. “I think she takes after my father, her great-grandfather.”
Baba had arrived in Cuba from Poland in 1927. Like many other Jews who settled on the island in that era, she married and raised her children in Cuba with no intention of ever leaving. She had found her promised land. But after Fidel Castro came to power, she had to immigrate again, to the United States, with the rest of my extended family. As an immigrant twice over, Baba worked hard. In Cuba she sold lace with my Zayde, Máximo Glinsky, in their tiny shop on Calle Aguacate in Old Havana. In New York, she sold fabric as an employee at a rundown store located under the rattling elevated train in Jamaica, Queens. She labored six days a week and went home each afternoon with a piercing headache. But Baba loved to read and to learn. Come evening, she took English courses at the local high school. She was an insomniac, and at night she read the Yiddish newspaper, the Forverts, and kept books by Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer and other great Yiddish writers at her bedside.
On retiring, Baba and Zayde moved to Miami Beach. After Zayde died, I visited Baba frequently, when I would see her sitting up in bed, in the middle of the night, reading from a handwritten Yiddish text. She laughed out loud as she read, but sometimes tears came to her eyes.
“Qué estás leyendo?” I asked in Spanish, my mother tongue. “What are you reading?”
She replied, in English, “The Book.” She turned away mysteriously and hid the text under the sheets. She had borrowed “The Book,” she told me; it was not hers to keep.
It took a lot of insistence on my part, but I finally learned that “The Book” was an unpublished memoir penned by her father, my great-grandfather, Abraham Levin. He had been the first in my mother’s family to arrive in Cuba, in 1925. He had worked as a kosher butcher, a cantor and a street peddler to save enough money to bring over the one child who would help him get the rest of the family out of Poland: Baba. The eldest of seven, Baba had begged to follow him to Cuba. She married my grandfather two years after arriving; they then pooled their resources to bring my great-grandmother and my great-aunts and great-uncles to safety in Cuba on the eve of the Holocaust.
Perhaps seeing his wife and younger children again after being separated for nine years, my great-grandfather was so overwhelmed with emotion that the story he wanted to tell poured out of him. In 1934, the same year everyone was reunited, he recorded the family saga in two empty account ledgers.
“The days of my youth were filled with sadness” are the words that open his tale. In Poland, the family lived off two pounds of butter that his mother obtained from their cow each week. His father used juniper for heating and cooking, filling their house with a thick smoke. He had no patience for children who couldn’t manage on their own. In my great-grandfather’s words: “My father believed that a child who could already walk and talk should be making his own way and satisfying his own needs.”
My great-grandfather wrote his story while the family was living in a sugar mill town famous for its reverence of Saint Lazarus, known in the Afro-Cuban pantheon as Babalu-Ayé. But it was as if he never arrived in Cuba.
He did not write about the long sea journey or what it felt like to arrive in the tropics in woolen clothing or how a mango tasted or how the drums sounded as they played late into the night calling forth the spirit of Babalu-Ayé. He clung to a lost world in Yiddish, writing about his impoverished youth, his refusal of an arranged marriage, his love for my great-grandmother and the hardships of their early married years during World War I.
Three decades later, our family left Cuba. “The Book” fell into the hands of my great-uncle Moisés. This was not surprising; he had done well for himself, both in Cuba and Miami, and reigned over the family as a godfather.
My grandmother was the eldest, but she looked up to her brother because he was wealthy. She and my grandfather never figured out the mystery of making money.
“Moisés, please lend me Papá’s book,” I heard her say during a family gathering. She spoke, I thought, in a much too timid and beseeching voice. I noticed that Moisés lent her “The Book” very reluctantly and told her he wanted it back right away.
Several years later, in 1996, I was in Miami for five months on a research grant. Every afternoon, I would visit my grandmother, and we would read “The Book” in her kitchen.
I do not know Yiddish, and Baba and I almost never spoke English to each other. Baba did what was natural for us—she patiently read my great-grandfather’s story aloud, word by word, in Yiddish, then translated into Spanish, while I wrote it down.
We sat across from each other on yellow wooden chairs that matched the yellow Formica table that matched the orange-and-yellow marigold wallpaper. During those afternoons, the sunshine seemed to have been invented just to illuminate my great-grandfather’s words.
One afternoon, the spell was broken by Moisés knocking on the door.
I took my grandmother aside. “Don’t give ‘The Book’ to Moisés,” I whispered.
By some miracle, Moisés had allowed Baba to hold on to the two volumes of “The Book,” and I did not want her to lose them.
“How can I not return ‘The Book’?” Baba asked.
“Hide ‘The Book’ and tell him you can’t find it.”
My grandmother was stunned, but did as I asked.
When Moisés entered, the first thing he said was, “Give me ‘The Book,’ Esther.”
She replied, “I’m not sure where I put it. I’ll look for it later. Sit down, I made cookies.”
Then she used the Spanish pun that all the old Yiddish folks from Cuba adored. “Te quiere?” she asked, which literally means “Does she or he love you?” but the word “té” with an accent on the “e” means “tea” rather than “you.” So the question, a double-entendre, can also be interpreted as, “You want tea?”
Moisés said “Yes” to cookies and tea that day and for many days afterward.
In this way, my grandmother held on to “The Book” for the last four years of her life. I was proud of our conspiracy. Mine was a skewed calculation, to be sure, but I justified the plot as a fair distribution of the things of the world. Moisés had money and unwavering self-confidence. We would have “The Book.”
Not long after my grandmother died, I retrieved “The Book” from its secret hiding place under the nightstand. As soon as it was in my hands, I rushed it home like looted treasure. I buried it in my fireproof file cabinet, where I also keep old family pictures and other memorabilia from Cuba.
Moisés lived another two years after my Baba’s death. A cousin learned I had “The Book” before he died. She became furious and demanded I return it. “What do you want it for?” she hissed. “You don’t even know Yiddish.”
That cousin no longer speaks to me, but I do not care. I had to be the one to keep “The Book.”
I am discovering that I am as guarded as Moisés about “The Book.” No, I am worse than Moisés. I have made copies of the memoir for everyone in my family who requested it, but I won’t let anyone touch or see the original.
Just as Jacob stole Esau’s birthright with the complicity of his mother, my Baba stole “The Book” from her brother to pass it on to me. I am glad we were such good thieves. To want to be a scholar and a writer was not easy in my family. The lack of encouragement left within me a deep well of insecurity. Baba understood the challenges I faced.
In my darkest hour, when I can’t be sure if the years of reading and learning have taught me anything, when I can’t be sure if my writing is going well, I take strength from my great-grandfather and marvel at how he found the presence of mind to sit down in a sugar mill town in Cuba and write about a Polish Jewish world that had disappeared. Knowing I’m in possession of “The Book,” I realize I am not alone. My desire to study and to write did not come out of thin air. I am the bearer of an herencia, an inheritance; despair is a sin.
A day may come yet when I will learn Yiddish and be able to read “The Book” in the original. But even if that day never comes, I won’t let go of those two account ledgers. “The Book” is my shield. My talisman. My most precious ruby. I jealously guard over it and keep it stored away, under lock and key. Hidden from others and even from myself.
Ruth Behar is a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba (Rutgers University Press) is her latest book.