Salsa, Merengue…and the HORA?

An Anthropologist Explains

I am struck by how culturally diverse the Jewish experiences of women have been in Latin America. Our ancestors came from a range of places, including Poland, Russia, Turkey, and Syria. They brought traditions with them that meshed with the local Latin American traditions. The highly Orthodox Sephardic community in Panama is not going to offer women the same possibilities for self-expression and independence as the secular Jewish community that exists in Buenos Aires. Neither resembles at all the contemporary Jewish community in Cuba, where the majority of Jewish women today are converts married to men of Jewish heritage who have recently rediscovered their Jewishness after decades of revolutionary atheism. Jews crafted different Latin American identities depending on where they landed and whether they formed large communities — as in Argentina — or smaller ones — as in Panama and Cuba. Anti-Semitism also varied among places; it never took root in Cuba, perhaps due to vital African traditions and lax Catholicism, while in Argentina it has been a thorn in the everyday life of the Jews since the days of the Shoah.

We can all call ourselves Jewish Latinas because we share the Spanish language and a common culture that is Jewish and Latin American. But each of us also represents a unique fusion of “Jewish” and “Latina.”

Unlike the Jewish Latinas who came later — fleeing repressive regimes in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s or looking for better economic opportunities in the decades that followed — Jewish women from Cuba could not go back and visit their homeland. The U.S. embargo made travel to Cuba virtually impossible and the Cuban government considered all those who left the island after the revolution to be counter-revolutionaries and traitors. Unable to return home, the women came to view themselves as exiles. The best they could do was create a Jewish-Cuban island in a little corner of New York City, and this they did with a mixture of joy and sorrow. I think we learn something interesting about current experiences by spotlighting this earlier set of Latina Jews.

Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” and the Cuban Revolution played out together in the lives of five Cuban-Jewish women who settled in New York after Fidel Castro came to power. Their experiences are absent from Betty Friedan’s map, and more generally, from the map of Jewish women’s history. In Miami, Jewish Cubans are so visible as a distinct community that they call themselves Jubans; the tiny fragment of the community that settled in New York offers a different perspective on how Cuban- Jewish women immigrants sought to maintain their identities as Cubans and as Jews in the city we think is diverse, but which nevertheless has had trouble accepting the cultural fusion represented by these women.

My mother, Rebeca Behar, with my Aunt Sylvia, Sylvia Steinberg, and their friends Miriam Perkal, Nina Mueller and Fanny Seinuk, formed part of “El Grupo” — “The Group,” an informal group of Cuban-Jewish couples who arrived in New York with their small children in tow, and who met every Sunday throughout the 1960s and 1970s to eat Cuban black beans and rice and reminisce about Cuba. The women were born in the mid-1930s in Cuba, married in the mid-1950s, immigrated to New York in the early 1960s; each had two children, a boy and a girl; they all speak Spanish more easily than English.

While Friedan was bemoaning the rise of mind-numbing housewifery in American suburbs during the early 1960s, these Cuban-Jewish women were in the throes of making major decisions about their lives and their future. Fanny put it this way: “As women, we had to leave everything we had. Whether you wanted your children to grow up in that system, or you wanted to have free enterprise, that was a decision you had to make. We really had to grow up fast.” Cuban- Jewish women experienced a very shortlived version of the feminine mystique in the mid to late 1950s. The Cuban Revolution, followed by their sudden migration to the United States, brought a downturn in their race and class status. They became, at least in their early years as immigrants, akin to women of color in the United States, for whom the mystique, enshrined within the nuclear family structure, was an unattainable luxury.

Middle-class women of my mother’s generation in Cuba engaged in courtship as young teenagers, even as pre-teens, married around the age of 20, and had children immediately. Veronica Maya, a leader in the Sephardic community in Miami, started dating her future husband at the age of 12. Her women friends joke, Cuando ella se quitó los Pampers se hizo novia de Moisés — “When she stopped wearing her Pampers is when she took Moisés as her boyfriend.” The sexuality of white middle-class women had to be controlled through marriage.

The split between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews existed then too. Throughout Latina America, it was common for Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews to congregate in separate synagogues and social circles. Ashkenazi women in Cuba were told by their mothers, “Better to marry a goy than a turco” — not only did the Turks (Sephardic Jews) not speak Yiddish, they were known to have bad tempers and to keep their women locked up in the house. My mother challenged this convention by marrying my father, a Sephardic Jew. The story my mother tells is that after she finished high school and a year of secretarial school, my grandmother told her it was time for her to find a job. She mentioned this in passing to my father, to whom she was then engaged, and he replied, “Then we’re getting married! No woman I’m with is going to work!” But by the 1950s, a Jewish woman didn’t have to be married to a Sephardic husband to be confined to the home. That had become the social order of the day.

Yet the women of El Grupo had all worked before getting married. As Ashkenazi women, they were accustomed to seeing their immigrant mothers working with their fathers in their family businesses, in contrast to Sephardic women, who never worked outside the home. But the women didn’t think that helping out in the family business counted as real work; they considered it a responsibility. All the women stopped working regularly when they married in the mid-1950s, but they didn’t lose their taste for work outside the home. In the United States also, women could work — in a business owned by their parents or shared with their husbands.

In Cuba, as in the U.S. South, middleclass women could afford to have domestic workers (usually women of color). But as immigrants, they had to do their own housework, the cooking, and the child care; they also either had to go out and work along with their husbands, or help their mothers eke out a living.

Although the women had been born and raised on an island that had been a backyard colony of the United States, they felt they were more in the vanguard than the Americans they encountered. They were immigrants in a new country, but they felt culturally superior to Americans. When I asked Fanny, who’d studied accounting and married an engineer, what she thought of the idea of the feminine mystique, she replied, “I didn’t feel women were being put down in Cuba at that time. Women didn’t have to prove anything to anybody. Not like American women. I felt the difference when I was looking for a job. Right away I realized women were not equal here. I had always been equal. In Cuba, in the university, in accounting, sometimes there were more women than men.”

In Cuba, Jews didn’t suffer from discrimination or persecution. But Jewish difference was very marked in everyday life. Jews were called polacos, or Poles, no matter what country they were from. Ashkenazi Jewish women, especially if they were light-skinned and blue or green-eyed, tended to be singled out in public. Nina didn’t like it when they called her a polaca in Cuba. “I felt insulted. They were doing it to bother you. ‘Look, there goes the polaquita.’ It was demeaning.” But while the women were uncomfortable about the way the foreignness of their white Jewish identity was marked in Cuba, when they came to New York, they wanted to be recognized as white and Jewish. They wanted to hold on to the privileged white middle-class status they’d had in Cuba.

Once in New York, the women chose to settle in distinctly Jewish neighborhoods. They were Spanish speakers with an intense nostalgia for Cuba, but they didn’t want to live in Spanish Harlem or in other Latino neighborhoods. Real estate agents were confused by the mix of identities they represented and didn’t know how to situate them in the racialized map of the city. Miriam said that when she called one agent, he heard her Latina accent and assumed she was Puerto Rican. She asked about homes in Jewish and Italian neighborhoods. The agent insisted nothing was available. Miriam told her husband they needed to go to the man’s office in person, “so he can see our faces, so he can see that we’re white.”

In the 1960s Jews had only recently become “white folks” in America. Miriam’s need to be recognized as “white” was not only a matter of race and class but of cultural identity. “I was a Cuban Jew,” she says. “I was Cubana and I would say that with pride. I wasn’t Puerto Rican. I wasn’t Mexican. I was Cuban and that was a big deal. We thought we were better than anyone else. People would ask, ‘Did you have a television in Cuba?’ I would say, ‘You’re very misinformed. We had the latest model cars, we had televisions. Our peso was equivalent to your dollar. But that animal came and ruined everything.’” The curious thing was that Miriam could feel so confident at a time when she was accepting used snowsuits for her son, her own thin coat could barely keep her warm, and she and her family were sleeping in an aunt’s house on a bedspread on the floor.

For the women of my mother’s generation, a return to Latin America was unlikely, though their Jewishness was flexible enough to allow them to maintain their attachment to Cuban food, music, language, and culture. But they needed to continually explain their identity. As Miriam noted, “I’m white, I speak Spanish and I’m Jewish. It doesn’t make sense to them. Ninety percent of the people I meet don’t get it. They can imagine you being from any country, but not that you’re Jewish. That they can’t understand.”

The women of El Grupo wanted to have their cake and eat it too. They were proud of their Cubanness and held on to the Spanish language. They danced salsa at bar mitzvahs and weddings, and they continued to cook Cuban food, substituting chicken for pork in their tamales. At the same time, they loved to tropicalize Jewish foods; they stuffed their hamantaschen with guava paste. They were willing to work among Latinos, among whom they felt culturally very comfortable, but they didn’t want to live among Latinos who weren’t Jewish like themselves. Their race and class prejudices kept them separate. They wanted their children to grow up as Jews. They sought to be recognized as white Jewish women, so they could “pass” unmarked, but inevitably their Latino accents and strong ties to Cuba also made them “other.”

Ruth Behar is the author of The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart and other books. Her documentary, “Adio Kerida: A Cuban Sephardic Journey,” has been shown in film festivals around the world. An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba will be published this fall. She is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. A version of this article was presented at the conference “A Jewish Feminine Mystique? Jewish Women in Postwar America.”