|Institutions||University of Michigan, Ann Arbor|
|Alma mater||Princeton University
Life and work
Behar was born in Havana, Cuba. After receiving her B.A. from Wesleyan University in 1977, she studied cultural anthropology at Princeton University. She travels regularly to both Cuba and Mexico in search of her own family roots from before their emigration to America after Castro came into power, and to study the lives of women in suppressed societies. Since 1991 her research and writing have largely focused on her native country, Cuba, which she left at the age of four. Her research on the dwindling Jewish community in Cuba is the focus of her film Adio Kerida (2002), which featured camera work and editing by her son Gabriel Frye-Behar.
Behar is a professor at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her literary work is featured in the Michigan State University's Michigan Writers Series. A writer of anthropology, essays, poetry and fiction, her work focuses around women and feminism.
She is a feminist, and her personal life experiences as a Jewish Cuban-American woman are frequently an important part of her writing. Her dissertation (1983), based on her first fieldwork in northern Spain, became the basis for her first book.
Her second book, Translated Woman (1993), was based on ten years of fieldwork in a rural town in Mexico. Her controversial book The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart examines the role that the personal can play in ethnographic writing. Jewish Cuba is also the topic of her book, An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba (2007), as well as her latest book, Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in between Journeys (2013).
Traveling Heavy is a memoir about her Yiddish-Sephardic-Cuban-American family, as well as the strangers who show her kindness as she makes her way through the world. Her probings about her complicated Jewish Cuban ancestry and family’s immigration to America mine compelling, relevant issues about identity and belonging. A heartfelt witness to the changing political and emotional landscape of the Cuban-American experience. Behar looks at the revitalization of Cuban Jewish life as an anthropologist, but her personal journey back to the island she left as a little girl is the heart of this “memoir I snuck in, between journeys.”
An Island Called Home
An Island Called Home is an insider’s look at the quest Behar seeks to reach a better understanding of her roots as a Jewish Cuban, her place of birth. She noted “I knew the stories of the Jews in Cuba, but it was all about looking at them as a community”. Travelling the island, Behar becomes the confidante to a host of Jewish strangers, building connections for further anthropological research. Conducting one-on-one interviews, combined with black-and-white photography, she builds readers an image of the diasporic thread connecting Cuban Jews to one another. Stories starting in the 1920s tell of displaced Polish and German Jews who fled to Cuba in order to escape Auschwitz, opening mom-and-pops shops, peddling, mixing Spanish and Yiddish, and settling into Latino life in La Habana Vieja – only to be uprooted within decades. In the late 1950s, 16,500 Jews living in Cuba were mass deported to Miami and New York as a reaction to Castro’s growing communist revolution. Being one of the departed, and a strong believer in personal involvement with her work in ethnography, Behar intertwines her own thoughts and feelings with her analytical observations of her profession.
The Vulnerable Observer
The Vulnerable Observer tells the story of how, in 1989, Behar’s grandfather died in Miami Beach. She was filled with guilt and self-loathing for not being there and instead was in a Spanish village doing anthropological research on death customs. The personal loss leads Behar to throw away the idea of the ethnographer as a “semi-detached participant-observer”, and instead to become a “vulnerable observer”. She argues that the ethnographic fieldworker should spell out, and work though, his or her own emotional involvement with the subject under study. She strongly critiques conventional objectivity. The critique suggests that the distanced, impersonal modes of presenting objectively are incomplete. The six personal essays in The Vulnerable Observer are examples of the subjective approach.
Behar’s grandparents emigrated from Russia, Poland and Turkey during the 1920s, and then travelled again in 1962 to escape Castro’s communism. Behar tells the story of how, at the age of nine, her family suffered a car crash that left Behar with a broken leg and immobile for a year. The experience and recovery period led her to the recognition that “the body is a homeland” of stored memory and pain.
In 1985, Behar was working in Mexico when she befriended an Indian witch working as a street peddler. Townspeople said the witch, Esperanza Hernandez, had used black magic to blind her ex-husband after he regularly battered her and then left her for his mistress. Behar’s telling of Esperanza’s story in Translated Woman paints the picture of a macha woman whose egotism alienated her own mother, inspiring Behar to portray Esperanza as a feminist heroine. Esperanza claims she found redemption in a spiritualist cult constructed around Pancho Villa, blaming her pent-up rage for the deaths in infancy of the first six of her 12 children. Esperanza’s rage led her to beat up her husband’s lover, through her son out of the house, beat a daughter for refusing to support her, and disowned another son for having an affair with an uncle’s ex-mistress because she considered it to be incestuous. From examining her own border, she discovers her Latina-gringa conflicts are based in the realization she may have lost precious cultural parts of herself from patterning herself around the American Dream. Esperanza’s odyssey examines physical borders, margins and separations. Translated Woman contributes to the feminist argument that studying women in anthropology has been undervalued due to traditional academic prejudices that view women-centered analysis as too personally biased.
Awards and honours
- The Presence of the Past in a Spanish Village: Santa María del Monte (1986)
- Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story (1993; second edition, Beacon Press, 2003 ISBN 978-0-8070-4647-0)
- Bridges to Cuba / Puentes a Cuba, editor, University of Michigan Press, 1995, ISBN 978-0-472-06611-7
- Women Writing Culture Editors Ruth Behar, Deborah A. Gordon, University of California Press, 1995, ISBN 978-0-520-20208-5
- The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart, Beacon Press, 1996, ISBN 978-0-8070-4631-9
- An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba, Rutgers University Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-8135-4189-1
- The Portable Island: Cubans at Home in the World, Editors Ruth Behar, Lucía M. Suárez, Macmillan, 2008, ISBN 978-0-230-60477-3
- Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in Between Journeys., Duke University Press, 2013, ISBN 978-0-8223-5720-9
- Adio Kerida (Goodbye Dear Love): A Cuban-American Woman's Search for Sephardic Memories (2002)
- Ruth Behar Michigan Writers Collection
- "About Ruth". Ruthbehar.com. April 24, 2011.
- "Michigan Writers Series". Michigan State University Libraries. Retrieved 2012-07-14.
- Writers of the Caribbean
- Veciana-Suarez, Ana (November 3, 2007). "Author’s heritage draws her back to Cuba’s Jews" (PDF). Miami Herald.
- "Nonfiction Review: An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba by Ruth Behar". Publisher's Weekly. September 24, 2007.
- "Nonfiction Review: The Vulnerable Observer by Ruth Behar". Publisher's Weekly. 1996.
- M. L. DeVault, "Book Review: Behar/The Vulnerable Observer," Contemporary Sociology, 1998
- "Nonfiction Review: Translated Woman by Ruth Behar". January 4, 1993.
- B. Sanchez, "Book Review: Translated Woman," Hispanic Magazine, 1993
- E. Perez, "Book Review: Behar/Translated Woman," Journal of American History, September 1994
- Personal website
- Adio Kerida: A Cuban Sephardic Journey Official Website
- Website for Gabriel Frye-Behar