When I was a child I dreamt that I’d marry into an immigrant family very similar to my own. My children would grow up speaking Spanglish and we’d continue the traditions I grew up with. But other than my extended family I really didn’t know many other Jewish Cubans living in Brooklyn. Little did I imagine I would later go to Israel, meet and then marry a totally different type of Jewish immigrant, one from Africa, who speaks Afrikaans and a bit of Zulu, but no Spanish at all. I continue to cook for my family some of the traditional Cuban dishes of my childhood. Our children’s Spanish, however, comes straight out of the textbooks from three years of forced high school Regents preparatory classes. Their attempts at hablando espanol can make me laugh; compared to them I sound like a real Cuban native!
We don’t often fly south for the end of January “yeshiva break”, but we’re off to Puerto Rico this week because we were invited to stay with my Spanish speaking cousins in San Juan. They are amazingly gracious, picking us up from the airport and touring us around their beautiful island. We decided it would be best not to overstay our welcome, and split the week between a hotel and their home. I got a great deal for a couple of weeknights at my favorite place on the island to which I have sentimental attachment from visits so many years ago. I was so excited about getting away, but then I heard that half of our shul will be in Puerto Rico, and some at the very same hotel! I had totally forgotten that PR is a popular destination for Yeshiva break revelers. So much for anonymity and getting away from it all! I’m still happy we can all enjoy some “fun in the sun” (just like at the beach club) and perhaps even share a mojito together.
We’ve been so lucky this winter that it hasn’t been too frigid; a few bad days here and there but nothing to complain about. When those freezing days do hit, I shiver compulsively and long for the warmer climes. Perhaps it’s in my blood since I’m of “Caribbean descent”. I dream of relentlessly sunny days and the delicious warm blue water of the island beaches. I would love to bring my husband and kids to visit Cuba as I did nearly three years ago with my mom and sister. Though relations have warmed up as far as permissible travel to Cuba goes, the steep price and red tape involved in getting there are still prohibitive. I guess Puerto Rico is as close as we’re going to get to a Cuban vacation at this time.
My four cousins in San Juan are children of the matriarch of their family who is my mom’s first cousin. Like my parents, she and her husband left Cuba in the early 1960’s with one child, and ended up in Puerto Rico because of opportunity and the ease of adjustment - same language and similar slower paced lifestyle. Those who came to New York, including my parents, benefited from life in NY, but had to struggle with English, adjust to the faster pace and to bitter cold winters. The vast majority of Cuban refugees ended up in Miami, where they could have the best of both worlds; a bilingual lifestyle in a warm climate in the free world.
Nearly everyone can speak English in Puerto Rico, but the signs are in Spanish as is the local lingo. I am usually too shy to jump right in with my gringo sounding accent, but I am fluent in Spanish. As when I go to Israel, it takes me a little time to feel confident, forget about my accent and join the conversation. My family belongs to the synagogue Shaarei Zedek, established in 1954. This shul received a large influx of Cuban refugees after Fidel took over. They use a Hebrew/Spanish siddur and announcements are made in Spanish, switching to English only for visitors, as when we’ve been there for a bar mitzvah or wedding. My cousins are leaders of the shul and I’ve enjoyed hearing one speak as president from the Bima. I feel at home in that environment, despite the fact that I left Havana when I was only a year old.
I plan to see all of my kin and catch up with them and their children’s news. I enjoyed the facebook photos of their December bar mitzvah in Israel and was sorry I missed the party. The Cuban ex-pat population is so close that ten percent of the San Juan Jewish community traveled to Israel for the celebration! I was amazed to come across a story about them in a monthly Hadassah e-bulletin to which I subscribe. The article featured photos of my cousins as they toured the brand new Hadassah Hospital Tower as part of their bar mitzvah week festivities.
Hadassah provides a major bond between my family and the Puerto Rican cousins. Like us, they are involved life members and one is currently the chapter president. Their kids have participated in Hadassah’s Young Judaea programs, some of them coinciding with ours at camp in NY and Year Course in Israel.
Our lifestyles are quite different due to geography and more, yet I feel more connection to them than disparity. When we are face to face, there is a sense of familiarity, of understanding that I think can only come with shared DNA. I see someone’s smile, hear another’s laugh and feel a sense of recognition. These Latino Judios are my people!
I know I’m very lucky to have access to such an extended family even if they live in far flung places around the world. I’m sometimes asked why I make such an effort to keep in touch (and it is - taking time and money to write, call, drive or fly). I feel a great sense of personal responsibility to keep the chain going, to pass along to my kids the importance of our family connection and history. I clearly and lovingly remember my maternal grandfather Abuelo Leon, and how he spent his little bit of down time each weekend after a grueling week of work. He sat at the kitchen table and with great ceremony, filled his pen with ink and wrote beautiful long letters in Yiddish to his sisters in Israel, Miami and Cuba and to his brother in Detroit. I like to think I’ve inherited that special trait from him.
I don’t claim to love all of my relatives equally, but I’ve learned from my parents and grandparents that family is forever so I pursue the close relationships that feel good to me and are reciprocated. I treasure my closest friends who have become as dear to me as family. Family is my foundation and when the bonds are nurtured and strong, I feel support and love that is incomparable. So when I go to the beach in Puerto Rico I will relish the warmth and sun and reenergize, but when I see my cousins I will laugh, maybe cry and definitely reconnect.
Miriam Bradman Abrahams is Cuban born, Brooklyn bred and lives in Woodmere. She organizes author events for Hadassah, reviews books for Jewish Book World and is very slowly writing her father’s immigration story. She is teaching yoga at Peaceful Presence Yoga Studio. firstname.lastname@example.org