Author and University of Michigan professor Ruth Behar relays her experiences with rediscovering Cuba and learning about a Jewish community there at the “Juban Celebration” event at Hillel yesterday evening.
More than 170 diners feasted on coconut flan at the “Juban Celebration” jointly sponsored by Harvard Hillel and the Cuban-American Undergraduate Student Association (CAUSA) last evening.
The “Kosher Taste of Cuba” dinner, which also included Cuban-style brown rice, mojo chicken, and Havana black bean soup, led into a multimedia book discussion with author and University of Michigan professor Ruth Behar.
The meal drew a “really excellent” turnout, according to Associate Director of Harvard Hillel Michael A. Simon. Elena C. Castañeda ’08, co-president of CAUSA who herself is one-eighth Jewish, noted the plethora of “non-traditional Hillel students eating here.”
Susana Bejar ’08, CAUSA historian and a member of Harvard’s Sephardi Society, a club affiliated with Harvard Hillel, helped organize the event. A self-proclaimed “Juban,” Bejar expressed excitement at hearing the author’s perspective on their shared cultural identity.
She summed up her own Juban upbringing: “We danced salsa at my Bat Mitzvah.”
After inhaling the flan, the guests moved upstairs for discussion with author Behar, born in Cuba but raised in New York. She began her presentation with old family photographs, which she said “gave me my first glimpse of the Cuba I had been a part of but couldn’t remember.”
Her new book, “An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba,” explores the history and culture of Cuban Jews.
Behar told of her experience re-discovering Cuba in her mid-20s, and finding the small Jewish community who remained on the island after the Cuban Revolution.
Greg M. Epstein, Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University and Behar’s cousin, gave a brief introduction before the presentation.
Epstein had initially suggested that Harvard Hillel invite Behar to speak, aware that the organization hosts cultural events and guest speakers.
The author said, “I am delighted to be doing an event that brings together Jewish and Latino students.”
Behar has written four books and edited two anthologies; “An Island Called Home” was sold at the discussion by the Harvard Book Store.
Behar has also written poems and stories and made a documentary film entitled “Adio Kerida.”
President and Director of Harvard Hillel Bernie Steinberg commented on Behar’s “extraordinary” voice as she struggles with “important central questions of fluidity and identity.”