About Ruth

Ruth Behar as an adult in Cuba
I was born in Havana, Cuba. My parents, Rebeca and Alberto, were also born in Cuba, but my mother’s family was from Russia and Poland and spoke Yiddish, while my father’s family was from Turkey and spoke Ladino. The union of my parents, a polaca and a turco, an Ashkenazi Jew and a Sephardic Jew, was considered a “mixed marriage” in Cuba in 1956 when they celebrated their wedding. I grew up very aware that I represented a merging of two very distinct Jewish civilizations.

Just before turning five, I left Cuba with my family. Settling in New York, we lived in a series of brick apartments in Queens, a long subway ride from Manhattan’s bright lights and high culture. During the years I was growing up, my parents longed to buy a house with a little yard where my mother could plant flowers, but they didn’t have the money, and besides, they thought we’d return to Cuba. Like many Cuban immigrants, my parents thought our stay in the United States was temporary. Surely we hadn’t lost Cuba forever. But it turned out we had.

I was in a huge rush to get through school and I studied for three years at Wesleyan University (B.A. Letters 1977) and then went directly to graduate school at Princeton University (M.A. Anthropology 1980; Ph.D. Anthropology 1983).  

I grew up speaking Spanish, even with my grandparents, having lost the Jewish languages, but we all spoke Spanish, so that brought us together. I have a love for the Spanish language. As an anthropologist I have been fortunate to be able to spend periods of my life in Spain, Mexico, Cuba, and, most recently, Argentina.

I write about my travels in my books: The Presence of the Past in a Spanish Village: Santa María del Monte (Princeton, 1986; expanded paperback, 1991), Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story (Beacon Press, 1993, Tenth Anniversary Edition, 2003), and The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart (Beacon Press, 1996).


Translated Woman was named a Notable Book of the Year in 1993 by the New York Times. The  book was adapted for the stage by PREGONES Theater, a Latino theater company based in the Bronx, New York. The stage adaptation, with live music and songs based on the book, has been performed in New Hampshire, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, and at the Painted Bride Theater in Philadelphia. Translated Woman will soon be published in Spanish as Cuéntame algo aunque sea una mentira: Las historias de la comadre Esperanza with Fondo de Cultura Económica (Mexico City, 2008).

As a cultural anthropologist you can study your own culture, which is always a complicated thing to do, because you end up in a strange “in between” position, both insider and outsider at the same time. My newest book, An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba (Rutgers University Press, 2007), explores this dilemma, offering an account of my journey back to Cuba in search of the Jewish community that might have been mine had my family stayed after the revolution.

When I began traveling regularly to Cuba in the early 1990s, I felt the need to create a forum for the voices of Cubans on and off the island. Bridges to Cuba/Puentes a Cuba (University of Michigan Press, 1995), which I edited, became a pioneering anthology that sought out a common culture and memory among Cubans and Cuban-Americans. In my new anthology, The Portable Island: Cubans at Home in the World, co-edited with Lucía Suárez,we have gathered together personal essays, poetry, and art by Cubans living as far afield as Matanzas and Moscow. This book will offer more of a global panorama on how Cubans have become a diasporic people (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

Ruth Behar as a child in Cuba


I view cultural anthropology as a humanistic pursuit whose purpose is to express the poetry of people’s lives. In my rethinking of the history of anthropology, I try to highlight literary contributions made by anthropologists who didn’t suppress their artistic souls. I am co-editor, with Deborah Gordon, of Women Writing Culture (University of California Press, 1995),  which has become a classic text about women anthropologists and their attention to the art of ethnography.

In addition to my work as an anthropologist, I write essays, poetry, and fiction. My essays can be found in a range of magazines and collections, including The Female Body: Figures, Styles, Speculations (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Her Face in the Mirror: Jewish Women on Mothers and Daughters (Beacon Press, 1994), King David's Harp: Autobiographical Essays by Jewish Latin American Writers (University of New Mexico Press, 1999), and How I Learned English (National Geographic Books, 2007).

My story “La Cortada” was selected by Joyce Carol Oates for inclusion in the anthology Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers (Norton, 1997). Other stories appear in The House of Memory: Stories by Jewish Women Writers of Latin America (The Feminist Press, 1999), Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios (Duke University Press, 2001), and The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature (Schocken Books, 2005).

My poems are published in Witness, Michigan Quarterly Review, Tikkun, Latino Stuff Review, Brújula, Prairie Schooner, The American Voice, and Bridges. They also can be found in Sephardic American Voices: Two Hundred Years of a Literary Legacy (Brandeis University Press, 1996), Little Havana Blues: A Cuban-American Literature Anthology (Arte Público Press, 1996), The Prairie Schooner Anthology of Jewish-American Writers (University of Nebraska Press, 1998), Wáchale: Poetry and Prose about Growing Up Latino in America (Cricket Books, 2001), and Burnt Sugar/Caña Quemada: Contemporary Cuban Poetry in English and Spanish (Free Press, 2006).

I have a close relationship with Ediciones Vigía in Matanzas, Cuba, an editorial collective that produces handmade artisanal books in small editions. A book of my prose poems, Everything I Kept/Todo lo que guardé, inspired by the Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz, was published in a bilingual English/Spanish edition by Ediciones Vigía in 2001, and my short story, “La Cortada,” was also published bilingually by Ediciones Vigía in 2004.

I am fascinated by the creative possibilities of documentary film and feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to make my own film. I wrote, directed, and produced Adio Kerida/Goodbye Dear Love: A Cuban Sephardic Journey, an 82-minute video documentary distributed by Women Make Movies (www.wmm.com). The film focuses on the life stories of Sephardic Cuban Jews living in Cuba, Miami, and New York. It has been shown in film festivals all over the world.

I have received prestigious awards, including the MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship in 1988, a John Simon Guggenheim award in 1995, and a Fulbright award in 2007. I was honored with the Distinguished Alumna Award in Recognition of Outstanding Achievement and Service from Wesleyan University in 1997.  Latina Magazine named me, in 1999, one of the 50 Latinas who made history in the twentieth century.

I do a lot of public speaking in my different roles as anthropologist, writer, and filmmaker. I have been an invited or keynote speaker at numerous universities and cultural centers in the United States and Canada, as well as in Mexico, Cuba, Spain, Argentina, Poland, England, and Israel.  Some recent highlights include lectures at the Centro de Investigación y Difusión de la Cultura Sefardí (Buenos Aires, 2007); New York University, Judaic Studies and History symposium, “A Jewish Feminine Mystique? Jewish Women in Postwar America” (New York, 2007); Fundacja Judaica – Centrum Kultury Zydowskiej (Krakow, 2006); Plenary on “Narrative Knowledge,” Thomas R. Watson Conference on Rhetoric and Composition, University of Louisville (2006); Centro Cultural Cubano de Nueva York (New York, 2005); Conference in Interdisciplinary Qualitative Studies, University of Georgia (Athens, 2005) ; Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (Toluca, Mexico, 2004); British Medical Association conference on Narrative Research in Health and Illness (London, 2004).

Students often ask: Is it necessary to have tenure to write the way you do? How do you get away with writing so poetically? The answer is no, you don’t have to have tenure, you can write as I do, and you will write as I do, if you need to. You will reach a point, as I did, where there is no choice but to work from your poetic self. I try my best to create the conditions for others who also want and need to do creative work that draws inspiration from the experience of being a vulnerable witness. To this end, I have taught writing workshops at the Creative Writing Lab on the Border in Tijuana, Mexico, and at the Macondo Writers Workshop in San Antonio, Texas. Each year I offer a workshop in creative ethnographic writing at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association.

I am Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, where I am also affiliated with programs in Women’s Studies, Latina/o Studies, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and Jewish Studies. At Michigan I have received two Excellence in Education Awards, the D'Arms Faculty Award for Distinguished Graduate Mentoring in the Humanities, and an Institute for the Humanities Faculty Fellowship. During January-May, 2008 and January-May, 2009, I served as a visiting distinguished professor at the University of Miami through the auspices of the Henry King Stanford Chair in the Humanities.

I have lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan for 23 years, and even though my son Gabriel was born and raised here, I believe I’m a temporary resident, someone who’s just passing through. When people ask, “Are you from Ann Arbor?” I act offended and reply, “I live here, but I’m not from here. I’m from Cuba.” Even after so many years, that’s how it is: the island continues to live inside me.