Capturing Family History

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful island whose capital was the jewel of the Caribbean. This city had an enchanting esplanade with a sea wall that hugged the ocean. It was called El Malecón. The breezes off the ocean’s turquoise water were refrescante—refreshing. The weather was always warm; the sun was always shining. This was Havana, and my mother, Matilde, lived in a neighborhood called Havana la Vieja—the old section of Havana.

When I was a child, Cuba was a fairytale. I was sad that the country was trapped behind a rusting iron curtain, shut tight and padlocked. No one left, and no one entered. I longed for Cuba throughout my childhood. My mother and I have talked about Cuba all my life. I was born in Connecticut, but my heart has always been in my mother’s Havana. A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed my mother for over an hour about her life in Cuba and her life as an immigrant. The interview took place at Hebrew SeniorLife, where she is a patient, and I recorded her stories with a new app called “Story Aperture,” published by the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA).

Although I had my own questions in mind, there are helpful lists of questions right in the app, visible on the screen as you’re recording. In addition to general inquiries, you can cover a range of topics, such as “Judaism, Race and Ethnicity, “Archiving #MeToo” and “Voices of Change.”

Judith Rosenbaum, CEO of JWA, noted that Story Aperture was a natural next step for an organization that democratizes history. “So many of the ways women work and contribute and experience things don’t happen in the public limelight of what has been traditionally important,” she told JewishBoston. “We wanted to make sure we were capturing stories of ordinary people. [Recording these oral histories] helps to remember the moments of daily life as part of the ways that people make history. History is not always a society-changing moment; history is created every day people build families and communities.”

I didn’t expect to learn anything new from my mother. Her history is etched in my mind. She came to the United States in 1958, a couple years before Fidel Castro installed himself as Cuba’s president for life. Her first winter in Brooklyn, she caught pneumonia. “I had never endured such cold,” she said. She went back to Cuba but realized there was nothing there for her. The university was closed and shortages were commonplace. It was the beginning of the end.

My mother married my American father in 1960 and settled in Hartford, Connecticut. It was a good life, but something was missing: Cuba, No. 20 La Calle Mercéd and El Malecón, where my mother and her family strolled after their Shabbat lunch. There was El Patronato, which served as both synagogue and de facto Jewish center. “We had beautiful Purim balls there,” she recalled. “One year, Abuela [Grandmother] made me a black velvet gown with little pearls around the collar. It was gorgeous. I felt like Queen Esther.”

My mother attended Jewish day schools until she was admitted to the Instituto—high school in Havana. “I went to the Theodore Herzl Primary School for elementary school,” she said. “We were big Zionists. I remember when Israel became a state, my father was screaming from joy. Abuelo’s [Grandfather’s] brothers had immigrated there—one of them was a rabbi.”

My mother is Sephardic. Her mother was from Greece, her father from Turkey. She told me the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities were separate in Cuba—separate schools, separate synagogues, separate cultures. My mother’s family spoke Ladino, a fortuitous occurrence that enabled them to acclimate to Spanish quickly.

Then the surprise of the conversation: “Abuela was my strongest advocate to go to university. My father was against it. He was worried that I would meet boys who weren’t Jewish. But Abuela was preparada that way, ahead of her time.”

My mother used the word “preparada,” which literally means “ready,” as a way to describe her mother as insightful. I asked her if she thought Abuela was a feminist. “I think so. She was modern, more modern than Abuelo,” my mother said with a laugh. “She knew French and played the lute. She made me beautiful clothes. But she wanted more for me. She wanted me to be educada [educated].”

My mother told me my grandmother took in sewing to help defray the costs of sending her three children to college. My mother, I realized, inherited her mother’s work ethic. She went back to school in the early 1960s to earn a teaching degree and was part of the first wave of women who were also earning graduate degrees and subsequently entering the workforce.

I remember Abuela babysitting me when my mother studied for her exams and cooking picadillo or me. Abuela also made a raft of dresses for my sister and me when we were little. Her most elaborate creation was the flower-girl dresses we walked down the aisle in at my uncle’s wedding. We were all tulle and aqua.

So, my grandmother was a feminist in her own right. This is the kind of discovery that Rosenbaum and her colleagues hope will happen when people use the app. “This is an invitation to have conversations and share stories that have not been shared before,” she said. “We want people to be our partners in documenting history. We want people to see their stories as part of the historical narrative.”

To that end, Rosenbaum encourages women of all ages to document their stories, and their participation in marches and protests—anything that will add to the diversity of perspectives and experiences. “We’ve lowered [the technological barriers] so that it’s not hard to get started,” she said. “We’ve streamlined the process to document history as it is unfolding.”

This piece was originally published on JewishBoston.com

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