To the Mountain and Back

I have been to the mountain and back—to the magnificent Mount Rainier in Washington State. I have a picture of me taken with the mountain in the backdrop, which I promptly published on Facebook. Someone responded to my post with a funny question: Was the mountain real? The question didn’t surprise me. I have to admit the backdrop looked a bit staged—like something in a Sears photograph. But no, it was real and goose-bump spectacular.


I don’t like really big things like mountains. I’m a megalophobic, meaning I fear large objects. I’m also afraid of gigantic statues that look human like the Statue of Liberty. This makes me an automatonphobic. I’m not crazy about skyscrapers either, which sounds odd coming from someone who lived in New York City for almost a decade.

It didn’t surprise me either that I was a bit afraid of Mount Rainier. The closer, though, I got to the mountain the more majestic it was. Its majesty impressed me to the point that I was awed rather than terrified. And it had me thinking: How many times in my life have I seen something in nature that is majestic?

I’m not a nature gal. Never have been. As I FaceTimed at the Vistors Center with Ken who was back east, he jokingly said that Mount Rainier was not Fifth Avenue. True, but it was the Fifth Avenue of Nature. Despite my overall laziness and my bum knee, I could not leave the park without taking a bona fide hike. The thought of hiking on my own brought on another old phobia: mazeophobia—fear of getting lost. I am someone who once could not negotiate her way out of a circular path near the beach. Each time I asked for directions, people exclaimed: “How can you be lost? It’s a circle!!” Even though the trail at Rainier was dotted with signage, anything was possible. One of my companions came to the rescue and found a hike for me guided by a ranger.

Ranger Savannah was in her twenties—tan, blonde and fit. As we gathered around the flagpole, she looked me up and down as if I might be trouble. The others in the group were dressed in appropriate hiking clothes and sensible shoes. I was clad completely in black as if I were indeed hiking Fifth Avenue. I wore my Danskos to stave off the pain from my torn Achilles tendon. (Yes, another injury). I also didn’t look like I would do well in subalpine conditions, meaning that I was between 5000 and 7000 feet above short-of-breath sea level. While I’m not a total aerobic disaster, I’m not in the best shape either. Nevertheless, I persevered going up and down the trail and pretty much kept up with the group.

Ranger Savannah’s goal on the hike was to teach the eight of us about the wildflowers we would encounter. She was prepared for boredom by having us play “Wildflower Bingo.” She was equipped with laminated cards of wildflowers and dry-erase markers to check off the flowers we saw and happened to have on our cards. The game not only engaged me in nature (surprise!), it also made me fiercely competitive. I kept asking Ranger Savannah to identify every wildflower that caught my eye. (I guess I was trouble, after all). Specifically, I needed the subalpine buttercup or the cinquefoil for the win. I never found them on the nature hike, but no matter—everyone is a winner at Wildflower Bingo. We each received a pin that said: Protect Fragile Meadows. Stay on Trails. That was another lesson from Ranger Savannah: No walking into the meadows. It destroys decades and decades of slow, steady growth.

The mountain was on our right as we hiked. Ranger Savannah said that we were lucky. Last week the smoke from the wildfires in California and Canada was so thick that there was no visibility. The Rangers were forced to cancel hikes and improvise indoor programs. People who signed up to summit the mountain months ago and more had to postpone their plans.


After Ranger Savannah snapped my photograph against the backdrop of Mount Rainier, we walked down towards the Visitor’s Center. She told me her next National Parks gig was at White Sands Monument in New Mexico. I tried to picture myself as a nomadic park ranger. Alas, it called up another fear for me—rootlessness.


On the Border


I hear the thousands of hearts beating wildly on the southern border. Children are separated from their parents, and love and terror combine into its own arrhythmia. I also hear echoes of the Holocaust: children to the left; parents to the right. In Brownsville, Texas, 1,400 young boys are warehoused in an old building constructed of concrete and indifference. How many of them cry out in the deepest part of the night for their parents?

And for that matter, where are our girls?

A generation ago my family fled from firing squads, bread lines and black markets. They came to the United States with hope for amnesty. My family speaks Spanish, which makes this latest tragedy on the border so disorienting to me. I share a language and costumbres—customs—with these people. I am a Cuban-American, but I am also a Jew.

As a Jew whose family experienced multiple exiles, I once had a contingency plan for my children when they were little. It was shadowed by the memory of the Holocaust. The Nazis never persecuted my immediate family, but the Jewish people are my extended family. I imagined scenarios in which my children would survive a possible Holocaust in this country, only if they separated from me. I planned to send them to colleagues of my husband’s in Australia. They would grow up just enough to be able to handle the trip by themselves. I would order them to hold hands and never let go. Did the parents of the children imprisoned in Texas and beyond tell their children to do the same? Never let go—nunca dejar ir.

Every hour more hell comes over my newsfeed. I see pictures of children crying as their parents are searched; children who will be ultimately wrenched from their parents. Children who will be caged like animals.

When I was little, space travel was the news of the day. I was frightened of the astronauts bulked up in their layers of nylon and spandex and oxygen. Their mirrored helmets reflected barren, unknowable landscapes. This is what today’s border must look like to these children. It is a strange world made stranger by the fact that they no longer have their parents to navigate it for them.

Images of the astronauts holding on to a tether connected to their capsules as they floated in space caused me great anxiety. Nunca dejar ir. I now understand the tether functioned like an umbilical cord. The capsule provided nourishment and life itself to those astronauts. But it all felt so tentative, so fragile, as if the tether could break and the astronauts would be lost forever in time and space. The potential for a deadly free-fall kept me hyper-vigilant. I wouldn’t be surprised if the children on the border feel the same sort of hyper-vigilance—anxiety that strains their last nerves. Anxiety that makes them feel as if they are in their own crazy free-fall.

I’ve read that after their children are separated from them, some parents can hear them crying on the other side of a wall. Some parents are tricked. The authorities tell them they have to have their pictures taken, and when they come back their children are gone. Or they say the children need a bath. Need a bath? Remember when Jews were sent to showers? I don’t mean to say there is a full-blown Holocaust happening at the border. But these actions are close.

There is nothing worse for a parent than to be unable to protect her child. The first time I held my daughter, I knew I would die for her. More Holocaust-stained fantasies—something dark and dangerous and inhumane has been unleashed in this country. Children are no longer children; they are hostages. And the people who detain them, handcuff them, separate them from their parents, they’re ordinary people who got up in the morning and went to their jobs. It’s what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”

In 1938 the Evian Conference took place in France. Many have never heard of it, but what happened there is eerily pertinent. Thirty-two countries came together to decide what to do about the persecution of German Jews. None of the participating countries, except for the Dominican Republic, were willing to provide safe harbor. The Jews were sent back to Europe on ships, detained and then deported from various borders. That kind of handwringing is happening again. It’s happening as some parents are scheduled to be deported without their children. “I can’t go without my son,” pleads a mother.

Remember the Evian Conference.

A couple of weeks ago someone’s son was deported to Mexico. He was a teenager who had been in the United States since he was 3 years old. He was raised in Iowa and spoke English more fluently than Spanish. A few days after he was forced to return to Mexico, he was gunned down on the street. We are sending migrant children to their deaths.

Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor and outspoken critic of the Nazi regime, wrote a poem that has been often quoted. Some might dismiss it as cliché. But in these times, it is relevant all over again.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Speak out for the children. Speak out for the migrants. Speak out until you can’t. And then speak out again and again.

This essay originally appeared on

Bobby Kennedy and Me

1968 was the year I learned about death.Martin Luther King, Jr. and then Bobby Kennedy, the two anchoring figures of my childhood, were gunned down in seconds that I will forever remember as soaked in blood and tears.

The giant Sylvania at my house in Connecticut was always tuned in to WTIC AM early in the morning. It was June 6, a Thursday, and Bobby Kennedy had just died. Bob Steele was the voice I woke up to every morning—a voice that was nasally and giggly as he joked his way through newspaper headlines and traffic reports. That morning he announced, “Bobby Kennedy is dead,” flatly and somberly—a tone that frightened me.

I went downstairs hoping that if I were closer to the radio the news would change. I expected to see my father sipping the Sanka he chemically sweetened with tiny pills of saccharine. But his plastic, wobbly mustard yellow mug was empty. His sensible, healthy cereal untouched. His head in his hands. It was odd for me to see my father upset. He was rarely emotional or affectionate. He never told me that he loved me.


I had already pinned my RFK campaign button, the one with Bobby’s glossy black and white picture, to my pajama top. Bobby’s hair almost fell into his eyes. His toothy smile made me smile too. For months, I wore giant, circular RFK buttons that my cousin Kathy had given me. Kathy was an impressive sixteen-years-old to my puny seven-years-old and I liked anything that she liked. But my love for Bobby was deep and mine alone. Bobby had set up camp in my imagination.

The Kennedys conjured the perfect families I saw in sugary cereal commercials wedged between the Saturday morning cartoons. I wanted nothing more than to spend long summer days on the beach in Hyannis instead of the pool at Eisenhower Park where the water was laced with stinging chlorine. I wanted to play touch football on a grand front lawn instead of horseshoes in my weedy backyard. Like my father, I always wanted to be someone else. The morning of Bobby Kennedy’s death, my father asked if I wanted to sit on his lap. His question embarrassed me. I needed to mourn for Bobby on my own.


Bobby Kennedy was the most charismatic man I had ever seen. He was young and sporty—attributes I desperately wanted in a father. My father was so old, so routinized, so strict.

“Bobby Kennedy was shot by a bad man named Sirhan Sirhan,” my father said with his head still resting in his hands.

“Why does that man have two names?” It was the first question that came into my mind.

By now my mother had walked into the kitchen, robed in frilly nylon that matched her nightgown.

“I should have named you Jacqueline,” said my mother another Kennedy worshipper like me.

I was born a few months before Jackie would come to mesmerize my Cuban mother. But I had the wrong J name and I would never be part of Bobby and Ethel’s clan.

At my request, my father drove the aquamarine Chevy Malibu to school with the headlights lit to memorialize Bobby. Like reciting the Jewish prayer of mourning, my mourning was mobile. It was a mourning that was illuminated. A mourning that was magnified. A mourning that was sanctified. And my hero Bobby Kennedy was dead.

Some Advice Upon Your Graduation

  1. You will always be the correct weight.
  2. Don’t fill out questionnaires anonymously.
  3. Someone once told me that boys are like buses. You miss one and another one eventually comes along. Don’t think about anyone that way.
  4. To be discerning is not the same as being judgmental.
  5. Study with empathy. Otherwise you learn nothing.
  6. Love your children more than anyone, including your parents.
  7. Some fool down the line will tell you that you are not the prettiest in the room. Trust me you will always be the most beautiful in the world.
  8. When you are scared, remember that you are most afraid of being afraid.
  9. Don’t be afraid of passion. It’s the electricity of the soul.
  10. Don’t listen to someone who tells you to get over it. You will get over it in your own way and your own time.
  11. Think three-dimensionally: no one is completely heroic or totally villainous.
  12. Picasso said I never paint red—I paint the suggestion of red. Remember that when you’re solving a particularly thorny problem.
  13. If a sign says that a parking lot is full, move the cone anyway and go in. I promise you there will always be a space.
  14. When you are very upset talk to God. Out loud. You’ll get over the initial awkwardness.
  15. Remember that a coincidence is a miracle in which G-d chooses to remain anonymous.
  16. Don’t be frivolous with money. But don’t be afraid to spend it either.
  17. Work hard.
  18. Work steadily.
  19. Have fun.
  20. Don’t worry if you’re not having fun. It’ll pass.
  21. When you feel stuck or frightened, dance.
  22. Don’t regret falling in love. There’s a piece of Jewish wisdom that says there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.
  23. I’ll end with one of my father’s favorite sayings: God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland. I have to admit that baffled me as a child, but I think I get it now. Give God something to work with by shaping your destiny because in the end it’s all about free will, kiddo.


Cuba Without the Castros

Cuba, the forbidden country, the tropical country, has been painted in drab olive green my entire life. By the time I was born on the second to the last day in 1960, nothing would stop Fidel Castro from marching into Havana on New Year’s Day in 1961. Despite his promises, Fidel was about to turn the island into “un carmín encendido,” the fiery crimson red of communism. “Un carmín encendido,” the verses of the poet are on fire. So say the lyrics of Guantanamera, the de facto anthem of exiled Cubans. My mother sang that song of Cuban longing during dreary Connecticut winter afternoons. She sang it in the evening over a sink full of dishes. She sang it at glittering noisy parties that she threw with her fellow Cuban exiles. On those Saturday nights, our living room expanded and reached back to Havana.

When we visited our relatives in Miami’s dense summer humidity, my mother was even more homesick for the tropics. I was sure Miami Beach looked like Havana. The palm trees, the pastel colors, the sun a globe of fire suspended in the sky. Encendido. Everything was on fire in Miami. And I was homesick too—homesick for a place I had never been. I recently learned there is a German word for what I felt. Fernweh. Homesickness for a place to which one has never been. It explains the weirdness, the disorientation that marked up my childhood. Other kids had Narnia or Never Never Land. I had Havana, imaginary, magical Havana.


Calle Merced #20

In Miami my fernweh intensified. At night my Cuban relatives adjusted radios and televisions to pick up random airwaves from Cuba. Fidel speechified almost every night, and he went on for hours without taking a breath. He gripped my relatives. In Spanish, the word grippe means flu or a fierce cold that won’t let go of you. Grippe means the same thing in German. Perhaps the Germans can also share the word fernweh with my Cubanos.

My mother taught me that Fidel was not synonymous with Cuba. But neither was he an aberration. He cleaned up what had been the mob’s playground for decades. He wiped out illiteracy. He gave people healthcare. Sinvergüenza, my mother yelled. The word literally means someone who has no shame. You might say I was a scoundrel in my father’s native Connecticut. You might say, that my socialismo was nothing more than a teenage rebellion. A first-generation post-Havana Cubana like me rebelled by wielding scathing politics. My mother said that my politics infected me like la grippe.

By the time I went to Cuba, Fidel had just stepped down and Raul was in charge. Things had loosened up a bit. There was a small free market, but it could not compete with the black market. There were private restaurants called paladares. Qué rico was the arroz con pollo—the rice and chicken was plentiful, delicious. All the Cubans had to eat in abundance were pasteles—pastries—after all, that sugar had to be used. Speaking of sugar, here is curse a first-generation Cubanita like me heard growing up—I should send you to Cuba to cut sugar cane, you malcriada. Americans were brats. The only thing I knew about sugar cane was that it slashed the skin like a machete.

Even after I saw Havana, saw my mother’s apartment, saw the imposing El Capitolio, I still had fernweh. I have it all over again when I sit with my mother in her nursing home. “Did you hear,” she whispers to me as if it is a state secret, “Raul se va—he’s going. No more Castros in charge.” I can’t tell if she’s happy about that. Change, even if she has been dreaming about it for half-a-century, is hard for her. For Cuba little will shift under the new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez. Since my mother has been wheelchair-bound, she’s an avid television news watcher. “This new guy is the same, Mamita,” she tells me. She may be right. Díaz-Canel, who is 57 like me, has been a communist party stalwart his entire adult life. According to my mother, “He’s been Raul’s compañero—his companion, his buddy, for a long time.

Almost 60 years into La Revolución, Havana has remained beautiful like my mother, but it is also increasingly disheveled like her. The buildings are crumbling like her voice—the voice that hummed Guantanamera all the livelong day. Our guide told us that a gallon of paint costs a fortune. Se cuesta. It costs. That’s one of the many reflexive verbs that excuses one from any responsibility. Se rompió. Another reflexive verb in which things break spontaneously. Havana felt that way to me. Se rompió. It had simply broken. No one could fix it.

Fidel and Raul were reflexive too. Their Cuba was the only Cuba I knew. Taunting Kennedy, hiding missiles, dancing the rumba with Khrushchev. The Cuba of my childhood was about hunger, hard labor, old cars and the ocean breezes my mother craved like a drug. Cuba was that place intensively loved and more intensively missed. Hay Cuba como te extraño. Oh Cuba how I miss you.

Cuba is the ground zero of fernweh. No matter that the Castros are no longer in charge for the first time in my life. Fidel’s olive drab ghost will haunt the place forever. “Believe me, Mamita,” my mother says, “nothing changes in Cuba.”

This essay originally appeared on WBUR’s Cognoscenti  


Ruth’s Cup–A New Addition to the Seder

Cmky-Goblet-Wine-Glasses-Rose-Red-1988845-729x486.jpgThis Passover there is a new ritual to adopt at the Seder—Ruth’s Cup. The brainchild of Rabbi Heidi Hoover, the presence of Ruth’s Cup at the table honors converts to Judaism as well as Jewish diversity generally.

I am a Sephardic Jew and Ruth’s Cup will have a special place at my Seder. My mother is from Cuba and throughout my childhood I remember people—Jews at my day school or my temple—were amazed that there were Cuban Jews and even more amazed that some of them did not speak Yiddish.

My mother and grandmother spoke Ladino, a 15th century Spanish studded with Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish words. My mother told me stories of fellow Jews doubting her Judaism when she first came to this country. The idea of a Jew with forebears who came from Turkey and Greece and traced their lineage to the Spain of Maimonides and Yehuda Halevi was at best fantastical to some and at worst disingenuous to others.

Hoover, who is a convert to Judaism, recently told JewishBoston that the presence of Ruth’s Cup at the Seder highlights the magnificent diversity of the Jewish people. “In this country we don’t always recognize the diversity of the Jewish people. Jews of color frequently encounter people who express doubt about their Jewishness or assume that they are converts. Not all Jews conform to the Ashkenazic stereotype of the white Eastern European Jew with Yiddish speaking ancestors,” noted Hoover.

She went on to add this caveat: “There is nothing wrong with being a convert, but we should not assume that because someone isn’t a white presenting Jew they must have converted; it isn’t so. People who convert to Judaism frequently have experiences that make it clear that many of those born Jewish think converts are inferior in some way.”

Diane Kaufmann Tobin, founder and executive director of Be’chol Lashon—an organization that describes itself as advocating for the growth and diversity of the Jewish people, told JewishBoston over email that, “Adding Ruth’s Cup to a Seder reminds us that since ancient times the Jewish community has welcomed those who have chosen to be Jewish. The dedication of those who actively choose Judaism is inspiring and offers opportunities for growth and renewal.”

Embracing Ruth’s spirit at the Seder is also a lovely way to segue to the Shavuot holiday, which is celebrated seven weeks after Passover. Rabbi Susan Silverman says that there is a “palpable yearning” to Ruth the Moabites’s words to her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi. “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:16) Silverman proclaims that Ruth’s words are “the first recorded statement of conversion to Judaism.”

For Hoover, Ruth’s Cup also calls to mind the image of all Jews standing together at Sinai and “recognizing who will be there and realizing that it’s all of us.” Hoover says the cup conveys the tenet that, “we fully recognize every Jew regardless of race, ethnicity or how they became Jewish as completely Jewish. We need to shift assumptions in this country about where Jews come from or how they became Jews.”

During the Seder, Ruth’s Cup is often coupled with Elijah’s Cup. But whereas Elijah’s Cup brings to mind the messianic age, Hoover says that Ruth’s Cup communicates that we are meant to try and “perfect things in the here and now. We can treat Jews better who look different or became Jewish differently before Elijah comes.” As far as the timing of Ruth’s Cup in the Seder, Hoover emphasizes that it can be added after Elijah’s Cup or anytime in the Seder.

The following ceremony is adapted from an unpublished Haggadah Hoover edited to honor the experiences of Jews By Choice.


At Passover we fill a cup with wine for Elijah and open the door to welcome him to our Seder. Elijah symbolizes our hope for the Messianic age, when the world will be perfected, and all people will live in harmony and peace.

We also fill a cup of wine for Ruth, the first Jew by choice and great-grandmother of King David. We open the door to signify our welcome of Ruth and all who follow in her footsteps—those who become part of our people, part of our diversity.

All rise, face the open door, and read together:

We declare that we do not have to wait for the Messianic age to make sure that every Jew feels fully comfortable and integrated into our people, no matter what their skin, hair or eye color is; no matter what their name sounds like; no matter how they became Jewish—through birth or through conversion, as a child or as an adult.

Close the door and be seated.

A version of this article was posted on

A New Documentary Tells the Story of Ankara’s Jews

The opening shot of “Hermana: The Untold Story of Ankara’s Jewish Community” — an award-winning film from Turkey — is an aerial view of what director Enver Arcak calls the “Albukrek House.” “Hermana” is a 28-minute documentary that concisely relates the rich history of Ankara’s Sephardic Jewish population.

My interest in the film is personal. My grandfather, Jacobo Alboukrek, (the “o” was added to the name when he immigrated to Cuba) was born and raised in Ankara until he became a bar mitzvah. His story in Turkey is a mix of Jewish history and family lore. He used to recount that his family fled to Havana after he witnessed a Turkish soldier murder an Armenian man circa 1918. My grandfather said his father reasoned that if the Armenians were being killed, the Jews were next. Soon after that my Albukrek family was on a ship heading west. Happenstance had it that it was going to Cuba, all the better for the Albukreks who spoke Ladino and could easily pick up modern Spanish.

I tell my grandfather’s story to Arcak who says it’s plausible, but points out that at the time there was virtually no anti-Semitism in Turkey. He tells me that the history of the Jewish community of Ankara can be traced back to the Roman times. Jews back then, he says were called Romaniots, who lived in Ankara and other parts of central Turkey. Centuries later, thousands of Sephardic Jews arrived in Turkey after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Others, like my grandfather’s family, came a few generations later from Portugal and the Netherlands.

Ankara’s Jewish story is also one that is reflected in its stark numbers. In the 1930s the community peaked at about 5000. Arcak says that today that number is fewer than 30 people, and most of them are not native to Ankara. Their ranks include diplomats and UN officials. Arcak, who is not Jewish, was born and raised in Ankara. He is an historian of archeology who dedicated himself to documenting this disappearing remnant community. “I started researching ‘Hermana’ seven years ago, following the immigration of Ankara’s Jews to the United States, Israel and Istanbul. I interviewed hundreds of people to compile an oral history and a visual archive of letters, diaries and religious papers. It’s a deep subject and this documentary is the result of putting all those things together.”


Arcak says the community began to dwindle noticeably in 1942 after the Turkish government placed a wealth tax on its Jews, Armenians and Greeks. The fee was exorbitant and few people, including Jewish communities throughout Turkey, could afford to pay it. Caught in an economic boondoggle, Arcak says that after the Second World War many Turkish Jews went to the new State of Israel. Turkey was neutral during the Second World War and the community was saved from the Nazis.

Arcak’s sepia-tinged history picks up again in the 1960s and 70s. By then Ankara’s Jewish population barely numbered 600 Jews. Nevertheless, “Hermana” shows it to be a lively community in words and pictures—a community which celebrated milestones and made sure to educate its youth in Judaism. However, by 1968 the number of Jews had steadily declined. According to Arcak, Ankara’s last rabbi immigrated to Israel in the 1980s. He says that in the wake of a military coup in 1980, the community sent most of its Torah scrolls to Israel for safekeeping. According to Turkish Jews in Israel those scrolls went missing and have never been recovered.

Arcak interviewed over 50 Jews from Ankara for the documentary, most of whom have relocated to Israel. There are also the recollections of Jews who live in Istanbul. Istanbul, the largest Jewish community in Turkey, is estimated to be upwards of 17,000 people. Just over a thousand Jews live in Izmir. But Arcak says those communities are also shrinking. The failed coup of 2016 sent more Jews packing to Israel. Of those who remained, many obtained Spanish and Portuguese citizenship after those countries passed legislation offering citizenship to the descendants of Jews who were expelled during the Inquisition.

As for my personal quest to find the Albukreks of Ankara, Arcak says that there is a member of the Albukrek family who still lives in Ankara who has been assembling a family tree. I’m anxious to see if Jacobo and his forebears are on it.

A version of this article appeared on