The First World Summit of Behars

By Behar, Ruth | Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The First World Summit of Behars

Behar, Ruth, Michigan Quarterly Review

Early in 2004, a mysterious invitation arrived from a man named Iako Behar, a Bulgarian Jew living in Mexico. The fax announced that Iako and his family would be organizing the first "World Summit for People with Family Names: Behar, Bejar, Vejar, Bejarano, Becherano." Under this heading, it said "September 6-9, 2004, a SUMMIT for the above mentioned people will take place in the city of Béjar in Spain." Participants could plan on hearing "a genealogy specialist talk about the roots of and links between our names" and being taken on a tour of the city of Béjar and the neighboring town of Hervás.

My interest was immediately piqued. On the basis of nothing more than a flimsy fax from a total stranger who happened to share my last name, I signed on to participate, maybe because Spain isn't a foreign country for me. If any country, aside from my native Cuba, can be said to be close to my heart, it is Spain, with which I have had a thirty-year relationship that began in the months before I turned nineteen. At that impressionable age, I went to Madrid for a semester study abroad and learned to smoke Ducado cigarettes, drink sherry at sunset, and spend hours in the basement of the Prado Museum gazing at Goya's black paintings. It was 1975 and General Franco was taking a terribly long time to die in the Pardo Palace. Blood transfusions were administered to him daily, like a vampire. His grip over the Spanish people had weakened, but even then only a few bookstores dared sell Hugh Thomas's critical history of the Spanish Civil War. You had to ask for it at the front counter and they'd give it to you wrapped in brown paper.

When Franco finally did breathe his last, the country let go of the burden of nearly forty years of dictatorship. Spain was ready to confront its history, not just its wrenchingly selfdestructive twentieth-century history, but the longer history stretching more than five hundred years into the past, which had shaped Spain into a homogeneous Catholic nation. That unified Spain, which became an empire that successfully carried out a massive spiritual and political conquest of las Americas, had been created at the cost of expelling Jews and Muslims, most famously in 1492, but also before and after through a relentless series of pogroms, wars, persecutions, and inquisitions. With Franco gone, democratization inevitably led to a desire to revive, for the newly post-dictatorial Spanish nation, the memory of those Jews and Muslims who had once lived on Spanish land.

This search for memory might have remained an obscure longing, except for the modern existence of the SephardimJews who consider themselves exiles from Sepharad, the Hebrew word for Spain. Many Sephardim, dispersed throughout the United States, Israel, Turkey, and Latin America, speak, to this day, an ancient, musical, proverb-studded Spanish, called Judeo-Espanyol or Ladino, that to contemporary Spanish speakers sounds charmingly like the speech of Cervantes's Don Quijote. But even those Sephardic Jews who have lost Ladino often know Spanish and feel an enigmatic, even mystical, tie to things Hispanic.

As a young woman, I was only vaguely aware of the huge historical transformations that had been set in motion by the death of Franco. What I knew for sure was that Spain had dug its way into my heart and I kept returning, in the late 1970s, throughout the 1980s, and into the early 1990s, to do fieldwork in a small village in the northwestern province of Léon. It was in Spain that I became an anthropologist. At a time when it was impossible to travel easily or frequently to Cuba, I felt I had a claim to Spain because of my Sephardic roots. Those roots were embedded in my Behar last name, I thought, and I dared to imagine that Spain might be another one of my lost homelands.

But my yearning for a sense of belonging in Spain came up against a major stumbling block: the village where I did fieldwork, even after Franco, continued to be fiercely Catholic, and I felt uncomfortable announcing I was a Jew, let alone a Jew with roots tainted by the expulsion. …

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