Posts Tagged Ladino

Across So Many Seas: Author Interview with Ruth Behar

Ruth Behar headshotRuth Behar’s lyrical and moving historic tale, Across So Many Seas, touched my heart, so I’m thrilled to be able to welcome her to our blog today. Thank you for being here, Ruth. We have so many questions for you. I’d like to start with when you were young.

Did you have any childhood dreams for when you grew up? If so, did they come true?

I dreamed of traveling, and especially of going to different places where Spanish is spoken. I was enchanted by the Spanish language since I was a child. And I dreamed of writing stories that let me see the world in new ways and that might eventually become books that others might want to read. I am glad that these dreams have come true.

What advice would you give to your eight-year-old self?

I’d say to jump, run, dance, sing, play a lot of hopscotch, and be fearless.

Did you love to read as a child? Can you tell us some favorite books?

I did love to read as a child. I read mysteries, adventure stories, and Greek mythology. I read Nancy Drew books and Edgar Allen Poe short stories and Robinson Crusoe. I read poetry in Spanish, and liked poems by the Cuban poet José Martí. When my parents got the World Book Encyclopedia, it felt like the hugest gift ever. I remember spending hours in pure enjoyment, reading the entries letter by letter of the alphabet.

What was an early experience where you learned that written language had power?

I was bedridden in a body cast for close to a year when I was ten and couldn’t do much besides read. That was when I discovered that I could forget about my sorrows by immersing myself in the stories in books.

ruth headshot c1966

Ruth as a young girl

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

From the time I was in high school I knew I wanted to be a writer. I was writing poems and short stories then and kept a notebook filled with reflections about my life.

Have you had any careers besides writing?

I am also a cultural anthropologist. I have spent many years getting to know the stories of strangers in Spain, Mexico, and Cuba, where I was born.

Why do you write?

I write to remember – to remember those who came before, parents, grandparents that I knew and loved, and ancestors I didn’t know but try to imagine. And I write to gain an understanding of how we connect as individuals and communities. I write to cross borders so I can learn about the lives of strangers and see what we have in common.

We’re fascinated by your new release with its four stories interwoven into one story of music and poetry, heart, and soul. What sparked the idea for Across So Many Seas?

I had written Letters from Cuba, a novel inspired by the story of my maternal grandmother, and decided I should write another novel inspired by the story of my paternal grandmother. My grandmothers had different backgrounds but both found their way to Cuba and started new lives there. I thought their stories would be interesting to read side by side.

Like the girls in the stories, you also moved from your homeland. How did your own childhood, moves, and travels influence your writing?

I feel a deep empathy for immigrants and people who have been displaced and I think that comes from having been an immigrant child. I remember vividly what it was like to struggle to learn a new language and not fit in and be viewed as a foreigner. When I became an anthropologist, I realized I was seeking a profession that allowed me to experience again and again the sensation of feeling lost and having to find my way. Both my childhood and my travels influenced my interest in writing about immigrants and how people of different cultural backgrounds can find points of connection and unity.

How did you choose the years and historical events for each of your 4 characters?

I knew I wanted to start in 1492, the year of the expulsion of the Jewish community in Spain, since that is the moment in history from which many Sephardic Jews trace their identity and the beginning of their journeys across so many seas. The first protagonist, Benvenida, is experiencing the expulsion from Spain and the profound pain and sorrow it is causing her family and community.

I decided the story would then jump to the contemporary period, the twentieth and twenty-first century, to see what memory traces remain from five-hundred years ago. I chose 1923 for the next part, because it is the year that Turkey becomes an independent nation, a time of revolutionary change, which coincides with the year the character Reina is sent away by her father to Cuba. She never sees her family again, but stays connected to her heritage, bringing on her journey an oud on which to strum old Spanish songs.



We go on to the third part, in 1961, the year of the literacy campaign in revolutionary Cuba, in which Alegra is joyfully participating. But her bubble bursts when she learns that she will have to leave her homeland because her family is in jeopardy with the new regime. Then 2003 seemed like the ideal moment when the fourth protagonist, Paloma, would be aware of all the history she carries on her shoulders and what it means. In that year, Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, passed away, and Paloma is with her Afro-Cuban father at her memorial, connecting with the Cuban community through the memory of the singer who sang only in Spanish, always loyal to Cuba, though she wasn’t allowed to return because she spoke out against the regime. Paloma also connects with her Sephardic heritage through her grandmother Reina, who is passing on to her the melancholy Spanish love songs.

The book spans 500 years and covers 4 generations. Can you tell us how you did such extensive research for each of the eras?

I’ve been traveling over the years to Spain and Cuba and Miami and had also traveled once to Turkey, so I had gotten to know the places where the stories of the four girls are set. I read as much as I could about the different historical eras, surrounding myself with stacks of library books and doing online research as well. There is a lot of historical research on the Inquisition and medieval Spain, but hardly any information exists about young people in this era.

I had to use my imagination to fill that gap and put myself in the shoes of Benvenida, a smart and curious girl who had the good fortune to be taught to read and write. For the part on Turkey, I drew on my grandmother’s story, and read oral histories of Jewish Turks who grew up in the same era, and that’s how Reina was born. For the part on Cuba, I was familiar with the history of the Cuban revolution and the literacy campaign, which is a topic I often teach about. But in investigating further, I found it fascinating that young girls from Havana were very involved in going to the countryside to teach people how to read and write, as is the character of Alegra. For the part on Miami, I drew on the stories of Cuban immigrants I’ve met over the years, and that’s how Paloma came to me. Then for the ending, which takes place in Toledo, Spain, I based it on my encounters with Spaniards who are working hard to preserve the traces of the Jewish heritage that still remain even after more than five hundred years.

That is amazing. What a journey, including armchair traveling, for you and for us. So, once you had the research, you had to construct each girl’s story. The stories are written in first person. How did you drop into each character’s mind to make her personality come alive?

I wanted each of the characters to be fiercely independent in her own way. I tried to imagine what was possible for a young girl to experience in her historical moment – who could she be and not be, what might she dream of, what would be her sorrows, what would be her joys, and how might she push against the barriers that limited her.

Is your past woven into the girls’ stories?

I think there’s a part of me in each of the four girls’ stories. Some of the family dynamics of my childhood is woven into the stories, especially how the mothers seek to comfort their daughters as they suffer from being displaced while the fathers are more concerned with attending to survival. My love of reading and writing, my passion for poetry and music, which were an important part of my youth, found its way into the stories too.

Do you have a favorite of the four girls? Perhaps one who most closely resembles you?

Ruth's grandmother

Ruth’s abuela (grandmother) c. 1936

I can’t choose a favorite, I love them all, but I will say that Reina, in being a combination of my grandmother and me, landed on the page quicker than the other girls.

 Although the four girls are separated by time and location, common threads connect their life stories. How did you choose those threads and why?

The four girls share a common heritage that goes all the way back to Spain in 1492. Their identity is important to them, though they are open to influences from other cultures. Three out of the four (Benvenida, Reina, and Alegra) experience the loss of a home and the search for a new home elsewhere. The last girl in the quartet, Paloma, inherits the memories of loss, and she is the one, being the dove of peace, who brings them all together. The common threads of home, loss, and memory-keeping allowed me to keep returning to the theme of the presence of the past in their life stories.

 You did a beautiful job of weaving them together. I love how each of your protagonists relies on music and poetry to connect with their heritage. How important have music and poetry been in your life and in relating to your family history?

Music and poetry have been important in my life since my childhood. I remember my parents listening to Cuban music and at every family gathering there was always a conga line and lots of salsa and cha-cha dancing. At the same time, I heard the songs from an older tradition, the Sephardic songs sung in Ladino. This is the Spanish mixed with other languages, including French, Turkish, Arabic, and Hebrew, that is the unique creation of the descendants of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. I also loved poetry from an early age, and as a teenager, encouraged by a wonderful high school teacher, I wrote poems in Spanish, and played violin and Spanish classical guitar.

Because music plays an important part in the stories, could you share a few phrases from a favorite Sephardic song?

Here are a few lines from a Sephardic song that ties the four stories together, a song that symbolizes the quest of each girl for freedom–

En la mar hay una torre,

en la torre una ventana,

en la ventana una hija

que a los marineros llama.

In the sea there is a tower,

In the tower there is a window,

at the window a daughter

who calls to the sailors.

All the songs mentioned in the book can be found in the Playlist on my website.

What a delight! That adds so much richness to the story. Thank you for sharing this.

In your author’s note you mention that much of the Sephardic Jewish history is found in the food. Do you have any favorite recipe and/or food traditions you’d be willing to share?

In the book, I mention the tradition in Toledo of making marzipan, known as mazapán de almendra, from almonds and honey, and how the town smells of the sweetness of this dessert. In bakeries today, you will often find marzipan shaped into miniature fruits. Marzipan is part of the Sephardic food tradition of making desserts from different kinds of nuts, usually walnut, pistachio, or almonds. A dessert I love, which is eaten at Passover, is called tishpishti, and it’s a nut cake drenched in honey syrup. Aside from being delicious, and gluten free since it’s a Passover dish, the word tishpishti (pronounced teeshpeeshtee and meaning “quick quickly”) is so delightful to say!

Thank you for a glimpse into not only the food and music, but into the culture and traditions. With the events going on in the world today, how do you see your book contributing to a better cultural understanding?

My book reflects my perspective that it is possible for people to preserve their history and identity while being open to, and respectful of, the history and identity of others. We see this perspective in the stories of each of the four girls and I hope that might contribute to a better cultural understanding in our world today.

It certainly does, and we’re grateful you’ve written it. As part of that journey of understanding, your novel delves into some bleak situations as it exposes antisemitism and other forms of prejudice. Yet, its overall tone is uplifting and hopeful. How did you balance the two as you wrote?

Even in the worst of times, there is good-heartedness in people, there is poetry and song, and there is hope for justice and peace. I tried to keep all that in mind as I wrote.

Do you have any message or advice for the teachers and parents who will be sharing your book with their students and families?

I’d love for my book to open conversations about how a heritage is preserved and passed on from generation to generation, even when there is adversity.

For teachers, we have a wonderful Educator Guide.

The teachers and parents will appreciate that. And for our younger readers,

what do you they will take away from your stories?

I hope young readers will find in my stories examples of young people like themselves who lived through hard times and found the strength to act with kindness toward others and to accept kindness from others as well.

Book cover: Across So Many SeasAcross So Many Seas is your third book. All of them share some common themes and seem to draw from your profession in anthropology. How do all these novels tie together?

I think my three novels, Lucky Broken Girl, Letters from Cuba, and Across So Many Seas, share an interest in how people of different backgrounds and faiths can coexist and be tolerant of one another and supportive of each other’s cultural uniqueness.

Can you share what you’re working on now?

I am working on a verse novel for middle-grade readers that takes place in the present, so it’s a departure from my historical fiction. I am also working on a picture book inspired by a beautiful act of love by my three-year-old granddaughter.

We’ll be looking forward to seeing both of those. Thank you so much for generously sharing your time and talent with us. Your books have made the world richer.


Ruth Behar, the Pura Belpré Award-winning author of Lucky Broken Girl and Letters from Cuba, was born in Havana, Cuba, grew up in New York, and has also lived in Spain and Mexico. Her work also includes poetry, memoir, and the acclaimed travel books An Island Called Home and Traveling Heavy. She was the first Latina to win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and other honors include a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and being named a “Great Immigrant” by the Carnegie Corporation. An anthropology professor at the University of Michigan, she lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


Drawn from research and imagination, sorrow and joy, loss and resilience, Across So Many Seas is a haunting journey into the passage of time and how personal and collective memory connects us to the past, allows us to live in the present, and gives us hope for the future.

In 1492, during the Spanish Inquisition, Benvenida and her family are banished from Spain for being Jewish and must flee the country or be killed. They journey by foot and by sea, eventually settling in Istanbul.

Over four centuries later, in 1923, shortly after the Turkish war of independence, Reina’s father disowns her for a small act of disobedience. He ships her away to live with an aunt in Cuba, to be wed in an arranged marriage when she turns fifteen.

In 1961, Reina’s daughter, Alegra, is proud to be a brigadista, teaching literacy in the countryside for Fidel Castro. But soon Castro’s crackdowns force her to flee to Miami all alone, leaving her parents behind.

Finally, in 2003, Alegra’s daughter, Paloma, is fascinated by all the journeys that had to happen before she could be born. A keeper of memoriesshe’s thrilled by the opportunity to learn more about her heritage on a family trip to Spain, where she makes a momentous discovery.

Though many years and many seas separate these girls, they are united by a love of music and poetry, a desire to belong and to matter, a passion for learning, and their longing for a home where all are welcome. And each is lucky to stand on the shoulders of their courageous ancestors.