Days of Awe

By Achy Obejas

New York: Ballantine Books, 2001. 371 pages.

Reviewed by Abe Lavender

Days of Awe, a novel, is the story of a crypto-Jewish family in Cuba and the United States. The protagonist is Alexandra “Ale” San José, who was born in Havana on January 1, 1959, the same day that Fidel Castro began his dictatorship. To escape Cuba, her parents, Enrique and Nena, leave with Ale for Miami on April 15, 1961 (the same day as the infamous failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba from the United States). The San José family “sailed into the waterfront at 14th Street and Ocean Drive in Miami Beach (eleven blocks from where I am writing this review), much to the amazement of the Jewish retirees who were wading in the but-warm waters”. Unlike most Cuban refugees, and despite large Jewish and Cuban communities in Miami and Miami Beach, the San Josés leave a few days later for Chicago because Nena has a cousin there, settling into a mostly-Jewish Chicago neighborhood.

Ale has a very strong sense of Cuban identity, but notices little similarities with their Jewish neighbors. Only as an adult will she learn that her father, Enrique Elias San José, and her mother, Nena Abravanel, both came from crypto-Jewish families. Nena was descended from Anton Abravanel, a Sephardi who arrived in Cuba in 1620, but soon left Judaism. His descendants were lax Catholics, toyed with the Church of England, became Freemasons, and did not return to Judaism, but the family’s ancestry was “irrefutable as forensic bands of DNA.” Enrique’s grandfather, who strongly influences him, still practiced Judaism, but Enrique stops openly practicing because of Nazi anti-Semitic influence in Cuba. After 1959, Castro suppresses religious expression in Cuba.

Nena is Catholic and also uses some Santería, but Enrique openly denies that he is Jewish, even as he secretly says Jewish prayers and lays tefillin in his basement. He is enraged when Ale and some friends see him worshipping through the basement window. Ale begins searching for her Jewish origins when someone tells her that her grandmother’s given name of Sima is a Hebrew name. Sima’s father, Yztak Girazi, was a fervent Jew in Havana, but for Sima and her crypto-Jewish husband Luís, “to be a public Jew was to risk their lives” in the rural backward area where they lived near Santiago de Cuba, the only Cuban city besides Havana to have had an office of the Inquisition. Sima had been influenced by her mother, Leah, who “would forever be a crypto-Jew, trapped by tradition, habit, and fear.” Just before Sima’s death, on a trip to Havana to visit her father Yiztak (after Enrique, Nena, and Ale were already living in Chicago), Sima “cried at her first public service” and “shivered upon hearing aloud the barely recognizable prayers she had said in whispers all her life.” After finding out that her abuela had a Hebrew name, and with Enrique still telling Ale they were not Jewish, Ale begins the search that leads to the discovery of her paternal family’s Jewishness.

It is only by returning to Cuba, as a translator, and spending time with her father’s best friend, Moises Menach, also from a crypto-Jewish origin, that Ale is able to learn the details of her family’s history. Several years later, on her father’s deathbed, with the Ladino prayer book on the blanket, Enrique and Ale “said nothing about it; it was understood, finally, that his secret was out.”

The major theme of Days of Awe is Ale’s search for her Jewish origins, and the details are fascinating. But, the book also includes other interesting aspects such as love and sexuality (the reticent might skip pages 86-8, 110, 160, 177-9, 205, 229, 257, and 331), family tensions, and revolutionary politics. Accurate historical information on crypto-Jews and Judaism in Cuba, a nine-page glossary, and suggested readings also add to the book’s value. Days of Awe is a lively, moving, and informative book, and is strongly recommended for readers of crypto-Judaic studies.

Achy Obejas was born in Havana in 1956, and moved, with her parents, to the United States at age six. She spent most of her youth in Michigan City, IN, and has lived in Chicago, 40 miles across Lake Michigan from Michigan City, since 1979. Her brother has lived in Israel, married to an Israeli. Some reviewers think that the book is autobiographical because of similarities between Ale and Achy, but in an interview with Greg Shapiro, the author says the book really is fiction, and that she is not Ale. In her acknowledgments, Obejas notes that the novel began in 1994 when she was asked if she was Jewish by Judith Wachs and others because they recognized in her surname “ravages of an ancestry to which I had only vaguely paid attention.”