Nautilus

At Home in the Liminal World

When Ruth Behar moved from Cuba to Israel and then to a middle-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, in 1962, she was shunted into the “dumb class.” There she met another challenged student, Shotaro, from Japan. Together the two friends, age 6, helped each other learn English while inhabiting what Behar, now a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan, calls the “liminal space,” that in-between place where what has been is no more and what will be is not yet.

Behar found that to pass from one culture to another, to traverse the chasm of the liminal, language was the bridge. As she mastered English, she was able to help her parents navigate a new country and achieve success herself in school. “I think, dream, and live much of my life in the English language,” Behar wrote in a 2011 article. Due in no small part to her mastery of English, she wrote the beautiful Traveling Heavy: A Memoir In Between Journeys, about her family’s peripatetic movement, over generations, from Poland and Turkey to Israel to Cuba, where her parents were immersed in the island’s Jewish community.

Today Behar, 57, who travels constantly, is a remarkable embodiment of the conclusions in her anthropological work: Home may not be within a family or even a single culture, but between cultures and communities and constantly on the move. Home as we have conceived of it since the agricultural revolution

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