Tracing His Roots

For Leon Rodriguez, former head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a trip to Cuba provided the chance to connect with his family’s history

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Photo by Deb Lindsey.

It was 2016 when Leon Rodriguez first saw Cuba, the country where his parents met and his grandfather is buried. “I actually wept when I landed in Havana, in a way I have never wept as an adult,” he tells me. “I felt that I would never get there. You grow up on this side of the wall—in this case the wall was the Florida straits—and you’re never going to be able to go back to the other side of the wall.”

At the time, Rodriguez headed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security, and he was on an official mission to negotiate with Cuban counterparts. But the personal side of his trip was far more significant. “So much of everything I know about who I am is based on stories I would hear for hours about my family’s life in that place,” he explains. “But I couldn’t touch it. I couldn’t see my father’s store, I couldn’t see my mother’s building, I couldn’t see my grandfather’s grave.”

The story of Cuban exiles fleeing after the Communist takeover in 1959 is a familiar one. What makes this tale different is that Leon’s family is Jewish, and Cuba was only one step in a journey that started more than 500 years ago and has ended—at least for now—in Montgomery County. The family was originally called Rodrik, a Sephardic surname that can be traced back to Spain and Portugal. Those countries expelled their Jewish populations in the late 15th century and they scattered to many lands, including the Ottoman Empire. The Rodriks settled in a village called Kirklareli northwest of Istanbul, but a border war with Bulgaria drove them from their homes in 1912.

In 1923, when the modern state of Turkey was formed, Jews in the army “were subject to a lot of harassment and discrimination,” Rodriguez says. His grandfather Leon fled to Egypt, where he became a teller in a French bank. By the 1930s, Leon Rodrik was on the move yet again, and since Sephardic Jews spoke ladino, an ancient form of Spanish, “it became a draw for a lot of Turkish Jews to go to Spanish-speaking countries, Cuba in particular,” Rodriguez says. “There was a pretty big community there. They were from the same towns and all knew each other.”

Leon Rodrik changed his last name to Rodriguez and started a prosperous department store. But the Communist revolution, only 14 years after the end of World War II, terrified the Jewish community. “This was feeling a whole lot like Europe to people, and everybody hits the road,” says the younger Leon, who was named for his grandfather.

His mother’s family, the Polikars, had also emigrated from Turkey to Cuba. His parents met at a party in Havana, married in July of 1961 and soon sought asylum in America, with his mother smuggling jewelry out of the country in the buttons of her dress. Rodriguez was born a year later, grew up in Miami and later went to Brown University and then Boston College Law School. He became a prosecutor in Brooklyn and moved to the Washington area in 1994 when his new wife, Jill Schwartz, started her medical residency here.

The young couple settled in Kensington in 2001 when Jill was pregnant with their first child. They were drawn to the county’s good schools, large Jewish population and progressive activists who had come to the area “to do something important, something significant,” Leon says. “I liked the idea of my kids growing up around people with that way of seeing their lives.”

Rodriguez first entered local politics through Tom Perez, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who was running for the Montgomery County Council. “I was technically his finance chairman, I think I raised a total of 250 bucks,” Leon laughs. In 2004, the family moved to Garrett Park, where they still live, and three years later Rodriguez became the county’s chief legal officer.

“In a position like that, you really become conscious of the incredible level of civic engagement in Montgomery County, more so probably than anywhere else in the country,” he recalls. On one issue, land use, the “incredible” level of participation drove him a bit crazy.

“I always say land use is like a wedding, it brings out every issue in your life—religious issues, emotional issues, political issues,” Rodriguez says. “So little land use issues became these big controversies.”

Rodriguez, now 56 and back in private law practice, took over U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2014, a job that drew heavily on his family’s history and values. His maternal grandfather, John Polikar, had been an ardent Zionist in Cuba and helped resettle Holocaust survivors after World War II. His own parents had been political refugees, and as he puts it, “I generally think refugees and immigrants are good for our economy and we need more of them, not less of them. But at the end of the day my views are really grounded in a more moral reason—partly what I learned in my faith, from our history as a people, but also very much tied in with the example of my grandfather.”

His job included periodic talks in Cuba and he was eager to visit the island, but his parents were fearful: “My father said, ‘The government knows everything, we’re just worried they’re going to use this as some way to mess with you.’ ”

He ignored them and went anyway. “I was already a bit of a mess on the plane, truth be told, but then it really hit hard when I was standing there on this insanely hot tarmac looking at this bus station of an airport,” Leon tells me. When I ask what he was thinking at that moment, he replies, “This is it. This is the place I never thought I could go to.”  Then a co-worker who knew his family’s story said, “Welcome home.”

A Cuban counterpart invited him to dinner, and by sheer coincidence she lived in the same building where his mother had grown up. He asked to see their old apartment and found that the family mezuzah—a medallion containing a biblical scroll that Jews hang near their doorpost—was still there.

“It’s one of those things that may have some mystical significance and it may not, but it was still pretty powerful,” he recalls.

Even more powerful was visiting the grave of his grandfather Polikar, whose work with refugees had inspired Leon’s own career. The old Sephardic cemetery was “in a pretty significant state of disrepair,” but his mother had told him where to look and when he found the burial plot, he recited kaddish, an ancient Hebrew prayer of mourning. The name on his grandfather’s tomb was Garzon Polikar, a Spanish version of his Hebrew name, Gershon, which means “stranger” or “exile.” But Gershon’s grandson is a stranger no longer. He’s found a home here in Montgomery County.

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.

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