Before the Hurricanes: A Trip to Jewish Cuba

The place was jumpin’ in the 1950s. Congregations expanded with new buildings and programs, the community collected funds for Israel, the descendants of Americans, European and Middle Eastern immigrants were respected professionals who built businesses that kept the economy growing.

The United States in the Eisenhower era? No – Cuba, a thriving community of 15,000 Jews until the Revolution of 1959 resulted in 90 percent of the Jewish population fleeing. After the new government takeover, temples closed (for a lack of congregants, leadership and money) and the religious memory withered, kept alive in the immigrant population that settled a world and 90 miles away in South Florida and elsewhere.

Yet like embattled Jewish communities everywhere, a spark remained in Havana and smaller cities. In the 1990s, the government eased restrictions on religious observance and Havana’s Jewish community gradually returned to more open activity. Smaller communities across the island also began to reopen.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba severely restricts Americans’ ability to visit Cuba, but it can be done legally. One way is through a religious mission, licensed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

That’s how I satisfied a long curiosity about Cuba with a week-long trip there in June 2008 with a group led by Miriam Saul, a Cuba native who moved to Atlanta in the early 1960s and has led almost 30 licensed trips in the last eight years for the Cuba-America Jewish Mission, a non-profit group in California. I first contacted Miriam in February 2007, and signed on for the June 2008 mission.

While the flight from Miami to Havana takes less than 90 minutes, the psychological and official distance is vast. I began to realize the foreignness of the place when I started collecting donations before the trip. The license is based on a religious, humanitarian purpose, and detailed instructions from Miriam described what the Cubans needed most. Religious goods, I learned, were at the bottom of the list (no more kippot, please! I had visions of Cubans floundering through boxes of leathery kippot hauled from the store rooms of shuls across America). Rather, they needed prescription and over-the-counter medicine, clothing, and personal care items.

Trips to Costco and Dollar Value bulked up a pile that I stuffed into a giant duffle bag. Clothes my son has outgrown, golf shirts from my brother Cooper and donations from friends got the bag well over the 30 pound minimum donation. As departure day approached, I stuffed more and more items into the bag, which topped out at over 40 backbreaking pounds.

The group met at the American Eagle counter at the Miami Airport for introductions and paperwork; Miriam gave each of us the license, complete with a list of our names, passport numbers and a detailed itinerary. A few hours later the charter flight landed at Havana’s Jos? Mart? Airport, at a terminal reserved for flights from the U.S. and the Caribbean. Jumbo jets from European carriers taxi to a big, modern terminal.

In the first big room of the arrivals area, with a giant sign showing ballet, baseball and kids in school uniforms, we waited. The religious visas from the Cuban government had not arrived. Finally, they did, and we crunched through the usual passport and customs inspection, and then loaded our luggage on the Havanatur bus.

The Jewish aspect of the mission began immediately as we delivered our donations to Miriam’s big hotel room. I unzipped my duffle to haul out the vitamins, shampoos, soaps, golf shirts, shoes and other items. Miriam sorted them by product type and by recipient. Furniture and floors were covered with the cornucopia.

The next day the mission began in earnest. Our guide, Manuel, took us on a walking tour of la Habana Vieja, Old Havana, sort of like the French Quarter with smart hotels, freshened-up squares, art galleries and restaurants. One stop was the Hotel Raquel, Havana’s “Jewish-themed” hotel, complete with a mezuzah on the entry and Hebrew-style letters above the gift shop. Built in 1902 as a bank, the hotel had a menu with “Jewish style” food; the whole effect was, as the Germans might say, ersatz, fake; who was the target audience? I couldn’t tell. On the other hand, the novelty attracted our group for a look.

We visited Adath Israel, an Orthodox congregation for the first supply delivery, in two bulging suitcases. Compared to temples elsewhere in Latin America and Europe, the approach to the building was amazingly relaxed. No Uzi-toting guards stood outside, no security at all. We sauntered past the gate and in. In the main sanctuary I donned my Bukharan-style kippah, the only man to do so. One traveler asked me, “Are you frum?” I said no, but it was a shul and I felt more at ease wearing one.

In the sanctuary a congregant told us of its history. Outside, I saw art for sale, variations on Stars of David and the weathered doors of the sanctuary. I finally selected one showing a Star of David, the Cuban flag and a rose, already framed, for 10 convertible Cuban pesos ($10, a required exchange of U.S. currency, which cannot be used in Cuba). I bought other mementos in Cuba – CD sets, a carved wooden “Fist of the Revolution” – but this one carried the most meaning since it conveyed the intertwined themes of the trip, of Judaism and Cuba.

Later we dropped by the Patronato, the Jewish community center and seat of the American Jewish community since the early 1900s, to deliver supplies to its pharmacy and meet with Daniel, a young administrator, in the Patronato’s well-stocked library. I could see why Judaica ranked low on the list of the community’s needs. Temples and centers have enough books; I even saw Jewish publications such as the Forward and Hadassah magazine in the library.

Daniel talked about the Patronato and its fabled visit from Fidel Castro during Hanukkah 2000. He praised Castro’s research on Jewish history before the visit, shown in photos of Fidel with synagogue officials.

We also visited the Centro Sefarad?. Its main sanctuary has long been closed, although music groups now use it as a rehearsal space (we could hear thumping). Instead, services are held in a small space across the street, which has lighting fixtures from the older space. I noted leather chairs near the bima embossed with Hebrew letterings as well as intertwined Stars of David and a shield designed with the Cuban flag. Like the painting I got, the artwork declared a shared heritage, both Cuban and Jewish.

Services at the Patronato’s cool, modern sanctuary felt like services anywhere else in the world. Led by lay members of the congregation, the order and materials sounded familiar. Congregants had a relaxed look, nobody dressed up. Having attended services in places like San Salvador and Sao Paulo, I felt the unity of the Jewish people, how we can share a common bond through Judaism and ancient rituals even when we have different native languages and political systems.

How “Jewish” are congregants? We heard the term “gastronomic Jews,” people who come for the kiddushes and other meals – an attraction in a country with irregular food supplies. A high degree of intermarriage since the Revolution brought non-Jews into the family. So while the Chief Rabbi of Israel may look skeptically at the population, I didn’t worry about those issues. If people come to worship and show interest in Judaism, then in my view, they’re landsmen or, to use a more local phrase, compa?eros.

Besides the shuls, we also visited two Jewish cemeteries. One was on the outskirts of Havana, the other in Santa Clara. In Santa Clara, Miriam spoke about a Holocaust memorial within the cemetery, showing a Star of David rising above an image of train tracks. The striking memorial includes bricks taken from the Lodz ghetto.

Outside Havana, we visited two smaller Jewish communities. In Santa Clara we donated a Ner Tamid, the “eternal light,” for a community center now being built in a house the community bought. Next we visited Cienfuegos, where services are held in a home. We met with the leader, a woman who lives with an extended family in the home – her husband, their two sons, his son by an earlier marriage, and the husband’s mother. The place impressed me with the bookshelves of Judaica, and the Jewish CDs. Most American homes lack this level of learning! The group was impressed by the determination of these people to build a Jewish life, on top of the challenges of day-to-day existence in Cuba, which entails a search for food and other necessities.

Back in Havana, we had a parting dinner at a restaurant with a jazz trio. Its low decibel level and play list of pop standards gave my ears a welcome break from endless variations on “Guantanamera.” The day was also Miriam’s birthday, so waiters wheeled out a chocolate cake with a single candle. In honor of the event, we transformed the restaurant into a Jewish catering hall and sang “Hava Nagila” and toted Miriam around on a chair. The band members, showing a good entrepreneurial sense, had group members hum Hava Nagila, which they learned very quickly with their musicians’ knack for picking up on crowd-pleasing songs. They’ll be ready when the next Jewish mission rolls into the restaurant.
(Tags: Cuban Jews)

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