In Cuba, Finding a Tiny Corner of Jewish Life
Claudia Barliya, a 6-year-old Cuban-Jewish girl, stood on a cobblestone street in Trinidad, a small centuries-old city on the south coast of Cuba. A donkey carrying an old man passed behind her; a group of 30 Jewish-Americans, including this reporter, stood before her. The girl had asked if she could perform a song for the group, which was on a humanitarian mission with the Westchester Jewish Center of Mamaroneck, N.Y. She now had their full attention. When her song rang out – not in Spanish, but in the Hebrew words of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” or “Jerusalem of Gold” – the group couldn’t help joining in.
Claudia is one of about 1,500 Jews who live in Cuba; 1,100 reside in Havana, and the remaining 400 are spread among the provinces. There is no rabbi living on the island, and there is only one kosher butcher. This small Jewish presence is in stark contrast to the bustling community that existed before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. In those days, there were 15,000 Jews and five synagogues in Havana alone. Still, Jews in modern-day Cuba manage to keep their culture and traditions alive.
As Maritza Corrales, a Cuban historian who lives in Havana and the author of “The Chosen Island: Jews in Cuba,” remarked, “To be Cuban and Jewish is to be twice survivors.”
Visits by groups like the Westchester Jewish Center, one of many United States Jewish entities that organize occasional humanitarian or religious trips to Cuba, are one of the ways that Jews in Cuba nurture their communities. Although the focus of these trips allows American travelers to bypass United States restrictions on tourism to Cuba, they require a full schedule of religious and humanitarian activities that often include donations of medications, clothing and religious objects needed for prayer.
On a weeklong trip in November, the group traveled around the island by bus, accompanied by two English-speaking guides who were well versed in Jewish-Cuban history and culture. When the visitors from Westchester entered Adath Israel, Cuba’s only Orthodox synagogue – and one of three active synagogues in Havana – the feeling of connection between the Cubans and the Americans was palpable. The words, the songs, were all the same. In the sanctuary, a large wooden bimah, or podium, housed the Torahs behind a red velvet curtain, and a glass wall separated the men from the women.
After the service, a 17-year-old college student serenaded the Americans with his violin, playing traditional pieces like “Hava Nagila.” The musician could have been a college student from anywhere in the United States, with his facial stubble, sneakers and low-slung jeans. The difference is that this young man is not allowed to leave his country, not even to visit his parents, who are government engineers working abroad.
Elsewhere in Havana, there is the Sephardic Hebrew Center of Cuba, and the Conservative Beth Shalom synagogue, largest of the three synagogues, with more than 500 members. Beth Shalom houses a Jewish community center, known as El Patronato, a library and a pharmacy, which distributes medication – most of which comes as donations from Jewish groups visiting from the United States – throughout the island to Jews and non-Jews.
After Mr. Castro took power and nationalized private business and property, 90 percent of the Jewish population, many of them business owners, fled the island, and the remaining 10 percent were largely not observant. There were so few Jewish people coming to pray that the Cuban minyan was born, counting each Torah as a qualifying member to make prayer possible (a minyan normally requires 10 Jewish adults).
The Jewish presence continued to fade for years, and it was not until 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that Cuba changed its constitution, allowing for religious freedom. The Jewish community began to rebuild. Rabbis from Chile, Argentina, Panama and Mexico came to teach the remaining Cuban Jews how to pray and lead services, and Jewish organizations in Canada began sending kosher food for Passover.
The synagogues welcomed the Jews who came to pick up the food, and encouraged them to come back for Shabbat and various holiday celebrations. Within 10 years, a growing number of activities were established, including the Sunday school at the Patronato, where children ages 6 through 14 learn Jewish culture and tradition. It started with 10 children and now has nearly 70. There is also a Jewish women’s group with 150 participants, meeting once every six weeks to help with women’s issues like domestic violence and how to keep a Jewish home. Jewish life is not as organized outside Havana, where the Jewish population is much smaller. For instance, only 27 practicing Jews live in Cienfuegos, a picturesque city on a bay. There is no synagogue to pray in. Instead, the Jewish community of Cienfuegos gathers each Friday night for Shabbat services in the front room of Rebecca Langus’s second-floor apartment.
Ms. Langus, the 43-year-old leader of the community, who lives with her husband and two sons, has adorned the walls of her small home with Jewish art, the bookcases with Jewish prayer books and the shelves with an array of Jewish paraphernalia.
“When you are few, there is a responsibility to keep traditions,” Ms. Langus said. “Educating the children is the only way to keep the community alive.”
The 25-member Jewish community of Santa Clara, the capital city of the central Villa Clara province, has raised enough money to buy a house and convert it into a synagogue, but has yet to find the ideal property. For now, they take great pride in the somber Holocaust memorial, erected in 2003, in the local Jewish cemetery. It includes a stone from the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and in front is a path made of stones from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Next to the memorial stands a menorah with a Star of David and branches for six candles, symbolizing the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.
Although preserving Jewish culture has been an uphill struggle, leaders remain optimistic about the future. Even though Israel is the only country with which Cuba has cut off diplomatic relations, there is no evidence of anti-Semitism in Cuba. “I felt safer wearing my yarmulke in Cuba than I do wearing one in White Plains,” said Jeffrey Segelman, the rabbi of the Westchester Jewish Center. And the island’s Jewish presence remains solid.
“If you asked me 10 years ago when the community was dwindling, I may have said that the Jewish community wouldn’t exist today,” said Adela Dworin, president of the Jewish community in Cuba. “It won’t be the same as 1959, but now at least we have people who are young, middle-aged and old.”
Ms. Dworin had the opportunity to meet Mr. Castro in 1998, and asked him why he had never visited the Jewish community, to which he replied: “Because I was never invited.” Ms. Dworin promptly invited him to the coming Hanukkah celebration at the Patronato. When Mr. Castro asked what Hanukkah was, Ms. Dworin explained that the holiday celebrates the “revolution” – a word Castro likes – of the Jewish people.
To her surprise, Mr. Castro showed up at the party of 200, sat next to her in the front row and addressed the congregation in a lengthy speech.
Joseph Levy, leader of the Sephardic temple, has a more somber outlook on Jewish life in Cuba. He emphasized how difficult it was to keep Jewish traditions alive, because without a rabbi, he said, “the Jewish community here is almost like living in a house without parents.”
For the group from Westchester, one member’s past was a snapshot of the Jewish experience in Cuba. Sandy Marantz , a psychotherapist at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan, was born in Cuba in 1959, and 12 days before the United States closed its borders to Cuban citizens in 1961, Ms. Marantz, then 19 months old, and her parents left for the United States.
After 45 years of wanting to visit her native country – her parents never wished to return – Ms. Marantz finally saw the hospital in which she was born, the apartment in Havana where she lived, the synagogue to which her parents belonged and the grave where her grandfather, whom she never met, is buried.
Going to Cuba, said Ms. Marantz, allowed her to “connect with my past” and “made me feel grateful to be a Jew.”
Information about Jewish missions to Cuba is available from B’nai Brith (877-222-9590; www.jewishcuba.org/bnaibrith), the Cuba-America Jewish Mission (www.thecajm.org) and the Jewish Cuba Connection (www.jewban.org).