Mazal Tov: Mass Jewish wedding in Havana
Salomon Mitrani sat through his wedding ceremony. After all, at 84-years-old he finds it hard to stand. By Cuban law, he has been married to his wife, Pilar, for 55 years, and they have eight grandchildren. But, in a ceremony last week, he was finally getting married under a chuppah (canopy) according to Jewish custom. It was no ordinary ceremony. Twenty other couples of all ages took their marriage vows in a ritual officiated by three visiting Argentine rabbis. The grooms smashed their wine glasses underfoot as a cantor sang age-old blessings in Hebrew. It was the largest wedding members of Cuba’s depleted Jewish community can remember and a sign of a revival of Judaism in a country where there has been no resident rabbi since an exodus of Jews fleeing President Fidel Castro’s communist government in the early 1960s.
‘I wanted to have a Jewish family’
“I’ve always felt Jewish. I went to fight for Israel’s independence in 1948,” said Mitrani, a painter and sculptor whose parents, Sephardic Jews, immigrated to Cuba in 1913 from Turkey. The mass nuptials at the restored Conservative Beth Shalom synagogue, the largest of three in Havana, were preceded by 70 conversions, including whole families, dozens of young Cubans, and Mitrani’s wife Pilar, 75. “I wanted to have a Jewish family like my forefathers. The family is vital to maintain our customs and perpetuate the values of the Torah,” said Alberto Behar, a computer analyst like his wife Caridad Morales, who converted for the wedding.
Cuba has a mix of Sephardic Jews, who came mainly from Turkey and the Balkans before World War One, and Ashkenazi Jews who escaped turmoil in Eastern Europe, mostly Poland and Russia. As many as 25,000 refugees from Nazi persecution arrived in the 1930s en route to the United States. Refused entry due to US immigration quotas, they landed in what became known as “Hotel Cuba.”
When Castro took power in 1959, there was a flourishing and prosperous Jewish community of 15,000 in Cuba. Within a few years, as the new government nationalized businesses and steered Cuba toward communism, 90 percent of them left for southern Florida, Mexico, Venezuela and Israel. Cuba became an atheist state and the synagogues emptied. Congregations fell below the quorum for prayer ceremonies as Jews that stayed assimilated into the new status quo, stopped teaching their children Hebrew and lost their customs. Years of isolation followed. Castro broke off diplomatic ties with Israel in 1974 following the Yom Kippur war. “They were difficult years, but Jews are used to being persistent in the face of adversity,” said Simon Goldsztein, a 69-year-old groom wearing a tallit. “That has been our history.”
Things changed after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Cuba struggled to survive a severe economic crisis. Cuba became a secular state and allowed religious worship even by card-carrying Communist Party members.
Impoverished Cuban Jews began to receive aid from abroad, especially the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has helped rebuild a community of 1,500 people. Community leaders say their numbers have doubled, but many young Cuban Jews have immigrated to Israel. “People have left for different reasons, but there has been a constant renewal. This is a crucial moment in our revival,” said Annette Eli, a young architect.