Miami filmmaker spotlights fading ‘Jewban’ community

After downing three cafes con leche at an Eighth Street cafe, Rhonda Mitrani’s conversation accelerates into a mix of views about her Cuban-Jewish heritage, the movie she made about it and the message it conveys to people who catch it on TV this week.

Invoking a Woody-Allenesque anxiety, Mitrani toggles back and forth between hopes for the future of Cuban-Jewish traditions and sweeping assertions of their imminent demise.

Her cultural background — a melange of Cuban and Sephardic Jew with a dash of Argentine blood — both defines and, at times, stumps her, and it is what she drew upon to make her documentary, Cuba Mia (My Cuba).

”The Cuban-Jewish community I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. It’s done,” Mitrani, 32, asserts. Then she backtracks. “Well, it does exist. It has changed.”

Cuba Mia is an award-winning documentary Mitrani first exhibited at the 2002 Miami Film Festival; it tracks her parents and some Jewish friends as they return to their childhood neighborhoods in Cuba after 40 years.

It will air on WPBT Channel 2 at 9 p.m. Wednesday in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month and the Jewish New Year.

Cuba Mia’s chronicling of the 1998 trip, sponsored by the Jewish Solidarity Foundation, finds its protagonists on an emotional stroll through their pasts, visiting childhood homes, neighbors, businesses and temples of worship.

Many of those places are now either in ruins or frozen in time without as much as a new coat of paint.

In the 1940s and 1950s, there were an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Jews in Cuba, most of them of European or Russian ancestry.

Today, there are only a few hundred Jews there. Most have left.

KEEPING TRADITIONS

Mitrani hopes her movie serves as both a way to preserve the past for future generations and as an educational tool for Cuban Jews who want their traditions to prosper.

”The stories in the movie are universal,” Mitrani said. “They are about finding your roots.”

Bell ”Cookie” Stabinski, 56, and her husband Luis, 60, were part of the group that traveled to Cuba.

Cookie Stabinski described the trip as ”sweet and sour.” She said it was ”beautiful” to see Cuba through the eyes of her childhood, but ”devastating” because of how decrepit everything was.

Her parents, she said, scolded her for going to Cuba while Fidel Castro was in power, which made her feel guilty about the whole thing. But she doesn’t regret it.

”The Cuban-Jewish community was very close-knit. Everybody knew each other and went to the same synagogue,” Stabinski said. ‘It translated here at the beginning of el exilio, but our children’s generation seems to be completely blending into the American way. They are American and they are Jewish. The `Juban’ thing, sadly for us, is finishing. As we age this is all going to really disappear.”

FADING DIASPORA

As in Cuba, Miami’s Cuban Jewish diaspora is fading.

Miami’s oldest Cuban Jewish synagogue, the Cuban Hebrew Congregation, Temple Beth Shmuel, at Michigan Avenue, may not be able to survive for long because it has been losing members for years, said Bernardo Benes, a member who co-founded the synagogue more than 40 years ago.

”We don’t have a future,” Benes said. “If there’s someone that wants this organization to survive, it’s me. But you have to be realistic when you see all the members disappearing.”

In the 1960s, the Cuban Hebrew congregation included about 825 paying families, but has since steadily shed members.

Today, only about 400 families belong to the synagogue, and only about half of them attend services, Benes said.

He thinks the synagogue will soon have to merge with another one.

Amalia ”Male” Nick, 54, is one of the women featured in Cuba Mia. She thinks the film is a priceless educational tool for future generations. But she, too, doesn’t think her Cuban-Jewish heritage will survive much longer.

”Most of our children are assimilating, marrying Americans,” she said. “I don’t think they are really going to keep that Cuban heritage much longer, unfortunately.”

Many Cuban Jews are now part of congregations that were once more Americanized but have opened their doors to Latin Jews. Elias Mitrani, Rhonda’s father, belongs to Temple Menorah, a conservative congregation in Miami Beach.

RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS

He keeps a kosher house and hopes to pass his religious traditions to his children. Rhonda’s mother, Aida, is Argentine.

”The movie is Rhonda’s little baby,” Mitrani said. “Even though the United States is my country, I’ve always felt I’m a Jewban, very Cuban and Jewish.”

Mitrani moved to Florida in 1955, before the revolution that brought Castro to power.

He says his family left for economic reasons, not political ones.

Rhonda Mitrani said she is not very religious and doesn’t practice much Judaism, but she still honors some of the traditions such as Shabbat dinners on Fridays.

Rhonda Mitrani’s strong family ties are one of the reasons she chose to move back to Miami after living for several years in New York, where she did a stint at Miramax films.

As a young filmmaker, she has a bit of an activist streak. She is currently working on a documentary about dolphin strandings along Florida’s coasts, and a romantic comedy about a fair-skinned Latin girl living in New York who is drawn back home to Miami for family reasons.

Mitrani stares into the cup she is sipping from at the Eighth Street cafe. It’s too much caffeine for a single morning.

”I’m proud of this first piece,” she said, thinking about it a bit. Then she corrects herself, displaying an artistic humility.

“I’m not proud. I’m happy.”

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