Reporter’s notebook: Celebrating 90 years of Jewish community in Guantanamo

The synagogue of Gauntanamo, Cuba, located on the second floor of the Mizrahi household, on the eve of the community’s 90th anniversary celebration (Photo/Laura Paull)

The road to the city of Guantanamo is an unfinished highway that bisects the island of Cuba for more than 500 miles, all the way from Havana. Unfinished because, to put it plainly, the revolution is unfinished, or at least out of money.

At a certain point past the tiny airport of Holguin, where I landed one night in late April, our taxi drops off the concrete pavement into asphalt and then potholed gravel. There are fewer cars and more horse-drawn carts, and families walk in tight clutches from one unlit destination to another.

Sugar cane fields flank the road, disappearing into the hulking darkness of the Sierra Maestra. During the three-hour ride from the airport, our taxi jukes through village intersections where people gather, talk and play music outdoors in the cooling relief of night.

“There, down that road, is the house where Fidel and Raul were born,” our driver signals in a place called Biran, where the Castros’ Spanish father owned a sugar plantation before his sons fought for change.

It’s hard to see history in the dark. But it was something I had traveled 3,000 miles to witness firsthand.

It was 90 years ago, in 1929, when 33 prominent Jews formally organized the Comunidad Hebrea de Guantanamo, signing a decree that is still in the possession of their descendants. I came with tour guide Ariel Goldstein to take part in the anniversary celebrations of this Jewish community, which thrived and then persisted for most of a century.

Guantanamo Jewish community leader Rodolfo Mizrahi (l) is joined by David Tacher Romano, of the Santa Clara Jewish community, at a Shabbat service. (Photo/Laura Paull)

Before there was a highway, or even a republic of Cuba, Jewish immigrants were among the enterprising peddlers who wore a trail from one side of the island to the other to supply the needs of the populace. The Jews who followed that route in the late 19th and early 20th century were from Turkey, where they spoke Ladino, and, later, from Eastern Europe. Most settled in Havana. Some of them, including a man from Constantinople with the last name Mizrahi, made it all the way to Guantanamo — the end of the road. And there they stayed, as the outpost grew into a bustling port city, shipping coffee, cotton and sugar to whomever would buy it.

Most Americans are familiar with this area because of Guantanamo Bay, a harbor that the Cuban government has leased to the U.S. for a naval base since 1903, after the Spanish-American War.

After the revolution in 1959, the great majority of Cuban Jews left the country. But not all. Small Jewish communities remained in Camaguey, Santa Clara, Santiago, Sancti Spiritus and Guantanamo, with the largest in Havana, whose Jewish population of 15,000 shrank over the next few years to just 1,500.

The once-flourishing Jewish community of Guantanamo today comprises only 80 or so people among a population of some 215,000. Many of them are related, by blood or marriage, to the original Señor Mizrahi. Somehow, they have carried on, living in the fading architecture of the past.

In 1995, I made a documentary film, “Havana Nagila: The Jews in Cuba,” which opened that year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and then made the rounds of other Jewish film festivals and was shown on public television. It was around the time when restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba were relaxed, allowing Americans to visit for educational and humanitarian purposes. For the next decade and a half, a steady stream of American Jews passed through Havana’s three congregations, bringing food, medicine and other supplies.

Life goes on in the city of Guantanamo, once a thriving commercial hub on the eastern tip of the island. Since the revolution of 1959, U.S. military can no longer leave the base, and there is no contact with Cubans. (Photo/Laura Paull)

By contrast, almost no one went to Guantanamo. That changed in 2012 during a trip to Jewish Cuba organized by the JCC of San Francisco.

“I heard about the Jewish community of Guantanamo when I was in neighboring Santiago,” says Ariel Goldstein, then director of the JCCSF travel program and now owner of the travel company Tiyul Jewish Journeys. “And of course I was curious, having only heard of the American base and prison there.”

So he decided to add a leg to that year’s tour, taking the group to Guantanamo. The Uruguayan-born Goldstein easily bonded with the struggling community and its acknowledged leader, Rodolfo Mizrahi, great-grandson of the community’s first immigrant.

Mizrahi had built a second floor onto his modest home to use as a synagogue, welcoming the community for weekly Shabbat services. But there was no railing along the outdoor staircase or upstairs porch — a safety concern given the numbers of kids and elders who made their way up and down. Goldstein asked the Americans on the tour for personal donations to fix it, and quickly raised enough to do so.

The following year, Goldstein returned with a new tour group, including the JCCSF’s then-executive director Barry Finestone and his wife, Ellen. The community had finished the safety renovations, and the visitors joined them in affixing a mezuzah and a plaque acknowledging the assistance of their Bay Area friends — followed by a shared meal, live music and a dance performance.

“It was very much an uplifting experience,” Finestone, now president and CEO of the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation, recently told J. “I was excited to see a Jewish community that I had never known before. Particularly because almost nobody goes to visit them.”

Tour guide Ariel Goldstein, (left) of Berkeley, stands with Rodolfo Mizrahi (center) and others as they say Kaddish for William Zukerman, one of 33 founders of the Jewish community of Guantanamo. (Photo/Laura Paull)

Also in the 2013 group was New Yorker Sylvia Weiner, then 79, who heard about the impending JCC trip and called Goldstein to ask if she could come along. Weiner was on a quest to locate the grave of her father, William Zukerman, believed to be one of the 33 founders of the Guantanamo community.

Mizrahi confirmed that Zukerman’s name was on the community’s founding document. “Wow,” was Goldstein’s response. “Then we will find him.”

The story of that search, and its outcome, remains one of the sustaining legends of the Guantanamo Jewish community.

Four Cuban cities have Jewish cemeteries, but Guantanamo is not among them. Its Jewish deceased are sent some 40 miles to Santiago, where the cemetery is named, ironically, El Cristo. In advance of the 2013 trip, Goldstein had asked Mizrahi to locate Zukerman’s gravestone. But word came back that it wasn’t there.

Weiner dug back into her documents and discovered that her father in fact had been interred in the nondenominational municipal cemetery of Guantanamo, probably due to the cost or inconvenience of transporting a body by horse and cart in the humid heat. But Zukerman’s gravestone did not turn up there, either.

The Guantanamo Jewish community gathers for Shabbat at the Mizrahi home/synagogue. (Photo/Laura Paull)

It took days, many visits of the perplexed and much digging to solve the mystery: It was a question of neglect. Earthquakes and severe tropical rainstorms afflicted the eastern part of the island, and with no one to care for Zukerman’s grave, it had been buried under several feet of earth for 80 years.

Cemetery workers excavated the coffin, and the Guantanamo Jewish community restored the site, affixing new tiles and freshly demarcating Zukerman’s grave. The American and Guantanamo communities met at the cemetery and together said Kaddish for the father Weiner scarcely knew.

“It was truly an emotional and unforgettable moment for each of us,” recalled Larry Polon, a retired schoolteacher from Albany, who made the trip from the East Bay with his wife, Ernestina Carrillo.

The Zukerman story has galvanized the Guantanamo community’s sense of belonging in the larger Jewish world. When we arrived for the anniversary celebration this April, Mizrahi met us at the Hotel Martí, where he explained there would be a gala theatrical event the first night, and a Shabbat service and dinner the next night that he and his wife would host. In between, the community would visit the cemetery to memorialize Zukerman and reinforce the international bonds that resulted from the recovery of his grave.

“Together, we located a long-forgotten member of our community,” declared David Tacher Romano, leader of the Santa Clara Jewish community, at the graveside service. “And we should continue this effort, of remembering who we were and who we are, for there are probably others waiting to be claimed. This should be our work.”

View from inside the Guantanamo synagogue (Photo/Laura Paull)

The solemnity of that memorial was a contrast from the celebratory atmosphere at the gala the evening before, where Mizrahi’s wife, Kelly, and his two daughters, 18-year-old Jennifer and 5-year-old Texia Lia, performed with a Jewish folkloric group. The dancers had taught themselves the movements from what they could find on YouTube. There was also a simple dramatic reenactment of the formation of the Jewish community, and musical performances by some of the top singers in Guantanamo, including an authentic rendition of Cuba’s most well-known song, “Guantanamera.” In another number, the singers poignantly proclaimed their dual identities as “Cubanos” and “Judíos.”

I spoke to people who have never lived anywhere but Guantanamo, or even traveled to Havana. I learned that some had grown children who made aliyah and bore their own children in Israel — grandchildren these Cuban grandparents have never seen.

I asked Mizrahi’s cousin Elias, who came from Santiago for the celebration, why members of the older generation don’t follow their kids to Israel.

While there is nothing prohibiting them, other than the cost, “it’s not so easy to go,” he said, hinting at the reluctance of people habituated to Cuba to so radically change their lives. But the elders understand the urgency felt by many young Cuban Jews to live in a place where they can envision a future.

The gala presentation was followed by a formal sit-down dinner at our hotel, where we were serenaded by musicians playing Changüí, the Cuban music typical of the region. Conversations died down when dinner was served: Each guest received one fish fillet, a ball of plain rice, fries, sliced tomatoes and a scoop of chocolate ice cream. There was a bottle of sweet kosher wine from New Jersey on every table.

Jewish folkloric dancers, including young Texia Lia Mizrahi (in pink shoes, left) join a local Cuban music band onstage at the community’s 90th anniversary gala. (Photo/Laura Paull)

As a leader of his community, Mizrahi has made it a point to visit Jews in other countries. In 2006 he participated in the March of the Living, visiting Holocaust sites in Poland, followed by a trip to Israel. With international support, he went to Israel two more times, taking part in leadership workshops for diaspora Jews. His efforts at self-education are visible in his capacity not only to lead a Shabbat service, but to pass his knowledge to the next generation. Teenagers, including his elder daughter, confidently took turns leading the Shabbat prayers the next night.

After the service, several congregants shared that having this connection to their roots means everything to them, that they cannot imagine life without their Jewish community. But the outside support has been a critical link in their ability to sustain it.

In the last 10 years, Goldstein has taken 20 trips to Cuba, accompanying some 450 people, he says, and the last few have included visits to Guantanamo. Over time he has channeled donations from the travelers to help Cuban communities obtain critical material needs, from a freezer for the Sephardic synagogue in Havana to medical supplies, vitamins, toiletries and a minivan for transportation to and from services. Americans who come to visit quickly realize how far their dollars will go to help the people they’ve met.

“There is a lot of need, and their decision to maintain their community is amazingly challenging,” says Ken Einstein, 70, a retired software consultant from San Mateo who went on Goldstein’s 2016 trip to Guantanamo with his wife, Christina, a former associate dean at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “But the ongoing connection with outside visitors is helping to make Guantanamo a real, functioning group that is both a living community, and a community of worship.”

Sometimes, those connections can save lives.

Guantanamo Jews in their 90th anniversary t-shirts, printed in the Bay Area (Photo/Laura Paull)

That was the case for Mizrahi’s young daughter, who was born with a small hole in her heart. Despite his work as a purchaser in the city’s electricity department, where he was familiar with the supply chain of goods and services, Mizrahi could not get the medicine his daughter needed. But Goldstein could, and he brought it from the United States on a previous visit.

Texia Lia participating in a show of Jewish folk dances at the community gala event (Photo/Laura Paull)
She is fine now,” Mizrahi assured Goldstein, who asked about the girl’s health in the first five minutes of our meeting. Texia Lia is now an assertive little princess of 5 who loves to dance.Other times, it’s the smaller things that lift morale, like the shoes and tambourines that Bay Area groups have donated to Guantanamo’s Jewish folkloric group. Members of Einstein’s 2016 tour group lugged a large set of Shabbat silverware purchased by people on the previous tour.

We ate with that very silverware at the simple Shabbat dinner hosted by Mizrahi and his wife on the final night of the anniversary celebrations. On the terrace outside the second-floor synagogue, that meal mirrored the first: a ball of rice, a small chicken leg and fries. Everyone wore light blue T-shirts bearing a logo commemorating the anniversary. Designed by one of the young men of the community, they were printed in the Bay Area and transported to Guantanamo in Goldstein’s suitcase.

Recalling his journey three years ago, Einstein described the experience as “inspirational” and praised Mizrahi for his “sustained effort to nurture that community and maintain their existence.” In the absence of rabbis, cantors or mohels, he said, “it’s such a story of hope and persistence, in a Jewish community so far removed from the mainstream. It’s a different kind of spirituality than I encounter here in the U.S., day to day.”

Finestone, who traveled there in 2013, called the community’s efforts to sustain itself “remarkable.”

“In Cuba, in general, you got a glimpse into how people were trying to keep their religion and tradition alive in a place where it was fundamentally not easy to do so,” he says. “But in Guantanamo, in particular, I was struck by the incredible pride of everybody with whom we interacted. They were a small group, but punched well above their weight.”

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