The Castros, communism and kashrut: A slow resurgence for Cuba's Jews

Cuba also is becoming a more popular destination among young Israelis traveling after their army service.

December 9, 2016 21:11
Cuban Jews

Men pray in the Ashkenazi Templo Beth Shalom in Havana. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)

AMONG THE photographs of the Cuban Jewish community decorating a wall of the meeting room of the Patronato de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba ‒ commonly known as “the Patronato” and which also encompasses the Conservative Templo Beth Shalom ‒ is one of the current community president, Adela Dworin, with an enigmatic smile, seated next to Fidel Castro before he stepped down as Cuba’s leader in favor of his younger brother Raul Castro in 2008.

Both Castro brothers have visited the synagogue in Havana and Dworin is said to have a direct channel of communication with the Castros for any concern she may have about the needs of the Jewish community.

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In her book, “An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba,” the University of Michigan Anthropology professor notes that Fidel Castro has told journalists that he has Jewish roots dating back to the Spanish Inquisition.

In person, it is hard to discern the reason behind Dworin’s Mona Lisa smile as she welcomes unexpected Israeli guests of the backpacking variety into the Patronato library, where she has been a fixture for more than 30 years.

In true, leisurely Cuban style, she chats with them warmly, nonplussed that another guest is waiting in the hallway and that soon a group of Americans is scheduled to meet with her, as well.

For about five years now, since the Caribbean island nation began welcoming more tourists, this scenario has played out often at both Templo Beth Shalom, which is Ashkenazi, and the Conservative Centro Hebreo Sefaradi de Cuba, which is Sephardi, as Jewish groups visiting the island make stops at the synagogues hoping to get a glimpse of what they think will be the exotic, perhaps slowly disappearing, Jewish community.

Some groups bring along supplies for the Patronato’s pharmacy, books for the library, and other sundry supplies to help the community.

Like all Cubans, the Jewish community is affected by the US embargo and struggling economy, which confusingly supports two monetary systems ‒ one for the locals and the other for tourists.

Though in tourist hotels and restaurants food and drink are plentiful, rice and beans are the main staple for average Cuban meals. They eat seasonally out of necessity, with fresh vegetables not always readily available. A search for onions or chicken might take trips to several markets and even then they might come back empty-handed. Jewish families store precious foods and meats to save for any upcoming holiday.

Cuba is slowly getting back on its feet after what is euphemistically called “The Special Period,” which began in 1989 in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet political bloc. After losing its major trade partners, both Cuba’s import and export trade went down almost 80 percent.

Cubans faced a widespread food shortage when the USSR stopped almost all of its petroleum imports, which had played an important role in the country’s agricultural industry.

In order to bring in currency to replace the lost petroleum, Cuba opened its doors to outside economic and tourist opportunities from Western Europe and South America in order to bring in currency to replace Soviet petroleum, and tourism has been a big boom for the economy.

Dr. Mayra Levy, president of the Centro Hebreo Sefaradi de Cuba, worries about the fate of the community as many younger Jews opt for emigration or aliya (photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)

Tourists are eager to see the quaintly deteriorating candy-colored buildings in all their faded colonial glory and take a ride in the pristine 1950s American cars kept for them, while those in more rustic shape are often used as taxis for the locals. It is not unusual to see a broken down car on the side of the road with one or two people tinkering under its hood.

Cafés, restaurants – many now privately owned – and hotels and private rooms in family homes are fully booked during high season.

Tourists sip daiquiris and mojitos in bars as salsa bands play the night away in the stunningly restored parts of Old Havana, while around the corner families spill onto the sidewalk out of cramped apartments to cool off and play dominos in the city’s decaying streets.

A citywide restoration project of Old Havana began after the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982, led by city historian Eusebio Leal Spengler, who is said to be of Jewish descent but does not self-identify as such, and has led a campaign to restore properties in Old Havana that has yet to reach the area of the former Jewish neighborhood.

The atmosphere at the synagogue on this particular day is distinctly one of a Latin American Jewish community ‒ small, yet very active. An adult Israeli folk-dance ensemble’s practice is in full swing in the auditorium, a preschooler with her babysitter nearby traipses around the entrance hall, and the Patronato library is open, with the facility’s social media director Ernesto Hernandez Miyares busy at his computer.

As a religious minority, the Jewish institutions are permitted computers with Internet access and video games for children, which is still rare in the Communist state.

Due to the US embargo on Cuba, in place since 1960, all Americans are restricted to one of 12 categories if they want to travel to Cuba, even after the restoration in 2015 of diplomatic relations between the two countries. And while American Jewish groups visit and support Cuban Jewry under the “religious reasons” category, the Canadian Jewish community has a long history of ties with the Jews of Cuba. Canadians, with no such limitations, generally represent the largest group of tourists to Cuba.

Cuba also is becoming a more popular destination among young Israelis traveling after their army service. They are often among the visitors to the synagogue, joining in the Friday night Shabbat services and recently helping to fill the Beth Shalom sanctuary during the High Holy Days along with a group of American Jewish guests.

On a recent Saturday morning, as the Centro Hebreo Safaradi was closing up following Shabbat morning services, three Jewish visitors from Venezuela stopped by, and looking at the photo exhibition of the Jewish Community on the wall identified an uncle in one of them. After briefly peeking into the already locked sanctuary, they left a small donation for the congregation, noting how emotional it was to return to where members of their family had worshipped and to see the synagogue still functioning.

Like the neighborhood buildings whose once magnificent façades are now fading, both synagogues have seen better days, though with help from Jewish donations from abroad, including from the American Jewish Cuban community, they have been partially refurbished The Orthodox synagogue, Adath Israel, is located in Old Havana and is supported by an Orthodox community in Panama. It holds three daily prayer services and both Ashkenazim and Sephardim pray together in order to have an allmale minyan.

Some 80 families are active in the synagogue, which has the only mikve in Cuba, though it counts 120 families as members. In a country where all meat is hard to come by – it is a punishable crime to slaughter and eat a cow without government permission – the synagogue offers free meals and snacks after its services, as well as a festive meal of either fish or chicken at Friday night dinners, complete with fresh-baked challot.

After Dworin finishes with her unexpected visitors, she begins to recount the history of the community, from the time when it is said three Marranos accompanied Christopher Columbus to the island to the arrival of Sefardi Jews from Turkey in the 1800s, escaping the Ottoman rulers, and in the 1920s and ’30s when there was a great immigration from Eastern Europe. It is a speech she knows by heart, reciting it several times a week to visitors.

THE COMMUNITY counts its official beginnings from 1906 when 11 American Jews, who had come to work in Cuba, established its first synagogue – a Reform synagogue, which conducted its services in English.

“Many of the Eastern Europeans came with the idea that they would continue to the United States. Most did not want their children growing up in the shtetl life. They had no idea what Cuba was and thought it would be easier to get a visa from here. Some got them and others stayed,” says the septuagenarian, sitting at a table with both the Cuban and Israeli flags in front of her.

Among the latter were her parents, who came from Pinsk, Belarus.

Most became peddlers, later setting up shop, ironically, on Calle Inquisidor (Inquisitioner Street) and the environs around it in Old Havana.

They sent their children to university to study medicine, law and other professions, becoming a part of Cuban society. Today, nothing is left of the once bustling commercial street ‒ building fronts are crumbling, streets are pockmarked, and water runs down them freely.

A view of Calle Inquisidor (Inquisitioner Street) in Old Havana, once a bustling street where many Jewish immigrants set up shops (photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)

“Templo Beth Shalom was inaugurated on October 27, 1955 by President [Fulgencio] Batista,” Dworin recites. “There was a small chapel and a big community room where there were theater and movie performances, a Sunday school and also a day school. At the beginning of the revolution, everyone agreed that Batista was a dictator and there was a lot of corruption.”

In general, there was no anti-Semitism manifested during the Cuban revolution and, for the most part, Jews tried to be nonpolitical. But, when fighting between Batista and the revolutionary forces became too dangerous, parents who remembered the violence from the Bolshevik revolution in the Eastern European ghettos began sending their children and money abroad.

Many Jewish families lost businesses and properties, and eventually the majority of the Jewish population left in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly to Florida via Curaçao or Jamaica.

For some 30 years after the Cuban revolution, any religious life for both Christians and Jews had to be conducted almost surreptitiously, and the majority of the remaining Jews distanced themselves from the synagogues and any public practice of Jewish traditions for fear it would affect their ability to study or get jobs.

Only a handful of Jews, who are now senior citizens, saw to the upkeep of the three synagogues that remained of the five in Havana.

“In the ’70s and ’80s, the majority of the people in the synagogues were elderly and retired,” Dworin continues with her recitation. With ties between Israel and Cuba broken in 1973, the small community would clandestinely celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, she says.

THOUGH THE elder Castro cut ties with Israel, relations with Cuba’s Jewish community have always been cordial and the Castros have permitted the Jewish community to receive all the necessary supplies to practice their religion.

Beth Shalom’s first vice president, David Prinstein, 53, says, “From 1960 to 1990, there was almost no community life. It was the older people who kept the synagogues going. Adela [Dworin] was one of those people. My family is from Poland and for most of my youth I was not part of the Jewish community.” The main holidays, he adds, were celebrated at home with his grandparents, with his grandmother making the best matza ball soup.

Nicely peppered with abundant historical information and detail, Dworin has failed, however, to mention her own role throughout all those forbidden years, when she was among the handful of Cuban Jews, who ensured that the ner tamid, the eternal light, of the synagogues continued to burn and services were held, even in minimal fashion.

That very important bit of information about her past can explain why now Dworin is quietly smiling, despite the numerous visitors and interruptions to her planned daily schedule, as she sees the activities at the Patronato over the past 15 years rejuvenating the Jewish community she and others carefully and quietly maintained during more difficult times.

Now teetering at about 1,500 people and with many of the youth leaving for Israel or elsewhere, seeking better economic opportunities since the mid 1990s, the Cuban Jewish community is a mere fraction of what it was in its heyday during the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the population reached about 15,000.

Still, with its core group of active members, it is hard to characterize the community as “dying.”

It may be struggling, perhaps, but since the 1990s, when Cuba officially began defining itself as “secular” rather than “atheist,” there has been a slow resurgence of Cuban Jewish communal life.

The three remaining synagogues in Havana and community buildings in the smaller Jewish communities in towns such as Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, and Santiago de Cuba also have had new life breathed into them and now offer a variety of different religious services and community groups. There is also no distinction between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in any of the synagogues, and many of their programs and events are held jointly.

THE EFFORTS of the senior members are not lost on the youth of the community and there is an active youth movement, camps and 100-student strong Sunday school classes. Sometimes members of the youth groups make visits to the elderly, as well.

Much effort is put into providing the youth with a vibrant and meaningful place in the Jewish community, helping them learn the significance of being a Cuban Jew and helping them find their places in society.

Through foreign donations from the JDC, the Canadian Jewish community, community and other groups, delegations of Jewish Cuban youth have participated in Birthright trips as part of Canadian missions, March of the Living, and Israeli folk-dancing competitions.

In 2013, they participated for the first time in the Maccabiah Games in Israel, quickly putting together a delegation of 46 members in six months in karate, table tennis, softball, archery and indoor soccer, thanks to the financial support of the JDC, which also provided supplies including uniforms, shoes, mineral water, supplemental monthly food packets, and a coach from Argentina, who traveled to Cuba for 10 days of intensive training with the indoor soccer team.

The Cubans were thrilled to come back with five medals, including two bronze in Karate by Abel Hernandez Eskenazi and Herberto Bedova, and a gold and silver in team archery by the brother-sister team of Rafael and Roxana Gonzalez, who also won a bronze medal.

“It was a dream that seemed very far away.

We are proud of the results,” says Prinstein, who accompanied the delegation to the Maccabiah Games. “It was beautiful to see Cuba go in with the biggest flag and everybody cheered for us. We got to meet with President Shimon Peres. These were very significant moments in our lives.”

Hernandez Eskenazi, 16, who was flag bearer for the delegation, said he felt extremely proud representing both his country and his community.

“Our medals were not only a personal achievement, but also one for the whole Cuban Jewish community, which gave us this opportunity and supported us the whole time,” he says.

“As a Jew, the best thing I feel is exactly that ‒ belonging to a people with a great and amazing history, with a great resistance over time.”

Despite the complexities of life in Cuba, some young Jews want to stay and are keen on finding their place in their tiny community.

“It is an honor to belong to the Jewish youth of Cuba because, despite my young age, I am able to be an active member of our community,” says 16-year-old Jonathan Rosado Carrillo, who recently helped lead Yom Kippur services at Beth Shalom. Fasting for the holiday, he became unwell at the bima and almost fainted, but recuperated enough by the end of the day to be able to blow the shofar.

“While I was fasting, I reflected on the past sacrifices, which those who maintained our heroic tradition have made. I was able to do the mitzva during the 25-hour fast. And, at the end, God gave me the strength to be able to blow the shofar with all the inspiration that a Jew can feel at that moment. I feel that the best thing I am doing is giving my small part to help develop those who come after me, in order to guarantee the continuity of Judaism in Cuba.”

His biggest challenge at the moment, says Rosado Carrillo, is to learn and study more from the Torah every day to continue his legacy as a Jew.

Though treading water, the community has survived, despite a great number of intermarriages, because 90 percent of intermarried couples decide to raise their children as Jews, says Dr. Mayra Levy, president of the Centro Hebreo Sefaradi de Cuba. The conversions of the non-Jewish partner has been deemed kosher during the visit of then Ashkenazi chief rabbi Meir Lau in 1994.

The families are embraced by the community and even Chabad emissaries soon discovered that “things are done differently in Cuba” and had to admit defeat when the community refused to accept a children’s camp that would only accept children who were considered halachically Jewish through their mothers.

A rabbi from Chile comes several times a year to perform life-cycle events. The last Jewish marriages in Havana were held three years ago when 21 couples were married in a joint ceremony.

“It is less expensive to hold one reception for all of the couples rather than to have 21 separate receptions,” Levy explains.

Grooms wearing tallitot [prayer shawls] enter the Beth Shalom synagogue with their brides during a wedding ceremony (photo credit: REUTERS)

Indeed, says Prinstein, the community’s biggest challenges are now to find ways for greater involvement of the younger generation with Jewish communal life to help them see the importance of their Jewish heritage, and finding a way to make the community financially self-sufficient for its daily maintenance.

But, the few Jewish handicrafts they sell are not enough to maintain them, and the economic situation in the country is such that synagogue members can’t be asked to contribute to the upkeep of daily expenses.

“Our goal is to find some way, some element, which will make the administration of our community sustainable,” says Prinstein, whose two older sons are now living in the United States after living in Israel for three years. His daughter and younger son are still in Havana and both are active in the Jewish community. His daughter is president of the youth organization and coordinator of the youth folk dance ensemble, and his son is a youth counselor and participates in religious services by reading from the Torah on Saturdays.

Still, Levy notes that some 60-100 youth leaders have left the island in the past few years, including one of her two sons.

“The young people see an unsure future and prefer to go on aliya and the old people are dying,” she says. “I don’t have a crystal ball, nobody knows what will happen here, if the youth will want to stay. The problem is economic.”

She says, however, donations from groups like the JDC, the Canadian Jewish Congress and International B’nai B’rith supporting special projects has made life easier for the Jewish community.

It is not easy to let go of the 100-year-old history of the community, Levy says.

“I was handed the baton, and now I am looking to see who I can give it over to,” Levy adds.

There were some 150 worshippers at the synagogue for the Ne’ila closing Yom Kippur service this year, she notes.

One of the more important and successful projects the synagogue is involved with is a seniors club three times a week for about 80 people, both Jews and non-Jews, who are widowed or alone, with their children abroad.

“They are not ‘old people.’ These people are the ones who assured that our community survived,” Levy declares.

The center has one van of its own and another rented one that pick up and return the participants to their homes. The seniors spend the day at the Sefaradi Center doing tai chi, making handicrafts, playing card games, entering domino competitions, and having a meal. When there is money they also take trips around the city, Levy says.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center has donated photos and videos of testimony from people who escaped to Cuba from Nazi Europe and every year school groups come to the synagogue to learn about that part of Cuban history, Levy says, and how the Nazis persecuted Jews, Gypsies and the disabled.

Although Cuba is pro-Arab in the international political arena, it has not led to anti- Semitic incidents as is the case in other countries, says Prinstein.

“Politics are very complicated, but Jews live here with no fear of verbal assault and free of anti-Semitism,” he says. “I think the community feels a sort of respect for the country that accepted our grandparents.

“It is also important for us that we have a Jewish state. We hope that at some time Israel and Cuba will resume joint relations. We feel like children whose parents have divorced. I think Israel and Cuba have a lot in common. We have a great love for Cuba, but we love Israel, too. We belong to both.”

The slow process of normalization now in progress has brought about some positive changes, says Prinstein.

“Maybe we citizens would rather the changes take place faster than they can be made. But the country is taking safe, firm steps,” he says.

“Maybe this will make it easier for the new generation to see themselves growing up here in Cuba and not having to leave their country.”

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