As the world focuses its attention on Cuba's ailing President Fidel Castro - who was too sick to attend his own 80th birthday bash in Havana - Cuba's Jews are enjoying a rare celebration of their own.
For the next month, the island's tiny Jewish community will mark its 100th anniversary with religious services, music, dancing, parties and speeches.
The festivities were to begin Thursday evening with a cultural gala at Havana's National Fine Arts Museum. On Dec. 1, local historian Maritza Corrales was scheduled to present her book, "The Chosen Island: Jews in Cuba," at the biblically themed Hotel Raquel in the capital city's historic colonial quarter.
Throughout December, the Emuna dance company will perform contemporary Jewish folk dances in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara, while in Santiago de Cuba, the works of Jewish artists will be exhibited at Congregacion Hatikva. The leader of that synagogue, Eugenia Farin Levy, also will present her book, "History of Cuba's Jewish Community in Maps."
Some 1,500 Jews live in Cuba, more than 85 percent of them in Havana, according to Adela Dworin, president of Havana's largest synagogue, the Patronato.
Sources in Miami, however, put the actual number of Jews in Cuba at 600 to 800. They point out that nearly 700 Cuban Jews have left for Israel in the past 10 years, with nearly half of them eventually relocating to South Florida.
Dworin assumed leadership of the Jewish community in March after its longtime president, 80-year-old Jose Miller, died of a heart attack. Miller's grandson, William Miller, 30, is the community's vice-president.
"For us it's very sad not to have Dr. Miller with us because this celebration was his idea," Dworin told JTA in a phone interview Thursday from Havana. "The actual centenary of the community was in August, but we had to postpone it after he died."
Jews have been living in Cuba off and on for centuries, but it wasn't until 1906 that 11 American Jews living on the island established a Reform synagogue, the United Hebrew Congregation, with services in English. They also consecrated a cemetery in Guanabacoa, on the outskirts of Havana, officially marking the start of institutionalized Jewish life in Cuba.
By 1959 Cuba had an estimated 15,000 Jews, for the most part wealthy merchants with shoe factories, department stores and mansions. Following Castro's sweeping confiscation of private property, most of the Jews fled to South Florida, with smaller numbers immigrating to Israel and various Latin American countries.
Havana currently has three functioning synagogues, while Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba have one each. In addition, much smaller Jewish communities hold regular Shabbat services at private homes in the provincial capitals of Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus and Guantanamo.
Dworin said several prominent rabbis are in Cuba for the festivities, including Chile's Samuel Szteinhandler and Arthur Schneier, founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. Also set to attend the opening-night commemoration was Caridad Diego, chief of religious affairs of the Cuban Communist Party's Central Committee.
The islandwide event marking 100 years of organized Jewish life in Cuba was supposed to include a visit to the Patronato by Fidel Castro himself. But that had to be canceled when the bearded leader was rushed to a hospital in late July for emergency surgery of an undisclosed nature. The illness forced Castro to turn power over to his brother Raul, 75, for the first time since 1959.
By coincidence, the Jewish festivities overlap the Communist regime's official commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces. Yet Castro didn't even make it to a military parade in his honor, telling supporters in a statement read on government-run TV, "It is with great sorrow that I bid you farewell for not being able to personally thank you and embrace every one of you."
Castro has not been seen in public since his surgery. Foreign experts and many Cubans are convinced he has terminal cancer.
"I don't believe this is a moment for celebration," said Moises Asis, an anti-Castro exile living in Miami. "What's there to celebrate?"
Asis taught Hebrew and led the B'nai B'rith Havana chapter before fleeing Cuba in 1992 with his wife and daughter. He told JTA that Jews, like the rest of Cuba's 11.2 million inhabitants, enjoy no basic political or economic freedoms.
"Everything is about money," he said. "Cuba may have the label of a communist country, but the reality is one of brutal capitalism. Workers are exploited more by the Castro regime today than they were in England in the 19th century."
Yet Asis acknowledged that the regime has never been anti-Semitic, despite Castro's vicious criticism of Israel and historic closeness with Palestinian terrorist groups. And private Israeli companies have invested heavily in Cuban citrus and real-estate ventures.
"The discrimination in Cuba is not specifically against Jews but against all religions including Jews," Asis said. "It's true we had some privileges, but the Jewish community was so small and so weak that it would have been very easy for the government to destroy that community if it wanted. When it comes to treatment of Jews, Cuba was one of the most tolerant countries in the communist world."
The Castro regime has never stopped US or Canadian Jewish organizations from delivering wheelchairs, school supplies and kosher food to the local Jewish community.
Robert Safran, medical director of the Cuba-America Jewish Mission in Berkeley, Calif., has been to the island 11 times. His wife, June - who is now on her 25th trip to Cuba - directs the mission, which has a specific license from the U.S. Treasury Department to provide humanitarian assistance to Cuba.
Cuba experts speculate that U.S. policy toward the island might change now that the Democrats control Congress. Regulations regarding humanitarian and possibly even leisure travel to Cuba could soon be relaxed.
Safran says he isn't sure what might happen.
"A lot of American groups are going to Cuba to help the Jews, but it probably doesn't make any difference politically," he said. "It isn't going to change the policy of our country, and it isn't going to change policies in Cuba. Most of the people I know who are active in these efforts stay away from politics as much as possible."
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