Sound the shofar

An American rabbi reinvigorates his Judaism in Havana.

By SHMUEL HERZFELD
August 3, 2006 12:17
cuba shofar 88

cuba shofar 88. (photo credit: )

 
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The man approached me after the meeting with the group in the synagogue had ended. In a quiet undertone, he asked if he could meet with me privately. I said we could meet outside our hotel that night at 11 p.m. When we met, he explained to me that there was a small group of people who had taught him Judaism. They had taught him how to read Hebrew and taught him the stories of the Hebrew Bible. They had taught him to love Israel and to recite the words of the prayers. They had even convinced him to get circumcised in a hospital two years earlier. When I asked why I hadn't met these people in synagogue, he explained that while he was Jewish, the rest of the group was not, and the Jewish community was afraid to welcome gentiles into the congregation. While the Jewish community was protected by the regime, they were not permitted to proselytize, and thus it was too dangerous for them to welcome gentiles and risk being associated with proselytizing. Since his friend had no phone in his apartment, we could not call him. I asked him to take me to the leader of the group that had taught him, and at around midnight we began to walk through the still-crowded streets of Havana. With approximately a 40 percent unemployment rate, the streets are crowded all the time, filled with men playing dominoes or lounging around. As I walked past the crumbling dilapidated buildings, I was concerned about where we going, and even wondered if this could be a trap. We had spent the evening at a July fourth party in the home of the head of the US mission to Cuba. There, we met some of the Cuban dissidents. One man showed me the scars on his face, said he had been imprisoned for 10 years and had many broken bones to show for it. Another man - blind - told me he had been imprisoned for 26 months for meeting with dissidents. A third person wore a pin of her husband on her jacket. He was a doctor who was imprisoned for voicing opposition to the death penalty. She and 75 other women are known as the Women in White: Women whose husbands have recently been arrested for being dissidents and who arrive together at mass every Sunday dressed in white. We were told there were a lot of informants at this gathering and that perhaps one of them had reported on us. We were warned that some of the people who said they were dissidents were likely informants, and I was concerned as to the true identity of the man leading me through Havana in the middle of the night. AS WE WALKED through the streets, I began to replay scenes from our incredibly moving week in Cuba, a police state with multiple police officers on every block watching everything you do. Political billboards are everywhere. There are pictures of Bush with Hitler's moustache, pictures which read, "Bush: The Evil Assassin." I remembered the times we had spent singing, dancing and eating in Havana's three synagogues. There was so much joy and fellowship in the room as we connected with our brothers and sisters through prayers and Torah. The Adat Israel Synagogue had 40 people at their morning minyan. They had many vibrant activities and conducted full services twice a day. And yet, I couldn't forget the dark side. There were people who told us privately that so and so is an informant; or requested that we not help them in public as any help will be confiscated. As I left the synagogue one morning after teaching a class, I was approached by a figure from the synagogue every few blocks asking for help. Who knew who could be trusted? I remembered the surprise I had one day when on my way to synagogue, a man called out to me: "Shalom." He said he was Jewish but that he could not come to synagogue as he had a job at a hotel called Rakel. He invited me to visit him there, and being a Jewish-style hotel, it served matza ball soup, borscht and humous. It even had mezuza cases on every doorpost. I never found that man at the hotel, but our group did find a Jewish busboy, Jamal, and a Jewish maid, Risa. Right in the middle of the lobby, with policemen watching us very closely, we began to sing "Hineh mah tov u'manaim," and then our Kohanim gave the priestly blessing and Risa began to cry. As we said good-bye, many of us cried along with her. I remembered Jose Levy, the man who is the head of the Sephardi Synagogue, the smallest synagogue we visited. Maybe its smallness has to do with the fact that Jose is persona non grata with the regime. He was a captain in the Navy in 1980 when he applied for an exit visa. Not only was his visa rejected, but he lost his job and for a long time was unable to work. When I asked him what we could do to help, he said, "First, come visit and lift us with your presence. Inspire us and hug us. And, second, share with us your songs and your words of Torah." We davened the evening prayer service in his synagogue that night. I remembered the time we spent at the Patronato, the largest synagogue in Cuba, where we enjoyed a mix of Israeli and Caribbean dance with the synagogue youth. And finally, I remembered the shofar I had blasted upon seeing the statue of Jose Marti, who is beloved in Cuba as the liberator of the Cuban people. A very large statue of him sits near Fidel Castro's office. When I saw the statue, I blasted the shofar and held a piece of matza, both symbols of freedom in the Jewish tradition, and I prayed for freedom for the Jews of Cuba. I declared, "Dror ba-aretz, let there be freedom in the land. Let there be freedom so that people can voice opposition without going to jail. Let there be freedom so people can get more than six pounds of rice and six pounds of sugar a month. Let there be freedom so that people can make more than $20 a month. Let there be freedom so people can purchase their own home. Let there be freedom so that local Cubans can have permission to do simple acts like entering our hotel." WE FINALLY reached our destination. Even though it was past midnight, my friend called up to the fourth floor in order to gain access. I climbed the broken steps in the dark, not knowing what to expect. I came to a tiny apartment which had a Hanukka sign and a mezuza case on the outside door. There, I met a man named Joseph and his 6-year-old son, Mishael. (The biblical Mishael chose to be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than bow down to an idol.) We sat in their tiny dining room (which was also their living room and kitchen) as Joseph told me his story. Mishael looked on with his black velvet kippa. In back of him was some matza, matza meal and an eclectic collection of Jewish books. There was also a picture of Israel prominently displayed. Written on the wall of the kitchen were the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. When Castro reintroduced religion to Cuban society in the 1990s, Joseph and a few others embraced Judaism. They met and taught each other Hebrew and whatever else they could discover about Judaism. They had even circumcised themselves as adults. That night, they begged me to teach them about Judaism. When I asked them if they knew how to keep the rules of kashrut, they asked for instructions on how to keep kosher when one survives on rations. I felt that I was in the presence of spiritual giants. I gave them my siddur and any Jewish books I had brought along to Cuba. Then we left Joseph and I asked my friend to walk with me back to my room. I had one more thing to give him. At our hotel, I went up to my room and gave him my tallit. I begged him to think of me as he prays. He told me that just a few hours earlier, he had received a message that he was granted permission to move to Israel. We embraced and made plans to meet up again in Jerusalem. Afterwards, one of my friends from our group asked me if the tallit had sentimental value for me. "Now it does," I replied.

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