Cigars, salsa and shmaltz

Cuban Jewish history is fraught with peaks and valleys.

max farber cub 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
max farber cub 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A year before our son Max was to become bar mitzva, my wife Karyn and I sought to do something different. While wanting to celebrate this momentous milestone in our son's life, we also wanted to use the opportunity to learn as a family and engage in tikkun olam, making the world a better place. Since beginning work with the Canadian Jewish Congress more than 20 years ago, one of the functions I assisted in fulfilling was a charitable drive known as "Moess Chitin." Through the money collected in this campaign, CJC provides kosher-for-Pessah foods to the small but tenacious community of about 1,500 Jews in Havana, Cuba. Since the 1962 US embargo of Cuba, CJC has become a lifeline in helping to preserve Jewish custom and tradition in the only communist regime in the western hemisphere. As a result, I came to know this community well. I saw in the Havana Jewish community families under immense odds struggling to maintain their faith with great pride and dignity. What better way to show our support then actually planning our family simha at the Havana synagogue (Gran Sinagoga Bet Shalom, adjoining the Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba) over the winter holiday season. It started off small. After all, we couldn't expect all our family and friends to invest as would we in a trip to Cuba - or so we thought. Invitations to our relatives and closest friends were sent, and to our astonishment more than 50 accepted. It was indeed an eclectic group. Grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, colleagues from work, friends from our synagogue, indeed our cantor, Ben Silverberg, joined us and led both Friday night services and Saturday services on the day of Max's bar mitzva. It was in fact the first time in almost 40 years that the Havana Jewish community had the services of a cantor officiating at a bar mitzva. The beauty of Judaism is that no matter where you are in the world, no matter what language you speak, the Sabbath service is prayed in Hebrew, a beautiful and common bond between Cuban and Canadian Jews. Joining the Canadian contingent, about 100 members of the community put on a festive luncheon after the service in which the Canadians were treated to Cuban delicacies, songs and dances from the synagogue's children - a joyous display of survival in a state not known for its support of any religion. Being Hanukka and realizing as well that this was the largest Jewish group from Canada ever to visit the Cuban Jewish community, we decided to use the opportunity to bring gifts to the community. Clothes, toys, Hebrew DVDs and CDs, toothpaste, pharmaceuticals, hair gel, shampoo, canned goods, batteries, pens, pencils, religious necessities, prayer books and much more were packed into dozens of suitcases and left behind as our Hanukka gifts to the community. In fact, thanks to Canadian pharmaceutical philanthropist Barry Sherman, the medicines we brought make the Jewish community's pharmacy the best stocked in Cuba. Cuban Jewish history is fraught with peaks and valleys. The community was founded 100 years ago by 11 American Jews who established Cuba's first synagogue, the United Hebrew Congregation, a Reform temple that conducted services in English. Two waves of immigration followed, the first by Sephardi Jews from Turkey, followed by their Ashkenazi cousins from Eastern Europe. Cubans referred to them as Polacos, even if they weren't from Poland. But fully 95 percent of Jews fled when the revolution brought Fidel Castro to power, taking a lot of wealth with them. Four hundred families, or about 1,200 individuals, remain in Havana, where a burgeoning interest in Judaism over the past 15 years has manifested itself in youth and seniors groups and the Tikkun Olam Hebrew Sunday School. The remaining 300 or so Jews are scattered in Santiago, Guantanamo, Santa Clara and other smaller centers. While there's no official anti-Semitism and relations with the government are described as good, Cuba provided training camps for Palestinian terrorists and participated in embargoes and sanctions against Israel, relations with which were severed in 1973. In the late 1960s, a number of Jews were sent to forced labor camps for political dissenters, people of faith, homosexuals and would-be migr s. Jewish activists were under constant surveillance. Things opened up in 1991. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's main benefactor, Castro delivered a speech, followed by a law, permitting members of the Communist Party to participate in religious life. Shortly thereafter things began to improve for the remnants of Cuban Jewry. Indeed a first-ever meeting between Castro and Cuban Jewish community leaders led to a unique Hanukka invitation to El Presidente. As the story was told to us by community leaders, when Castro asked what the importance of Hanukka was, he was told it was the "revolution of the Jews." His participation that year at the Gran Sinagoga's Hanukka festival is remembered with reverence. Proudly displayed in the hall is a photo of a green-fatigued Castro visiting the synagogue on December 20, 1998. Further such meetings helped immensely in paving the way for our Pessah shipments in years following. Our family and friends left Cuba informed and proud of what our Jewish brothers and sisters have accomplished in Cuba. Our son Max came away with a better appreciation of what life can offer and how as Jews we have a responsibility one for the other. That's the sort of connection we sought, and experienced. The Torah portion our son chanted on December 23 fell on the last day of Hanukka, also known as the Festival of Lights. It's an occasion, Max aptly noted in his speech, which "serves as a very important lesson that, as Jews, wherever we are in the world, we can come together in joy and hope to celebrate in the light and warmth of our holidays and our traditions." The writer is the chief operating officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress. Ron Csillag assisted in research and reporting.