Pessah in Cuba: A tale of two synagogues

Passover has a special symbolism for the Jewish community of Cuba.

havana synagogue 298.88 (photo credit: Jason Gilinsky)
havana synagogue 298.88
(photo credit: Jason Gilinsky)
While the tale of the Jews' exodus from Egypt symbolizes liberation for Jews all over the world, it is also symbolic for the resilient Jewish community of Cuba. This tiny community of 1,200 Jews, of which 900 live in Havana, are but a fraction of one percent of the island's 11 million people. Judaism is seen as an oddity of sorts, even in this peculiar country where Catholicism, Santeria, and Marxism converge. "There is no anti-Semitism here, just ignorance," according to Alberto Fernandez Barrocas, 59, vice president of the Adath Israel Synagogue of Old Havana. "People assume that Jews don't believe in anything since they don't believe in Jesus." Amid the crumbling Spanish colonial structures and dank Caribbean air, Synagoga Adath Israel had a Seder last Wednesday night, courtesy of Chabad Lubavitch. The Ashkenazi synagogue was founded in 1925 and hosted approximately 50 people at its Seder, which was orchestrated by two Chabad delegates who randomly selected people to read the Spanish translation aloud. Much to the chagrin of Brazilian-born Lubavitcher Simcha Zajac, 22, there were two things missing from the Seder plate. The maror (Chrain), or horseradish, and the korban pesach, a shank of lamb, which Zajac had stowed away in his luggage, were confiscated by customs officials at Havana airport. Zajac described the strange encounter, "They took it and I couldn't do anything since I don't have a religious visa," he lamented. "I should have at least hid a little bit of chrain in a separate place. This is my first Pessah without maror." Fortunately, there was plenty of matza delivered from various Jewish organizations in Canada. Meat, however, was another story. Since he took power in 1959, Cuban President Fidel Castro has allowed a kosher butcher to operate in Havana, but under the same ration system imposed on all Cubans. Thus, every citizen receives a "Libreta," or ration card, which entitles him/her to exactly two pounds of meat per month. Since the quantities are fixed and so small, the kosher butcher opens once a week to distribute rations for his private clientele. Even Chabad was unable to bypass Fidel's ration system to procure extra meat, so the main course was gefilte fish flown in from Panama. Across town in the leafy Havana suburb of Vedado another synagogue had a Seder of a little different flavor. The conservative-style Synagoga Bet Shalom is nicknamed "El Patronato" because when it was founded in 1953, it was owned and operated by various owners or patrons. Mariano Mirelman, who studied Jewish education in his native Argentina, led the Seder here. He has been working with this community for two years and has seen interest in Judaism soar, particularly among the youth. The vast majority of the 75 people who attended this lively Seder were under the age of 18, and many presumably came unescorted. "It's safe to assume that 90 percent of these kids have only one Jewish parent and most do not have a Jewish mother," asserted Mirelman. Mirelman connects this burgeoning interest in Judaism to a greater tolerance towards religion in Cuban society, endorsed by a speech Castro delivered in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Before people were afraid to be open about their religion. In that speech Fidel basically said that it is okay to be religious and still be a good Communist," said Mirelman. Jews came to Cuba in several immigration waves. First, in the early 1900's North American Jews came to pursue business interests on the island. Then, in the 1910's, Sephardic Turkish Jews came to Cuba after the Ottoman Empire's collapse. This was followed by a large contingent of Ashkenazi Jews fleeing persecution from Europe in the 1920's and unable to enter the United States immediately due to the Quota Laws. Most planned on staying in Cuba for only two years, but chose to remain to seize opportunities in the sugar and textile industries. The Jewish community in Cuba flourished and swelled to around 15,000 until Castro overthrew the capitalist regime of Fulgencio Batista to redistribute Cuban wealth and reshape Cuban society. According to Adela Dworkin, now President of El Patronato, who was a law student at the time of the revolution, "Most of the Jews sympathized with the revolution until their businesses and properties were nationalized, and then 90 percent of them fled." Between the early 1960s and the early 1990s, Cuban Jewry was on the verge of disappearing. "During those years, we didn't even have a minyan for Kol Nidre," she declared. Unsure as to what kept the Jewish flame alive during those years, Dworkin seems ecstatic about what she sees today. As a law student in 1959, she was instrumental in her family's decision to remain in Cuba to "see the revolution." Now she plays a pivotal role in the Cuban Jewish revolution. "To me, liberation means a community of active, passionate kids who are proud to be Jewish," said Dworkin. She beamed with delight as the children of Havana recited the Four Questions with such ease that it was hard to believe they were almost forgotten.