Zooming in

In search of a new focus, an American photographer visits Cuba and becomes enthralled with its Jews.

cuba bar mitzvah 88 224 (photo credit: Linda Hirsch)
cuba bar mitzvah 88 224
(photo credit: Linda Hirsch)
If anyone had told me seven years ago that I would become a Spanish-speaking advocate of Cuban Jews, I might not have believed them. I had been a psychologist and photojournalist and was focused on commercial photography. As I approached the age of 50, my desire for a new challenge grew and I turned toward sources of inspiration. A single movement of music, composed by a client, provided the catalyst for a trip to Cuba. That visit to Cuba in 2001 evolved into a family reunion, an education in Cuban Jewish history and life and an effort to enable Jewish Cuban teenagers to create and share Jewish life stories with others throughout the Diaspora. I hope to inspire others by sharing my journey and the resulting connection with Jewish Cubans, particularly in Cienfuegos. I have returned to Cuba, traveling to numerous provinces under a religious license granted to my congregation (Beth El, Sudbury, Massachusetts) by the US Department of the Treasury. The leap from US shores to Cuban ones was a direct consequence of my desire to refocus my skills and recalibrate my soul. I was intrigued by Cuba's role as a historical Jewish portal to the Caribbean and the Americas, the source of diverse cultural and ritual observance, the home of a distant relative and a haven for a small, but feisty Jewish community. Cuba's Jewish population began to decline with the revolution in 1959. The new government collectivized all property ownership, resulting in the departure of most Jews with means, primarily to the US. Numbering 15,000 in the 1950s, the Jewish population diminished precipitously during the 1960s and stabilized at around 1,200 in the mid-to-late 1990s after Russian influence had waned. The Jews of Cuba have openly engaged in religious renewal since the end of Russian influence, around 1993. Cuban Jews proudly display Judaica, celebrate major holidays and strive to renew long-forgotten rituals. They receive assistance, especially from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and have become the object of increasing, but not always beneficial, curiosity. Despite this interest and assistance, the population has dropped further since the Jewish Centennial in 2006 and hovers around 1,000. Jewish influence in Cuba is inscribed on doorposts of homes, cemetery gates, gravestones, including a geniza for worn-out Torah scrolls and prayer books, and street signs in a restored "Jewish District" of Old Havana. Hotel Raquel, formerly a commercial building, has been restored to its original art deco beauty. Tourists (and as of spring 2008, Cuban nationals with sufficient funds) can stay in rooms named for patriarchs and matriarchs, purchase Cuban-created, Jewish-themed art, collect fine Israeli-crafted Judaica and dine on Jewish-style delicacies while listening to Israeli music. Nearby is a kosher butcher which opens infrequently to provide extra meat rations to Jewish Cubans. MY PHOTO-DOCUMENTATION of and support for one tiny Jewish community, Cienfuegos, formed the basis for an evolving project, "Leap of Faith - Jewish Cuban Connections." This tiny community of about 35, including spouses of other faiths and children, is located more than four hours, by bus, from Havana. It had been outside the mainstream of assistance, ritual education and activity. Rebeca Langus Rodriguez, its dedicated leader, had been chosen by her predecessor in 1993, as he departed for Israel. This coincided with the beginning of the Jewish renewal and inspired Rebeca's discovery of her Jewish identity and Polish ancestry. I first met the Cienfuegos community in 2001, as part of a group from Congregation Beth El, a synagogue that my husband and I had recently joined. Our trip was led by Cantor Lorel Zar-Kessler and husband Arnie and began in Havana. We worshiped at each of three synagogues and spent several days there. It was during this visit that I reunited with a cousin whom I'd not seen since childhood. Susan is a trilingual journalist, anthropologist and eco-tourism guide. Her straight, black hair now untamed and silver, she had moved to California from New England during adolescence and became increasingly radicalized at University of California/Berkeley. She moved to Canada to protest the Vietnam War, traveled throughout Africa and fell in love with a Cuban engineer in Angola. They returned to Cuba, married and settled in Guantanamo, later moving to Vedado, a lovely section of Havana. Susan's skills, knowledge and facilitation of homestays have been invaluable. Our group departed Havana, traveling by bus to Cienfuegos, at the suggestion of June Safran, founder of the Cuban American Jewish Mission (CAJM, in Berkeley, California). Communications prior to our arrival had been frustrating since e-mail was unavailable and phone service was unreliable. As our bus approached the Hotel Union, we saw Rebeca and others awaiting us with smiling faces. Their resourcefulness and faith are assets I've come to appreciate. During the next few days, we gathered as one community, led religious services at Rebeca's home and hosted social activities at our hotel. Our presence allowed them unusual access, since prior to March 2008, Cuban nationals other than employees were routinely denied entry to tourist hotels. We shared rituals, games and meals, took day trips during which we shared Jewish life stories, teachings, hopes and gifts. We pledged to become sister-congregations, to facilitate their religious education and to help them enhance Rebeca's home as the center of their Jewish communal life. OUR GROUP shared enthusiastic stories and images with the Beth El community when we returned home. Although the group eventually disbanded, I had found my new focus. The dedication and intelligence of this microcosm of the Jewish Diaspora and the warmth and candor with which its members shared with us their personal dreams and communal hopes inspired me to help sustain their faith and resilience in the face of adversity. "Leap of Faith" began to evolve. My husband, Gary, and I established a Cuban assistance fund. I connected with an international support network, including the JDC, B'nai B'rith, individuals and organizations. Several of Cienfuegos' goals, set in 2001, have been achieved: religious education, improved communal/sanctuary space and e-mail access have all become realities. It has been wonderful to witness and document their achievements, especially two bar mitzvas in December 2004. Prayer books and Jewish literature fill new shelves; Judaica adorns doorposts and entry tiles; technology enables education and communication; kitchen appliances enhance food preparation; and their official e-mail account, approved in 2006, enables Rebeca to correspond frequently. Internet access remains limited. Gary and I returned to Cienfuegos in 2002. We arrived just before Purim and encouraged the teenagers to tell the story. Their costumes not yet finished, they performed with dramatic flair to a raucous audience. We learned other lessons. Ingredients for holiday hamentashen were not abundant. We walked and drove with an entourage to six different stores in 32ºC heat. When a bicycle race stopped traffic, I found myself stuck in a hot car, cradling precious chocolate bars. After discovering that Rebeca did not have an oven, we gathered the ingredients, including eggs donated by neighbors, and brought them to our hotel. I enlisted, Sixto, the jovial, full-bodied pastry chef, in a frenzied baking session. While we were preparing the hamentashen, I used the little Spanish I knew to share a creative Purim spiel with him and curious kitchen staff. Gary and I took a few celebratory photographs and delivered the hot pastries, just in time for our Purim party. On our third trip to Cuba, in February 2004, Gary served as group coordinator. We brought with us Rabbi Al Axelrad, former chaplain at Brandeis University. He was the first contemporary rabbi to conduct Shabbat services in and do teachings from the Torah in Cienfuegos. There are no full-time rabbis in Cuba, only visiting ones. Every two years, young Argentine couples, representatives of JDC, arrive to lead services and run activities at Cuba's largest central synagogue, in Havana. Departing Cienfuegos, Gary and I set off in a rental car to visit several provinces and towns untouched by tourism, in search of clues to Jewish and Cuban history. We witnessed changes in the landscape as cranes loomed above pristine sands, marking the encroachment of tourism, Cuba's fastest-growing industry. We visited with Rebeca's relatives in Remedios and stopped in Caibarien, a tiny Jewish community, delivering assistance and greetings to all. In December, 2004, I arrived just in time for the bar mitzvas of two Cienfuegos youths, in Havana. One was Rebeca's elder son, David, whose role as a potential leader has grown in the ensuing years. By late 2004, my energies had shifted from assistance to enablement. During this visit, I brainstormed with Cuban colleagues about ways to mentor and enable the teenagers, whom we agreed are the key to Cuban Jewish survival. The resulting project should create multimedia Jewish life stories, utilizing donated cameras, technology and additional funds from a small Puffin Foundation grant, with mentoring by artists and teachers from Cuba and elsewhere. The DVDs the teenagers produce can then be shared throughout Cuba, with other Diaspora communities, in Israel and elsewhere. During the first week of my 18-day centennial visit (2006), I learned more about Cuban life and values. Soon after arrival, I became ill and was cared for by the entire community. I was bathed, massaged, treated to homemade foods and a joyous Shabbat. By restoring my health and spirits, they restored my faith in humankind and in myself. A doctor who was also the outreach coordinator for the smaller Jewish communities arrived for Shabbat and I quipped, "I didn't know Cuban doctors made house calls." She proceeded to prepare a meal to restore my strength. During that evening's Shabbat service, she broke into tears, declaring it would be her last since she and her husband would soon leave for Israel. Families and communities are increasingly losing members and leaders who follow relatives and friends to new lands and possibilities. Nearing the end of the week, I shared Jewish teachings, using Spanish language materials given to me by the Anne Frank House (Amsterdam). Many included a striking image of an Anne Frank statue defaced by a blood-red swastika on its back. I had photographed this in 1984 and contributed the image to the Anne Frank House for exhibition and publication. Interestingly, soon after my Cuban visit, letters from the Frank family were discovered (2007), revealing their unrealized dream of emigrating to Cuba. Connections between my personal journey and those of Diaspora Jews continued to grow. BIDDING CIENFUEGOS farewell, Rebeca and David accompanied me by bus into Havana for the centennial celebrations. The centennial included an art exhibit in which David, who is training to become an art teacher and artist, participated. I socialized with Jewish community members who hungered for world news, and had the honor of attending galas, many of which showcased growing cultural and technological bonds with Israel. Representatives from many countries attended, bringing financial and moral support. In sobering contrast to these hopes for growth is the increasing exodus of Cuban Jews, further eroding potential leadership and participation. Recent historical and political events are cause for both celebration and concern regarding the welfare and future of Cuban Jewry. The leadership changes in 2008 have resulted in limited transportation, agrarian and trade reforms aimed at improving the infrastructure and meeting the growing demand for jobs, goods and food. Despite these signs, community leaders, younger Jews and those with family in other countries have grown increasingly impatient about and suspicious of the sincerity of promised reforms. No one can say for certain what the future holds. A sea change on both sides of the Florida straits will be necessary for renewal to flourish rather than symbolize what was or might have been. Being an outsider teaches one patience, compassion and fortitude. In the face of paradoxical and swiftly-changing circumstances, I have become increasingly aware of "glass walls" that separate visitors who have freedom of movement and choice from native Cubans who lack those freedoms. I have evolved from tourist to idealist, to pragmatist, eventually becoming a valued friend of the Cienfuegos Jewish community and trusted agent on behalf of Cuban Jews. These efforts will be strengthened if Rebeca is granted permission to visit the US, to meet our congregation and some of her US relatives, one of whom lives in my hometown. It is my hope that the circle of connection will be unbroken and that their ner tamid, the eternal light of their Jewish faith, will be sustained.