Mornings in Havana are beautiful!

Cuba is “the forbidden island”– illegal for Americans to travel to unless they latch onto a licensed Jewish Federation, environmental or academic tour group.

Jewish wedding in Havana 370 (photo credit: Courtesy JDC)
Jewish wedding in Havana 370
(photo credit: Courtesy JDC)
HAVANA – Call it the pearl of the Antilles, the Casablanca of the Caribbean, a tropical paradise.
Lie on its seductive beaches. Fish in its deep bays. Drive around its rolling hills and towering mountains. Meet kind people offering up infectious smiles and romantic Latin music. In size, this island is as large as Florida, where I live, but with its 11 million residents, it is nine million shy of the Sunshine State and only 90 miles from Key West, Florida, a 43-minute flight.
Welcome to Havana, the capital of Cuba, and the largest city in the Caribbean, with over two million residents. Welcome to a city which, although totally run-down, remains a masterpiece of architecture, especially Old Havana with its Spanish colonial structures.
The first thing I do is hasten from the modern Melia Cohiba hotel and walk along the century-old stone wall of the Malecon, Havana’s famous oceanside esplanade. The sea breezes refresh me and the melodic, Spanish chatter of young couples and seniors strolling in the sunshine energizes me. Then, after a long walk, I hop into three-wheel motorcycle “yellow cab,” known as a “Coco Taxi,” and pray it doesn’t break down. My luck, however: it does, but then our driver cranks it up again and we make it back to the hotel.
Because of the 50-year-old American trade embargo, this is the land of the geriatric American car. I found my 1954 Chevrolet on the streets of Havana.
I walk through the Vedado section and later drive through Miramar, and look at the mansions, those stately homes on wide-tree-lined streets, and wonder about the former inhabitants, who left Cuba penniless and had to make their way in a new land.
In the Old Town, I saunter through Havana’s colonial plazas or squares. I sit in a café in the Plaza de La Catedral and absorb the architecture of the colonial era.
This plaza is within walking distance of La Bodeguita del Media, a favorite Ernest Hemingway haunt. I visit all his retreats, constantly hearing: “Hemingway slept here. Hemingway drank here. Hemingway fished here. Hemingway lived here. Hemingway wrote here.”
So I stop at the El Floridita, historic and busy restaurant bar in the old part of Havana, located on Calle Obispo. I visit the Hemingway Museum at Finca la Vigia.
I recall that two great novelists, John Dos Passos and Graham Greene, wrote books here, too.
The harsh realities of Cuban life are ever-present.
If you enter a bodega, you spy half-empty shelves. Although rationing is supposed to be lifted, Cubans still receive ration books that secure staples like rice, beans and oil at low prices. But it’s not enough to live on. My short trip to Cuba proved what I had read and absorbed from other visitors: Cuba itself has literally not progressed physically since January 1959, when Castro took over.
The city’s once-shining buildings are in disrepair, and the country has no money to fix them. I decide that if the US embargo ends and diplomatic relations between the two nations are reestablished, I will go into the paint business; every structure in Cuba needs a fresh coat.
Despite their poor conditions, Cubans carry on. Sidewalks are cracked, potholes huge. Large families live in two rooms; clothes are threadbare. I observe the new self-employed vendors, men and women sitting alongside makeshift displays selling hair accessories or homemade pastries or DVDs.
AFTER FIDEL Castro and his guerrillas took over in 1959, 90 percent of the 14,000 Jewish community fled Cuba. They were not persecuted, were not expelled by force and did not suffer from anti-Semitism.
But since they were involved in trade and business, they fell into the category of enemies of the revolution. Let us not forget that Castro nationalized all business and made Cuba in effect an atheist state.
The tragedy of Cuban Jewry somewhat mirrors the typical Jewish existence in the Diaspora when harsh regimes take over.
Burmese Jews also fled when that country’s army installed a military dictatorship and took over the economy.
While Cuba’s Jews lived a good life pre- Castro, many had come to Cuba with only one desire: to emigrate to the US. For them, Cuba was only a way-station. But because of Washington’s strict immigration policy, many were barred. The tragedy of the 1959 exodus meant these refugees again were uprooted.
Today, approximately 1,100 Jews call Cuba home – all but 300 in Havana, which counts three synagogues: an Orthodox, a Sephardi synagogue and the largest, the Conservative Bet Shalom/El Patronato, located at Calle 1, between 13th and 15th streets in the once upscale Vedado section.
I attend Shabbat services at the Patronato, crowded with Cuban Jews and tourists.
The synagogue has been refurbished, as have the Orthodox Adath Israel at 52 Calle Acosta and Pictota, and the Sephardic synagogue at 17 Calle, between E and F streets, also in Vedado.
Although Cuban Jews live in a police state, Jews can pray openly in a synagogue, learn Hebrew, celebrate Jewish holidays and yes, despite red tape, even emigrate to Israel, although final departure to the Jewish state can take a year or two.
In the early 1960s, 1,500 Jews bore the brunt of Cuban Communist oppression of religion, nearly losing an entire generation under Fidel. I met a man who told me he forgot how to read Hebrew. Jews avoided going to synagogue for fear of damaging their careers in a government that mocked religion. To get ahead required membership in the Communist Party and precluded the active practice of any religion except Marxism. Until 1991, Cuban Jewry meant no rabbi, no mohel, few bar or bat mitzvahs. Many had never witnessed a Jewish wedding.
Everything changed in 1991 when the USSR collapsed. The Cold War ended and with it, the massive Russian political and financial aid that had propped up Castro.
The Soviet Union – Fidel’s banker – was history. With the American trade embargo squeezing the island, Cuba had no choice but to open up slightly.
THE AMERICAN Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) re-entered Cuba and helped revive the community. Today most of the money to support the synagogues, run the school, provide welfare funds, pay for medicines and cover the costs for the Shabbat meals comes from the JDC, and through the generosity of many Jewish visiting missions to the Jewish community of Cuba. Other organizations also contributed to help Cuban Jewry economically and spiritually including B’nai B’rith, World ORT, Hadassah, Lubavitch of Canada and US federations and synagogues.
Lest we forget, the first Jews to land in the New World were “crypto Jews,” or anusim. On October 27, 1492, Columbus sent converso Luis de Torres ashore in Cuba “to try to learn whether there was any king or cities in that land.”
What Torres discovered, however, was tobacco, which he described as “a firebrand in the hand and herbs to drink the smoke thereof.”
Torres, who knew Hebrew, Aramaic and some Arabic, remained in Cuba as a tobacco planter, becoming the island’s first white resident as well as the Western Hemisphere’s earliest settler of Jewish birth.
Diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba do not exist. Today, Alan Gross, 63, an American Jewish subcontractor for the US government, was jailed in 2009 and later convicted for entering the country as part of a USAID team distributing communications equipment to the island’s Jewish community. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban jail. Jewish organizations call for his release on humanitarian grounds.
Cuba is “the forbidden island”– illegal for Americans to travel to unless they latch onto a licensed Jewish Federation, environmental or academic tour group. No such restriction for Israelis. Dr. William Recant, JDC assistant executive vice president, who just returned from Cuba, said he had noticed increasing numbers of Israelis doing business in Cuba, especially in agriculture.
Dr. Recant reported that just this past December, nearly 30 Jewish weddings were conducted in Cuba, by Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler of Santiago, Chile, and other rabbis. Rabbi Szteinhendler has made over 100 visits to Cuba since 1992 as part of a mission entrusted to him by the JDC, “to teach, inspire, and conduct religious services and life-cycle celebrations for this resurgent Jewish community.” He summed up the status of Cuban Jews in a few words: “Lejaim. Am Israel b’Cuba hai.”
Ben G. Frank, journalist, travel writer, is the author of the just-published
The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press)