Shalom Cuba: a smaller, thriving Jewish community

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When you think of Cuba you probably envision beautiful sandy beaches, royal palm trees, Latin rhythm and jazz, rum, cigars, Fidel, communism, old cars and so on. And you’d be right. But would you imagine a small, but thriving Jewish community that once numbered close to 20,000 members, five synagogues, Rabbis and kosher food flown in from Mexico or South America?
This is the short story of my family’s visit to Jewish Cuba a few weeks ago.
Many Jews arrived in Cuba with Christopher Columbus in 1492 and Jewish presence has remained there ever since.
In my post-university years, following Leadership Development training at the Canadian Jewish Congress, I was actively involved in heading up the local committee first for Jews in Arab Lands, and subsequently the Cuban Jewry Relief Committee. This latter group always left me with the desire to visit this intriguing, and somewhat mysterious, community. So my trip to Cuba was essentially a decades long mission on my bucket list sandwiched in between six days at a lovely resort.
As happenstance would have it, while walking through Old Havana, we passed by the old Orthodox Shul. Squished between nondescript, run down buildings, gated and locked, one could easily pass right by, none the smarter. But being the curious types we wanted to know as much as possible about anything and everything that had a hint of Jewishness. We had questions and and we wanted answers.
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Inscription adorning the Sinagoga Ortodoxa Adath Israel in Old Havana (Feb. 2017)

Although the Synagoga Ortodoxa Adath Israel was locked up, an old man wearing a very noticeable Magen David (Star of David) stood outside, answering questions for any curious tourists passing by. For Montrealers, it was like standing in front of Zaida’s or even great-grandfather’s shul on the Main, St. Lawrence Boulevard.
There we met two Jewish Cuban expats, who introduced themselves as ‘Jewbans’. Visiting from Orlando, Florida, on a Family Reunification visa, they were most excited to visit the synagogues of their grandparents and their grave sites in the Jewish cemetery. Their Cuban Jewish patriarchs went back seven generations.
The ‘Jewbans’ told us that their uncle and father had been Bar Mitzvahed in the synagogue we stood in front of, and the one we were about to visit.
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The Nashen Family visiting Temple Beth Shalom, the Grand Synagogue of Cuba (Feb. 2017)

Temple Beth Shalom is also known as the Gran Sinagoga de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba, located in the posh neighbourhood of Vedado. Beth Shalom Synagogue, known by Jewish Cubans as the ‘Patronato‘, is Cuba’s major Jewish community centre.
Designed by famed architect Aquiles Capablanca and founded in 1953, the Gran Sinagoga maintains its striking facade with the symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel and a modernist arch rising to the heavens. In recent years, the Patronato has become a crossroads for Jews from all over the world.
In the absence of any antisemitism in Cuba, the doors were wide open and we walked in freely without any questions by anyone. What a great feeling.
Workers were busy renovating the bima (the podium from which the Torah is read) and other areas of the sanctuary. The Shul used to be Orthodox but in recent years became Conservative.
Ernesto Hernandez Miyares approached us and offered to show us a round and answer any questions. Ernesto is the hi-tech expert and secretary of the Shul and didn’t hesitate to proudly show off his unique and lively centre.
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Nearby the Orthodox Synagogue in Old Havana we stumbled upon this gated, closed parkette with a large, brass Menorah. There was no sign or description anywhere? Do you know the story behind this? If so, please leave a comment.

Ernesto is the son of Jewish emigres from Turkey. His wife comes from generations of Russian Jewish lineage. Their 18 year old son was to be making Aliyah in a matter of days. The couple hope to visit him on their first visit to Israel next year. Coincidentally, their son will go to Beer Sheva, Jewish Montreal’s twin city.
In 1959, there were more than 15,000 Jews in Cuba, Ernesto explained. Now, 800 remain in Havana alone, 1500 in all of Cuba.
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The Jewish Federation of Cuba

The Patronato houses the Jewish library, and regular festivals in their communal hall downstairs. Upstairs, they house a small pharmacy for community members and a room outfitted by ORT.  Shabbat services are held every week.
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Cuban Jewish Community President Adela Dworin with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following the funeral of Fidel Castro, Nov. 2016. This photo hangs in the Patronato in Havana. (Glenn J. Nashen, Feb. 2017)

Wonderful photos of celebration and VIP visits decorate a wall. There, one particular shot jumped out at me. It was a portrait of our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau alongside the Cuban Jewish community president, Adela Dworin.
Ernesto, and Vice-President David Prinstein recounted how Trudeau made a special visit to the Jewish community during last year’s visit for the funeral of Fidel Castro. I didn’t recall any publicity around such a meeting and took some pride in learning about this.
We thanked our hosts for this special visit and received a nice souvenir for my son, a bracelet displaying “Shalom Cuba”. How fitting.
We were invited to come back and visit again, Next time with Justin Trudeau.
Shalom from Cuba!
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Which century is Cuba in?

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LOOKING FOR AN EXPERIENCE
I took my family on a vacation to Cuba two weeks ago. Looking for more than just the pool and beach I wanted the kids to have a higher level experience, something educational and memorable. Experiential. My solution?  A side trip to Havana.
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Classic 1950s American cars are everywhere in Cuba

Barely two hours from the paradise of Varadero, a trip to Havana is a trip back through time. Locked in the 20th century, the capital city of Cuba is a glimpse into the grandeur and opulence of its rich colonial past. The vibrancy of its heyday in the 1920s through the 1950s is everywhere, from the impressive architecture to the grand American classic automobiles. Latin rhythms waft from balconies and at touristy street corner bodegas. You can feel the wealth of culture and society of a bygone era.
Close your eyes and imagine the rich and famous strolling down the narrow streets during the Jazz Age , Ernest Hemingway at his favourite watering hole, the Bodeguita del Medio in the ’30s, Fidel Castro addressing his people in the ’50s, and Russian everywhere in the ’60s.
With the blink of an eye you switch back and forth between the centuries: 2017 Havana is a juxtaposition between dilapidated buildings and broken cobblestone roads mixed with charming cafes and floral displays on decorated balconies. The Old City is slowly being restored with private funding inching its way into the Communist economy and significant UNESCO investment in buildings rich in heritage and history.
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Streets in Old Havana are narrow with very few cars. Life flows out into the street with local smells and sounds – a photographer’s paradise, as it was for me.

WHERE ARE THE AMERICANS?
Tourists abound from Europe, South America, Russia and mostly Canada. Nary an American is to be found with the 55 year old US embargo still in place restricting US travel (save for those who qualify for a visa based upon family reunification, non-governmental work or religious travel).
Surprisingly, tourism is only the second largest source of revenue for the tiny island nation. The first industry is actually exportation of trained workers. Doctors, engineers and a host of professionals are permitted to leave for up to 8 years and to earn real world wages while sending back sizable amounts as tax to the government.
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Old Havana’s public spaces are wide open and generally car free. Many surrounding buildings offer impressive architectural facades, extraordinary balconies and beautiful colours.

Until recently doctors earned a paltry $30 per month, but with changes in the economic grip of Castro’s regime this amount has gone up tenfold now enabling the professionals to bring in an incredible $300 each month. Of course, those working abroad can earn many times more, and they do.
EQUAL AND RESPECTFUL
While 10% of Cubans are black, owing to the slave labour imported centuries earlier from Africa, 65% are white descendants of Europeans who arrived with Christopher Columbus in 1492. What’s more 1% are Chinese and the remaining 24% are mixed. Amazingly, there is no racial divide on the island. All Cubans are considered equal and respect one other. Perhaps this stems from the symbols emblematic in their flag, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, a civic philosophy borrowed from the French.
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I love to capture the expressions of the locals when I travel. Some will extend an arm and ask for a handout. Kids are inquisitive and engaging and generally will smile as did this beautiful little Havana resident.

TRYING TO GET AHEAD
Our guide Luis, 50 years old, was a teacher and voracious learner. While guiding several days each week in impeccable English and German, he supplements his earnings by privately teaching the English language to locals. He describes his fourth language, Italian, as a little rusty. Not being connected to the Internet his studying comes from books that he is able to come by locally. Luis has never driven a car and has no permit to do so, similar to most Cubans. Owning a car is cost prohibitive for most here.
Our guide Luis (right) and driver Julien (left) were outstanding. You can find them for your next side trip from Varadero to Havana at Cuban Trip Compass, the top rated tour company on TripAdvisor.

Our guide Luis (right) and driver Julien (left) were outstanding. You can find them for your next side trip from Varadero to Havana at Cuban Trip Compass, the top rated tour company on TripAdvisor.

The whole system works very slowly. No one goes hungry (anymore). Luis recounted how he and his wife would share a hard-boiled egg for lunch every day in the mid 90s when lengthy power outages were the norm. But, everyone has a home (even the homeless are housed in yesteryear’s mansions) and the government provides monthly rations of sugar, flour, soap, tooth paste, chicken and so on but North American standards are light years away despite its distance of barely 90 miles to the Florida keys.

LOOK AT THOSE CARS
Speaking of cars, the island is known worldwide for its pristine typical 1950s American classics. Anywhere you turn you’re guaranteed to see a brightly painted, shiny chrome vehicle with whitewall tires reminiscent of the Hollywood set of Happy Days. These beauties have been maintained for more than half a century and now sport modern horn sounds, LED lights and are used as taxis, rental cars or private vehicles.
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The yellow iconic Coco taxis, essentially motorbike with a rickshaw seat for two, are everywhere, however the US State department warns these are dangerous vehicles, prone to accident.
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Coco taxis are popular with the tourists but may not be as safe as you think

Smoking was everywhere! Yuck. There are no smoke-free zones. I thought we left these behind in the 20th century, but not in Cuba. There is smoking in restaurants, in stores, in the airport, in and around hotels. Everywhere. Between the cigarettes and famous Cuban cigars it’s no wonder that lung cancer is prevalent among Cubans.
LOOKING AHEAD
It was fascinating to learn how locals live and go about their lives through the eyes of Luis and his hopes and aspirations for his 19 year old  daughter now studying tourism at Matanzas University. He expressed concern about the work ethic of the next generation entering the labour market. He was hopeful that his daughter would have a better life and have more opportunity and experiences.  Seems like Cuban parents have very similar concerns to Canadian parents.
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Old Havana is a mix of bright colours of renovated buildings next to dilapidated ones. Amazingly this old cars has stood the test of time (and dodged a few falling bricks).

A SYSTEM WE’RE NOT USED TO
Everything, almost, is government-owned and controlled. While Luis carefully describes this setup as socialism rather than communism the omnipotence of the Castro regime is everywhere. And Soviet influences are fading very slowly, even 27 years after the fall of USSR.
Nonetheless, Luis is a very happy person and he describes Cubans, in general, as having a high degree of happiness. It would also seem that most Cubans have never left their country, internet is not widely available and news outlets and television programming are state controlled. Censorship is the norm.
Hotels chains are owned 51% by the government and the buildings will revert to full government ownership after a number of years. Hotel staff are employed by the state. It would seem that there is no incentive for improvement or quality. This helped us to understand why we had to call and visit the front desk multiple times to resolve basic requests such as to receive extra towels or to fix an air conditioning problem.
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Beautiful balconies on every street. Imagine how many different people opened these shutters through the centuries to look out upon those scurrying about below?

To be sure, hotel staff are very obliging and friendly. Many were outgoing and remembered our names and our nationality. However, lagging basic renovations, be it for plumbing, electrical or other issues, would wait for another day. Sadly, this malaise would turn an otherwise 5-star modern and luxurious Iberostar resort into a 3.5 star under-achiever. Don’t get me wrong, I’d stay here again and again. And I’ll definitely be back for a visit. The people are friendly, happy and engaging.
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Content, proud and secure, at home, in Old Havana

TWO HOURS IN A ’53 CHEVY
For 50 Cuban tourist dollars (CUC) our driver, Unido, was happy to tour us around Varadero city in a ’53 Chevy, taking us to see the two “shopping malls”, the Dupont mansion overlooking the Caribbean Sea, and the biggest of several flea markets, on 15th street at the corner of Main Street. There are 64 streets intersecting Main Street in the town centre which only runs two or three blocks wide on the 22 kilometre peninsula beach resort.
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My next post on Cuba will feature our visit to the Jewish community.

Ernest Hemingway’s regular hangout

I spotted this photo of our PM, Jean Chretien, with Fidel Castro, hanging in the bar at the Hotel Nacional in Havana

 

Music everywhere