I spent five days in Cuba during the national mourning period following the death of Fidel Castro.
My trip, with my wife, some friends and members of Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach and Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, was planned six months ago. Organizers at Brit Olom Tours billed it as a religious mission to Havana for “learning, fun and friendship” with the island’s tiny but tenacious Jewish community.
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After Castro’s death was announced on Nov. 25, it proved to be all of that and more. We witnessed the beauty, pain and resilience of the island and Cuba’s Jews. We also experienced the contradictions of Cuban life.
Some snapshots and contrasts:
▪ On Day One in Havana, we visit the Patronada, Temple Beth Shalom, a classic MiMo structure built in 1953 and the largest synagogue in Cuba. We leave gifts of medicines, diapers and other essential supplies for the community. Later in the day, we repeat the ritual at the Sephardic Center in Vedado, a smaller congregation.
There is free healthcare in Cuba, but simple items such as baby aspirin and adult diapers are hard to come by. Beth Shalom’s makeshift pharmacy features shelves of Costco products; American Jews have been generous.
We meet with Adela Dworin, the 80-something president of the conservative congregation, and matriarch of Cuba’s Jewish community. Dworin is featured in virtually every story written about Cuba’s Jews. She estimates there are about 1,500 Jews on the island today, down from 15,000 or so before the Cuban Revolution. Most Jews left Cuba for Miami, Argentina or Israel.
▪ Due to the nine days of mourning imposed by the government, Cuba’s night clubs are closed. We’re told there will be no alcohol served or music performed during our trip (except for the bar at our hotel, the Melia Cohiba, which is part of a Spanish chain).
We dine that night at an elegant restaurant called Cafe del Oriente in old Havana, under a lovely glass dome. It is a state restaurant, and we are surprised to be served mojitos topped with Havana Club, and wine with dinner. We do not complain.
A couple days later, we eat lunch in a private restaurant not far away, where the owner apologizes for not being able to serve alcohol. She says government agents visited 10 times in recent days to make sure the alcohol ban was observed.
▪ On Friday night, we meet in the sanctuary at Beth Shalom for an inspiring Shabbat service in which the cantors from our two Miami synagogues, Lisa Segal of Temple Beth Sholom and Rachelle Nelson of Temple Beth Am, join the lay leaders on the bima, something that had never been allowed before. The sanctuary was packed with our group of 62 Americans, as well as many members of the small congregation, including about a dozen children. The service ends in song, with Cuban children and teens joining the cantors and Cuban lay leaders on the bima. Worshipers from Miami and Havana dance to Hava Negila in the center aisle. Many of us cry.
In talks with Cuban congregants, reality tempers our joy: This temple — all of Cuba’s five temples — has no clergy. A new generation of lay leaders is emerging, but a rabbi from Chile comes in to preside over High Holiday services. Most congregants are older. If you are a Jew in Cuba in your 20s, finding a partner in Havana isn’t easy, unless you want to marry outside the faith. Cuban Jews can make aliyah to Israel, but getting a visa to visit long-lost Jewish family in Miami is nearly impossible.
▪ We travel southeast of Havana to Guanabacoa, a rural community that is home to two Jewish cemeteries, Centro Macabeo of Cuba and Cementerio Sefardi. Macabeo was established in 1906, is the largest, and we enter it under a gateway that says “United Hebrew Congregation.” There is an obelisk that marks the first Holocaust memorial in the Western Hemisphere. We say the mourners kaddish, the prayer for the dead, and begin walking among acres of tombs, including one with my family name, Hirsch. The cemetery slopes down from the entrance, and as we walk, we are stunned to see tomb after tomb cracked and broken, clearly desecrated. We ask our Havanatur guides for an explanation. One says it is a sign of age. The second, agitated at the first, blames it on a lack of security.
There is a more complete explanation: Jewish bones are often looted from the cemeteries for use in rituals of Palo Monte, a religion practiced in the area. In her book “An Island Called Home, Returning to Jewish Cuba,” anthropologist Ruth Behar wrote that Paleros believe “magical powers can be drawn from these Jewish bones because they belonged to unbaptized souls.”
Guanabacoa is a center for Palo Monte practice as well as Santería. It’s an issue in many Cuban cemeteries, not just Jewish ones.
▪ We spend part of a day walking in Centro Habana, among rundown shops in what was once a commercial and retail district. Some stores have long lines; we’re told these are places where Cubans queue up to purchase goods with Cuban pesos and collect their share of food from ration cards supplied by the government. The cost of some “luxury” foods, like a whole chicken, can be as much as one-quarter of a Cuban worker’s monthly salary, though staples like rice and beans are readily provided.
On our last night in Cuba, our tour organizer arranges for our group to ride to dinner in the classic 1950s cars visible everywhere in Havana. On a warm Havana night, convertible top down, we cruise the Malecón and ride through Havana to the Río Mar Bar and Grill, opposite the historic 1830 Club, where the Río Almendares flows into the sea.
Our driver apologizes because he can’t blast the radio. He says his cousins are in Hialeah, and he wants to visit them. The ride is exhilarating, followed by a dinner of lobster and shrimp. Fidel Castro was laid to rest that day in Santiago de Cuba, and the period of mourning has ended.
We drink Havana Club and wine. We eat lobster. The average Cuban considers buying a whole chicken an extravagance.
Two days after our return to Miami, The New York Times publishes a story with the headline: Cuba’s Surge in Tourism Keeps Food Off Residents’ Plates. It includes this line: “Tourists are quite literally eating Cuba’s lunch.”
Some friends have asked me how I liked Cuba. “I hear it is wonderful,’’ one said.
An interesting word, wonderful.
The island is beautiful. The decay is not. People greeted us warmly. I quote none here by name, because so many were fearful to speak openly. Meeting my Jewish brethren filled me with joy. Seeing their struggles filled me with heartache.
Rick Hirsch, managing editor of the Miami Herald, can be reached at 305-376-3504 or @rickhirsch.