Dusk was falling as our ship glided into Havana’s harbor. From the deck I could see the twinkling lights of nightclubs and casinos sprinkled along El Malecon, Havana’s gracefully arcing waterfront. They looked like brilliant diamonds strung along a magnificent tropical necklace. It was New Year’s eve, 1956. Fulgencio Batista was still the dictator. Fidel Castro had not yet become known to the world. Havana was the Paris of the Caribbean, the land of Ernest Hemingway, Meyer Lansky, Frank Sinatra and baseball. Seen through the eyes of a teenage boy from Oklahoma, Cuba was heaven on earth: rum flowed, music played and romance was everywhere. Our parents treated my sister and me to a glittering and unforgettable evening at the Tropicana nightclub that superlatives cannot adequately describe.
A year later, when I was in the 10th grade, my geometry instructor was fresh from several years of teaching in Cuba. By then Castro’s revolution was gaining momentum. However, Mr. McDermott confidently assured us that “the upstart would never amount to anything.” Fortunately, I used Mr. McDermott’s advice only for geometry because two years later, in 1959, Castro became the dictator, imposing a strict socialist regimen on the economy. As relations with the USA chilled, travel to Cuba for United States citizens was forbidden. After many years and a bit of thawing, travel is now permitted provided that the traveler obtains a license from the U.S. State Department. Licenses are granted for special purposes such as humanitarian and medical missions, not simply tourism.
In 2011, fifty five years after my previous visit to Havana, my wife and I decided to visit Cuba, photograph its synagogues and learn about its Jewish community. A bit of internet research lead us to Miriam Saul, a Cuban-born Jewish woman who resides in Atlanta, Georgia. For several years Miriam had been leading small group tours from the USA to explore things Jewish in Cuba. Miriam offers a turnkey service including proper licensing with the US State Department as well as personally accompanying her tour groups. Wanting to experience Cuba with an emphasis on its Jewish community, we found Miriam’s small group approach to be the perfect answer.
Before 1959, Cuba’s Jewish population numbered approximately 20 thousand. But when Castro took power, nationalizing all personal property and businesses, the island’s Jews could see the writing on the wall. They left en masse: 90% fled to America and Israel. Of the remaining 10%, most are elderly, or have died. The Jewish community now numbers approximately 1900. It is racially diverse and mostly converts. The largest communities are, of course, in Havana. In addition, a few very small communities, of 25 persons or less, exist in other areas, such as Cienfuegos, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba.
In Cuba we learned that the Jewish Community has a unique problem: too many people want to convert to Judaism. Socialism provides a very low standard of living for Cubans. One of the means of escaping the grinding poverty is immigration to another country, but few will accept impoverished Cubans. Israel is the exception. It will accept Jewish Cubans. To eliminate Jewish converts who mainly want to use Judaism as a stepping stone to Israel, the requirements for conversion are understandably rigorous.
In order to obtain a travel license from the State Department, we had to be part of an approved mission. Ours was a medical mission. Each person in our group purchased and carried to Cuba a suitcase full of over-the-counter medicines and medical supplies which are in terribly short supply in Cuba. We donated our supplies to the pharmacy in the Jewish Community Center adjacent to Havana’s El Patronato Synagogue.
The Center is home to the local Jewish federation and a pharmacy which dispenses its scarce medical supplies free of charge to Jews, Gentiles and even the Havana General Hospital. These supplies are mostly provided by Jewish visitors from other countries. Havana’s JCC includes amenities which are rare in Cuba; online computers, plasma TV, library, exercise and recreational equipment, pool tables. Approximately 160 students attend the weekly religious school.
El Patronato synagogue was built in 1953. It is a kitsch, 1950s cement structure with a large powder blue arch that soars above the height of the building and across the front of the building’s facade. Guests to the El Patronato have included Steven Spielberg, Sean Penn, Fidel Castro as well as yours truly. President Raul Castro lit the first Hanukkah candle of 2010 in this synagogue. Although Castro’s administration is agnostic, his grandmother is said to have been Jewish.
The Centro Sefaradi, pictured above in this blog, is one of three existing synagogues in Havana, the Centro Sefardi Synagogue was constructed in the city’s Vedado neighborhood in 1950. This imposing Bauhaus style concrete structure is now being re-purposed as a performance hall and a new synagogue has been constructed adjacent to it.
More photos of Havana’s three synagogues: www.Synagogues360.org
More information about Miriam Saul and Jewish-Cuban travel: www.othercubanjourneys.com