Jewish Cuba

Jewish Cuba

A Teaneck man visits the island, reports back

Meylekh Viswanath stands outside Congregation Beth-Shalom.
Meylekh Viswanath stands outside Congregation Beth-Shalom.

Getting to Cuba

Our next-door neighbor is a Cuban, an ardent opponent of the Castro regime. But other than that, I didn’t have much interest in Cuba.

Nor did I know much about it, beyond some standard facts about the Batista regime, the U.S. involvement there, and the tradition of Afro-Cuban music and dance genres.

I didn’t know about the history of Jews in Cuba, about the Turkish, Sephardic, and Eastern European Jews who settled on the island in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. Somewhere, in the deep recesses of my memory, I knew about the exodus of most of its entrepreneurial, middle-class Jewish community after the Cuban revolution. And I had read about the St. Louis’s brief, ill-fated stop in Cuba in 1939, en route to Miami, and its eventual return to Europe, most passengers still aboard. I certainly would not have characterized myself as being knowledgeable or particularly interested in Cuba, however.

But when our dean suggested that he might be willing to fund some research on microenterprise in Cuba, I become interested. One thing led to another, and so in July I flew there.

Traveling to Cuba, even in today’s more relaxed political environment, is not simple. I had very little information about what kind of papers I needed, especially as an Indian resident of the United States. It was not easy to make contacts and arrange appointments with people on the island who were involved in microfinance and microenterprise — especially considering the fact that the Cuban government did not look very favorably on anything that smelled of capitalism. And on top of all of this, I had to figure out how to make Shabbos in Cuba. I decided that if I had to spend at least five or six days in Cuba to be able to get a reasonably good idea of economic life there, and I didn’t see how I could do that without spending a Shabbos there.

I spoke to several friends who had been to Cuba — some Orthodox, some not — but still it wasn’t clear what I needed to prepare to spend Shabbos in this unknown place. As a vegetarian, I couldn’t go the tuna route, and I really didn’t want to have a Shabbos in Cuba with cold cheese sandwiches. I also didn’t fancy lugging lots of food to Cuba; if I were going to cover ground in an environment about which I knew very little, I had to be flexible and travel light. I was not able to communicate with anybody in the Jewish community in Cuba in order to arrange Shabbos meals or accommodation beforehand.

Still, I was resolute in wanting to be near an Orthodox synagogue. The only such synagogue was an Ashkenazi shul, Adat Israel, in Old Havana. This was not in the Vedado district where everybody had recommended I stay, and this added still more uncertainty to the enterprise. Nevertheless, I decided to take a chance.

I rented an Airbnb room in Old Havana for the first four days and arranged to stay in lodgings arranged by a Christian organization involved in educating micro-entrepreneurs for another three days. That was in a place called Cardenas, in the province of Matanzas.

I left for Cuba on Thursday night, flying via Panama City. I was to arrive in Havana around noon, and I figured that would give me enough time to prepare a Shabbos meal and get ready for Shabbos.

I arrived in Havana around 1 p.m. on Friday. I waited for my luggage to arrive, got some Cuban money, bought a local SIM card, and then took a cab to my hotel. Next, I tried to buy some vegetables to cook for Shabbos. In the process, I learned some more about the two co-existing Cuban currencies — CUC (peso cubano convertible), which is convertible into foreign currencies, and CUP (peso cubano), which in principle is not convertible. Some rationed goods and public transportation can be paid for only with CUPs, while foreigners generally are required to pay with CUCs. The effective exchange rate of CUCs for CUPs is 1 to 25, so if you make a mistake and pay in CUCs when your storekeeper is expecting CUPs, it can be a costly mistake. That was a mistake I made my first day, trying to buy vegetables on the street, but I didn’t make it again!

Preparing for Shabbos

Trying to buy vegetables in Havana can be an eye-opening experience, because you can find only a few kinds of vegetables — and some of them are vegetables that you can’t find in many other places. I found some green beans, cabbages, capsicum, and carrots at a peddler’s carriage that was similar to the ones we still have in India. Potatoes and onions also are generally available in Havana, though this peddler didn’t have any. Anyway, I bought some cabbage and some carrots and some okra. My rooms were on Amargura Street between Compostela and Aguacate, overlooking a very narrow, old-world, picturesque street.

A view of the Patronato.
A view of the Patronato.

But everything seemed to be falling apart. I discovered that there was no soap in my rooms because soap had not been available for some time, the refrigerator did not work and so a freezer had been put to work as a refrigerator, and apparently no milk was available — the breakfast that was available in my Airbnb location consisted of milk powder reconstituted as milk.

Although I had use of the kitchen, there was no detergent to wash my utensils. Fortunately, my host, Patrick, and his wife, Lianne, came up with short-term solutions for some of these things. He found some detergent, and he gave me shampoo to use instead of soap. Although on Shabbos I had only coffee for breakfast, the following day I found guava/pineapple juice and cut-up mangoes and bananas, which were delicious. I also asked for and was given two eggs and made an omelet.

Patrick’s help notwithstanding, I still had a lot to do to get ready for Shabbos. I bought some vegetables and then, armed with some coconut oil and spices that I had brought with me, I got ready to cook. I had the okra and cabbage and carrots that I had bought; I made an Indian dish with the cabbage and carrots and a spicier one with the okra. Then there was the question of the rice — my main carbohydrate. I had brought some nan bread to make ha-motsi, the blessing over the bread, but I usually depend on rice to round out my meal. I had wanted to bring along an extra pot to make rice but forgot it, so I wondered how I could make rice, The only pot that I had already contained the vegetables that I had cooked.

Fortunately, Patrick agreed to lend me a rice-cooker, which he assured me was not used for anything other than rice. Still, I scoured it thoroughly, boiled some water, and kashered it. That turned out to be a good precaution because the next day I noticed a Cuban cook using the same rice cooker to cook some meat. Anyway, the cooker came in very handy that day, especially since it was now possible to keep food warm for Shabbos.

Services at Adat Israel

Once the food was ready, I walked down to Adat Israel, which was just a few blocks away, figuring I would get there in more than enough time for the afternoon service, mincha. It turned out that not only had they already davened mincha and arvit, but the local chazzan, Yaakov, was in the middle of the Shabbat derasha, the sermon. I quickly davened mincha and arvit and got ready to join the rest of the congregation.

After the derasha, Yaakov made Kiddush for everybody, made ha-motsi, and distributed the bread, and then a meal was served for everyone there. Most of the people there were local, and somewhat elderly — I was told that the free Shabbat meals were a big draw. Although the food was free, though, it wasn’t sumptuous. There was rice, beans, and fish — enough food to fill your stomach. The food was not very tasty, though. In fact, I found it a bit difficult to get it down, even though, as a vegetarian, I was given a plate without fish. The food reminded me of a Yiddish song that we sing in our family — lomir ale zingen a zemerl — which lists the various courses in the well-to-do Jew’s Shabbos meal: fresh rolls, roast duck, whitefish, and fruit preserves. The twist in the song is that it also lists the corresponding components of the poor Jew’s meal — a thin crust of bread, some sausage, a dried-up piece of herring, and for dessert, gehakte tsores. That’s chopped-up worries! The comparison with the Adat Israel meal was apt except that there was no meat at all. And the Shabbos morning meal was exactly the same. Beggars can’t be choosers, I suppose.

Having missed most of the Friday evening service, I wanted to make sure that I would be there for shakharit, the morning service, which started around 8 a.m. Indeed, I was there a few minutes after 8. They had started on time and went through the service rapidly. The sefer Torah was taken out, and I saw that it was old. Some of the parchment was falling apart. As the only guest/tourist, I was given the third aliyah, and was able to take a better look at the sefer Torah. The parchment was in poor condition, but I could see no problem with the writing. There were no chumashim available for the congregation, though; instead, there were sheets with the parasha in Hebrew and Spanish. Copies of this text were distributed just before the leyening and taken back soon afterward.

The kriya, the reading of the Torah, was a revelation. Yaakov, the chazzan, leyened with an extremely heavy Cuban accent. Even when I knew the words that he was reading, many times I couldn’t make them out. As an example, intervocalic rs were converted into ls, as is the custom in Cuban and Puerto Rican Spanish; thus “par ben bakar” became “pal ben bakal.” In intervocalic s was converted into a Cockney-like glottal stop, which makes it very difficult to figure out what’s being said if you are used to the more standard Castilian version of Spanish. All in all, it was a very exotic Torah-reading!

The Patronato

The morning service ended around 10:30, and after more of the same food the elderly congregation quickly dispersed. I didn’t have much of a chance to engage them in conversation. However, on Friday night I did meet two interesting outsiders temporarily living in Havana — Daniel (an Argentinian Jew, buying and selling real estate) and Ronch (originally from Perth, but lately of Melbourne, and in Havana to learn Spanish). I spent the night with them, walking around the neighborhood and drinking beer. On Shabbat morning, though, they had their own business to attend to, and I didn’t want to go back to my room and simply go to sleep. So I decided to walk to the Patronato and the adjoining Congregation Beth Shalom, both Conservative, in the Vedado neighborhood. I didn’t have the address but I knew the street name, and I wasn’t sure how to get there, but I decided to try to find it; I could try asking people.

The sanctuary at the Patronato.
The sanctuary at the Patronato.

Two factors, however, almost did me in. Most people who I asked had no idea what a synagogue was or what sort of creature a Jew was. And the intersection that I thought Daniel had mentioned — 16th and Linea — didn’t exist. And so, after an hour spent walking under a hot sun, having no idea of how to find the Patronato, and facing the prospect of walking an hour back to Habana Vieja, I had the good luck to run into an old gentleman who knew where the Patronato was — I had unknowingly passed it by about ten minutes before. Following his instructions, I reached it without further mishap.

Not only did I find it, I also was able to get some cold water to drink there, in the office. The building was air-conditioned, and I wasn’t so keen to step out into the hot summer sun any time soon. So I went into the neighboring building and found the sanctuary where the morning service was continuing. The room was a large one, only sparsely populated with worshippers singing Hebrew melodies. The congregation was mixed and there was no mechitza in sight, so I didn’t want to hang around. Instead, I went back to the parlor outside the Patronato office to wait for the worshippers to come around after the morning service to eat the Shabbos meal. Eventually, they arrived, and I walked into the dining room with them.

Of course, I couldn’t eat with them, for two reasons. First, I had to have paid for the meal in advance, and I hadn’t. Second, it was not kosher. Still there was nothing preventing me from going in and talking to people — and that’s what I did.

Cuba and the world

Visitors to Havana seem to leave with impressions of buildings and cars suspended in a 1950s world. And in many ways, Cuba is a strange mixture of the third world, of socialism, and of a genteel European atmosphere that harks back to a less complicated time. In some ways Cuba seems poorer than India and Nairobi, although nobody is dying of hunger, and everybody seems relatively well dressed. On the other hand, because of the lack of incentives — most things are state-owned, many transactions are allowed, and rights of real-estate ownership are ambiguous — everything has a run-down air.

The atmosphere could be downright depressing, particularly in non-tourist areas. It is difficult to get fresh fruits and vegetables, things you normally can get easily in third world economies — for example, even in the Nairobi slum that I visited in June, vegetables were freely available. But in Cuba nothing seems to be freely available. Even when something does become available, people have to wait in lines, as for government-subsidized goods. On the other hand, there seem to be many shops selling relatively low quality but very high priced consumer durables — but there are few people who can buy them. The only things that seem to be ubiquitous, always available in the shops and always in demand are liquor, cigars, and cosmetics

Ultimately, though, what I took back with me was the impression of the people that I met — both Jews and non-Jews. For example, at the Shabbos table at Congregation Beth Shalom, I met two interesting women, Ida and Maria Elena. Ida, an economist, used to work at the University of Havana, and Maria Elena used to work for the government in the Department of Statistics. Both of them seemed to be contented with their lives in Cuba — a quasi-third-world kind of life, but also a life ameliorated by the Cuban social welfare system, which gave them some kind of pension, and the ability occasionally to visit friends and relatives in the United States. There is now very little anti-Semitism in Cuba and it is an oasis of stability and serenity for people who have some financial support. Secular Jews like Ida and Maria Elena seem to feel quite comfortable with their lives, especially with the U.S. connections that frequently bring financial and moral support to the Cuban Jewish community.

Another of my Shabbos lunch companions, who seemed to be a community leader, provided a different perspective. He was satisfied with his life as a Jew in Cuba. His connections with the outside Jewish world, however, also seem to have brought some of the tensions of that world to a community that seems to be otherwise relatively secular and partially assimilated into larger Cuban society.

It turned out that this man’s mother was not Jewish, and so he had an uncomfortable experience with some Lubavitch people operating on the island. According to his account, they seemed initially to take a lot of interest in him — but only until they learned about his mother. Then, they ignored him. There probably are many such people in the Cuban Jewish community; as the country opens more to the United Sates, the religious and social conflicts of the larger Jewish community will filter into Cuba, as well.

All in all, it was an interesting start for my Cuba trip. What I saw and experienced in Jewish Havana turned out to be a foreshadowing of similar phenomena all over the island.

Meylekh (PV) Viswanath of Teaneck is a professor of finance at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business.

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