Local photographer puts the spotlight on Cuban Jews

Local photographer puts the spotlight on Cuban Jews

Nancy Katz always knew she wanted to go to Cuba — but she didn’t know why.

"And when I learned of the existence of a Jewish community there, I was determined to go," said Katz, whose photographic exhibit "Faces of Cuba" is on display at the Englewood Public Library until Dec. 31.

"It may have had something to do with a Sephardic connection" on her father’s side, Katz told The Jewish Standard, noting that one branch of her grandfather’s family had moved to Buenos Aires and that she had recently reconnected with a cousin from Argentina. Whatever the reason, Katz, who lives in Teaneck and owns a photography studio there, has now gone twice to Cuba, and the 36 images on display in Englewood provide a close, personal look at the Jews she met there, together with their homes and synagogues.

At right, a Jewish artist and active member of the Hatikvah synagogue in Santiago de Cuba teaches another member how to put on tefillin.

While in Cuba, "I went to three bar mitzvahs, celebrated Chanukah, and basically fell in love with the people and their commitment to a Jewish way of life," Katz wrote about her ‘004 trip with the Cuban American Jewish Mission. Photos from that trip, and from a subsequent visit in ‘006, are displayed in the library and appear on its Website, www.englewoodlibrary.org.

Also included in the exhibit are objects that help to explain what is depicted in the photos. For example, Katz has included tefillin in the display case featuring photos of Ruben Dorado Sotolongo, whose bar mitzvah she attended in Santiago de Cuba.

Katz noted that on a typical Shabbat in Santiago, a community of some 90 Jews, there might be 30 to 35 people at synagogue. "I saw one man arrive on donkey after three days of traveling over the mountains to get there," she said.

While she has written several accounts of her trips — she returned to Cuba in ‘006 to visit with children and adults with disabilities — Katz said that there’s "something special about capturing things in photographs." Both ways of recording allow you to show passion for people, she said, "but in photographs, the passion of the people themselves comes across — you’re not setting it up. They’re allowing you to see who they are."

The first time, she said, she did not go "as a photographer." Indeed, before her 16-day trip she conducted a small fund-raising campaign "among my friends, family, and my local community," collecting much-needed items (prescription eyeglasses, children’s clothes, over-the-counter medicines, and toothbrushes) for her Cuban hosts.

The second time, "while I thought of myself more as a photographer, my visit was mostly as a humanitarian," she said.

Noting that the communities she visited "greatly appreciate support from Jews in the United States," Katz said she was impressed by "their ability to relish life and be joyful when they lack so much in terms of material goods and the freedoms we take for granted in our country."

She also pointed out that most visitors to Cuba go to Havana, home of more than 1,000 Jews, "not to outlying areas where there are home synagogues." Noting that Jewish communities in these areas need books, tallesim, and other Jewish ritual objects, she said that while they don’t have full-time rabbis, the communities are visited occasionally by clergy from other countries.

Katz said she was most "impressed, touched, and inspired" by the Santiago Jewish community’s "commitment to a Jewish way of life…. When one man learns to lay tefillin, he teaches the next one. Santiago is creating its own traditions as it carries on the ancient ones," she said.

She pointed out that between 1959 and the early 1990s, Fidel Castro did not permit Jews — or any religious group — to publicly practice their religion.

"It was difficult," she said. "They couln’t pass on their traditions through Hebrew schools, or synagogues. There were no bar mitzvahs."

Now, however, after only a decade, said Katz, the Jewish people she visited — in Havana, Santiago, Santa Clara, and Caibarien — are trying to grow their communities, with new births and conversions helping to counteract the loss of members who move to the United States, Israel, or other countries.

The photographer, who said she read voraciously about Cuba before her two visits, said that most Jews living there today have Sephardic backgrounds. The Eastern European and German Jews who came to what she called "Hotel Cuba" in the 1930s to escape persecution — with some staying for more than 40 years — have left, as have those "other American Jews who just happened to be living there, mostly for business reasons," she said.

"It’s a hard life for everyone there," she said, "but trying to maintain Jewish life is particularly hard."

read more: