Yiddels with Fidel
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Yiddels with Fidel

Local donations help bring relief and renewal

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Photographs by Perry Bindelglass

Gorgeous buildings in disrepair.

Ration cards to purchase food.

Jewish teenagers leading synagogue services.

Cuba is a country “filled with contradictions and ambiguities,” said Zvi Marans, describing his experiences and impressions after returning Sunday from a three-day mission to visit the Jewish community of Havana with the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Marans is set to become the group’s president this summer.

“On the one hand, it’s a repressive Communist regime,” he said. “On the other, it’s a Latin society, with a feeling of openness and joie de vivre.”

“And then there’s the Jewish part, which is really fantastic.”

More than half of Cuba’s 1500 Jews live in the capital, Havana. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Cuba became an atheist country. There was no circumcision, no Jewish weddings, no kosher food, virtually no synagogue practice. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba moderated its atheism and began allowing the world Jewish community to assist the country’s Jews.

But religious freedom has not been matched by freedom of the press, or by economic freedom. There is no internet. A typical doctor earns $35 a month. Jason Shames, the federation’s CEO, said the “economic oppression” surpassed anything he had seen in travels to Ethiopia, Ukraine, or Russia.

“You could still own a business in Ethiopia,” he said. “There are restaurants and banks in Ethiopia. You don’t have that in Cuba. Driving around you see no real businesses of any kind. There are no accountants. There are no lawyers. Imagine a Jewish community without lawyers and accountants.

“It’s beyond grim. For food, you’re on a ration card system. You’re given x amount of rice, x amount of beans. It’s illegal to sell and buy beef, except for the Jewish community, because they acknowledge that Jews can’t eat pork.

“There’s no antibiotics. There’s no medicine. We brought supplies of over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol,” Shames said.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provides material aid, in the form of Shabbat chicken dinners, milk for children, and medicines, through a communal pharmacy. And it provides spiritual aid, sending Argentinean couples on two-year tours of duty to help rebuilding the Jewish community.

“The middle-aged people grew up without any Jewish background, but the kids are being educated now by these Joint emissaries and gaining Jewish identity. We saw teenagers leading services in synagogue, reading Hebrew, singing the songs with the community. We saw a thirst in the community for all things Jewish. It was really a beautiful experience. It was very inspirational,” Marans said. Last year, the federation allocated more than $300,000 to Joint activities around the world.

While Cuba suppressed religion for decades, it never persecuted Jews. “There’s no anti-Semitism. A few years back, Fidel Castro came to visit the community on Chanukah and light the candles. We were walking around wearing kippot, people would come out of the shul and would keep their kippot on. There was absolutely no anti-Semitism,” Marans said.

Some of Cuba’s Jews are Sephardic, tracing their roots back to Turkey and before that to Spain, but most are from Eastern Europe. “They happened by chance to have landed in Cuba, whereas my grandparents landed in Ellis Island, but really they came from the same place,” Marans said.

“We all came back home with a renewed sense of what our money really goes for. When you see on the ground what our money is doing to help these Jews, it is a strong reminder to us of why we do what we do, and a great impetus for us to do more each year,” he said.

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