From time to time someone from my company has to visit Cuba. This always raises a few eyebrows when I mention it. Not because Cuba is perceived as a militaristic bastion of raw Communism that would be a hard place to go to, but in fact the opposite – everyone wants to go to Cuba. It’s right up there on most people’s bucket lists. So folks assume me saying “I have to work in Cuba” is a ruse. Plus I already get a hard enough time telling people that the company I work for has its headquarters in The Bahamas (“yeah, sure, I believe you, how do I get that job?” is the usual response).
On a previous visit to Cuba I did all the iconic tourist stuff – riding old cars, drinking mojitos, strolling Havana Vieja, and salsa dancing until dawn (see my previous post Impressions of Cuba). So when I was there a few weeks ago I did none of that. My colleagues and I were too busy shuttling back and forth between a hotel in downtown Havana and meetings at various Government Ministries. In fact, it was so frantic I barely had time to squeeze in a daiquiri and some late-night jazz at the Floridita …
Contrary to my expectations though, the meetings went smoothly. The Cuban bureaucracy functioned like a well-oiled machine. And stuff we’d assumed would take a whole week to do was wrapped up in three days, giving me some free time to kill. I sat in the hotel lobby, munching on a cubano sandwich, and trying to figure out what to do.
And then I had a great idea – how about finding the Jews?
This, as regular readers will know, is one of my go-to travel things. I often seek out local Jewish communities, or the remnants of historic ones, when I find myself in off-the-beaten path places (it is either that or eating weird foods). Hence my previous encounters with Jewish communities in places as diverse as Oslo in Finland, Seville in Spain, Boise in Idaho, and Broome in the boondocks of Western Australia.
A quick search online led me to Turismo Judaico, a service run by a wonderful lady, Paola, in Argentina. She is passionately committed to promoting the Jewish communities of Latin America, and does so by arranging members of the various communities to act as “tour guides” for interested visitors. Paola in turn connected me to Rene, who was to be my introducer to the Jewish community of Havana.
The next morning I met Rene, introductions were made over a coffee, and then we set off for a full day of exploring Jewish Havana. Something that in my wildest imaginings I never thought I’d do. Suffice it to say, I was pretty excited.
Let’s start with a bit of background.
The first documented Jew in Cuba was Luis de Torres. He was a newly converted Christian, and arrived by ship from Spain in 1492, fleeing the Inquisition back home. For the next four hundred years there was a constant but small Jewish presence in Cuba, although things took off in the early 20th century. Then, Jews began arriving in larger numbers, first from Turkey as the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and later from Eastern Europe (often these were Jews heading for America who kind of got off at the wrong stop!).
The heyday of Jewish Cuba was in the 1920s – 1950s, when an estimated 25,000 Jews lived in the country. Many Jews worked in the garment industry, a few became influential professionals, and a few families became quite wealthy from the tobacco trade. Cuban Jewish life was centered in Havana, where there were five synagogues and the usual array of communal institutions: kosher butchers, Hebrew schools, burial societies, community theaters and newspapers.
Then the Communist revolution happened in 1959, and most of Cuba’s Jews hot-footed it, leaving mainly for the US and Israel. Those that remained (around 1,000 people, so fewer than 5%) were subsumed into Castro’s Cuba. Cut off from the rest of the world and largely forgotten, they became a religious curiosity on the sidelines of Communist Cuba, and a nostalgic byline in the long history of the Jewish people.
In Cuba today, there are estimated to be fewer than 800 Jews, a tiny community by any standard. There are three synagogues in operation – one Sephardi, catering mainly to Jews who originated in Turkey, one Ashkenazi, for Jews originating in Eastern Europe, and one mixed. All three synagogues are located in Havana, as is almost all of the community. There is no Rabbi, and emissary groups like Chabad, often the pillars of Jewish life in other small communities around the world, are strictly forbidden by the Communist regime. So Cuba’s Jewish community is self-run by its members; a few times a year a Rabbi visits from Chile to preside over important events and holidays.
In short, notwithstanding that Havana is a stone’s throw away from Miami and southern Florida – one of the modern world’s most heavily Jewish of areas – in Jewish terms Cuba is about as fringe as you can get.
Our first stop for the day was the Havana Sephardi Synagogue and Community Center. To get there we drove through the residential suburbs of Havana. Along the way Rene pointed out a nondescript house on a nondescript street corner. He said that from about 1920 to about 1950, it had been the location of a congregation of American Jews, who had come to Cuba mainly with the US army.
We continued chatting. Rene told me that he was not actually Jewish, but that his wife was – her parents had come to Cuba from Turkey in 1955. He said that when they married, 35 years before, he had been “adopted” by the Jewish community. At a traffic light the car stalled. “I am sorry”, he apologized, “but we are in Cuba, and the cars are all a bit old.” Then he smiled. “But at least this is a Jewish car!” he chuckled, pointing to a toy dreidel bobbling about on the dashboard.
The community center itself was a bit of a surprise. I guess I had been expecting something old and historic, with a bit of Spanish charm. Whereas instead I got a square brick building, originally constructed in 1955, that was so drab and featureless it would have been totally at home in a suburb of Moscow. The only thing identifying it as a Jewish facility was Hebrew lettering over the front door and a Star of David inset into the wrought iron gate.
Inside, there was a large upstairs room that doubled as both a function hall and a synagogue. Downstairs was a smaller synagogue, a library, and a dining hall, where a group of old people had gathered for lunch. According to Rene, the community center served up kosher food for those who wanted it, every day of the year. And across from the dining hall was a fully equipped gym. Dozens of young hyper-fit looking people in Lycra were streaming in and out, pumping weights and, in one corner, taking a Zumba class. Surely they weren’t all Jews? Rene explained: “No, we rent out the space to earn some money for the community.”
Rene ushered me into a small office. The walls were covered in old photos – black and white images of weddings, bar-mitzvahs, and community events over the past century. Ms. Mayra Levy, the President of the Community Center, was waiting to meet me.
We sat and chatted for about 20 minutes. Mayra gave me a brief overview of Cuban Jewish history, and explained to me that Jews in Cuba were respected for their religion, and there was no antisemitism. “You saw how there was no security guard at the door, and people come in and out to the gym and the center without any restrictions?” she asked. “That doesn’t happen in many other places in the world. Here we are able to be openly Jewish, without any fear.”
I asked her about the barbed wire I had seen along the top of the fence at the side of the building. “That is not to protect us from antisemites. It is to protect us from theft. In Cuba, we are all equally poor!” she joked.
I asked about the future of the Jewish community of Cuba. Mayra sighed and admitted that the outlook was not rosy, because most of the younger generation of Cuban Jews left Cuba at the first opportunity. She said most went at first to Israel, and from there a good number wound up in the USA. Exit visas had to be arranged through the Canadian Embassy, which served as the “agent” of Israel in Cuba, there being no formal Cuba-Israel or Cuba-US relationship.
Then she told me something I found fascinating. According to Mayra, leaving Cuba to move to Israel is permitted by the regime (whereas trying to leave for other places is prohibited). She explained: “This is because Castro thought leaving Cuba to go to the USA, for example, was a case of abandoning Cuba. But a Jew going to Israel is not abandoning Cuba, they are just going home, and Castro was fine with that.”
When I got up to leave, Mayra shook my hand warmly, and thanked me for my visit. Then she added: “You know, every few years I go to the World Jewish Congress meeting in Washington. There I meet Jewish leaders from all over the world. And they always ask me “why don’t you leave?” It is a good question. But I tell them that even if I live in a small community, it is one that is fully accepted, and stable, and there is no hatred towards us. And for that, I thank God”.
Upstairs from the Sephardi Community Center was a small exhibit on Jewish history: half of it on the Jews of Cuba, and half on the Holocaust. It was open to the public, popular with visiting groups of Cuban schoolchildren.
At the entrance a man approached me and, speaking near fluent English, offered to show me around. He was thin and tall, with silver hair and moustache, and a hearing aid behind each ear. He introduced himself as Simon, and told me that he was 80 years old, which took me back a bit: I could tell he was elderly, but had assumed he was much younger: he had a sparkle in his eye, a distinct spring in his step, and was dressed in trendy clothing and sports sneakers.
As we wandered through the exhibits, Simon told me his life story. “My father came to Cuba from Poland in 1928, and my mother came from Poland not long after that, and I was born here,” he said. He went on to explain that both his parents wound up in Cuba by default – they were both headed for the USA, but were unable to obtain visas, so settled for the next best thing.
Simon completed high school in Havana, after which he worked in a nearby city for five years, in a perfume factory that was owned by a family of wealthy Sephardi Jews. He then qualified and worked as an engineer until his retirement at age 70, ever since when he had been hosting guests at the Sephardi Center. Along the way he had married and had a son. “My son left to go live in Tampa, Florida, two years ago,” Simon said. I asked if he had been to visit him there. “Yes, I went last year,” Simon chuckled. “I think I gained 3 kilo, there was so much food in America!”
But Simon told me that he wouldn’t be following his son – his plan was to live out his days in Cuba. “I was born here, I have lived my whole life here, and so this is where I will end my journey,” he explained. Then he said farewell and left – a group of school kids had arrived, and his services were needed.
From the Sephardi Community Center we made our way back to the old town of Havana. We parked and went for a walk, passing by Calle Inquisidor (Inquisition Street), before pausing at a small square on the corner of two streets. Rene said it was the Holocaust Memorial Park, and that normally there was a menorah and a dedication plaque to see. But the whole thing was fenced off, and looked a ruin. Rene explained it had been destroyed by a recent hurricane. An old lady walking by overheard him and stopped. “I think the Jewish park will open again in six months,” she told Rene in Spanish.
We continued our walk, and on one of the main tourist drags of Habana Vieja we came to an elegant looking hotel with a magnificent façade – one of the most beautiful in all of Old Havana. I had in fact photographed it on a walk the previous day, so I thought this was a bit of gratuitous sightseeing. Rene, however, insisted we go in.
As we ascended the imposing front staircase, I noticed something really weird: a mezuzah outside the front door. Inside there were glitzy gold chandeliers, imposing white marble columns, and floor-to-ceiling murals depicting scenes from the Bible. The centerpiece of the hotel was a four-story high atrium, topped by gorgeous stained glass windows – again biblical scenes, and Hebrew letters scattered throughout. Every door in the place had a mezuzah. The hotel restaurant was called Café Eden.
And then Rene took me upstairs to the first floor, where every room was individually named after a leading man in the Old Testament – David, Jacob, Isaac, etc. On the second floor the rooms were likewise named after Bible women – Leah, Rachel, Rebecca, etc. Again, every door had a mezuzah. And the hotel was brand new – it had opened in 2003 – so it was clearly not some site of Jewish significance. What on earth?
Rene laughed at my reaction. He explained that Hotel Raquel was an old building, but had been extensively renovated around the turn of the century and repurposed into a hotel. But, it had not been turned into a Jewish hotel per se. Rather, it was owned and run by the Cuban tourist authorities, and had been designed to be a “permanent tribute to the Hebrew culture and its presence in the Cuban contemporary art” (from the hotel’s website). According to a plaque near the front door, an ex-Israeli general (the most excellently named Rafael Eitan) had collaborated on the project. Rene said that The Raquel’s 25 rooms are popular with tourists, and are among the finest in Havana.
The whole thing was bizarre. It was the most Jewish non-Jewish establishment I have ever been to. The kind of thing I imagine would happen if Disney got into the Jewish-themed hotel business. Certainly I had never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. But that it was located in the heart of Old Havana? That made Hotel Raquel one of the weirdest Jewish “sights” I have ever come across.
Our final stop for the day was Havana’s Ashkenazi synagogue, the Adath Israel. It was housed in an ordinary building facing onto a narrow street, in an especially run-down part of the Havana old town. Outside, a group of old men were sitting at an outdoor table, drinking coffee and smoking, while two young boys kicked a worn soccer ball back and forth.
Inside, the Adath Israel was similar to the Sephardi Center. A small room to the side had been set up as a synagogue, and alongside that was a community hall, decorated with pictures of Jerusalem and Israeli flags. Half a dozen or so women were in the hall, bent over and hard at work. No-one looked up as Rene and I walked in, so I went over to see what they were doing.
They were packing meat. Trestle tables had been covered in clear plastic, and different cuts of meat were piled up on tin trays on the tables. The women were taking bits of meat from the various trays, weighing them, and then packing them into labelled plastic bags.
To the right of the community hall was an open doorway. It lead into a kitchen, in which I could see two men and several more women, chopping meat and arranging it onto the trays, then carrying the trays out into the hall to replenish those on the trestle tables once they became empty.
Eventually a lady came over to where Rene and I were standing. In the manner of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women she had her head covered, and wore a frumpy long skirt and a long sleeve shirt that concealed her elbow and was buttoned to the neck. She said hello, and apologized that no-one could show me around, but I had arrived at a busy time.
I asked what was going on. She explained (in Spanish, Rene interpreting): “In Cuba, meat is not something you can usually buy in the shops. It is distributed by the Government. All Cubans get an allocation of meat every month – for most Cubans, pork. But Jews don’t eat pork. So once a month, the Government allocates three cows to the Jewish community. We slaughter them according to kosher laws and then distribute the meat to all the families.”
Rene butted in and corrected her. He said that the cows were not allocated, but rather were sold to the community, albeit for a heavily subsidized price of 3 Cuban pesos per kilo (that’s about 10 cents per kilo, so pretty nominal). Apparently the President of the Adath Israel synagogue, who was supposed to have been there to meet me, was unavailable because he had gone to pay for the meat.
The lady told me that there had been a problem the previous month and no cows had been allocated. But now, in addition to the “catch-up” cows from the month before, and the cows for the current month, the community had also been allocated the next month’s cows in advance. “So we have to distribute three months’ worth of meat at the one time – that’s why we are especially busy”. Then she threw her hands into the air and shrugged: “That’s Cuba!”
I asked one more question: how was the meat distributed. “The meat is allocated by the kilo, to each family in the community,” she replied. “And the amount of meat each family gets is based on the size of the family, and how much food that family needs.”
She left to resume her meat-packing duties. And I was left with a big smile. Because I had just seen something pretty unique: kosher socialism, in action.
So that was my day exploring Jewish Havana – a tiny Jewish community, one of the more remote and isolated ones I have ever encountered, which may well not even exist in 30 years from now.
But despite this, I was struck by how committed and passionate the remaining Jews of Cuba are. For the last sixty years they may have been cut off from the world at large, along with their fellow countrymen. And they may have endured poverty and deprivation under a fairly repressive Communist regime. But through it all they have never forgotten who they are, steadfastly maintaining their identity, both as Cubans and as Jews.
Cuba’s is a unique and fascinating Jewish community, and I am so very grateful I got the opportunity to visit.