My Impressions of Cuba Barbara Levy
( Barbara was part of the MJCBY Mission to Cuba in February led by Ellen and Rabbi Nesson)
I’m not a teary person. I certainly feel things deeply and I do cry, but I usually don’t tear up. I learned something new about myself on my recent trip to Cuba with Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael.
When I travel, I’ve stopped trying to remember all the details. History and facts add texture and pleasure to what I am seeing, but I no longer strive to remember it all. I like getting the feel of the place I’m visiting, and I allow myself to focus more on the impressions and my reaction to them.
I didn’t know what to expect from Cuba. I had heard from others that it was like being thrown back into time and that the country appears to be stuck in the 50s. To a large extent, this is true. There are a multitude of cars from the fifties that have been refurbished a number of times. This is necessary because only 15% of the population has a vehicle to drive. Parts and new cars do not appear often and so the old ones keep getting fixed up. The buildings are the beautiful structures of an era gone-by. Sadly, many of them are crumbling because there are no means to shore up the infrastructure. Yet, there are beautiful skies, ocean breezes and frequent smiles on the faces of the Cubans. That is one impression. Just remember, I’m not a teary person.
Our mission to Cuba was to visit several focal points of the Jewish community and to bring them much needed clothing, medication and toiletries of all types. These centers then distribute the precious items to the community, Jew and non Jew alike. Our mission was accomplished, but so much more occurred. Remember, I’m not a teary person.
First we met Rebecca Langus, the president of the Cienfuegos’ Jewish Community. Their number is about 20. Their building is her apartment. I stared in wonder at her living room. Her walls are covered (and I mean covered) with Judaica that looks like the kitchy items with which we all grew up. There is just so much of it. Her bookshelf is filled with many prayer books and anything about Judaism that is written in Spanish. Even her doorstep has a Jewish Star of David, in addition to her mezzuzah on her doorpost. Her manner is gentle and unassuming, yet she spoke so eloquently about the drive of her ancestors to quietly keep Judaism alive during the years following the revolution in 1959 when all religions were not allowed to flourish, until the allowed reappearance of religion in the mid 1990s. Her home is the epicenter for services, holiday meals, training the youngsters to read Hebrew and know the traditions and of course holding Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. She spoke proudly, yet a little sadly about how many of the young people have made Aliyah. What came through her gentleness was her dedication and determination. When we sang Osey Shalom, I watched her know every word and I could not finish the song. I teared up.
Our next stop in the Jewish Community was in the town of Santa Clara. There we met in the synagogue, headed by President, David Tacher. He too told us of the history of Judaism in Cuba. He too was proud. What David has is passion and fire. He spoke so eloquently about the need for all people and religions to be accepted. David quoted many learned scholars including Martin Luther King to drive home his point. David also focused on the need to educate the youth. His congregation numbers about 20, but for services and holidays, Rebecca’s community and one other that also has about 20 people, will gather in the synagogue. Please remember how difficult that is. There is virtually no transportation. David then took us to the Jewish cemetery in Santa Clara. The tradition of having monuments above ground was interesting to see, but what stood out was a Holocaust memorial structure. It included stone from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. David again spoke with passion about the need for the Holocaust to never happen again. Therefore, we must keep Judaism alive. We said Kaddish and sang Hatikva. Again, I could not finish singing. I teared up.
Finally, onto Havana. First we went to the Patronato (Beth Shalom) synagogue. Their original building had been turned into a theatre and much to our amusement “Rent” was playing there. We weren’t sure that the Cubans would understand the innuendos that the play brings. Around the corner we found a lovely building and Adela. What a dynamo. Adela knew enough English that we didn’t need the translator. Her humor was ever abounding, but the message was the same. We don’t forget the Jews. We meet, we educate and most importantly, we serve as the pulse of the community. That synagogue runs a pharmacy that provides for all of the community regardless of religion. Remember, I’m not a teary person. Did I tear up? Yes. Even through Adela’s humor, I could sense the urgency of keeping the Jewish community alive. She even tells the Canadians that the country’s number of Jewish people is 1500, rather than 1300 so that they send enough matzah for Pesach for everyone.
The last Jewish community that we visited was the Orthodox shul in old Havana. We met Yakov, the kosher butcher, mohyel, teacher and keeper of the congregation. This was our saddest visit. They have restored their shul and have artifacts proudly displayed from the former glory days in the 40s, but we were greeted with barbed wire around the building. It is located in an unsafe neighborhood. This congregation serves the poorest segment of the population that we had seen in our time in Cuba. It serves as a destination for the day. Many of the elderly sit and sew kippot and traditional Cuban dolls. They sell these to help keep the synagogue running. Many of these people come to pray three times a day because they are fed each time that they come. Converts to the religion are welcomed. They like Judaism, but more importantly, they are taken care of. Remember, I’m not a teary person. Did I tear up? Of course. It was sad, yet the passion of being Jewish and keeping the faith alive was juxtaposed on top of the sadness.
So what did I learn about myself? I guess I am a teary person. What made me so teary? I am a complacent American Jew. I can follow whatever traditions I please and if my feelings change, my Jewish community will always be there to provide support for whatever decisions I make. Back in the days of Hebrew school, my teachers were student Rabbis from the Jewish Theological Seminary. I had one memorable teacher (Rabbi David Zisenwine) who made sure that we knew the prayer book. He told us that the importance of that was so that wherever we went in the world, we would know how to pray and could join any service. Little did he imagine, that the universality of his message would hit home in Cuba. I sometimes forget that I have the gentleness of Rebecca, the passion of David Tacher, the humor of Adela and the sadness of Yakov. The universality of what it means to be Jewish was so graphically demonstrated to me in Cuba. OK, I am a teary person.