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From Revolution To Revival, Cuban Jews Weather The Storm Of History

The Beth Shalom synagogue in Havana has undergone something of a renaissance over the past decade. The same could be said for Cuba’s Jewish community as a whole, which lost roughly 90% of its members after the island’s 1959 revolution.

Renovated Patronato Synagogue in Havana
Renovated Patronato Synagogue in Havana
Paulo A. Paranagua

HAVANA -- Friday, late afternoon. Along 13th Street, in El Vedado, a residential neighborhood of Havana, a colorful audience fills up the Beth Shalom synagogue. Women and men sit together, against Jewish orthodox tradition. Many in the crowd of about 400 are young people. One is wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, which doesn't seem to surprise anyone here.

The service is in Spanish as well as English, for the benefit of a few dozen American guests. Ruth Behar, an anthropologist from the University of Michigan is not an occasional visitor, but is a regular. Born in Havana, she is the only daughter of a father of Polish origins and a mother of Turkish descent. Both were born in Cuba.

"We used to live 300 feet away from the synagogue," she says. "In 1991, Beth Shalom was in ruins. Pigeons were nesting in the sanctuary. A handful of old people would gather for ceremonies in the small hall on the second floor. Today marks a true revival. The younger generation is taking over."

This revival happened gradually starting in 1992, when the synagogue began receiving support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Comittee (JDC), a humanitarian organization founded in 1914. With help also from wealthy Jewish donors from Miami, the group restored the synagogue. A floor once reserved for women is now used for educational activities, an IT room and a nursery. Part of the building was sold to the government, which set up the Bertolt-Brecht theater on the premises.

Restoring the building was a starting point. But the community itself also needed reviving. It needed new, younger members. And with help from the JDC, it has also been able to establish ties with Jewish communities outside of Cuba. Because Spanish is a common language, the JDC sends couples of young Argentines for three-year stints to teach Hebrew and Jewish tradition. Rabbi Samuel Szteinhendler visits from Chile every other month to celebrate weddings, conversions, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs.

Weathering the revolution

Beth Shalom was founded in 1956 by Ashkenazis, Jews of European origin. The Sephardic synagogue, a few blocks away at the corner of E Street and 17th Street, gathers Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin. They are considered to be more traditionalists, but in the Sephardic center, which opened in 1960, women and men sit side by side.

Ruth Behar, the author of "An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba," says "my parents' marriage was considered a mixed marriage because for a long time the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities did not mingle."

Cuba"s Jewish community numbered approximately 15,000 (among 6 million inhabitants) prior to Fidel Castro's ascent to power. But those who abandoned religious practice or married outside of the religion were not accounted for by the congregations, the only available authority on these matters.

Adela Dworin, who presides over the Hebraic community in Cuba, speaks of the island's history of Judaism with pride. "In 1959 we all supported the revolution, though not necessarily Fidel Castro's July 26 movement. As children of poor immigrants, the first educated Jews were viewed as quasi-prophets in their community," she says. "In 1960, urban reform gave more power to tenants over landlords, but then the nationalization of businesses hurt a lot of Jews. And after the nationalization of private schools in 1961, 90% of the community fled the country."

Dworin was one of the exceptions. "I was studying Law. I was the youngest and the most rebellious one in my household. I did not want to leave the country and my parents did not want to leave without me. My father spoke Russian, so he worked as a translator and interpreter," she says.

The next three decades saw religions condemned in the name of "scientific atheism." Believers were discriminated against, limiting their access to jobs and schools. Universities were completely off limits. "Rabbis left, but synagogues, aside from those for Jews of American origin, did not close," says Dworin. The problem, she goes on to explain, is that there weren't enough churchgoers. Assimilation and mixed marriages reduced the community to a minimum. A handful of senior citizens attended synagogues.

Things shifted once again after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Cuban Constitution was amended in 1992 and the concept of a laic state replaced the previous atheist dogma. A dialogue was initiated in 1998 following a meeting between Fidel Castro and religious leaders of the different faiths. Doctor Jose Miller, a dental surgeon who had worked in the army, led the Ashkenazi assembly from 1979 until his death in 2006. He embodied the rehabilitation and revival that followed.

The pre-Castro years

Jews who arrived in the 20s and 30s saw Havana as a stepping stone to the United States, to the point of nicknaming it "Akhsanie Kuba" (Hotel Kuba in Yiddish). American Historian Robert M. Levine, author of "Tropical Diaspora: The Jewish Experience in Cuba," says that Cuba welcomed more Jews than any other Latin American country during the period of Nazi persecution.

In 1939, however, Havana denied entry to the 907 passengers aboard MS St Louis, claiming the fleeing Jews lacked proper authorization. Barred as well from the United States, the passengers were forced to return to Europe. Only 287 were welcome in the UK and thus escaped Holocaust. This tragedy was featured in "Voyage of the Damned," a 1976 British film.

The Jewish community in Havana stabilized after World War II and became part of the Cuban society. In those days, one could find Kosher food at Moishe Pipik (Moses' Bellybutton), a restaurant. The Lily and Boris café sold MittelEuropean pastries. There was also a dark side to this prosperity. Jewish American gangster Meyer Lansky, known as the U.S. Mafia's "brain," came to launder his money in casinos and hotels, such as the flamboyant Riviera, which he built on the waterfront. But Dworin says that "in spite of all his money, no Jewish organization wanted to welcome Meyer Lansky in their ranks."

The community has become a bridge between Cuba and the United States, two countries whose relations are still soured by the Cold War. Ruth Behar traveled between the two countries many times for her research. This time she brought four of her students (none of whom is Jewish). She believes "a sentimental, humanitarian and human bridge now unites the two countries."

Americans cannot travel to Cuba because of the embargo, unless they have family ties or are of Cuban origin. Some exceptions are granted for academic or religious purposes. This explains the influx of Jewish-American tourists who never fail to pass by the synagogue, if only for the sake of keeping a good conscience.

The current community includes a fair amount of converts – people in mixed marriages who have embraced their partners' religion. At Sunday school, a teenager admits quietly that he is champing at the bit to visit Israel. "Many young people choose the path of Aliyah (emigration to Israel), but they are not necessarily replaced by new arrivals," says Ruth Behar.

"Economic hardship pushes a lot of young people to try their luck in Israel," says Adela Dworin. Despite the lack of diplomatic ties, Havana allows candidates to the path of Aliyah to leave the country. "Jews want to leave the Island for the same reasons as other Cubans," says Behar. "But going to Israel isn't only an economic choice. "

Read the original article in French

Photo - JDC website

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