When the Forward Journeyed to Fast-Changing Cuba in Search of Its Lost Jews

Fidel Castro died Saturday at age 90. The former Cuban strongman was nothing if not a controversial figure — a socialist hero to some, a heartless dictator to many others.

His relationship to the island’s small Jewish community — now just 1,500, down from a peak of 15,000 — was also far from clear-cut. On the one hand, Jews suffered as much as any — perhaps more — from the isolation and economic problems on the island during his decades of rule. But on the other, the aetheist leader protected the community against anti-Semitism and made special dispensations for Jewish religious practice.

Here is an account of the Forward’s extraordinary visit to the island in 2014, just as President Obama moved to end decades of conflict between the two nations.—Dave Goldiner

“I have two homelands: Cuba and the night. Or are they one and the same?”

So wrote José Martí, the 19th-century Cuban activist and man of letters, in 1887 or thereabouts.

Time is running out to join the Forward on its second trip to Cuba. Find out more and reserve your spot today. This is an account by Ilan Stavans of last year’s remarkable journey that explored the past — and uncharted future — of the enthralling island.

Today, as Cuba stands on the verge of reopening its ties to America, Martí’s words remain prescient in ways he could not have imagined.

For the Cuban diaspora of some 1.8 million in America — nearly 70% of whom live in Florida — Cuba, with its totalitarian regime, is the night. Those inside, in contrast — some 11 million people living on an island the size of England — actually experience that night firsthand as food remains rationed, housing units crumble as a result of disrepair, blackouts recur regularly, and, in general, the cost of living is just a tilt better than the cost of dying.

Of course, if you travel through Cuba as I did, on the Forward’s first-ever sponsored tour of this island of 42,500 square miles, you realize Cubans, no matter where they live, are masters in the art of survival — a quality Jews also brag about. That art entails the capacity to smile in the face of adversity. In fact, to not only smile but also to laugh with joy while listening to memorable boleros.

My role in the Forward trip was to serve as scholar-in-residence for 40-plus astonishing folks — doctors, cultural attachés, developmental psychologists, museum directors, philanthropists, teachers, playwrights, and a cadre of other well-read professionals, not all of them Jewish. Our mission was to explore the island’s history and, specifically, the role Jews have played in it. I sought to place Cuban Jews in context, particularly vis-à-vis other substantially larger and better-organized Jewish communities in Latin America, from Argentina to Brazil and Mexico, from Venezuela to the Dominican Republic. I talked about the arrival of crypto-Jews during the colonial period, from 1492 to 1810, the role of Jews in various independence movement in the nineteenth century, what happened to these communities during World War II and their link to Israel today. My counterpart in Cuba was a gracious, knowledgeable, animated tourist guide who made local information come alive.

A busload of people, meeting for the first time, soon becomes an ecosystem where patience and excess are often tested. But this was a group of committed travelers, not just tourists. The tourist sees what he wants to see whereas the traveler is transformed by the very act of seeing.

For us Americans, seeing Cuba on the verge of dramatic change after almost 60 years of economic and political stagnation made us cognizant of the difference in meaning between the English and Spanish words for “change.” In the United States, the very word and the concept behind it are constants in our national psyche, and we get impatient when change doesn’t come. In contrast, cambio, or change in Spanish, at least for the ruling elite, is a threat — this, notwithstanding that its arrival is now inevitable with the coming wind down of the comprehensive embargo on goods and trade imposed by the United States over more than five decades.

So far, though, no McDonald’s has opened in Havana, nor has Banana Republic (which, by the way, is how the Cuba of Fulgencio Batista, the tyrant whom Fidel Castro deposed, was often described by Americans). Internet service, sporadic at best, is available to very few Cubans. A single breakfast in a tourist hotel offers a far more plentiful variety of dishes than an average person will see in a lifetime. This is because a family in the island earns the equivalent of $40 a month.

All of which makes Cuba a dystopia, that is, an upside-down utopia.

Communism has made everyone equal, although, to be honest, some are more equal than others. Fidel Castro, who is ill, lives in a huge compound. His brother Raúl Castro, a pragmatist, is now president, although, at 83, he has promised not to seek reelection after his second term ends in 2018 I was told, time and again, that no one has to belong to the Communist Party, although being a member has obvious benefits, starting with cultural cachet.

Raúl Castro has opened up the door to owning private property, the first step toward capitalism. As it currently stands, family connections to Cubans abroad can get you dollars to buy property while others without those connections lack the same opportunity. This gives Cubans not living in the island a kind of shadow significance. More broadly, the country has in effect two monetary systems: Cuban pesos for the locals and CUCs (convertable pesos) for tourists. Thanks to tips from these visitors, any Cuban connected to the tourist industry — guides, hospitality workers, waiters, taxi drivers, even hotel bathroom attendants — earns much more than even a highly-esteemed physician.

Our focus on this trip was not just on Cuba, but also on its Jews. Here, there was much for our busload of inquisitive minds to learn. What distinguishes Cuban Jews from those in other parts of Latin America? What kind of double identity did conversos have in towns like Trinidad, where slave owners, a handful of them New Christians, amassed large fortunes in the sugarcane industry by importing large numbers of African slaves? Does most of the Jewish community in Havana possess African ancestry? How do the followers of Judaism coexist with their neighbors who practice Santería coexist, a syncretic Caribbean belief that combines West African elements with Christian motifs?

Scandalously, tombs in the two Jewish cemeteries of Guanabacoa, nor far from Havana, show signs of desecration. This is because in a nearby town, practitioners of Palo Monte, a variety of Santería, perform rituals that require the bones of unbaptized people. The tombs in Chinese cemeteries have also been defiled for the same reason.

Still, it would be inaccurate to suggest that, more broadly, religious relations are tense. On the face of things, Jews in Cuba engage in their rites openly and without fear, and maintain good-neighborly relations with the island’s other organized religions.

Our most memorable stops during this stay included visits to a cigar factory and to a rehearsal by a modern dance company. We enjoyed a tour through Ernest Hemingway’s home and a night at the Las Vegas-like show at the Tropicana. A gaudy venue that Fidel Castro once portrayed as evidence of capitalist moral decay, the nightclub is now once again a prime tourist attraction. As a baseball fan, the only thing I missed was an evening at a Cuban baseball park to see the legendary Almendares ball club — a visit I can’t wait to make on my next trip.

Since Yiddish is the Forward’s original raison d’être, there were constant reflections among our group on the Ashkenazic past. We had an opportunity to look at the very first issue of the Yiddish Forverts, published in New York City on April 22, 1897 with a front-page headline that read: “Bravo Cubaner!” The accompanying story praised the island’s resistance during the Spanish-American War and its uncompromising desire to achieve independence.

That attitude might be said to describe the approach by the left-leaning paper toward Cuba in the first half of the next century, at least until 1960, when Fidel Castro took his country into the Soviet sphere. The Forverts, which was socialist but strongly anti-communist, then took a staunchly anti-Castro line. Throughout, the island received constant attention in the pages of the Forverts, which maintained its own correspondent in Havana through the 1930s and 1940s. The paper published dispatches covering the uprising against the dictator Gerardo Machado in 1933, the plight of the S.S. St. Louis in 1939, vivid descriptions of Castro’s arrival to Havana at the end of 1958 and his subsequent pledge of alliance to the Soviets in the early ’60s. The paper also reported on the impact of the U.S. embargo imposed soon after. (In Cuba, people call it the bloqueo and the government equates it with genocide.)

The Jewish community of Cuba, once around 15,000, today has dwindled to about 10% of that number. It is a bizarre spectacle to witness the amount of donations good-hearted Americans Jews bring with them for the Cuban Jewish community, in the form of medicine, cloths, and religious paraphernalia, among other things. They are given to the Patronato, the Jewish headquarters in the country’s capital, as well as in Cienfuegos and other places.

The Jews of Cuba enjoy, perhaps, an abundance of riches in this respect. The pharmacy at the Patronato is more plentiful than any I visited while in Cuba. Might this foster envy, even anti-Semitism? Adela Dworin, the larger-than-life leader of Cuban Jews (interestingly, while the government is run by men, Jewish organizations in the island are headed by women), repeated that “aquí no hay antisemitas,” there are no anti-Semites here. It may be true. Faiths and ethnicities apparently coexist in harmonious way — but as change arrives, so does resentment.

To be fair, Cuba was never a home to the kind of anti-Semitic campaigns against Zionism that were prevalent in the Soviet Union. It was under Fidel, in fact, that Cuba established its first permanent diplomatic mission in Jerusalem. The Cuban leader later resisted Soviet pressure to break off relations with Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War, when most of the rest of the Soviet bloc cut its diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. Cuba cut off formal relations only in 1973, after the Yom Kippur War. The Zionist Federation of Cuba was closed by an executive order three years later. But other Jewish cultural institutions continued to operate, even as Cuba denounced Zionism ever more harshly in international arenas. Religious institutions, including synagogues, were repressed and restricted as part of the officially atheist regime’s broader campaign against religion.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, informal ties gradually returned. Cuban Jews have quietly been allowed to immigrate to Israel for many years. And it was an Israeli firm that established the first foreign investment enterprise in Cuba’s citrus industry, in 1991. Israeli tourists have long visited Cuba freely, and Cuban artists and intellectuals have visited Israel regularly.

Will the two Cubas, the one inside and the other outside, be ready for reconciliation? “No man is an island,” says the adage — except, obviously, Fidel. As he recedes into memory, the revolution he fostered seems shallow, especially after a visit to the Museo de la Revolución, a magisterial palace in Havana where the story of the supreme leader’s triumph is chronicled. The building is poorly lit, the panels on the walls are clumsily prepared and contradictory in nature. All in all, visiting it is an emptying experience.

On the streets, on the other hand, a plethora of images of the patron saints of the revolution — José Martí, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Fidel Castro himself (though not Raúl Castro, who shies away from the public), and even Nelson Mandela (at one time, Karl Marx was also in this pantheon) — pop up everywhere, as if to root the population, to give it an anchor. The islanders, however, aren’t dumb: They not only see these images, they also see through them. And to travelers, these icons feel like sheer kitsch.

A fleeting, fragile moment — that is where Cuba finds itself today, as the embargo becomes a chapter of the past. Just how fast the future will arrive is all that remains unclear.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His next books are “Reclaiming Travel,” co-authored with Joshua Ellison, due out in April from Duke University Press, and “Quixote: The Novel and The World,” to be published by Norton in September.

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