When you don’t have to work and don’t have to be anywhere, the most difficult decision faced on a day-to-day basis is how to occupy your time. Some volunteer. Some see their grandkids, walk the dog and play golf. Others have hobbies, exercise or do good deeds. Since you don’t have to be anywhere at a specific time, you travel wherever you want, for as long as money allows and it’s not called a vacation. The trip is just called “travel.”
Planning travel isn’t a simple matter. If you are married, like I am, the selection process starts with finding a place both parties can agree on — a place that has things to see or hear that appeal to both persons. For us, the place must also be safe, a not-so-easy requirement in today’s violent world. That’s not to say we don’t go to places where terrorist have attacked, like Paris, London or Istanbul, attacks which could happen anywhere, but we aren’t going to Venezuela or the Congo. Comfort and convenience count, but not so much, because so many choices present themselves which are mostly dependent on money.
My wife and I like the same things. We don’t need very fancy, but we are not camping out or staying in a hostel. We need a location with history, people to meet and cool places to stay. We don’t need to chase the sun because we live with it 24/7 in Jewish Florida. We like art and music, local foods, architecture and language we can use and understand. Preferential consideration goes to Jewish neighborhoods, places of worship and cemeteries.
Cuba, a nearby island which recently opened to more traffic, fit the bill. Our government permits citizens to travel to Cuba for 12 purposes, including religious, humanitarian and educational programs. No Jewish heritage tours were offered during our scheduled dates, so we booked a Road Scholar photo tour with a photographer. Visiting Jewish institutions took a backseat to learning about the culture and island life.
Knowing we had free time, we looked up synagogues in Havana and then made plans to visit one. Partronato, a conservative shul, was a 10-15-minute walk from the Hotel National de Cuba where we were staying. Streets are safe. Cabs are easy to get. The people are warm and friendly, happy to have you and your American money.
Poverty pervades everything and everywhere. There were few consumer goods for sale — cigars, rum, crocheted items. The entire country needs modernization. Buildings look like they would fall in a strong windstorm. There’s lots of construction going on. The people have food, education, medical care and housing, but not a lot more. Don’t drink the water, chill drinks with ice or eat food unless filtered water has been used during its preparation. Some places don’t allow toilet paper to be flushed (and some don’t furnish any anyway).
Patronato’s website and B’nai B’rith provides suggestions of needed medical items and “gifts.” We carried over-the-counter drugs, band-aids, soaps, coloring books, — our suitcases contained more to give away than to keep, including some clothes and shoes we would wear and leave. The government encourages “gifts” and doesn’t give you a hassle, unless you are carrying items to sell. We could have and should have brought more.
The synagogue has a pharmacy and religious school, both closed when we went. Sadly, the shul was mostly shut down for renovations. Unphased and happy to be there, we said it didn’t matter. Victor, a willing and enthusiastic staff member wearing a Yankees hat, who luckily for us spoke English, took us around. There was not all that much to view, but we had arrived and were there. The yiddishkiet (Jewish way of life) in the air was palpable.
The office and attached library contains 14,000 books, prayer books from many different branches of Judaism, Jewish literature and modern computer equipment. On a table sat the Torahs, covered by a_tallit_ (Jewish prayer shawl). The social hall and sanctuary looked like many you may have belonged to or visited in the United States. Services are led by young adults who have been bar and bat mitzvahed. There’s a tzedukah (charity) box, memorial and donator plaques and the usual “trees” of giving. Over 100 attend Friday night and 60 come to pray at Saturday morning services, led by recent bar and bat mitzvahs. They have a Sunday school.
Unfortunately, I am not able to tell you what davening (praying) there would be like since the place was shut down for renovations where we were there. We could feel it, although we were not participating. Tallitot lay unfolded, just like at your shul. Pews were moved together, covered with plaster dust. Prayer books were neatly stacked, but other than that, the place was a mess.
While what some would call civil rights have not come to Cuba, the Cuban government allows religious freedom — freedom to be Jews, to meet, marry and pray. We will go back, sponsor a Kiddush, have an aliyah to the Torah and pray. Meeting the congregants and learning their needs will open the door to many mitzvahs (good deeds) in the future.