A first visit to Cuba (the whole essay)
November 15, 2019
1. What do I know?
How on earth can I write, as an outsider, about the beautiful, wrenching, poignant, powerful experience of nine days on a religious mission to Cuba? The kaleidoscope of Cuba keeps turning, and every time it turns, the pieces shift and a new picture emerges. In some ways it reminds me of Ghana, or India, or Argentina. In other ways it's not quite like anyplace I've ever been.
I am here with a small delegation from Congregation Beth Israel of North Adams, and a larger delegation from Temple Beth El of City Island. I am here with Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer of the Cuba America Jewish Mission, a rabbinic school friend. (Also with Rabbi David Markus of TBE, and with Rabbi Bella Bogart, a rabbi and musician; we three are also founding builders at Bayit.)
As soon as we visit our first synagogue, the Sinagoga Centro Sefaradi, I am struck by the locals' fierce sense of identity, Jewish and Cuban. They tell us proudly that they have Shabbat services every weekend, and they always manage a minyan. They tell us proudly that there's no antisemitism here. I half-think it's propaganda, but people keep saying it. Is it possible that it's true?
I never once feel unsafe in my kippah. Several times people come up to us and say that they have never seen a woman wearing one before. "Soy una rabbina," I learn to say. "Yo trabajo en una sinagoga." (And sometimes -- when more explanation seems necessary -- I add, "es como una iglesia para los Judíos.") For that matter, I never once feel unsafe as an obvious American.
On our first full day we lunch with Maritza Corrales, author of Chosen Island: a History of the Jews of Cuba. One of my compatriots asks why she stays in Cuba. She begins by telling us that in 1529, a mere ten years after colonization, they were writing back to Spain to say that they needed to be ruled by an islander because the colonizers didn't understand this place.
Maritza travels the world to teach. She could live anywhere, but she chooses here. Why would she want to come to the Estados Unidos where people would call her "Latina" with scorn? She is Cubana. It's easy for us as American Jews to imagine that surely everyone would join us if they could. Maritza has just revealed to me some of my unconscious biases about Cuba and Cubans.
We visit a Jewish cemetery on the far side of the city where Maritza tells us stories about those who are buried there. I am moved by the headstones in Hebrew and Spanish, by how tangible the Jewish presence is and feels. As we are departing, a non-Jewish Cuban man who works there pours water over our hands, following Jewish tradition, so that we can wash the cemetery away.
2. The things we carry
Everywhere we go on the island we bring medical supplies. Our first two stops are the Centro Sefaradi and the Patronato in Havana. Their pharmacy shelves were bare, emptied since last time R' Sunny was here six months ago. They disburse medical supplies to anyone who needs, Jewish or not. There are other pharmacies (we visit one later) but their shelves are spare too.
So much that we take for granted is not available to Cubans. We've brought aspirin, vitamins, diapers, soap, prescription drugs. "Rite Aid or Walmart is like science fiction to us," says one Cuban who has traveled abroad. I lose track of how many times and in how many ways my heart breaks. And I also lose track of how many times and in how many ways my heart soars.
Even just in Havana. The chapel at the Centro Sefaradi has light fixtures from Shevet Achim in Old Havana, the first Sefaradi congregation in Cuba, founded by immigrants from Turkey and Syria. Those fixtures still shine. I mean this literally and metaphorically! At the Patronato, I'm moved by the cheery preschool classroom funded by the Cuba America Jewish Mission.
The sanctuary at the Patronato looks like every mid-20th-century synagogue I've ever seen. Like the classic cars that serve as taxis all over Havana, it's been repaired and patched and kept running ever since it was new. At home a space like that would feel staid, but it feels different here, even defiant here. It's still here; it hasn't gone away; Judaism hasn't gone away.
And yet many Jews have departed. For the United States, for Israel, for Spain, for Mexico. There are fewer than a thousand Jews left on this island. The further inland we go, the smaller the communities we meet -- but the heart and spirit we experience praying with them, eating with them, singing with them, just being with them, is enormous. Outsized. "My cup overflows."
3. Haves and have-nots
Our group has many conversations about the Cubans who became exiles at the time of the revolution, about those who chose to stay, about idealism and failure, about the revolution's ideals and its realities, about the kibbutz movement in Israel and whether or how there are parallels, about young people leaving in search of a better life, about what Cuban Jews need in order to flourish.
We take our meals in privately-operated restaurants called paladares. As tourists, we never encounter food shortages, though it's clear that everyone is operating with the same relatively limited set of ingredients. We know that because we are tourists, rather than locals, we are getting the best of what there is. When we make hamotzi before our meals, I am awash in gratitude.
Most Cubans earn only tens of dollars each month. A doctor, we are told, might earn $60 a month. Everyone seems to need a side hustle. The woman who works as a tour guide at the cigar factory gets cigars as part of her pay, and she can sell them on the side to people like us... when there are people like us here buying things. Of course, these days, there mostly aren't.
I've read about the "Special Period" after the Soviet Union fell, but now I'm hearing from people who lived through it. I hear about eating grass to try to fill their bellies. How everyone grew thin. How Habaneros developed scurvy while citrus rotted in the fields because there was no fuel to transport it. "I hope they don't issue us Chinese-made bicycles again," one person jokes.
The tightened embargo now, some say, will be worse. "They think if they punish us, we will bend," someone says. "They don't understand Cubans."
Later in the week we visit some stores for locals, stores that sell things in CUPs (the Cuban peso) rather than CUCs (the "convertible peso.") I am shocked at how little is on the shelves. The embargo has tightened. There is less to be had. Farmers may return to plowing with oxen; without fuel, tractors won't run. How is it that people here don't hate us for all that we have?
Being here is making me aware of what I take for granted at home. I'm also noticing kinds of abundance here that I don't encounter at home. Abundance of beauty and color: back home the trees are bare at this season, and houses often drab, but here trees and fields and paint colors are vivid and bright. And especially abundance of music. Cuba is justifiably famous for music.
The music on this island is extraordinary. I keep trying to write about it and then giving up. I could as easily write about a rainbow, or about falling in love. Anything I can say would be trite. The rhythms, the harmonies, the omnipresence of beat and song: all move me. I'm thinking a lot this week about how prosperity (or lack thereof), and music, and spiritual life interact.
And I'm thinking about the things that my little community takes for granted. I think about how much easier it seems (to me) to be a Jew where I live than it is here. And I wonder whether there's an inverse correlation between ease and attachment. Do we naturally become less attached to our traditions, our spiritual lives, and our Jewish identities when they are easy to maintain?
4. A heart afire
Some who come to Cuba only visit Havana. Havana is indeed a beautiful city. It is golden and it is crumbling and the classic cars and the Malecon (the waterfront road) are as beautiful as everyone says, as every photo reveals. But R' Sunny insisted that we need to get out into the provinces to get a more nuanced picture of Jewish Cuba and Cuba writ large. He was right.
We drive past lush green fields of banana trees and sugar cane to Cienfuegos, our first provincial stop. First we gather on the roof of an opulent former mansion, where we sip mojitos and gaze at a rainbow (appropriate during this week of parashat Noach!) Then we visit the home of the Langus family. Rebecca Langus welcomes us and (with our guide as translator) tells us her story.
She always knew she was Jewish, she tells us, but she didn't learn what that meant until 1992 when the state officially exchanged its atheism for agnosticism. When Rebecca was growing up, her Turkish grandmother insisted that they eat matzah (sent each year by the Joint Distribution Committee) at Pesach -- but she never knew why they ate it or what it signified until the 1990s.
She tells us how she taught herself everything she knows about Judaism -- gesturing to their small library of Judaic books, all donated by communities like ours -- in order to teach her children. The community in Cienfuegos now is eight families: eighteen people, three of whom are children. They meet for Shabbat services in her living room, set up with white monobloc chairs.
After her prepared remarks, she chats with the rabbis on our trip. We ask her what fuels her and where she finds her sense of hope in this work. In response, Rebecca tells us simply that everything she does, she does for love. That would have been clear even if she hadn't said a word. Her care for her community and for Jewish tradition shines out of her face, out of her being.
What does it take to persist as Jewish community in a place like this? To show up for Shabbat every other week because there are literally only eighteen of you and if a handful don't show, there's no minyan? Is there something about being in a place where religion used to be forbidden that makes people now want to claim the right and privilege of spiritual practice in community?
What does it take to profess and choose and celebrate Jewishness in a place where the economic picture is so difficult that many young people choose to emigrate to Israel, or Mexico, or Europe, or wherever else they can? We ask what would help the communities most. The answer I keep hearing: convince our government to end the embargo so Cuba can thrive again.
5. Tourism and syncretism
We are also tourists. Our primary purpose is meeting Cuban Jews and delivering medicines, but we also take a day trip to Trinidad. It was abandoned for 85 years, which is why it's one of the world's best-preserved examples of Spanish colonial architecture. On the way there, we pass a Russian nuclear plant that never worked. Some things in Cuba feel like a Kafka story.
In Trinidad the streets are "paved" with local stones and with cobbles brought as ballast from Europe. There are men in guayaberas with instruments, playing Guantanamera beneath shady trees. There are artisans selling lace and embroidery and wooden boxes of dominos, their prices lowering as we walk past. There aren't many other tourists -- at least not that I can see.
From the luxurious rooftop paladar where we lunch I see children playing amidst red clay tiles and chicken coops. They wave at us. Dare we hope that our tourist dollars are helping them? When we get back to our stunning old Cienfuegos hotel I go for a swim in the pool in the courtyard. How can I square this gracious opulence with the deprivations that locals take for granted?
This place is extraordinary. Beautiful. Musical. Literate. And the Cuban people I meet everywhere we go clearly feel pride in who and where they are. And it's also clear that they need the help, medical and fiscal, that we're here to bring. I'm thinking about scarcity and poverty... with awareness that those things exist in my country too. My usual orbit just allows me not to see them.
On our first full day in Cuba we visited an apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Havana where two women taught us about Santeria (also known as Regla de Ocha). Santeria is a religious tradition that intertwines Yoruba orishas (which the translator renders as "guardian angels") with Catholicism. Seventy percent of Cubans have some interaction with Santeria.
We learned about the altars, the figures depicted there, appropriate offerings for each and the relationships between them. We learned how the initiation process works. I was fascinated by how it dovetails with going to mass. Apparently the local Catholic priests recognize Santeria initiates, and don't seem to mind the religious syncretism. (Or at least, they allow it to continue.)
Some of what the women in that apartment shared with us is utterly unlike Judaism. And some of it evokes ideas from my tradition. Maybe inevitably, I'm always looking for resonance. I wonder what it was like for these women to host this group of American Jews. I worried that they might feel exposed, but they seemed delighted to be able to share their tradition with us.
After that visit, whenever I see someone wearing all white I wonder whether that person is a Santeria initiate. Many of us in this Jewish tour group wear all white on Shabbat, a custom that comes from the mystics of Tzfat who created the Kabbalat Shabbat service as we know it. Maybe the locals, seeing us in our Shabbat whites, imagine that we are Santeria initiates too.
6. Holy spirit
Our next stop is Sancti Spiritus, where motorbikes and bicycles share the roads with horses pulling wagons that serve as group taxis. As in Cienfuegos, our historic hotel is old Spanish-style, built around central courtyards, with old heavy wooden furniture. It feels a million light-years away from the hip mid-century-modern (as though frozen in time) décor of our Havana hotel.
On Friday night our bus takes us on a winding route out of the old part of town and to the home of the Barlia family. Like many houses here, theirs has iron gates and window coverings -- but their wrought-ironwork proudly displays stars of David. The Barlia family hosts, and leads, Kabbalat Shabbat services for Jews of this province twice a month in the courtyard of their home.
This Shabbat their daughter Elisa is becoming bat mitzvah. She lights Shabbat candles in front of a celebratory photograph of herself holding a Torah. She and her sister and R' Sunny lead us in Kabbalat Shabbat, welcoming Shabbat into our midst. Over our heads, a metal grate that looks like fish scales shows the changing colors of the sky and the early-Cheshvan crescent moon.
As in Buenos Aires ten years ago, I am struck by why it matters that Jews pray in Hebrew. Most of us in this group don't share a common language with Cubans. At best we can manage a few phrases. (A couple of us are fluent; most of us... not.) But we can pray with them, welcome Shabbat with them. We can sing ancient words with them, and in those words, our hearts connect.
The bat mitzvah continues on Shabbat morning in Santa Clara, where we convene at Beth Am, a project of the Cuba America Jewish Mission, the nonprofit behind our religious / medical mission to Cuba. Beth Am is the first (and only) new synagogue in Cuba since the Revolution. (It's in a new building, but was a preexisting community; no "new" houses of worship can be built.)
The shul is small, and beautiful, and we fill it: 20 Americans, a few of whom have been coming here for years and know the Barlia family well, and a few dozen locals here to celebrate one of their own. We daven and we sing. The four rabbis on our trip bless the bat mitzvah (with words that I wrote, translated into Spanish!) and we join the Barlia family in chanting from Torah.
After the service we feast on the rooftop of the shul, beside a wall of painted clay tiles that depict different sites across Jerusalem. Before we leave, we gather again in the sanctuary with two guitars and a ukelele and we sing and dance and rejoice. What a mechaieh, a life-giving thing, to get to join the local Jewish community in filling this little synagogue with holy spirit.
7. Cognitive dissonance
Once we leave shul, we shift gears and visit the Cementario Israelita, the Jewish cemetery of the central provinces. (Ordinarily one wouldn't visit a cemetery on Shabbat, but we are packing as much as we can into the time we have.) The cemetery is down a narrow dirt road, surrounded by an impoverished neighborhood of small cement-block dwellings with corrugated roofs.
We gather inside the cemetery and hear words from David Tacher Romano, president of the Santa Clara Jewish community, translated by our guide. We take turns watering the tree planted as a sapling that came from the Negev. Here too there is a room by the gates where bodies are prepared for Jewish burial. We learn that that room was used just a few months ago, in February.
A scant few minutes later we are at a Che Guevara memorial. The plaza is vast and I can imagine it filled with crowds. I don't go into the tomb: I've had enough of death for one day. Instead I sit on a low stone wall, and watch a trio of stray dogs chase each other around the grounds, and watch the enormous Cuban flag waving overhead, and sip a tiny cup of strong dark hot coffee.
And then our bus pulls off the road and we are in another world. We're at a Cuban resort on the outskirts of Santa Clara. There are little round houses with thatched roofs (and air conditioning), and a swimming pool where Spanish disco is blaring all afternoon. Many of those present, our waiter tells us, are locals -- if they have money, Cubans can come here, and many do.
Suddenly it feels like a Caribbean resort. But we were just in a poor neighborhood. And then we were surrounded by propaganda. And now there are couples necking in the pool, and children of all hues wearing floaties, and the thump of Spanish-language pop music. Also there are free-range chickens. And just this morning we were at a bat mitzvah. My head is spinning.
By Saturday night when Shabbat ends, my brain feels thoroughly scrambled from the cognitive dissonance. The beautiful little Santa Clara shul. The bat mitzvah girl herself, who reminds me in some way of every kid I've ever taught. And then the cemetery, and its neighbors whom our guide says may be squatters. The Che Guevara memorial. This resort in the middle of it all.
"Cognitive dissonance? That's Cuba," Rabbi Sunny tells me.
8. Miracles in Camagüey
Our final stop is Camagüey, where we admire Spanish colonial architecture and beautiful narrow streets (which we tour via "bicitaxi.") It is our last full day in Cuba and I can feel my gears grinding. I am overstimulated, my mind racing with images and questions. I want to spend a few years studying political economy so that I can better understand what I've just begun to see.
And then we reach Tifereth Israel, the Jewish community of Camagüey. They meet in an old house: a little sanctuary, and a social hall, and a room for feasting, and an arbor in the back where pomegranates grow. From the moment we walk in, the joy is palpable. Dra. Sara Bedoya Pulin, the president, welcomes us warmly. There are 32 people in the Jewish community here.
We go around the room and introduce ourselves. And then we sing. Two of us have guitars and one has a ukelele and we all sing niggunim (wordless melodies) and songs together. "Hevenu Shalom Aleichem." "Am Yisrael Chai." Welcoming the stranger. Asserting that the Jewish people yet lives. Old familiar words, but they take on a spine-tingling resonance here.
We ask the Cubans what they sing when they are feeling grateful, and they lead us in a shehecheyanu. There is dancing. There is beaming. The little girl beside me is shy at first, and then -- when I give her a "You Are Beautiful" sticker and translate it for her ("tu eres bella"), she smiles at me and no longer seems afraid. I experience a feeling of welcome from their hearts to ours.
And then the rabbis walk into the sanctuary. Their aron kodesh (holy ark, the cabinet in which Torahs are stored) is painted with letters of the alef-bet flying upward. Evoking the mystical teaching that the world is made out of holy speech, and the Hasidic story about the humble person who recites the alef-bet and the letters fly up to heaven where God assembles them into prayer.
It is dazzlingly beautiful to me. We walk up to look at the ark, and I feel a spiritual energy that I can't quite describe or explain. On the amud, the Torah reading table, is a prayerbook open to the words we were just singing in the other room: Am Yisrael Chai. The people of Israel live. This Godwrestling people yet lives. What a miracle it is that we are here and alive. What a miracle.
We have brought pharmacy supplies, and they have prepared a feast for us. Someone made the long drive to the ocean to get us fresh red snapper. And there is yuca, and rice, and papaya, and pineapple, and cucumbers, and avocado. We sit at a long table, and those of us who barely share a language communicate in smiles and broken phrases and pressing our hands to our hearts.
Down at the other end of the table, Rabbi David who is fluent in Spanish is asking a young man what makes him stay here. His answer: sure, he could go anywhere in the world. But he would lose his connection with his family. And the closeness of the Cuban family and community is precious. It is worth more than the money he could earn if he were to decide to leave.
9. Coming home
What can I bring home to my own Jewish community from Cuba?
I want to bring home an awareness of how lucky I am to live as I do -- and how that good fortune makes me responsible to do what I can to lift up those who are in need. I know it won't be long before I settle back into "regular life," and the incredible abundance of my life will cease to be a shock to the system. I hope I will be able to wake myself into remembering again.
I want to bring home an awareness of what I don't have -- what I've seen here among the Cuban Jewish community that is more precious than my pleasant first-world standard of living. The connection to family. The connection to place. The preciousness of connection with Jewish tradition and spiritual life -- especially in a place where one can't take Jewishness for granted.
I want to bring home (and share with my community) a sense that we are truly part of clal Yisrael, the broader Jewish community. This community of tradition and spiritual life connects us across time and space. Talmud teaches (Shavuot 39a) that all of Israel is responsible for one another. We are family with the Jews of Cuba. We are responsible for them and to them
Of course I don't just feel responsible for or to my fellow Jews. I also feel an obligation to help human beings everywhere who are in need. That tension between particularism and universalism is woven throughout Jewish tradition. The obligation to care for "our own" and the obligation of tikkun olam, repairing the whole world's brokenness, both are core Jewish obligations.
What responsibility do I have to people in other nations whose lives are shaped by the policies my government enacts? For that matter, what responsibility do I have to people in my own nation whose lives are shaped by the policies my government enacts? As someone who lives in relative comfort, what responsibility do I have to those who don't? I'm bringing home these questions.
And experiencing Jewish Cuba has shown me Judaism's beauty in new ways, and I want to bring that home too. I've loved seeing how Judaism in Cuba brings light to people's eyes and joy to people's hearts. I've loved difference and common ground. I've loved seeing my familiar tradition -- words, ideas, practices -- translated into a different idiom, literally and metaphorically.
And especially in the provinces, I've been moved to encounter tiny communities that celebrate their Jewishness week after week with joy. My small Massachusetts town is different from Cuba in almost every way. But we can be inspired by our cousins in Cuba and the Jewishness they keep (and that keeps them) vibrant and spiritually alive. Their existence enlivens our Judaism too.
I hope to someday return to Jewish Cuba, and to bring more members of my community to Cuba with me next time. So that they too can have their hearts and their sense of Jewishness expanded by this complicated, intense, heartbreaking, beautiful place -- and by the Cuban people, whose generosity of spirit humbles me, and whose light continues to shine.
If you're interested, you can also see more of my Cuba photos on Flickr.
Any errors in this essay are my own. Offered with infinite gratitude to the Cuba America Jewish Mission, Congregation Beth Israel of North Adams, Temple Beth El of City Island, and most of all, the Jews of Cuba who shared with us their stories, their communities, and their hearts.