Travel

Cuban Jews manage with the kindness of strangers

The United Hebrew Congregation cemetery for Ashkenazic Jews in Havana dates to 1906. Most of Cuba’s 1,500 Jews live in the capital city
STEVE TARGUM FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
The United Hebrew Congregation cemetery for Ashkenazic Jews in Havana dates to 1906. Most of Cuba’s 1,500 Jews live in the capital city

HAVANA — Adela Dworin, whose parents came from Eastern Europe after World War I, sounds a lot like a Borscht Belt comedian. Even if only a part of a conversation she had with Fidel Castro some years ago is true (it’s impossible to verify), what you quickly realize is that, at 70-something, she isn’t afraid to say anything.

As president of Havana’s Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba, the Jewish community in the capital, Dworin was one of six Jewish leaders invited to meet with Castro after 40 years of watching him on TV. Here’s how she tells it.

Dworin: “Why you never visit our synagogue? You visit churches.”

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Castro: “You never invited me.”

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Dworin: “I know he likes revolutions, so I said, ‘We’ll have a revolution of Jews.’ ”

Castro: “I’ll come!”

This was last spring and she was talking to 35 travelers from Temple Israel of Boston, a group that included Senior Rabbi Ronne Friedman and Cantor Roy Einhorn, who were in Cuba to visit synagogues and the people who run the institutions and lead its services. Those are typically lay people, since there are only visiting rabbis in Cuba, mostly from Argentina, and none who work there full time. Rabbi Friedman writes in an e-mail that there is a Talmudic principle “Kol Yisrael aravin zeh bazeh” (“All Jews are responsible for one another”). Also, he adds, church groups visit Cuba, and he sees both as “a source of pride.”

Sheryl Julian/Globe Staff
Adela Dworin is a Cuban of Eastern European descent.

Dworin, who has counterparts in other cities, meets us at Bet Shalom Synagogue, also known as El Patronato, of which she is also the president, and tells us that Jews in Cuba exist on the kindness of strangers, who send prayer books and the ritual foods for holidays like Passover (“Canada sends so much matzo, we eat it all year,” she says). Outsiders also bring clothing, toys, vitamins, and medicines, which go to clinics that the Jewish community has set up for themselves and a wide cross-section of people who come for medical help.

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Our tour was organized by Batia Plotch of New York-based travel company Global Gallop (www.cubawithbatia.com). Plotch works with Cuban guide Alexis Rodriguez (think Desi Arnaz), who manages to keep up a weeklong running commentary on his country, its history, historical sites, and translates simultaneously for anyone we’re meeting who does not speak English.

Cuba at its peak, when casinos and showgirls were commonplace, was a magnet for high rollers and pleasure seekers. Now you see beautiful buildings crumbling, the famous cars – in intense colors of eggplant, metallic navy, bittersweet chocolate, bottle green, aqua — and very skinny men and women with swollen abdomens. You also hear music on every street. Two people stop on a sidewalk and someone playing music becomes a third. We hear everywhere about President Obama’s decision last December to restore diplomatic relations. The people seem hopeful, though at this point they do not know about the flights or cruise ships that will be coming.

The Jewish community was never large — 15,000 before the Cuban Revolution that culminated in 1959 — and now numbers about 1,500. Dworin oversees a poor and aging population, and she worries about getting them enough food and basic services. Cubans are paid little; there are no taxes, rents, or tuitions. Citizens use coupon books for rations, such as rice, sugar, beans, coffee, eggs, cooking oil, and pork. (Jews get beef, which is hard to come by here.) Half the population was born after the revolution and raised in a make-do society, where artwork can be fabricated from old photographs or discarded equipment, and families engage in a barter system for food.

Sheryl Julian/Globe Staff
Rebecca Langus holds Jewish services and events in her home.

A few days earlier we had met Rebecca Langus, 52, and one of her sons, David, 26, in the sitting room of their home in the bayside city of Cienfuegos, southeast of Havana. The room is set up like a meeting room and turns out to be the place where Lingus holds religious services and events. “In the 1990s, when Jews opened synagogues, everyone had to learn prayers, songs, and customs. Some people knew nothing about Judaism,” Lingus tells us as Rodriguez translates. She says she has introduced all her acquaintances and neighbors to her religion. We see what she’s doing to keep the community together as an uplifting but uphill struggle, but with her big, friendly smile, she seems optimistic.

On another day, we meet David Tacher, 64, president of the Santa Clara Jewish community, who reopened a synagogue in an old home, “against all odds,” he tells us. He also raised money to build a Holocaust memorial in an old cemetery. “Thirty years of religious silence,” he says, “then we tried to resume all Jewish life.” The memorial consists of a headstone and two steel rails that lead to a group of cobblestones brought from the Warsaw Ghetto. Listening to this man standing in the hot sun, explaining how people carried the stones to him, how important it is to remember Jews and others who died in the camps, is deeply moving. Rabbi Friedman leads the group in the Mourner’s Kaddish and we exit in silence.

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Like many Cuban Jews, Dworin’s family was headed to the United States, stopped in the Caribbean, and stayed. As Ruth Behar writes in The Journal of the International Institute, published by the University of Michigan, “American Jewish expatriates, Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic Jews from Poland, and Sephardic Jews from Turkey who spoke Judeo-Espanyol, had all thrived in Cuba. Between them they had built eight synagogues on the island, buried their dead in an array of Jewish cemeteries, and left other Jewish traces scattered in towns and villages from Havana to Guantánamo.” The vast majority lost their livelihoods after the revolution, she writes, when businesses and properties were expropriated, so they left.

Sheryl Julian/Globe Staff
Ricardo Alarcon is a former Cuban diplomat that discovered Jewish roots.

Ricardo Alarcon, 78, former representative to the United Nations, a post he held for almost 15 years, and former president of Cuba’s National Assembly, speaks to us about problems in Venezuela, rice production (it’s a dietary staple and the country doesn’t produce enough), low birth rates, President Obama’s announcement, and whether a president after Obama can reverse his decision. “I am optimistic,” he says.

Then he tells us that his ancestors came from southern Spain and he had always thought he had an Arabic heritage. Someone told him that neither his name nor any variation of it was Arabic and so his daughter did extensive genealogical research. Now, he says, he and she are convinced he’s Jewish, part of the conversos who changed religions during the Spanish Inquisition.

Dworin, who meets with many groups, is often asked what her community needs, and she’s direct in her responses. Two years ago, when a visitor posed the question, she said she wanted to send a delegation of athletes for the first time to the Maccabiah Games (the quadrennial Jewish Olympics in Israel). How much did she need? “A big amount,” she told the man. He promised her the money and indeed, Steve Tisch, chairman and executive vice president of the New York Giants, returned home and sent uniforms for 56 Jewish Cubans to wear at the Games. The rest of the funding came from the worldwide Jewish community who heard about it.

“The experience of encountering Jews in Cuba,” says Rabbi Friedman, “reinforces the wonder and astonishment of Jewish survival and adaptation.”

Sheryl Julian can be reached at sheryl.julian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.