The Remnant: Cuban Jews face challenges with hope

From left: Sephardi Synagogue in Havana,  the Guanabacoa Jewish Cemetery outside Havana and the Geniza in the Sephardi cemetery. All photos: Rabbi James Stone Goodman

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

From Oct. 25 to Nov. 1, Rabbi James Stone Goodman visited the Jewish community of Cuba with Central Reform Congregation. 

It’s a remnant community. The notion of the remnant figures large in our story. We have a name for it: Shear Yashuv. It is the symbolic name of one of Isaiah’s sons (see Isaiah 7:3).

It’s a name with a promise: The remnant will return. It’s part of the prophetic guarantee by Isaiah. Isaiah gave his children the symbolic names of return; in his time, the message was, “Don’t worry, King Ahaz, the southern kingdom of Judah is safe.”

Of course, it wasn’t safe. Still, the names of Isaiah’s children carried the belief that a remnant would be restored. Sometimes, that’s all we have, a remnant, but a remnant may flourish again. The Hebrew Bible teaches never to give up on the remnant. 

Noah and his family survived the flood; only Lot and his daughters survived the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Elijah thought he was the only one left who had not submitted to idolatry. Get over yourself, God said, there is a remnant of 7,000 and, furthermore, I’m going to have to replace you with Elisha for talking like that.

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I felt that in visiting the Jews of Cuba: the remnant. The temptation toward pessimism must be strong, but we met no pessimists. We were visiting a community on that part of its arc: a remnant, aging and diminished, its youth gone and continuing to leave. We didn’t meet a people giving up, but a community of vitality and stick-to-it-tive-ness. Much like the rest of Cuba. Survivors.

The people of Cuba survived their history and a series of conquerors. They survived the dictators and the Soviets. They survived the departure of the Soviets when, during the “Special Period in Time of Peace,” there was mass malnutrition, people were keeping pigs in their apartments, eating cats, living with blackouts. (The Special Period in Time of Peace in Spanish is Período especial — something lost in the translation, for sure.)

These and all of the other challenges from within and without that have troubled Cuba for the past 25 years have not conquered hope. Now, Cubans are trying to climb out from under the pressure of the embargo, the blockade (el bloqueo) that seems antiquated and cruel now that the island is opening up to the rest of the world, the rest of the world opening up to the island.

The changes are coming fast. In the past six months, Secretary of State John Kerry reopened the U.S. Embassy in Havana (July), Cuba’s President Raul Castro and President Barack Obama met at the United Nations (September, second time in six months), and U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker visited Cuba to discuss minimizing the effects of the embargo on the Cuban economy (early October). 

While we were there, a delegation from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security visited and ate at the same restaurant we did – in a paladar, a privately owned restaurant.

Cuba is eager for private enterprise. Castro has instituted many changes since he succeeded his brother Fidel in 2008. There is a reorientation of the relationship of the state to the population in Cuba these days. Cuba passed its first comprehensive tax code that went into effect Jan. 1, 2013. It’s 16 pages long. 

Raul Castro has instituted a new openness and a series of reforms, and everyone in Cuba feels something new in the air. Everyone also cites the embargo as the largest impediment to Cuban progress. It was an exciting time to be there.

This is what I heard not only from longtime Cuban residents but from others familiar with life there, including journalists and academics: It’s time to end the embargo. It seems cruel and anachronistic, a residue of the Cold War.

There’s something else brand new in Cuba: Wi-Fi hot spots. In the major cities, you can buy an ETECSA card for an hour of Internet time from the government-owned Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba. This will open Cuba to the world like nothing else. In all of the cities, you see groups gathered, connecting via FaceTime with their relations in other countries.

 

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We visited the synagogues of Havana. First, Adath Israel, the Ashkenazi Sinogoga of Habana, presided over by Jacob the shochet (ritual butcher) trained in practical matters by Rabbi Riskin in Israel. The meat comes from other locations in Latin America. They serve breakfast and lunch every day to their aging community, as most of the youth that Jacob trained have gone to Israel. 

In shul, they get a minyan but not much more. They also have a pharmacy in the building. This is what remains of the Orthodox community of Havana.

We visited El Patronato and Adela Dworin, vice president of Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba. She showed us a map of the remnant of Jews living in Cuba. None of the Jews we met in Cuba have ever experienced any anti-Semitism. Everyone said that. Their challenges come from a different set of obstacles.

We visited the Sephardic synagogue of Havana, Centro Hebreo Sefaradi de Cuba, and Templo Beth-Shalom, Gran Sinagoga De La Commindad Hebrea de Cuba, next to a theater space featuring Brecht. A gym is on the ground floor. 

Upstairs is a small Holocaust memorial with quotations from Jose Marti. Simon Goldstein oversees the Holocaust memorial. The 78-year-old retired engineer told me he doesn’t know who while care for the memorial after him. “But who else?” he said.  The Holocaust memorial is next to a performance space that is rented to a dance troupe.

The remnant Jewish community in Cuba faces obstacles both internal and external. Externally, there is the continuing squeeze of the embargo, or blockade (el bloqueo). Internally, there is the drain of younger people to Israel and the United States, and the lure of private enterprise that pays more than the state pays many of its professionals. Though education is provided for by the state, one can make more money these days in a variety of other ways that does not require the rigors of higher education. 

We were talking with Dr. Mayra Levy of the Sephardic Center.  Someone asked: What’s your greatest need? 

First of all, she said, we need more Jews, adding that Jews always live in hope. We had 24 weddings underneath the chuppah in one night, she told us. This is the only way to increase our numbers (conversion of non-Jewish spouses). The community is served by visiting rabbis from Argentina.

Twenty percent of its members are seniors. It also has a pharmacy and serves meals. How many Jews in the country? They always ask, said Levy. One hears 1,500. I think about 1,300. Before the revolution, 15,000, she added. 

We visited the two cemeteries, within sight of each other in Guanabacoa, southeast of Havana. One Ashkenazi and one Sephardi. Founded in 1906, they are not well maintained. But familiar names and stories rise from every tomb. 

I found names of Syrian and Turkish Jews from the end of the Ottoman Empire, later Ashkenazi Jews fleeing Europe before the World War II who made their homes in Cuba, all buried in the mix of cemeteries. I found a genizah, where the books and holy objects are buried, in both cemeteries.

Written on the entryway: Beit HeChayim, the House of the Living. We call this language sagi nahor, the language full of light. Sagi nahor is Aramaic, actually. We use the expression “full of light” to describe blindness. We call the cemetery the house of life. 

It’s the nature of reality to be and not be a certain way, something may be precisely what it seems not to be, not be precisely what it is. This is the language full of light. Full of light we are when we realize the road we thought was straight — is round.

Here are the stories, the remnant of the past, in the cemeteries – the places where we came from, those who remained, those who are remembered, the stones present on the graves placed by those who remember. The future of the remnant, as always, is unknown. We always live in hope.

 

Read a second installment of Rabbi Goodman’s reflections from his Cuba visit, online at stljewishlight.com/goodman-cuba.