Cuba Journal: The Remnant, part 2

beit hechayim

Cuba Journal
The Remnant, part 2

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, most of the youth that Jacob trained gone off 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 Patronata 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, every one 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 Commundad Hebrea de Cuba, next to a theater space featuring Brecht. There was also a gym on the ground floor. Upstairs there a small Holocaust memorial with quotations from Jose Marti. Simon Goldstein oversaw the Holocaust memorial. I’m seventy eight years old, he told me, a retired engineer, but who else? The Holocaust memorial is next to a performance space rented to a dance troupe.

There are obstacles both internal and external to the remnant Jewish community in Cuba. 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 US, 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, we need more Jews, she said, and she added, Jews always live in hope. We had twenty four weddings underneath the chuppah in one night, she told us, this is the only way to increase our numbers [conversion of non-Jewish spouse]. The community is served by visiting rabbis from Argentina.

Twenty percent of their members are seniors, they too have a pharmacy and they serve meals. How many Jews in the country? They always ask, said Mayra. One hears 1500. I think about 1300. Before the revolution, 15,000.

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

I noticed that the gravesites seemed not only in disarray, but it looked to me as if they had been looted. When I returned home, I did some research and I found an article in the Forward about these particular graves called “Grave-Robbers Target Cuba’s Jewish Cemeteries in Search of Bones for Rituals,” by Ilan Stavans (Jewish Forward, June 2, 2013).

The area of the cemeteries, Guanabacoa, is known as a center for Santeria, combining West African elements and Christian ritual, and a lesser known religion with African roots called Regla de Palo Monte or simply Palo Monte. “One of the rituals of Palo Monte requires the use of bones from nonbaptized people. These bones come from Jewish and Chinese graveyards. The Jewish bones are the only ones used to ward off the evil eye.” Whoa.

I found names of Syrian and Turkish Jews from the end of the Ottoman Empire, later Ashkenazi Jews fleeing Europe before the Second World War 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 entry-way: 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.