In Cuba, Jewish Life Survives
by Sam Sokolove
The revolution didn’t quite work out as planned.
That’s the first lesson one learns while visiting Cuba.
Traveling last February with a group of Jewish Federation directors
under the aegis of Jewish Cuba Connection, a nonprofit founded by retired California real estate investor Stanley Falkenstein to engage
American Jewish interest in the Judios of the storied, beleaguered Caribbean island, our purpose was to see how a small, vulnerable Jewish community functions – or doesn’t – under particularly difficult circumstances, and then determine if anything we observe could be applicable to our own communities.
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Hovering over our meeting with Dworin was the fate of Alan Gross, the Jewish U.S. government contractor arrested for espionage in 2009 while helping Jewish community groups, including the Patronado, with their internet accessibility. Announcing that she had visited Gross at the notorious Villa Marista prison, Dworin produced a photo of herself next to a strikingly thin Gross, a lit menorah to their left. Her visit aside, Dworkin offered no particular insights into his case. “What happened with him, you know better than I,” she shrugged before hurrying us out of the room so that she could meet with the Canadian Ambassador.
From an American viewpoint, Gross’s situation is a sad by-product of Cuba’s passive-aggressive relations with the United States; at a tourist-friendly restaurant featuring roaming musicians and English-speaking waiters, the most conspicuous wall decoration was a billboard castigating the U.S. over the fate of the “Cuban Five,” a group of Cuban intelligence officers arrested in Miami on, like Gross, espionage charges, their cause now a populist rallying cry against western imperialism (although with the April release of Rene Gonzalez, the Cuban Five is now down to cuatro). Still, Americans aren’t viewed with disdain by Cubans; we were treated warmly throughout our visit, with some Havanans inquiring with certain wistfulness about Chicago and Nuevo York.
A popular joke around a Havana statue of Jose Marti cradling Elian Gonzales while pointing west perfectly underscores this dichotomy: “Look over there,” the locals have Marti saying. “That’s where the money is, my boy!”
While life is undeniably hard for the average Cuban, there is a languid feel to life in Cuba that meets a romantic’s expectation. Chomping on a Montecristo at the Hotel Nacional satiated my need to pay homage to Meyer Lansky, and strolling along the Malecón at midnight on Valentine’s Day saw hundreds of young and not-so-young lovers serenading one another with acoustic guitars under a full Havana moon. Other visits to Havana’s Miramar district and the wooded San Francisco de Paula area showed the quiet loveliness of “The Pearl of the Antilles.”
Here’s my takeaway: what the Cuban Jewish community has managed to do is successfully tell their story throughout the organized Jewish world, which has been compelling enough to catalyze the interest of funders and advocates who see their vulnerability as a cause worth supporting. Also, there is undeniably an exotic status assigned to Cuban Jewry which is ironic, given the relative normalcy of their network of congregations, social services and general outreach. Over the years, the community has produced admirable leaders like Adela Dworin, William Miller and Yacob Brezniak who have both the sophistication to appeal to donors (“I have a PhD in shnooring,” Dworin proudly informed our group) and a heartfelt commitment to the community that keeps them there, despite enticements elsewhere.
In Jewish New Mexico, we are viewed with a similar exoticism by our brethren on the Coasts. “There are Jews in New Mexico?” I am asked incredulously whenever I return to my Philly homeland. Yes, we’re a normal community, I insist with agitated defensiveness, and mechanically recite the list of our institutional assets.
But no, I’ve come to realize: we’re really not. There are unique, endemic challenges – challenges of economy, of affiliation, of core issues related to Jewish identity and commitment – that makes Jewish life in New Mexico both so invigorating and frustrating.
Visiting Cuba while still reeling from the sudden closure of Jewish Family Service of New Mexico, I was impressed with how the Cuban Jews stayed unwaveringly, unapologetically anchored to kol yisrael arayvim zeh lazeh. True, there were internal tensions; we were told that the community has been unable to convene a nationwide governing body due to personality conflicts and conflicting agendas, which in the organized Jewish world should be surprising to no one, but their level of functionality was on par with any fully developed western community. Unafraid to summon assistance, yet devoid of entitlement, these were Jews willing to roll up their sleeves.
If they can do it in Cuba, I thought, we have no excuse for not being able to do it here.
|Christine Gilmore (left) with Ida Gutstadt|
On the last day of our visit, my partner Christine Gilmore arranged a meeting for us with Ida Gutstadt, a sixty-five year old Havanan who attended the same school, the Colegio Hebreo del Centro Israelita, as Christine’s aunt. The daughter of Polish émigrés who arrived in 1948 – her father survived Auschwitz, her mother the Warsaw Ghetto – Ida grew up in a veritable shetl that seemed to disappear soon after January 1, 1959.
With her friends and their families fleeing to avoid having their possessions nationalized, it seemed that only those without the capital – or in the case of Ida’s already exhausted father, the will – to depart resigned themselves to lives in a suddenly strange country. In her twenties and without a Jewish boy available for marriage, Ida chose a non-Jewish partner and a career as an economist and computer instructor. Long divorced, Ida’s two grown daughters now live in the Dominican Republic and claim no Jewish identity.
|The Gutstadt Family|
Scraping by on a tiny pension, Ida keeps busy with the Patranado, helping oversee its Tzedaka Project which helps more than one hundred and twenty senior and special needs cases throughout the island, and despite it all remains optimistic for the future of Jewish Cuba. When we attempted to offer her some food and Cuban Convertible Pesos, she firmly refused our attempted tzedakah; I have what I need, she insisted.
“It’s not the same as when I was eight years old, but I love the Jewish community here. It’s my life,” she said.
Prior to this, he was Executive Director of the San Diego Chapter of the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish community’s leading human relations organization.
This essay appears in the June/July 2013 issue of The New Mexico Jewish Link. For more information about Jewish life in Cuba and the work of Jewish Cuba Connection, visit www.jewsofcubaorg.com.