Gotta love ’em
I love the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Joint, JDC. Why? Because they’re awesome. I don’t mean awesome as in what a surfer dude might say. I mean that the JDC fills me with awe. Jaw-dropping awe.
The JDC is responsible for millions of dollars worth of Tikkun Olam every year — providing aid to Jews and non-Jews in need, in more than 70 countries.
The JDC feeds the hungry in the former Soviet Union; builds wells, providing clean water to unserved villages and treats cancer and heart disease patients in Ethiopia. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi Europe were given some form of assistance by the JDC. In 1946-1947 the JDC was helping 700,000 Jews a month… half of all Jews west of the Soviet Union. Many Holocaust survivors and their descendants owe their lives to the work of the JDC. Among their other numerous accomplishments, the JDC is the reason the Jewish community in Cuba exists.
A bit of Cuban history
Before the Cuban Revolution, there was a thriving Jewish community of 15,000 Jews. Sensing the dangers of civil war, most Cuban Jews did what Jews have done for thousands of years — they ran. Those who didn’t flee to America, faced Soviet-style treatment of their culture and religion. The government’s hope was that over time everyone would just forget what it meant to be Jewish. The synagogues were permitted to stay open — but no member of the Communist party could attend — and in order to survive, one had to be a member of the Communist party. Notably, the kosher butcher was never closed, and remained the only privately owned butcher for decades. It provides Jewish Cubans an alternative to the normal meat ration of pork. During the Revolution, all religious organizations, including the JDC, were kicked out.
Then in 1989 the wall came down. In 1992 Cuba changed its constitution from that of a secular country to a non-religious one. By then, the Jewish community had largely ceased to exist and was comprised only of those old enough to remember life before the 1950s-era Revolution. In the last two decades JDC staff, mostly from Argentina, have helped rebuild what was lost. Today the younger generation is the Jewish community — leading religious observance and providing services not only for the older generation, but to all Jews.
JDC offers trips to Cuba (and other really interesting places) for Jewish young professionals. While the trip was short — just a long weekend — we were able to gain a small taste of Cuban culture and the Jewish community there.
As we stepped off the plane, I couldn’t help but notice that Cuba felt like other impoverished countries I have visited. It was hot, crowded and filled with little bits of beauty that one can’t help but admire. I reflected on what made me decide to go on this trip, and admittedly it wasn’t just for the incredible educational experience. It was also because, well, I could. Very few Americans have the opportunity to visit Cuba, a nation so close, yet so far away. It was just thrilling. The Cuban Jewish community is struggling, yet in the midst of revival. Plus I was able to spend four distraction-free days with my brother, something that as we’ve gotten older has become all too rare.
We were fortunate to spend much of our time with Jewish Cubans around our age. We ate many of our meals with them, and they showed us around the clubs at night.
The first evening, I sat at a table with Paul, a teenage drummer from Havana. Paul told us about his life, his dreams and desires. He plays in three bands and is quite the talented drummer. Paul has traveled to Venezuela with his band to play for Chavez. (Although he’s not convinced that Chavez was actually in the audience). More than anything else, Paul said that he and his friends want information. While medicine and other basic supplies are badly needed by the community, for the most part, he feels, they take can take care of each other. What they don’t have easy access to is information. The Cuban government controls social media along with many forms of news and entertainment. Thus young people share any media they can get their hands on, be it the latest movie, TV show or book… helping to spread the information as quickly as possible.
So what do Cubans do everyday? Pretty much what we do here. They enjoy sports, especially baseball. They talk politics and watch the latest bootlegged Hollywood movie. They criticize the American government and their own. This may come as a bit of a surprise to American readers but Cubans love Americans. They can’t get enough. Not just of our movies, baseball and the rest of the culture, but Americans themselves.
Cuba’s cash-strapped economy depends on foreign tourism; they can’t wait for America to open its doors. From the people I talked to, Cubans within Cuba generally want the embargo lifted. (The Cubans in Miami and elsewhere disagree for reasons beyond the scope of this post). Cubans not only want money in the form of American tourist dollars and support from their families in the US, but they want something they consider to be much more important…. They want the Cuban government to be responsible for the needs of its citizens without blaming the US.
Cubans are well educated and healthy, which is hardly surprising given that their main export is doctors. Yet Cubans cannot buy a car built after the Revolution, most cannot open private businesses, and access to the internet is nearly non-existent. In recent years, the Cuban government has opened its doors somewhat, by allowing small numbers of private businesses, but not nearly enough. We were fortunate to eat at paladar La Casa. Paladar is a name often given to small family-run privately-owned restaurants. The food was delicious and as the owner welcomed us into his home, we really were able to get a small taste for what Cuban tourism could offer. The restaurant had a personal touch beyond what I would have ever expected. Once dinner was over, some of us went into the back room and talked with his wonderfully brazen grandmother.
The conversation like much of my time in Cuba, was highly entertaining and overwhelmingly eye-opening. I learned about life in Cuba in a way that no tourist book ever could teach me. If Cubans get the massive influx of tourism that they so desire, I cannot help but feel that it will be a double edged sword. The raw beauty of Cuba is in the genial nature of Cubans, the antique cars and old world feel. Already many of these cars are starting to disappear off the roads as the government begins to replace their own vehicles by importing replacements from China.
The Jewish Community
So how in this difficult time is the Jewish community fairing? Suffice to say it’s both struggling and thriving. There are only 1,500 Jews left in Cuba (down from 15,000 before the Revolution), and that number continues to dwindle. The rate of intermarriage is extremely high; there aren’t enough Jews to sustain a strict community. Perhaps two families keep kosher in all of Cuba; there aren’t sufficient resources to keep kosher. Despite this, the young adults love their Friday night services, leading heartfelt prayers with crystal clear voices. Even a few years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. I have seen firsthand how hard they have worked to make their Jewish life possible.
There’s a lovely Argentinean couple, Joi and Ariel, that helps to lead the Jewish community. There aren’t any rabbis, as none are allowed to live in Cuba. Over the last decade, a series of couples from Argentina have helped young Jews to learn about what it means to be Jewish. But how do you teach Judaism to people who have no background? What does it mean to be a Cuban Jew? Or is it Jewish Cuban? The issue of identity surrounds the Jewish community in Cuba, and it’s one not easily understood.
We were lucky to have two Jubans (a self-titled fantastic nickname for Jewish Cubans) on our trip. They provided an excellent lens through which we could learn about what it means to be both Jewish and Cuban. Josh Kaller and Geoff Frank are both Jewish, Cuban and American, not necessarily in that order. It was their background that led to a frequent question: how do we identify ourselves?
Many Cubans said that they saw themselves first as Cubans, then as Jews. Despite the Cuban government’s previous disdain for all things religious, the Jews in Cuba have never faced discrimination on the same scale as they have elsewhere in the world. For instance: they are very proud that they do not have, nor do they need, guards outside of any of their Jewish institutions. The synagogues are left unprotected because they don’t need protection. The thought of a Cuban breaking in and stealing or hurting the Jewish community is unthinkable.
Despite a cohesive community, or perhaps because of it, the young up-and-coming Jewish leaders are restless. Some of them dream of a better life in Israel, and most of them have already visited through Birthright trips.
Josh and Geoff’s stories (in brief)
After meeting the Jewish community, it was time to look into our own group to understand what we had learned. We visited a Jewish cemetery where we learned about the five Communist Jews killed by Batista prior to the Revolution. Had they survived, these Jews would have been integral parts of Cuban society, and could have changed the direction of Cuban Jewry.
Josh Kaller had a sheet of paper with him, detailing where his great grandparents were buried. Josh was the first Kaller to see their graves since the Revolution. For him it was his family finally coming full circle.
Before leaving, we paid our respects to those who were lost in the Holocaust. Havana’s Holocaust memorial within that graveyard was the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere. It’s remarkable the connection that all Jews have, no matter how isolated the community.
On our way back from visiting the cemetery we stopped outside of a beautiful home. The house once belonged to Geoff Frank’s grandparents. Geoff’s mother was born in Cuba, and fled with her parents to the US at a young age.
Geoff said that, “seeing my grandparents and my mom’s house felt like it added another layer to my life… the opportunity to come here helped me feel complete. To be honest, just being in the country where my family is from was amazing, [the house] was just an added bonus.”
“It’s sad to leave the Jewish community there behind,” Geoff said. Before going on the trip he had never heard of the JDC, and upon returning to the US is planning to see how he can get involved. He wants to “pay it forward” however he can. Geoff along with the rest of us marveled at the great work being done by Joi and Ariel. He loved just, “interacting with [the community], and seeing how much they’ve accomplished in such a short time.”
While in Cuba
Yes, we visited the Partagás cigar factory, smoked some incredible cigars and drank some amazing rum in delicious mojitos. I have plenty of photographs showing what a great time we had, but that’s not the main thrust of what I enjoyed about the trip. It was, more than anything, the people. The Cubans I met showed me a culture unlike any I have ever experienced, and when it comes to my fellow travelers, I could not have asked for a more entertaining and enlightening group. Those mojitos and cigars were better in Cuba because of the people we shared them with.
OK the ingredients help… but it was mostly the people.
I’m sure of it.