How to Keep Shabbat in Havana: Life for Cuba’s Jews

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There are fewer than 1,500 Jews in Cuba, 85 per cent of whom live in Havana. Yet, as correspondent Emily Shire discovers, they face little persecution in what has become a safe haven. Shire says, “I felt safer in Cuba as a Jew than I ever have abroad (except for in Israel).” She provides an in-depth account of everyday life for Jews in Havana. See full article in the link below.

The synagogue looked fairly generic from the exterior, no different from any others I had visited in the United States. If anything, it was outstanding only for appearing somewhat outdated, as if it hadn’t been updated in four or five decades. [. . .] It wasn’t until you stepped inside and saw a picture of Fidel Castro in his signature army fatigues and cap framed among the items of Judaica that you realized you weren’t in Long Island or Los Angeles.

This is the Patronato Synagogue, the largest of the three synagogues that remain in Havana. I visited as part of a mission trip with the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) as part of a mission trip to the fledgling but still-standing Jewish community in Cuba. [. . .] Cuba once had a thriving Jewish community. At its peak, there were 15,000 Jews, and Havana boasted five synagogues and six or seven Jewish day schools, says Adela Dworin, the Patronato’s president. “You know the expression, one Jew, two synagogues,” she says with a laugh.

Dworin grew up in Cuba, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Pinsk. [. . .] Dworin’s parents came during the big wave of Jewish immigration to Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s when it was very difficult to come to the U.S., which was experiencing one of its strongest anti-Semitic and anti-Immigration periods.

Some of the Jews fleeing the growing anti-Semitism and Nazism in Europe were lucky enough to find refuge in Cuba, and they grew the peddling businesses they had in Europe into successful enterprises.  “Small schmatta shops became bigger schmatta shops,” says Dworin. (‘Schmatta’ is a Yiddish word for clothes or rags; it was eerie and delightful to hear the word I’ve grown up hearing with a Spanish accent layered over the Yiddish.)

Dworin is a holdover, one of the small minority of Jews who did not leave after the revolution and Castro’s rise to power. Many Jews were actually initially supportive of the revolt against Fulgencio Batista and were founding members of the Communist party in Cuba. After Castro took power, though, 90 percent of Cuba’s Jewish population fled to the U.S. and other countries.

[. . .] Certain Jewish traditions have just been too hard to maintain under Castro rule. Dworin says it is very hard to be shomer shabbat, meaning to keep the Sabbath. Meat is scarce as is, and getting kosher meat is almost entirely impossible. Dworin says she has a community member who acts a shochet, someone specifically trained in slaughtering animals in a kosher way, but that is on an individual level.

[. . .] In addition to the Patronato Synagogue, we also visit the Sephardic Hebrew Center, one of the two other houses of worship in Havana. There, we receive a tour from an older congregant, Samuel, who stresses that the Jewish community was not threatened by the government, even before Castro eased up on religious restrictions. “They never shut down synagogues. I went every Shabbat,” he tell us. Still, the important caveat is that Jews who wanted to hold higher political status could not appear actively religious.

“I never suffer any kind of persecution,” says Dworin. “My parents came from Poland. I decided to stay, and I made a good choice. Life here is much safer than in other Latin-American countries.”

At the same time, the Jewish Cuban appears to have something that many Jews around the world lack: safety.

The Cuban Jewish community is unequivocal in stressing they experience no forms of anti-Semitism from the government or their neighbors. [. . .]

For full article, see http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/02/01/how-to-keep-shabbat-in-havana-life-for-cuba-s-jews.html

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