[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] David Horovitz (Times of Israel) writes about Adela Dworin, president of Cuba’s Jewish community, who, when she found herself face-to-face with Fidel Castro for the first time, at a meeting he initiated with religious leaders in 1998, she immediately invited him to come and meet Havana’s Jews at the capital’s Beth Shalom synagogue to attend their Hanukkah party. Horovitz writes:
[. . .] Religion had not been outlawed by Castro after the 1959 revolution, but those who proclaimed themselves people of faith could not join his Communist Party. In the early 1990s, however, that restriction was lifted, and Dworin figured this was the moment — that an invitation to meet the community just might be well-received.
And so it proved: When the small, indomitable Dworin asked Castro why he’d never looked in on the Jews, he retorted that they’d never asked him to.
Join us for our Hanukkah party, she suggested. To which he replied, “What’s Hanukkah?”
Recalling the moment during an interview in the synagogue’s offices last week, Dworin says she knew she had to think fast. Castro’s aide was already motioning impatiently to her that the president’s time was short. “Hanukkah,” she managed, “is revolution for the Jews.”
“I’ll come,” said Castro, evidently welcoming the parallel between the corrupt dictator he’d ousted and the Seleucid Empire against which the Maccabees had revolted 2,000 years earlier.
Come he did. Dworin hadn’t told congregants about the imminent visit, so as not to disappoint them in case it was canceled. When the 150 people gathered in the synagogue social hall saw Castro enter with his entourage, bodyguards et al, says Dworin, “they couldn’t have been more surprised if the messiah had come.”
The notoriously long-winded revolutionary spoke for two hours — about Judaism. Asked questions at the end. Wasn’t satisfied with the answers. Told the Jews, constrained for decades by his atheist straitjacket, that they needed to learn more about their faith.
You couldn’t make it up.
[. . .] Adela Dworin doesn’t have to live in dismally led, US-embargoed Cuba — a country marked by both striking literacy (over 99.7%) and poverty (the average wage is about $30 a month), and stuck in an early 60s time warp (except for a developing tourism industry and an elusive, unofficial upper echelon that enjoys many modern conveniences). All of her former classmates and childhood friends live in Miami, an hour and a world away. (Ungallantly asked her age, she protests in mock horror that a previous journalist wrote that she was in her 80s. “You can say that I’m more than 60 and less than 80,” she graciously allows.)
Dworin’s here because she’s a proud Cuban and a proud Jew, she says, and she does what she can to help both nations thrive. “Some say I have a master’s in schnorring (wheedling donations),” she acknowledges cheerfully, saying that she’s been all over the United States raising money for the community. “I say I have a PhD.”
Jews have been living as an organized community in Cuba since the start of the 1900s, though they trace their roots back to a trio of Marranos who fled the Spanish Inquisition over four centuries earlier. Before the revolution, the community numbered over 15,000, most of whom headed straight to Miami when the communists took over. “Everybody was in favor of change and an end to corruption,” says Dworin. “But then private businesses were confiscated, private schools were closed down… and Miami was so very nearby.”
Today, there are perhaps 1,200 Jews left — a number that falls through emigration, including to Israel, rises through intermarriage, and might just be a tad inflated so that hugely appreciated aid, with Canadian Jewry’s annual Pessah shipment of wine, matzah and gefilte fish a particular highlight, is not reduced.