All things considered, Cuba is probably not the easiest place in the world to be Jewish.
For one thing, there is not a single rabbi in the entire country. There is no local supplier of matzo or gefilte fish, either.
What’s more, the government of Fidel Castro broke off diplomatic relations with Israel more than 30 years ago and now officially denies the existence of the Jewish state, while earnestly backing the Palestinian side in the bloody and seemingly intractable Mideast conflict.
Taking all of this into account, you might well wonder why it is that a young woman is standing alone on a low stage in a windowless basement in the Vedado section of the Cuban capital, paying tribute to the legions of Jewish fighters who have perished in combat during the 58 years since Israel’s founding.
You might also ask why it is that upwards of 150 men, women and children soon are clambering to their feet in the same room in order to sing “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem.
And what on Earth is now compelling a half-dozen young dancers in blue robes to swirl about the stage, followed by a pair of musicians — guitarist David Behar and violist Alberto Zilberstein — who play a haunting rendition of a ladino song about King Nimrod?
Outside, the sultry tropical night nibbles at the gnarled ficus trees and the mossy, colonnaded mansions that dominate this stately if rundown part of Havana — so there is no doubt that you are in Cuba.
Down here in the basement auditorium of the Sinagoga Bet Shalom, however, you could be in almost any far-flung corner of the Diaspora, where the events unfolding on this evening in early May would be readily recognizable as a celebration of Yom Haatzmaut, the anniversary of Israel’s 1948 founding as an independent state.
But why would anyone be cheering Israeli nationhood here? Besides, there aren’t any Jews in Cuba — are there?
As it happens, there are — a small but resolute community of about 1,500 Jews who may well owe their continued existence at least in part to Canadian generosity.
“The Jewish community exists because we are very stubborn,” says Adela Dworin, president of the Hebrew Community of Cuba. “The Jewish community exists because we have a wonderful organization called the Canadian Jewish Congress. They have done wonderful things for the saving of Judaism in Cuba.”
For more than 40 years, Canadian Jews have been supporting their few remaining Cuban brethren in a variety of ways, thereby helping to ensure that a Jewish presence survives in what is one of the world’s few remaining Communist countries.
Granted, that presence is now sadly reduced from former times. The Jewish population in Cuba peaked in the 1950s at around 15,000 people, but most of them fled the island in the wake of the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
For the few who remained, life has been a struggle; it is no easy matter to be Jewish in Cuba.
In the first place, no rabbis.
“We don’t have the money to pay for a rabbi,” says William Miller, vice-president of the Hebrew Community. “It is very expensive to pay for a rabbi.”
It is also difficult and often impossible for a Cuban Jew to find a marriage partner who’s also Jewish. As a result, most young Jews wind up marrying goyim, which is not a crime but does make it difficult to keep the synagogues going.
As for the absence of matzo and gefilte fish, well, this is one of several areas where Canadian Jews have been able to help out.
In 1961, the Toronto chapter of the Canadian Jewish Congress inaugurated an annual ritual that continues to this day. Each year, the chapter ships a container of kosher food and wine to the island so that the dietary laws of the faithful can be properly observed during Passover.
In 2003, the CJC launched another program, called the Canada-Cuba Experience in Israel, which enables a dozen or so Jewish youngsters from the island to travel abroad each year, first to Canada and then on to Israel for a summertime trip lasting several weeks.
These international forays are permitted by the Cuban government, which has long had extremely testy relations with other organized religions on the island. For several decades, the Castro regime severely repressed the Roman Catholic church, a situation that began to change only after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998.
Dworin says Cuban Jews have largely escaped similar woes, in part because the community she belongs to — never especially large — is now so very small.
“We are not so important in a country that has 11 million people,” she says. “We have never had problems with the government.”
A self-possessed woman of a certain age, Dworin wears a pair of gold-rimmed glasses and a pale-blue blouse with a pastel scarf. She settles herself at her desk in the community centre’s 10,000-volume library, where she happily conducts a narrative tour of Jewish history a la cubana.
The first Jews to settle here arrived around the beginning of the last century, she explains. Generally wealthy folk from the United States, they invested in railways, sugar plantations and tobacco fields.
The next wave of Jewish immigration was dominated by Sephardic Jews from Turkey, followed by mainly impoverished Jews fleeing the brutal anti-Semitism then rampant in eastern Europe.
They mostly didn’t intend to settle on this island — they were really hoping to continue on to the United States — but the country they referred to at the time as “Hotel Cuba” eventually became their home. Gradually, they began to prosper.
In time, Havana boasted half-a-dozen Jewish elementary schools as well as five synagogues, and Jewish communities were also flourishing in other parts of the island.
All that changed in the wake of the 1959 revolution, when most of Cuba’s Jews fled across the Straits of Florida to Miami. Before long, only a small Hebrew rearguard remained, yet these few have somehow managed to keep their traditions alive.
The demographic challenges are daunting, however, for this is a very small community that is no longer self-sustaining.
Nowadays, a substantial and ever-increasing proportion of Cuba’s Jews are people who were not actually born to the faith but who converted to Judaism as adults, after becoming engaged to marry members of the community.
“Tonight, you wouldn’t have found a single couple here who were both born as Jews,” says Dworin, referring to the Yom Haatzmaut celebrations earlier in the evening.
“It’s very difficult to find a Jew like me, who comes from a Jewish mother and a Jewish father.”
Periodically, Spanish-speaking rabbis descend on the island from Argentina, Chile or Mexico to oversee another clutch of conversions and to carry out various other rabbinical duties.
Meanwhile, the depletion of Jewish ranks in Cuba continues to be a challenge, as members of the community steadily depart the country, usually in groups of 10 or 12 that leave every few months. They are typically bound for Israel, where the government encourages Jews of the Diaspora to settle and underwrites their travelling expenses.
To facilitate these departures, a lone Israeli diplomat reports for work each day at the Canadian Embassy in Havana, which houses the so-called Israeli Interests Section in Cuba.
Despite this persistent drain on its numbers, Cuba’s Jewish community somehow manages to hold out against the ravages of communism and time, thanks mainly to a combination of newborn babies and freshly minted converts. Still, it would take an irrepressible optimist — someone on the order of, let’s say, Hollywood director Steven Spielberg — to be upbeat about the future of the Jewish community here. As it happens, Spielberg himself has a walk-on role in this story. He paid a visit to the Bet Shalom Synagogue and later toured Havana’s Jewish Cemetery during a trip to the island in 2002.
Dworin proudly shows off some photos of that episode, an event that ranks in her memory alongside the appearance of another bearded celebrity — Fidel Castro himself — who celebrated Hanukkah at the synagogue here in December 1998 amid a general defrosting of church-state relations in Cuba.
Spielberg and Castro. Not bad for a community that most people probably expected to disappear long ago.
“We are Cubans,” says Dworin. “We were born in Cuba. We are proud to be Cuban. But we are also very proud to be Jews.”