Sunday, August 09, 2015

Cuban Jews manage with the kindness of strangers 

Adela Dworin, whose parents came from Eastern Europe after World War I, sounds a lot like a Borscht Belt comedian. Even if only a part of a conversation she had with Fidel Castro some years ago is true (it’s impossible to verify), what you quickly realize is that, at 70-something, she isn’t afraid to say anything.

As president of Havana’s Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba, the Jewish community in the capital, Dworin was one of six Jewish leaders invited to meet with Castro after 40 years of watching him on TV. Here’s how she tells it.

Dworin: “Why you never visit our synagogue? You visit churches.”

Castro: “You never invited me.”

Dworin: “I know he likes revolutions, so I said, ‘We’ll have a revolution of Jews.’ ”

Castro: “I’ll come!”

This was last spring and she was talking to 35 travelers from Temple Israel of Boston, a group that included Senior Rabbi Ronne Friedman and Cantor Roy Einhorn, who were in Cuba to visit synagogues and the people who run the institutions and lead its services. Those are typically lay people, since there are only visiting rabbis in Cuba, mostly from Argentina, and none who work there full time. Rabbi Friedman writes in an e-mail that there is a Talmudic principle “Kol Yisrael aravin zeh bazeh” (“All Jews are responsible for one another”). Also, he adds, church groups visit Cuba, and he sees both as “a source of pride.”

Dworin, who has counterparts in other cities, meets us at Bet Shalom Synagogue, also known as El Patronato, of which she is also the president, and tells us that Jews in Cuba exist on the kindness of strangers, who send prayer books and the ritual foods for holidays like Passover (“Canada sends so much matzo, we eat it all year,” she says). Outsiders also bring clothing, toys, vitamins, and medicines, which go to clinics that the Jewish community has set up for themselves and a wide cross-section of people who come for medical help.

Our tour was organized by Batia Plotch of New York-based travel company Global Gallop (www.cubawithbatia.com). Plotch works with Cuban guide Alexis Rodriguez (think Desi Arnaz), who manages to keep up a weeklong running commentary on his country, its history, historical sites, and translates simultaneously for anyone we’re meeting who does not speak English.

Cuba at its peak, when casinos and showgirls were commonplace, was a magnet for high rollers and pleasure seekers. Now you see beautiful buildings crumbling, the famous cars – in intense colors of eggplant, metallic navy, bittersweet chocolate, bottle green, aqua — and very skinny men and women with swollen abdomens. You also hear music on every street. Two people stop on a sidewalk and someone playing music becomes a third. We hear everywhere about President Obama’s decision last December to restore diplomatic relations. The people seem hopeful, though at this point they do not know about the flights or cruise ships that will be coming.

The Jewish community was never large — 15,000 before the Cuban Revolution that culminated in 1959 — and now numbers about 1,500. Dworin oversees a poor and aging population, and she worries about getting them enough food and basic services. Cubans are paid little; there are no taxes, rents, or tuitions. Citizens use coupon books for rations, such as rice, sugar, beans, coffee, eggs, cooking oil, and pork. (Jews get beef, which is hard to come by here.) Half the population was born after the revolution and raised in a make-do society, where artwork can be fabricated from old photographs or discarded equipment, and families engage in a barter system for food.


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