President Barack Obama had barely been in power for a year when we finally got to take our trip, many years in the planning, to Cuba.
Curious about what remained of the Jewish community in this tiny island-nation, on one of our first days in Havana, my husband and I found ourselves wandering into Synagoga Beth Shalom, the Conservative congregation located just a few blocks from the family-run bed-and-breakfast where we were staying in the Vedado neighborhood. We knew that Beit Shalom also served as the main cultural center for Cuba’s tiny Jewish community, estimated at about 1,500 and mostly based in this capital city.
The only person on the premises that morning was a tiny old man, who introduced himself as the gabbai, or warden, of the synagogue. What immediately struck us was not his genuine – and to us, surprising – friendliness to English-speaking tourists with American accents, but the political campaign button pinned to his lapel: “Obama/Biden” it read.
He spoke no English, and we spoke no Spanish, but somehow we managed to communicate in broken Yiddish. “Obama Biden”? We asked incredulously, pointing at the button. “Obama iz de schvartze moshiach,” he responded, gallantly anointing the leader of the free world – and the arch enemy of Cuba by definition, at least in those days – “the black messiah.”
Five years down the road, those words now seem oddly prophetic, given last week’s surprise announcement about the normalization of ties between the United States and Cuba after more than 50 years of stalemate.
It wasn’t planned, but we ended up spending quite a bit of time on that trip with members of the tiny, yet fascinating Jewish community of Havana. Our friendly gabbai tipped us off that if we came back to the synagogue that evening, we’d be able to watch or, if we preferred, even participate in the weekly Israeli dance class. Without giving it much thought, we put on hold whatever else we had planned for that evening and did just that.
About two dozen young Cubans gathered in the building’s all-purpose room for the weekly class, most of them in their early and mid-twenties. Not all, as we were to discover afterward, were Jewish, and those who weren’t explained that they had been turned onto Israeli dancing by their Jewish partners. (Some of the best dancers on the floor, we noticed, belonged to that group.)
My husband naively thought he might show the natives a thing or two about Israeli dance moves. How wrong he was, he quickly learned as the instructor pressed the “play” button on her old-fashioned tape recorder and the crowd jumped to its feet, leaving him in the dust.
Quite a few of the participants, we found out, had already visited Israel on Taglit-Birthright, and those who hadn’t yet were planning to go. As a gesture to this tiny religious community, Fidel Castro, and later his brother Raul, had granted permission for young Cubans Jews to travel to Israel on the free, 10-day trips offered by the program. Since there are no direct flights from Cuba to Israel, and since they can’t fly to Israel from the United States, Birthright participants from Cuba typically join groups in Canada and fly together with them.
All these Israeli dance class participants spoke fluent English – something that was not common among other Cubans we had encountered – and even a smattering of words in Hebrew. One young man with a beautiful voice even agreed to sing us a popular song in Hebrew. Quite a few said they had siblings who had already moved to Israel, and most seemed to agree that Tel Aviv was a better place to live, from their perspective at least, than Jerusalem.
We met many of them again that Friday evening in synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat services, after which we joined them for a traditional meal, featuring challah and roast chicken, in the same all-purpose room. This time, we were not alone and had to share our new Cuban friends with a delegation from the Los Angeles Jewish Federation visiting Cuba on a special humanitarian mission that allowed them to contravene the ban on travel to the country.
The Jewish community of Havana was doing some serious soul-searching in those days because the rabbi who had been serving them for several years up until then, an Argentinean by birth, was about to leave. The question that preoccupied them was not who should replace him but whether he should be replaced at all On a more fundamental level, they were asking themselves whether there was any point in sustaining a Jewish community in Cuba just for the purpose of having one, now that the old-timers were dying out and young Jews had the opportunity to leave.
But that was way before last week’s dramatic announcement, which is sure to affect the future of the Jewish community there, as it is every other aspect of life in this last Communist stronghold. One thing seems clear, though: If and when Obama comes, he’ll receive a hero’s welcome from them.