He can’t prove that he logged more hours with Fidel Castro than any other Jew on the planet, but Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress, says: “I think I would be pretty high up there.”
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They were an odd pair: Castro, the Communist revolutionary and long-standing nemesis of the United States, who died on Friday; and Rosen, the New York real-estate mogul and close friend of three American presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Yet, over the course of three decades, the two met “at least 20 times,” according to Rosen, on every trip he took to Cuba. They also rendezvoused once in New York, while Castro was attending a meeting of the UN General Assembly and Rosen was one of three Americans invited to dine with him. (“I’m not at liberty to divulge who the others were,” he says.)
It was the plight of Cuba’s small Jewish community that first brought Rosen, a child of Holocaust survivors, to Castro’s door. But over the years, as he recounts, their relationship evolved, and often the wealthy New Yorker would be summoned to carry messages between the Cuban dictator and the U.S. administration. “I didn’t have any official role but because of my relationship with the man I would find myself in that situation,” he says.
In 1996, when Cuban military pilots shot down two American planes, and an international crisis seemed imminent, Rosen was asked to deliver a message to Clinton insisting that Castro was not behind it. In an account of the incident published in his memoir, the former U.S. president refers to Rosen not by name, but as “a private citizen.”
How close were they? “It would be hard to define Fidel as a friend, but I had a very strong relationship with him,” said Rosen, in a phone interview with Haaretz from his home in the United States. “Any time I was in Cuba, he would always invite me over, and he would often take me on excursions around the country on his little jet.”
Through those meetings, usually over lunches or dinners that lasted six hours, as Rosen recounts, he got to know another side of the man widely reviled around the Western world — not the cruel dictator who ruled his people with an iron fist for half a century, denying them basic freedoms, but the great schmoozer who could cook up a storm and possessed an intense curiosity about Judaism.
Rosen would rather not use the word “insecure” to describe a side of Castro the rest of the world might not know. “I prefer to talk about his humble side,” he says.
It manifested itself, for example, in the way he treated his dinner guests. As Rosen recounts, he once led a delegation from the American Jewish Congress to Cuba, and Castro insisted they all come over for dinner. “That day, I get a call saying that Fidel wants to meet me privately an hour before everyone else,” he relays. “I figured he wanted to talk about political issues dealing with America, because that was something we always discussed. But it turned out not to be the reason at all. He wanted to meet me in order to consult about seating arrangements for the dinner. It was important for him that everyone there feel comfortable where they were sitting.”
Rosen made his first trip to Cuba in the late 1980s, about a week before Passover that year. When he asked representatives of Havana’s small Jewish community how he could help them, Rosen was told that they were in desperate need of kosher-for-Passover food and wine.
“I told them I’d be happy to bring it and was told the only person who could give permission for something like that was Fidel Castro,” says Rosen. “So that evening I met Fidel Castro for the first time. When I asked him if I could send my private airplane back to Miami to pick up Passover food and wine, the first thing he wanted to know was what was kosher-for-Passover wine? I tried to explain. I could see he didn’t understand, so then I told him I’d bring some back so he could taste it. Which I did.”
Almost every time they dined together, Castro would serve him lobster — his own family recipe, prepared with his own hands. “To this day, I have a handwritten copy of the recipe, which he shared with me,” says Rosen. Once, after Rosen had mentioned how much he enjoyed the dish, he found the back of his plane loaded up with boxes of lobster.
This act of generosity, however, presented Rosen with a major quandary. “Do I take the boxes off the plane and risk insulting Castro, or do I leave them on and risk getting caught by U.S. Customs officials breaking the embargo?”
In the end, he opted not to offend his Cuban friend. Upon landing in Miami, as he had feared, Rosen was called over by a customs official and asked about the Cuban lobsters. “I said to the guy, ‘Look, I’m Jewish, I go to Cuba to help the Jews there.’ He turns to me and says, ‘Well, I’m a born-again Christian, and I love the Jews, so I’ll just let you go.”
Often, as Rosen recounts, he and Castro would “butt heads” on issues. “We had the kind of relationship in which you could do that.”
To this day, he says, one particular trait of the Cuban leader still confounds him: his bladder control. “I never once saw the man go to the bathroom,” says Rosen. But thanks to this remarkable ability, Rosen eventually learned that Castro could actually speak English. “He always spoke through an interpreter, but once when we were having dinner, his interpreter asked to be excused so she could go to the bathroom,” he relates. “While she was away, his foreign minister began serving as the interpreter. At one point Fidel just cut him off and said his English wasn’t good enough. He then proceeded to speak to me in fluent English.”
Castro was considered relatively supportive of the Jewish community of Havana. He allowed Cuban Jews to practice their religion. He permitted young Cuban Jews to visit Israel on the all-expense-paid Taglit-Birthright trips. He even paid a visit during Hanukkah one year to the main synagogue of Havana, home to the city’s Conservative congregation.
At the same time, Castro was an outspoken critic of Israel and fierce supporter of the Palestinian cause. Yet, here as well, Rosen reveals, there was a big gap between the public and private persona. “I never heard him say anything critical of Israel in our private conversations,” he volunteers.
How to explain his public declarations then? “I think his alliance with the Palestinians had something to do with maintaining his stature as a leader of the Third World,” posits Rosen. “The easy way to do that was to position himself as an enemy of the United States and an enemy of Israel.”