On the Monday before Passover, two days after returning from Cuba, I awakened with what’s euphemistically called turista. “Why now?” I thought. “I was fine in Cuba.” When the digestive symptoms ebbed, I came down with a full-blown respiratory infection. So did my husband. We spent the week housebound.
By Tuesday evening, we could not put dinner on the table. When my busy stepdaughter phoned that evening, I begged her to send over chicken soup. Thank you, Shani.
By Wednesday, I recognized I was in no position to host seders planned for Friday and Saturday. I couldn’t cook, clean or even get off the sofa, where my husband and I were camped at either end. I sent out APBs to family members invited for Friday and havurah guests who were coming on Saturday.
“We are sorry to pass over Passover this year, but we are two droopy Snuffleupaguses and can’t see clear to a celebration,” I wrote.
Feeling somewhat better on Friday, I ran out to buy a brisket, at which point it dawned on me that the 5-pound slab of meat costs what the average Cuban earns in three or four months. Assuaging my guilt, I was determined to at least capture some of the holiday’s spirit. I clipped azalea blooms from our garden and put them in a bud vase on the dining room table, set two places, filled a pewter cup with Concord grape wine and lit the candles. Then my stepdaughter came over with a gift: two plastic containers filled to the brim with matzah ball soup. A blessing.
We prepared no seder plate, no haroset and no sponge cake. We didn’t even open the haggadah. But as we sat down to dinner, grateful for our abundance, we counted our blessings. This Passover was our Thanksgiving. It wasn’t about cooking, cleaning, shopping or the busyness that plagues me when I host. Instead, it was an opportunity to take a deep breath and utter thanks.
That others aren’t so fortunate was driven home to me during a visit to a professional family in their Havana apartment, well off the government-sponsored tourist circuit. We were invited by a Cuban colleague of a Silicon Valley friend and were told to bring another couple along. We thought it was a dinner invitation.
When we arrived, laden with small gifts, our host told us that the taxi driver who brought us earns more in a couple of hours than he and his wife earn in a month. The discrepancies between those who benefit from the tourist economy and those who receive government salaries — about $20 a month — are staggering.
At 7 p.m., we sat at the family’s kitchen table, chatting about education, the Bay of Pigs, Cuban history. The couple, fluent in English, wanted their daughter to practice her conversation. We sang “Old MacDonald,” accompanied by my husband’s boisterous animal noises.
Our host’s kitchen — they had no living room — contained a refrigerator, a double burner on the countertop, no oven and no microwave. We saw no signs of food preparation, and nothing was offered. Suddenly we realized there had been some miscommunication. With food severely rationed, these Cubans couldn’t possibly afford to feed four extra mouths.
At 9 p.m., we invited the family out for dinner. They graciously accepted, bringing us to a private Cuban restaurant frequented by tourists.
We thought about the Cuban experience on Passover, when we open our doors, inviting all who are hungry to come in and eat. We need to do a better job at recognizing the very real hunger in our midst and do what we can to allay it. Mazon and the various international and local hunger projects need our contributions, not just at holiday time.
Being ill brought home a more personal lesson: Because of misplaced pride, I had trouble admitting I needed help. When I bring meals to friends and synagogue families who are coping with illness or hardship, I tell them that asking for help when they need it is as much of a mitzvah as delivering it.
Yet with the tables turned, I had trouble asking. I won’t make that mistake again. Shabbat shalom and chag sameach.
Janet Silver Ghent is a writer and editor living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at [email protected]