J.’s cover story a few months ago about the Jews of Guantanamo, Cuba made me recall my own brief encounter with the Jewish community of Guantanamo City in 1946.
I was a hospital corpsman (medic) stationed at the U.S. Naval Hospital, Guantanamo Bay. It must have been September, nearly time for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was also the period after World War II when the Navy was discharging long- and short-time serving personnel as fast as possible, but retaining necessary staff until they could be replaced. I was one of the latter group.
The Navy could not hold Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on the base. No rabbi or chaplain was available, and the number of Jewish sailors and marines was unknown. The Navy knew of the Jewish community in Guantanamo City, so they offered furloughs for Jewish personnel to attend holiday services there. Only two sailors from the base requested the leave: me and another medic from the hospital. I do not remember his name.
The afternoon before Rosh Hashanah, my companion and I went by ferry boat to Caimanera, Cuba, the port town for Guantanamo City. We used the same ferry that Cuban employees of the base used to commute to and from the base. We boarded a train in Caimanera that brought us to Guantanamo City in about an hour. On the main street of the city, we found a room to share above a bar-restaurant. We took our meals there during our two-day stay for Rosh Hashanah.
The following morning, we were directed to the shul, a wood-framed building with walls of chicken wire for natural air conditioning, a roof and a dirt floor. The ark and a small table in front were positioned against the east wall, I presumed. Chairs were lined up in a semicircle facing the ark. Services were led by a member of the congregation, and only men attended.
We could follow the services in Hebrew in the prayerbooks they provided, but could not follow any discussion they had in Spanish. We felt welcomed, but had little interaction with the congregants because of the language barrier. After the second day of Rosh Hashanah services, we returned to our Guantanamo base.
For Yom Kippur we followed the same travel routine. Again we shared the same room above the bar-restaurant, and the next morning found the congregation sitting in the same “chicken coop” shul. At all services we noticed a custom strange to us: Men wore either slippers or shoes with the laces removed. We were told that this was to remove all signs of the cross. They even avoided the crossing of legs or arms. As we were strangers, we were exempted from the expectation.
After Yom Kippur services, we were invited to a break-fast by one of the families. It was a short walk from the shul to their home, which was surrounded by a 12-foot-high stucco wall with a large door in the entrance. Within the wall was a courtyard and their home.
When introduced to the family, we noticed they had two attractive daughters. Sailors notice such things.
The daughters lived in Miami and returned to Cuba for the holidays. One daughter was married to a U.S. Navy chief petty officer. The officer had converted to Judaism and was proud to have done so.
I do not remember any of the names of the family nor what food I ate — it was a long time ago — but what stuck in my mind was the demitasse of Cuban coffee prepared for me — sweet and strong. The daughters had a ritual for preparing the coffee by pouring the hot water through a small cone filter made of cloth. I am sure we enjoyed the time spent with the family. We could interact as everyone spoke English.
After the visit, the two of us returned to our room for the night, then returned to our base the following morning. It was an overwhelming experience for a couple of 19-year-olds. We also fulfilled our religious obligations for the holidays.