Cuba confounded us.
Knowing we were in a Communist nation where authorities kept constant watch, we engaged local Cuban Jews in direct, honest conversations.
Cuba is a country suffering extraordinary poverty in a state-owned economy made worse by crippling U.S.-imposed sanctions, yet we never saw homelessness, hunger or even beggars asking tourists for money.
On an island barely large enough to sustain a minyan, we met with upbeat Jewish leaders, we engaged and educated Jewish youth, and we discovered a sense of Zionism that begins with participation in the Maccabiah games, continues with Birthright trips and ends (for many) with aliyah.
Welcome to the Osher Marin JCC tour of Cuba.
In January, a group of 24 not-so-fellow travelers journeyed to the Caribbean island on a special religious activities visa that is one of the few ways for U.S. citizens to get to Cuba, a nation anathema to most U.S. policymakers since the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro.
With a 500-year history on the island, contemporary Cuban Jews number just about 1,200, with most in Havana. Our guide, Miriam, a Chicago-based, Cuban-Jewish expat with more than 200 trips back to the land of her birth, narrated the experience for us, mingling her own personal narrative with the larger history of Cuban Jewry.
On the surface, travel offers us opportunities to learn about others. Actually, those interactions do a much better job of teaching us about ourselves. Only when we encounter differences can we get a clearer sense of who we are and where we stand. As participant David Rudnick reflected, Cuban Jews have persisted “despite the lack of stimuli that tends to propel American Jewish communities: anti-Semitism, fear of assimilation, fear of intermarriage and multi-generational Holocaust trauma.” Reflecting on her own American Jewish experience, tour leader Joanne Greene “didn’t pick up on any Jewish complacency, apathy or Jewish baggage” in her conversations with Cuban Jews.
Cuba’s first Jewish arrivals had Sephardic backgrounds, Turkish heritage and (with more than a century in the Caribbean) an Afro-Latinx identity, as well.
With this, Cuba’s Jews encourage us to think about our own Bay Area and American Jewish community’s engagement with Jews of color. Unlike the sharp divide separating diverse Jews in the U.S. from our communal organizations, Cuban Jews reflect a much fuller embrace and integration of their Jewish residents.
As traveler Cindy Ostroff noted, Cuban Jews “came together to make a Jewish population that is as diverse as our own.”
The island’s white Ashkenazi population grew most in the years after the U.S. Congress all but eliminated Jewish immigration in the 1920s. Were it not for timing, perhaps a whole lot of Bay Area Jewish families would have been Cuban.
Watching Cuba’s own “Jews of the global majority,” in partnership with their Ashkenazi brethren, offers us a vision of what our own diverse community could realize.
At a time of rising anti-Semitism on our shores, each and every Cuban Jew we met testified to the absence of Jew hatred in their lives. No security guard protects Havana’s main synagogue. Inside their house of worship, we heard how Fidel Castro himself attended a Hanukkah celebration — but only after it was described to him as the Jews’ revolution against oppression.
Though they are part of a subsistence economy that grants the average Cuban just $1,000 to $2,000 USD a year in salary, Jews have a way out: aliyah to Israel. In fact, our government guide used the Hebrew word taglit to tell us about how Cuban Jewish youth travel to Israel on Birthright.
An elderly leader of a community of just 20 Jews shared with us that his son and grandchildren live in Israel. When we asked why he stays, he told us about his love for Cuba and the life he’s built there. How surprising to learn that he picked a tiny Cuban Jewish community over life in Israel with his kids and grandkids.
Cuba’s Jews are long past the stigma of intermarriage. Nearly all their youth marry partners who were not raised Jewish. Yet the nation’s Jewish leaders embrace all who come to engage Jewish life, regardless of their different religious (or secular) pasts.
Without offense to any of our U.S. rabbis, traveler Marci Dollinger, my wife, reflected on Cuba Jewry’s ability to sustain its religious practice with a three-times-a-year rabbi (who lives in Chile).
For Julie Fingersh, that meant an emphasis on educating their youth. “While here in America we struggle to get our teens to be engaged, there they are leading services because there are no rabbis,” she said.
Loren Kertz experienced nothing less than “the pure desire for the Cuban Jews to just be Jewish.”
Others marveled at the apparent contradictions between the Cuba we witnessed and the assumptions we brought with us.
Ricki Henschel left impressed with Cuban Jews’ “openness to talk about their past, present, and fears and hopes for the future.” Raoul Stepakoff “saw a country hampered by its own political rigidity, neglecting the natural talent and resourcefulness of its people.” Jodie Silberman cheered the “moral responsibility that Cubans feel for the elders in both their family and community.”
Simply put, one participant concluded, Cubans “seem happier than many of my friends in the Bay Area.”
Navigating what’s Jewish, what’s Cuban, what’s communist and what’s been imported from the perspectives of American Jewish tour groups proves vexing. This might be the trip’s greatest teaching. Cuban Jews hold it all, presenting us with a community that confounds our long-held assumptions about their country and their religious practice.
Perhaps those of us in the Bay Area and beyond can hold together our own Jewish complexities. And by taking a trip somewhere else, perhaps we can pause, reflect and hold all our identities together, as well.