Havana, Cuba — I had never seen a keyboard played at a Friday night service before. Then again, I had never been in Cuba before.
Just by coincidence, 72 hours after President Obama announced a coming easing of tensions between the United States and Cuba, I arrived in Havana. I was traveling with a group from the Latour travel agency (latour.com) called “Shalom Cuba” (you still need some reason, religious or arts or human rights, for example, to travel here).
The surroundings were simple, and yet so familiar.
There were 17 of us on the tour — enough for a minyan. In fact there were more of us with the tour group than congregants. And as part of the current, bizarre rules governing Americans traveling to Cuba, the tour had to have religious components. For me, these turned out to be the most interesting part of our weeklong trip. For Havana isn’t like those glamorous scenes in “Godfather II,” nor is it the pulsating Caribbean resort Americans flocked to in the 1950s, before Las Vegas became Las Vegas and Fidel Castro ended the laughter and brought Communism to the island.
So my wife and I looked forward to the Friday night services, and the evening turned into a highlight.
The unexpected synagogue, Am Shalom, was in Santa Clara, a colonial city 170 miles from Havana, a good 3 ½-hour serpentine ride (Ernesto, the knowledgeable bus driver, knew where all the highway potholes were).
The synagogue is really more like a cottage, behind a gate. It was built only a few years ago largely with American donations along with contributions from Santa Clara’s community of 18 Jews. I was momentarily surprised at how visible it was from the street, with its Star of David. But while organized religion was given the back of its hand early in the Castro regime, synagogues were usually left alone (and in fact, Havana’s one kosher butcher was allowed to remain in private hands).
We were greeted very warmly at the door, which opened to a wide, white room, by several congregants. There were no permanent rows of seats, but about 40 chairs were set up facing the cabinet where the Torahs were housed. A Cuban and an Israeli flag flanked the ark. The room was bare, except for some faux-stained-glass windows. And the 12 congregants, which included two teenage boys, were smiling, as was the black man at the keyboard who wore a yarmulke, and the leader, 64-year-old David Tacher.
I was the only man wearing a jacket. Men and women and boys were dressed casually, but respectfully.
Music accompanied us as we sat down. Tacher, who is not a rabbi (there isn’t one in Cuba), told of us his country’s 1,500 Jews (virtually all of them in Havana) and how this synagogue depended on the donations of visitors to keep going. He distributed the prayer books. As I leafed through the transliterations, I was stumped by a word I didn’t recognize — “baraj.” Then I realized — it was how the word “baruch” would be written in Spanish lettering.
Other than that, the services were so similar to what I’m used to, a sort of mixture of Orthodox and Conservative (but with that keyboard). It was exuberant, and I still couldn’t get over my surprise at seeing people, who I had imagined would be so culturally different, saying the same things I’ve said my whole life, in the same way.
When the services ended, one of the boys said Kiddush, and David passed around bread that, I tried to imagine, tasted like challah. Then we all went to the roof for Friday night dinner.
As if on cue, salsa music greeted us on a starlit night. It was music coming from a nearby apartment, not part of the evening services. Our keyboardist did join us, though, and we sat down to dinner as he played “Ebb Tide.” There is a fascinating wall on one side of the roof made up of tiles depicting Jerusalem.
And who was cooking our dinner? Not any of the temple members, but a local restaurant. But the tables were bare. There had been a blackout — not uncommon in Cuba — and the restaurant was late in serving.
We sat together and ate together when the food arrived, and mostly we laughed. They spoke some English. Our guide helped both of us along when there were snags in the conversation. My wife is fluent in Spanish (her father spent half a dozen years in Cuba back in the late 1920s and early 1930s).
It wasn’t the Friday night meal I’d grown up with — no gefilte fish, chicken soup, brisket, or even challah. There was fish and beans and a sweet dessert. And it may have been the most memorable Friday night meal of my life.
Gerald Eskenazi is a former New York Times sportswriter.