HAVANA, Cuba — Adela Dworin, the president of Cuba’s Jewish community, is not shy. When she found herself face-to-face with Fidel Castro for the first time, at a meeting he initiated with religious leaders in 1998, she immediately invited him to come and meet Havana’s Jews at the capital’s Beth Shalom synagogue.
Religion had not been outlawed by Castro after the 1959 revolution, but those who proclaimed themselves people of faith could not join his Communist Party. In the early 1990s, however, that restriction was lifted, and Dworin figured this was the moment — that an invitation to meet the community just might be well-received.
And so it proved: When the small, indomitable Dworin asked Castro why he’d never looked in on the Jews, he retorted that they’d never asked him to.
Join us for our Hanukkah party, she suggested. To which he replied, “What’s Hanukkah?”
Recalling the moment during an interview in the synagogue’s offices last week, Dworin says she knew she had to think fast. Castro’s aide was already motioning impatiently to her that the president’s time was short. “Hanukkah,” she managed, “is revolution for the Jews.”
“I’ll come,” said Castro, evidently welcoming the parallel between the corrupt dictator he’d ousted and the Seleucid Empire against which the Maccabees had revolted 2,000 years earlier.
Come he did. Dworin hadn’t told congregants about the imminent visit, so as not to disappoint them in case it was canceled. When the 150 people gathered in the synagogue social hall saw Castro enter with his entourage, bodyguards et al, says Dworin, “they couldn’t have been more surprised if the messiah had come.”
The notoriously long-winded revolutionary spoke for two hours — about Judaism. Asked questions at the end. Wasn’t satisfied with the answers. Told the Jews, constrained for decades by his atheist straitjacket, that they needed to learn more about their faith.
You couldn’t make it up.
‘We don’t change presidents in Cuba’
Adela Dworin doesn’t have to live in dismally led, US-embargoed Cuba — a country marked by both striking literacy (over 99.7%) and poverty (the average wage is about $30 a month), and stuck in an early 60s time warp (except for a developing tourism industry and an elusive, unofficial upper echelon that enjoys many modern conveniences). All of her former classmates and childhood friends live in Miami, an hour and a world away. (Ungallantly asked her age, she protests in mock horror that a previous journalist wrote that she was in her 80s. “You can say that I’m more than 60 and less than 80,” she graciously allows.)
Dworin’s here because she’s a proud Cuban and a proud Jew, she says, and she does what she can to help both nations thrive. “Some say I have a master’s in schnorring (wheedling donations),” she acknowledges cheerfully, saying that she’s been all over the United States raising money for the community. “I say I have a PhD.”
Jews have been living as an organized community in Cuba since the start of the 1900s, though they trace their roots back to a trio of Marranos who fled the Spanish Inquisition over four centuries earlier. Before the revolution, the community numbered over 15,000, most of whom headed straight to Miami when the communists took over. “Everybody was in favor of change and an end to corruption,” says Dworin. “But then private businesses were confiscated, private schools were closed down… and Miami was so very nearby.”
Today, there are perhaps 1,200 Jews left — a number that falls through emigration, including to Israel, rises through intermarriage, and might just be a tad inflated so that hugely appreciated aid, with Canadian Jewry’s annual Pessah shipment of wine, matzah and gefilte fish a particular highlight, is not reduced.
Beth Shalom, which Dworin says was Cuba’s first purpose-built synagogue — as opposed to various buildings that had been repurposed as shuls in previous years — was founded in 1953, since when the community has had just three presidents, with Dworin succeeding Jose Miller in 2006. “We don’t change presidents in Cuba,” she laughs.
Indeed, they don’t. Castro (Fidel) ruled under one title or another from 1959 to 2008. Castro (Raul) has governed ever since.
A little opiate for the masses
In contrast to most every synagogue most everywhere, there’s no security deployed outside Beth Shalom or the adjacent community building. Jews here will tell you that there’s no anti-Semitism in Cuba at all. Officials at the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which aids the community concur.
“This is the safest country in the world for Jews,” one Israeli official said. “Walk down the street in your tefillin if you want.”
None of which means, however, that this is a particularly good place to be Jewish — or pro-Israel, for that matter.
For the first three decades after the dictatorial regime of Fulgencio Batista was ousted, Castro frowned upon organized religion of any kind. When you applied for university, for instance, you were asked whether you believed in God, Dworin remembers. “Yes” was not the correct response. Much of Cuba’s largely Roman Catholic populace, and many of its smaller faiths, either abandoned or hid their beliefs.
“It was very difficult for us in the 1960-80s,” she says. “We couldn’t even get a minyan (10-strong prayer quorum) for High Holidays many times.” They were compelled, she goes on, to initiate “the Cuban minyan — seven men and three Torah scrolls.”
But following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the worsening of what Dworin calls Cuba’s “meshugana economy,” Castro, who had been baptized and went to a Jesuit school, eased up — allowing a little opiate for the masses. “He had to give the people some source of hope,” ventured a local tour guide.
Castro held a landmark meeting with religious leaders in the early 1990s and indicated that overt religious practice was now acceptable. (According to one biographer, he self-justified with the notion that Jesus was a communist, as ostensibly underlined by the miraculous feeding of the multitudes.) At which point, Jews began coming out again, says Dworin, and the JDC and others were permitted to provide help — including food aid, funding for summer camps, assistance for community programs and for seniors, medical aid and more.
But almost all of the Jews had long since departed, mainly for the US. “There are more Cuban Jews in Miami — the ‘Jubans’ — than in Cuba,” notes Dworin. There were very few Orthodox Jews left; very few who kept kosher — “not easy to do here”; very few who could lead services.
A younger generation has been trained in the quarter-century since — largely by Shmuel Szteinhendler, a Chile-based rabbi who makes regular visits, sponsored by the JDC. But from a robust community that was riven by typical internal Jewish dissent — “My bubbe told me it was fine to be friends with Sephardim but not to marry one; she said they weren’t Jewish, because they ate rice and beans (kitniyot) on Pessah” — it is now a small community marked by intermarriage. And it is part of a wider, well-educated, ambitious Cuba that is being stifled.
Dworin notes that young people want their own apartments and cars. Anyone you speak to for any length of time will tell you they also want freedom — freedom of speech, a free press, freedom to express dissent, freedom to realize their aspirations, freedom to travel.
A private entrepreneur vouchsafed that Cubans are free to travel… to a few dozen countries, mostly in Africa and the Caribbean, which do not require a visa. The US is no longer issuing visas from its embassy in Havana, so she said she’d have to fly to an intermediate country to apply for a US visa, at a cost far beyond her means, and would almost certainly be denied one.
“We Jews are privileged because we have Israel,” says Dworin of the travel limitations. Cuban Jews are allowed to make aliya, and do so via the Jewish Agency, which pays all their expenses and sends new arrivals to absorption centers. “If the Agency takes them under the Law of Return, they need no additional permit” from the Cuban authorities, she says.
When Dworin visited Israel about 15 years ago, touring much of the country — though “not Eilat, because it’s just like Miami” — she says she dropped in on “my Cuban Jews” in Beersheba, Ashkelon, Haifa and Jerusalem. Some, newly arrived in absorption centers, “proudly showed me the Coke in their fridges.” Coca-Cola, like most ostensible luxuries, is out of reach to those who don’t have CUCs (Convertible Cuban Pesos, the country’s second currency).
Like the lady said, it’s a meshugana economy — and that’s putting it very kindly.
Health care is free. Education is free. Life expectancy is high (about 79). Unemployment is (officially) low (2%).
But Havana is marked by impossible complexities and contrasts.
You drive and walk through street after street of collapsing buildings, interspersed with a few that are being facelifted, the very occasional ultra-modern store, and several ultra-costly monuments — though none to Fidel, whose dying instructions in 2016 were to avoid a personality cult. (Rather fittingly, the green military vehicle carrying his urn through the streets to burial broke down.)
Some locals hang out for hours chatting on their doorsteps; inside, you see sparsely furnished living rooms and 60s TV sets. You see people begging on the streets — but very few.
There’s vibrant music everywhere — on street corners, in bars. We happened upon an orchestra of 40 or so talented musicians playing classical-ized medleys of Elvis, the Beatles, Queen and Deep Purple, in the central Arms Square, not far from the Cathedral, in Old Havana. Nearby, the annual Book Fair drew crowds.
Lovingly tended 30s, 40s and 50s classic Ford Fairlanes, Chevrolet Impalas, Studebakers and Buicks roar through the potholed streets, their carefully fitted new Mercedes engines burning diesel bought on the black market, alongside modern taxis, also burning ultra-polluting black market diesel.
New hotels charge world-class prices and provide fast internet, while the minority of ordinary Cubans who can afford to spend precious pesos on a government-overseen ultra-slow internet connection throng at wifi hot-, sorry, lukewarm-spots.
There are costly bars for tourists, offering every alcoholic beverage under the sun, many hyping any Ernest Hemingway connection they can muster (while the peerless Graham “Our Man in Havana” Greene is largely unknown).
But “supermarkets” for locals seem to stock almost nothing but a few sad, small cuts of meat, handfuls of hamburgers sold by the individual patty, bits of grayish chicken, crackers, outrageously expensive cooking oil… and shelf after shelf of rum. Dismal “fruit and vegetable” stands showcase pitiful quantities of plantains, bedraggled carrots, plenty of onions and garlic, and the kind of misshapen tomatoes that would be given away to the needy in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market on Friday afternoons.
Agriculture is in perpetual crisis, in large part because of the lack of fuel and consequent inefficient transportation. Three-quarters of what Cubans eat is imported, and most of it is rationed.
People rely heavily on that rice and beans.
And whatever else they can get on that ubiquitous black market.
How does that work? “You have to know someone who knows someone,” comes the simple reply.
Cubans will tell you that they love their country. And the older they are, the more fervently they will praise their leadership. And declare themselves victims of Western oppression, even genocide.
And they seem fairly happy — certainly happier than Muscovites.
Cuban Jews may be freely allowed to emigrate to Israel, but there are no formal ties, no official Israeli presence. Culture Minister Miri Regev dropped in at Beth Shalom in October — noting in the visitors’ book her appreciation for the community and its support for Israel — but that was officially designated a private trip.
Castro resisted pressure to sever ties at the time of the 1967 war, but did so in 1973, to the delight of the Arab world, when he began seeking the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement. He was viciously critical of Israel in his last years, comparing Israeli policies on the Palestinians to Nazism (in 2010) and accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza (in 2014). Brother-successor Raul, asked directly in 2010, didn’t rule out a resumption of relations, but he’s supposed to be stepping down in April and there’s no prospect of any change by then.
Anti-Zionism is visible if not prominent. At the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory), a thriving nightclub/exhibition space in the Vedado district — whose two CUC entrance fee puts it out of reach to ordinary Cubans, and where we witnessed a breathtakingly, near-violent Capoeira dance demonstration — the rap ditty “Free Palestine” was playing on the house speakers. In the stores along the packed Obispo shopping street, tucked away behind the Che T-shirts and Cuba Revolution fridge magnets, are posters showing the Magen David with a snake at its heart.
‘Twas not ever thus. Not only did Cuba establish ties with nascent Israel in 1949, but Castro dispatched a key supporter, Ricardo Wolf, as his ambassador to Israel in 1960.
Dworin says Wolf, who made his fortune as a pioneer in the metal industry, helped finance the purchase of the yacht Granma, the cabin-cruiser built for 12 that ferried the Castro brothers, Che and 80 other revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 — on the voyage that would culminate in the overthrow of Batista.
“What can I do to repay you?” Castro, once installed in power, asked Wolf, in Dworin’s telling. “I want to be ambassador to Israel,” he replied.
Wolf held the post for 12 years until ties were severed, but never left Israel, later endowing the Wolf Prize — latest recipient, Sir Paul McCartney — and being buried along with his wife, the Spanish-born tennis champion Francisca Subirana, at Kibbutz Gaash. (The Granma is on permanent display in a glass cage in a square next to the Museum of the Revolution — formerly Batista’s presidential palace — which is home to an aging but still savagely masterful propaganda exhibit.)
Sensibly, Dworin ventures nowhere near her country’s politics. She’s pleased that her first invitation to Castro was accepted, that he visited the community again, and that Raul Castro has also come to the synagogue (also for Hanukkah).
“Raul asked me how many Jews there are in Cuba,” she recalls. And when told there were perhaps 1,500, exclaimed, “You make so much noise.”
Whatever that meant.
‘We are not isolated’
Adela Dworin’s father came to Cuba from Pinsk, aged 18, before the rise of the Nazis, having failed to obtain a visa for the US. By the time he had enough money to send for his widowed mother and brother, “Hitler came, and he never saw them again.”
Doubtless something in that heritage gave Dworin her resilience and her pluck, and maybe her optimism too. “We are not isolated,” she says firmly of Cuba’s Jews. “Important leaders come here — from abroad too,” she notes, name-checking Justin Trudeau and Jimmy Carter while the community’s photoboards also show Steven Spielberg.
“The Jews are not persecuted,” she stresses again. “We were never forced to close the shul.” And nowadays, “the Jews can practice their religion openly.” She says Cuban Jewry “lost two generations” and that today “most Jews are intermarried. But they are good Jews. The community is stable.
“We’ve reopened Sunday school. It has 60 kids, aged 4-18. The kids know more than their parents and grandparents,” Dworin says with pride. “Our children and grandchildren will be better Jews. They are the future of the community.”
As for the future of Cuba, however, that’s a question that goes far beyond her remit.