Menorah’s Cuba Mission Returns

Memories of Cuba: Tom Trager

cuba group photoMenorah, the cultural and educational arm of the Boulder JCC, completed its maiden group tour from January 13 through January 21, 2014. Twenty-three individuals joined the mission to Cuba: Kathryn Bernheimer and Stan Kreiss, Rona Cantor, Sara-Jane Cohen, Sandy and Larry Cohn, Rachel Fraenkel, Susan Gesundheit, Linda and Murray Richtel, Judy and Joe Kurtz, Susan Litt, Gail Lurie, Marilyn and Jerry Pinsker, Liz Relin, Diane Rosenthal, Dina and Frank Schneider, Kathe Serbin, Barbara and Tom Trager.

The tour operator was Miriam Levinson, Travel Coordinator for the Chicago JCC, who has her own tour company. Levinson is Cuban-born, having emigrated with her family to the U.S. in 1958, before Fidel Castro came to power. Having rediscovered her Cuban roots, she has led some 150 Jewish missions to Cuba.  Joining us in Cuba for the mission was Vicky Prince, a government-employed tour guide who provided information about post-revolutionary Cuba.

Cuba is a country in transition. Raoul Castro is liberalizing the law limiting private enterprise; tourism is increasing; and it is likely that the American embargo will be lifted in the near future. For these reasons, our mission to Cuba was timely, before the old Cuba changes.

We landed in Havana’s Jose Marti Airport, where the processing through Cuban Customs-Immigration took only about 45 minutes. We then boarded a bus for the drive North to the Melia Cohiba Hotel in Verdado (one of the four main areas of Havana), a five-minute walk to the Malecon (street and sea wall along the rocky coast). After brunch in a hotel meeting room, everyone introduced themselves and Miriam explained to us, by reading from her journal, how she became so interested in Cuba. In the afternoon, we took our modern bus to the Old City, where we went on a walking tour. We drove along the harbor entrance to Havana with 18th-century forts guarding both sides of the entrance, and arrived at the old immigration center where Miriam’s family, and many others, first entered Cuba.

For dinner, we went to a state-operated restaurant, the El Algibe, that specializes in chicken imported from Illinois, the result of an agreement reached with an Illinois governor who visited Havana many years ago. After returning to our hotel, some of us walked the short distance to the Hotel Riviera, the hotel built by Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky in 1957. The lobby has changed very little, a cavernous affair with gorgeous art deco furniture and African wood carvings. Sadly, very few people were there. We then strolled along the Malecon and watched the waves crashing along the rocky coast before returning to our hotel.

On Wednesday morning we gathered in a hotel meeting room to hear a lecture by Dr. Maritza Corrales, a non-Jewish, retired professor of Jewish history at the University of Havana. She discussed the four waves of Jewish immigration to Cuba, starting with the Conversos from Christopher Columbus’ ship, who were the first Spaniards to set foot in Cuba. She also discussed the lack of anti-Semitism in Cuba; Jews were identified not by religion, but by the general area they came from, e.g. Polacos for Ashkenazi Jews, Turkos for Sephardic Jews, Americanos for Jews coming from the U.S. She noted that the only groups who suffered discrimination were the Africans and Chinese. She also discussed the major role Jews played in the fight for independence against Spain and the rise of the Communist party.

Around 11:15 am, we boarded our bus and drove back to the Old City. In cloudy, cooler weather, we visited Cathedral Plaza and saw the facade of the Catedral de San Cristobal. For dinner in the Old City, we then drove and walked in the rain to a private restaurant, Paladar Dona Eutima.  Afterwards, we drove to the Centro Hebreo Sefardi facility. It rents space to various organizations, including Malpaso, a modern dance troupe of 20-somethings led by a 40-something director who translated their stories to English for us. They treated us to a rehearsal routine and then answered questions. We then visited the CHS sanctuary, delivered gifts and money, and heard from the Vice President of the shul.

On Thursday the group assembled around 9:30 am and took the tunnel under Havana Harbor to Castillo del Morro, constructed in 1637. We walked past the dry moat to a stone hallway with slit windows overlooking the harbor. It led outside to an open area overlooking a battery of cannons. Next, we drove back to Habana Viejo where the bus parked near San Francisco square. In the afternoon, Vicky, our Cuban guide, served as our docent when we visited the Museo Nacional de Belle Artes, consisting of an exhibition of 18th- to 21st-century Cuban art. Among the pieces she pointed out were a large painting of Christopher Columbus in chains, paintings of Andy Warhol-like repeated portraits of Fidel and Che, and a political painting depicting a leader speaking to a faceless audience.

On Friday, the group assembled on the bus at 9:30 am and drove to an artist’s alley, Callejon de Hamel, where we visited the gallery of an artist who does work on Santeria themes, based on a Catholic-African religion. We then visited a farmer’s market that included a section where Cubans could redeem State coupons for some basic foods. Next, we visited the Museum of the Revolution, where Vicki gave us a narrated tour of the Cuban revolution: 1953 to 1956. In the early years the revolution failed and Fidel and others were jailed for up to 15-year terms. But, due to public pressure, Batista commuted the sentences and Castro went into exile in Mexico. In 1956, he and others returned to Cuba on the vessel Granma, which was on display. They went to the Maestra mountains where the guerilla campaign re-ignited. The building housing the museum had been the residence of the dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Our tour began by walking up the grand staircase that is still scarred with bullet holes from an earlier effort by students to assassinate Batista. Across a narrow building are the remains of a U.S. U-2 spy plane that was shot down during the Cuban missile crisis, a replica of the Russian missile used to shoot it down; a Soviet World War II tank used by the Cubans and a small craft used by the Americans in the Bay of Pigs disaster; and other military hardware.

We then drove to the area near Havana University and the Habana Libre, the former Hilton Hotel, where some of us went to the Coppella ice cream parlor, a place that always has a long line of Cubans, but if you are a foreigner paying with CUCs (convertible pesos, the currency foreigners must use), you are seated immediately. There we ate our sandwiches from breakfast and had ice cream. Our next stop was to the Patronato-Temple Beth Shalom, an Ashkenazi community center, where we delivered money and gifts and heard from Adella Dworin, a leader of the congregation and comedienne. After touring the facility, we returned to our hotel for Shabbat. We then returned to the Patranato for services.

After services, we returned to our hotel for a sumptuous Shabbat dinner where we were serenaded, non-stop, by a three-piece stringed ensemble: female vocalist playing bass, violinist and classical guitarist.

On Saturday, our day started at 9 am in the hotel with a lecture from Marta Nunez Sarmiento, a friend of Miriam’s and a retired sociology professor who continues to teach at the University of Havana. She specializes in gender studies and discrimination, and she provided many insights into Cuban society. She informed us that the wealthiest in Cuba were farmers who were given land in 1959 after the government expropriated it from large landowners. The top professions in Cuba are scientist, lawyer and medical doctor. Lawyers, mostly working for the State, are busy revising the law and helping individuals transition to private employment. Currently, private employment has grown to 22% of the population, including 181 professions, but largely consisting of construction contractors. Workers in the private sector earn about six times what government jobs pay. Cuba’s major industries include tourism, foreign services (e.g. doctors working abroad), and the export of nickel and cobalt. It has limited access to foreign currency, because the U.S. boycott prevents the country from relations with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. There is only one party; office holders are limited to serving two four-year terms. Voters choose among candidates based on their resumes.

After the lecture, we boarded our bus and drove to Independence Square where we walked the outside of the monument to Jose Marti, the spiritual father of Cuba who fought and died in the War for Independence. On the ride, Miriam read to us from her autobiography. She told us that when her mother and sister left Cuba for the U.S., her father told her she could bring one personal item with her. She chose The Golden Age, a book Marti wrote for children. Across the large, open square we could see to buildings with sketches of Fidel Castro and Che Guverra on the outside.

We then drove past the Capitolio, an imposing structure similar to the U.S. Capitol, and the Gran Teatro de Habana, which are both closed for renovation. We stopped in front of Parque Central where we were given free time. A group of us ate our sandwiches and then visited the lobby of the Hotel Inglaterra, where a telegraph to the U.S. was first installed. We then explored the lobby of Hotel Parque Central, and strolled down the Paseo del Prado to see the arts and crafts for sale.

At 2:30 pm we met for a surprise: Miriam had arranged for us to be chauffeured in 1950s convertibles to our next destination. Barbara and I went in a 1958 Chevrolet Impala. The ride took us along the Malecon, passing the memorial to the USS Maine, which was blown up in Havana Harbor and resulted in the Spanish-American (or Cuban-American) War. We continued driving through Verdado to Miramar, where we passed large homes and embassies, including the tall, ugly Russian Embassy (formerly the Soviet Union Embassy). We passed many police and army personnel in guard shacks. At one point, all traffic was stopped. Our driver told us that we were held up to allow an entourage with Raoul Castro to pass.

Our destination was the artist Fuster’s gallery that rambled for three stories and was decorated with playful and colorful mosaic tile sculptures and two-dimensional works. Our bus then returned most of us to our hotel. Some of the group went to see one inning of a Cuban baseball game. At 6:30 pm, we met to say kaddish for Larry Cohn’s sister, Hannah. Then, at 7 pm, we drove to Western Vedado to dine at the oldest private restaurant (paladare), Cafe Laurent.

On Sunday morning, our bus took us East along the Malecon and on to Guanabacoa. On the way, Miriam read from her journal about her first return to the Cuban home she grew up in. That occurred during her first return trip to Cuba 40 years after she emigrated to the U.S. in 1958, just before her 15th birthday. Before the trip, Miriam called the family who currently occupies the house, and explained that she was the eldest daughter of David Friedman, the previous owner and that she was coming to Cuba and would like to see where she grew up. (At that time. it was rare for Cubans who had emigrated to the U.S. to return for a visit. Miriam had made no prior calls for fear that she would be suspected of being Communist. Those living in her house had not called her for fear that the Cuban government would suspect them of being pro-American.) When Miriam and her sister arrived at Havana Airport and cleared customs, they saw a family holding a sign saying “Miriam.” Rather than going with their pre-arranged guide, Miriam and her sister went with what would become Miriam’s Cuban family to visit their Cuban home.

In Guanabacoa, we went to the Ashkenazi cemetery, within sight of the separate Sephardic cemetery. During the American occupation of Cuba, the land had been given to the Jewish community by Teddy Roosevelt so that they could have a separate cemetery. There, we said Kaddish at a Holocaust Memorial, constructed in 1948; one of the earliest. A few yards away, Kathryn Bernheimer located the grave of her grandfather, where the group again said Kaddish. Afterwards, we spent time weeding around the tombstones of children’s graves who had died during a typhoid epidemic. Miriam has taken on renovation of the site by asking her tour groups to contribute funds and manpower to clean it up.

Next, we drove the short distance to Luyano, to stop at Miriam’s home, next door to where her father had his watch repair shop. When Miriam’s mother first married her father, she was not happy with moving to Luyano, because it was far from her parents. Miriam’s father wrote her mother to explain why Luyano was his home. He explained that during a period of government unrest, he was riding a bus at night when shots were fired. The bus driver and all the passengers quickly abandoned the bus and he was left to walk the several kilometers to his house. As he was walking across a bridge, several soldiers called to him to halt, and pointed rifles at him. He thought he was going to be shot when a neighbor yelled out, “Let him pass; he is the Polanco watchmaker.” The soldiers then escorted him to his house. In the letter, Miriam’s father explained that Luyano is his home, a place where he is respected.

At Miriam’s Cuban home, we were greeted by her Cuban family and shown all of the spotless, but small rooms with the same ceramic tile floors Miriam grew up with, and with a photo of her parents adorning the living room mantle. We were served cake and soft drinks in celebration of Kathe Serbin’s birthday.

Our next destination was Cienfuegos, a city of 170,000 that was founded by the French in the 1800s. We stopped at the home of Rebecca Langus, President of the Jewish Community of Cienfuegos, who has transformed her house into the center of the 20-member Jewish community that still remains in the City. Many have made aliyah to Israel. She explained that there are also Jews in Spiritus Sanctus and Santa Clara, the latter having the only synagogue in the area. Rebecca is a second-generation Cuban. Last year her son attended the Macabee games in Israel; the first time Cuba has sent athletes to the games. We then visited the art gallery Rebecca’s son shares with several other artists.

We drove to Cienfuegos town square, where we saw the City’s church, theatre, hotel, school and other Neoclassical buildings. Afterwards, we checked in to the Hotel Jagua, named after the Native Americans who inhabited this area before the Spanish arrived. The hotel has a beautiful view of Cienfuegos Harbor. The city is the center of the sugar trade, as well as coffee, tobacco and marble. We ate dinner at a private restaurant, the Finca de Mar, across from the harbor, after watching the Denver Broncos defeat the New England Patriots in the run-up to the Super Bowl.

On Monday morning we departed for Santa Clara, a city of 200,000. In the City, we visited the imposing monument to Che Guvera. Che’s second wife is from Santa Clara. Some years ago, his body was moved from Bolivia, where he was assassinated in 1967, to Santa Clara. We then drove to Am Israel, the Santa Clara synagogue, where we were greeted by David Tacher, the President of Santa Clara’s Jewish community that consists of 21 persons. He explained that the community was established in 1996. Before that there was no Jewish community in the area. The organization has two goals: to keep Jewish tradition alive, and to connect with other religious organizations. The torah and cabinet were donated by U.S. congregations. Tacher’s parents emigrated to Cuba from Turkey about two generations ago. He was raised in Havana and attended a Jewish day school. His uncle served in the Israeli war of independence. At the end of his presentation, the group sang Hatikva and we toured the rest of the synagogue.  We then boarded our bus for the return trip to Havana. On the way, we stopped at Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban villa and grounds. We walked around the outside of the house, looking into the rambling interior, filled with books, mounted animal heads, his typewriter next to the jaguar skin he stood on in the morning to type. We also climbed the tower with a view of Havana. His boat, the Pilar, was also on display.

For dinner, we dined at Le Casa, a private restaurant in New Verdado. It featured a beautiful first floor, a singer and two guitarists, and the most extensive menu we encountered, including mojitos, daquiris and lobster tail. The musicians played some salsa music and Susan Litt danced with the handsome grandson of the 90-year-old proprietor, who came to greet us.

The mission was an enjoyable mix of experiences with Cuban-Jewish institutions and their leadership, visits to many of the tourist attractions in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santa Clara, and interactions with Miriam’s Cuban family. The 23 travelers got along well, and by the end of the mission, knew each other much better.

Editor’s note:  we expect to get additional pictures to illustrate this story and will re-post at that time.

About Tom Trager

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  1. Kudos to Tom for a very detailed day-by-day itinerary. You must have spent a lot of time writing.

  2. Great account, Tom. I didn't remember half of your information!

  3. Very enjoyable. Thanks for this detailed account.