The portion of the Torah that we read this week, Parashat Vayyiggash, includes what you might call the beginning of the Diaspora, an essential feature of Jewish life effectively as long as there have been Jews. Yosef has already been in Egypt for some time, having been cast out of the family and out of Cana’an by his brothers. Vayyiggash includes what is really the climax of the Yosef narrative: when he is reunited with his brothers, and his father, as they descend into Egypt, fleeing the famine in Cana’an. As Yisrael/Ya’aqov and his entire family – wives, children, and livestock arrive in Egypt, they establish a home there before they have even formally been granted the land of Israel.
Our history is, of course, very much dependent on the principle of Diaspora: that we are united by our heritage and our rituals and our texts despite geographical and, one might say, spiritual separation. Over the last 2,000 years, in particular, we the Jews ended up in many lands, have spoken many different languages, have survived many environments, and yet have maintained our traditions.
And I have some good news about a relatively far-flung Diaspora community: the Jews of Cuba are maintaining Jewish life.
OK, so Cuba’s not as far away as some other places where there are Jews. I suppose Whitefish, Montana is much further from a major Jewish center, given that it only took Judy and I about an hour to fly to Havana from Tampa. But there is a Conservative rabbi in Whitefish, and Cuba is only visited by a rabbi once every 2-3 months (Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler, a Masorti/Conservative rabbi from Santiago, Chile). It is quite far away, spiritually. And that is a very interesting tale.
When I spoke at length about the situation of Cuban Jews with Adela Dworin, the community’s president, I learned a good deal about the state of Jewish life there. Today, there are only about 1,200 Jews remaining in Cuba; the community peaked out at about 15,000 in the first half of the 20th century; 90% of them left in the context of the Cuban revolution of 1959, leaving behind homes, bank accounts, and businesses that were confiscated by the new government.
On Shabbat morning, at the Beth Shalom synagogue (Conservative) in Havana, there were about 40 worshippers, and at the “Janucá” party that we attended on the last night of the Festival of Lights, about 200 people sang and danced and celebrated together. At the end of the party, the synagogue leadership invited up Muslim and Christian special guests who had been invited specially to attend, as a symbol of interfaith fellowship, and also reminded those in attendance of the recent knife attack at a rabbi’s house in Monsey, NY, a plea for religious solidarity in the face of increasing anti-Semitism around the world. It was hard for Judy and me not to notice, by the way, the lack of a security guard; that synagogue might be one of the few remaining in the world that are completely unprotected.
The Beth Shalom synagogue building, which also serves as the nationwide Jewish community center, dates from 1952, a few years prior to the socialist revolution. The synagogue fell into disrepair in subsequent decades. Following the government’s decision to officially allow religious practice once again in 1992, the community was able to rebuild and rededicate.
They are supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and they have raised money from Jews elsewhere, particularly from Cuban Jews who emigrated to America decades ago. They renovated their main building, which had fallen into a shameful state. They continue to teach their children in the “Majon Albert Einstein” – the school of Jewish studies which serves all the children of the Havana community, and adults as well. The services that we attended, Friday night and Saturday morning, were almost entirely led by teens and college students, and concluded with as many children on the bimah as possible. They send young athletes to Maccabiah games all over the world. The walls of the synagogue building were plastered with photos of young, smiling Cuban Jews.
And all this despite an intermarriage rate of 99%, exremely limited access to kosher food and Jewish resources, and very little local means of financial support. While the community recently printed its own siddur, there are no humashim in the sanctuary at Beth Shalom with which to follow along with the Torah reading. This is a difficult environment in which to raise Jewish children who are proud and committed and willing to carry our tradition forward.
It is worth noting here that most Cubans, who are of course employed by the government, receive a salary of $25 per month, and that is not enough money to provide for oneself and one’s family, even considering the food ration coupons. While the government is now allowing some forms of private enterprise and foreign investment, that has benefited, it seems, mostly a small group of Cubans who are engaged with the tourist trade. At one point, Judy and I took a lengthy bicycle tour of Havana, and our tour guide Miguel was an attorney who left his government job, which paid $25/month, to schlep tourists around for much, much more money.
At one point during the tour, we saw a long line of people outside a supermarket. We asked, what are they waiting for? Miguel went to inquire, and found that the supermarket had received chicken and eggs, so people were waiting for hours to get some. Yes, Cubans have nearly 100% literacy, excellent free education and one doctor for every 149 people, but they cannot get access to many over-the-counter medications and officially are limited to 100g of beef per person per month.
So you can see that the community barely has enough money to support itself, and hence the need for external support.
Adela shared with me an adorable anecdote, about how she was invited in the 1990s to an event where she met Fidel Castro, and when given the opportunity, she invited him to their annual Hanukkah party. When El Comandante asked, perhaps inadvertently quoting the Talmud (BT Shabbat 21b: מאי חנוכה?), “What is Hanukkah?” Adela replied confidently, “The revolution of the Jews.” Unable to resist the idea of checking out any sort of revolution, Castro came to their celebration in 1998, and photos in the synagogue lobby attested to his presence.
Nonetheless, despite being warmly welcomed as a visiting rabbi (they invited me to read Torah on Shabbat morning, and gave Judy and I the first aliyah), I must confess that I am concerned for the future of Cuban Jewry. Even as the island nation slowly opens up, one must wonder about the viability of such a tiny community. What we saw and experienced was a functioning synagogue, one in which young people are highlighted. But without resources, and without an infusion of fresh blood, will Jewish life continue to thrive?
To return for a moment to Vayyiggash, Yosef’s words to his brothers when he “outs” himself to them have always resonated with me (Gen. 45:16):
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יוֹסֵ֤ף אֶל־אֶחָיו֙ אֲנִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף הַע֥וֹד אָבִ֖י חָ֑י וְלֹֽא־יָכְל֤וּ אֶחָיו֙ לַעֲנ֣וֹת אֹת֔וֹ כִּ֥י נִבְהֲל֖וּ מִפָּנָֽיו׃
Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dumbfounded were they on account of him.
“Ha’od avi hai?” The JPS translation interprets “hai” as “well.” However, a more traditional rendering might be, “Is my father still alive?” This line is likely the source material for the B part of the classic six-word song “Am Yisrael Hai” – “Od avinu hai.” Our ancestors are still alive. The people of Israel lives, and their matriarchs and patriarchs are still with us.
Well, the people of Israel still lives in Cuba as well. And their children are thriving, at least for now. I must say, I was filled with a certain amount of hope to know that this tiny “she’erit Yisrael,” remnant of Israel, is still singing and dancing and learning Torah. As we rose at the end of Lekha Dodi to greet la Reina del Shabbat, the Shabbat Queen, tears welled up in my eyes as I reflected on the resilience of a community whose tradition was devastated by the revolution, and yet they were able to recapture it. Such is the power of Judaism, and of the Jewish spirit.
The good news is that we can help. After the Friday evening service, I spoke with Yanet Rodriguez, the music director and accompanist who played keyboard during the Kabbalat Shabbat service. I offered to send her more music, and she was absolutely thrilled, since she has no access to Jewish music resources in Cuba. Judy and I asked the director of Majon, Hella Eskenazi, what the community needed to further their work, and she immediately responded with, “Purim costumes and graggers for kids.” And so, as Jews have always done for one another, we reach out. Judy and I will be collecting these things to send, and we hope that you will help us out.
The trip filled me with both doubt and hope, but I am left with a modicum of the limitless optimism of the Cuban people, who endure despite challenging circumstances.
Od avi hai. Am Yisrael hai. Our people continue to grow like raqefet, the gorgeous pink and purple cyclamen flowers that one finds in the Israeli desert; we continue to draw on our Torah, to live our traditions, to bask in the glow of Shabbat, to give the gift of Judaism to our children and grandchildren.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/4/2020.)