Three Films about Cuba

Reviewed by Ruth Behar

Reprinted from Latin American Jewish Studies, January 1996
Judith Laikin Elkin, Editor and Publisher

The Believers: Stories from Jewish Havana
Bonnie Burt Productions, 1994

Abraham and Eugenia: Stories from Jewish Cuba
Bonnie Burt Productions, 1995

"Havana Nagilah"
Laura Paull and Evan Garelle, 1995

Reviewed by Ruth Behar, University of Michigan

As a Jewish Cuban who grew up in the United States, and having recently visited Cuba twice with Miami-based Jewish Solidarity, it has been both fascinating and deeply troubling to observe American Jews turn Cuban Jews into exotic Jews, picture-opportunity Jews, the last surviving Jews of the communist outback. The Jews of Cuba have become an overstudied tribe, like the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert.

What opened Cuba up to a new kind of American Jewish solidarity traveler was the 1991 declaration by Fidel Castro and the Cuban Communist Party that it was acceptable for party members to practice their religious faith. Since then, a sweeping religious and ethnic revitalization has taken place. Not only is Judaism flourishing in four synagogues in Havana and in three communities in the provinces, but so too are Catholic, Protestant, Quaker, and Afrocuban religions. Each of these religious groups, in turn, has its supporters in the United States, who organize visits and bring food, medicines, religious book, office supplies, and other aid to Cuba. None of the three films under review tries to place the Jewish Cuban community within this larger context of religious revitalization. As a result, the novice viewer will come away from the films believing that the Jews in Cuba are doing their "Jewish thing" in a social vacuum, rather than in relation to broad transformations taking place in Cuban society as a whole.

"The Believers" and "Abraham and Eugenia" by Bonnie Burt come out of her two visits to Cuba with Jewish solidarity groups. I was with Burt on her second visit and was present during most of the shooting of the sections on Abraham Berezniak for the latter film. Unlike some other journalists on the trip, Burt was not obnoxious in her use of the camera. Both her films are independent one-woman productions, which make the most of her quiet and unobstrusive low-tech approach.

"The Believers" offers a mix of footage about the Jewish Cuban community with street scenes in which outspoken elderly women and charming schoolboys talk about the dire shortages of food, transportation, and pen and paper. Interviewed in depth are Berezniak, the kosher butcher of Havana and secretary of the Jewish burial society; Adela Dworin, librarian of the Patronato Synagogue; and Alina Fenhandler, a 29-year-old doctor who converted to Judaism and speaks daringly - in perfect English - about her fear of standing in her kitchen and wondering what she will be able to feed her two childen on any given day (Is she still in Cuba? I didn't see here when I returned in July of 1995). These Jewish Cubans offer insight into their quest for roots, comparing their present situation to the fear that made it impossible for them to practice Judaism openly in the past. As Berezniak says, two years ago most people didn't know the aleph. Now, with the creation of a "escuelita," both children and adults are learning Hebrew and the rudiments of the liturgy. But this Jewish Cuban world is vulnerable, Burt suggests, to the larger crisis taking place beyond the synagogue doors. A woman standing in front of the kosher butcher shop in Old Havana declares that only people with dollars can eat in Cuba today. Unfortunately, Burt stops short of asking whether she resents the fact that Jewish Cubans listed as synagogue members can get rations of kosher meat at times when no meat of any kind is available to other Cubans.

Although Burt's film in titled "The Believers," in the end we don't learn what has motivated Jewish Cubans to return to Judaism. Is their newfound spirituality a form of resistance? Or a solace in times of crisis? What does being a believer mean to the many members of the community who have married into Judaism or are reclaiming their identify from a long-lost Jewish grandparent? It is painful to admit, but the search for faith is uncomfortably aligned with the desire for those things of the world that are currently pouring into the synagogues from external humanitarian aid. At the moment when state stores and pharmacies are empty (as Burt shows in her film), in the synagogues Jewish Cubans will find food, clothes, medicines, and the pens the schoolboys are asking Burt to give them just before her camera cuts them off.

"Abraham and Euginia" is more focused, looking in depth at two life stories, that of Berezniak in Havana and Eugenia Farin in Santiago de Cuba. Berezniak gives a history of the Jewish community as he roams through the two Jewish cemetaries in Guanabacoa accompanied by members of Jewish Solidarity. The journey to Jewish Cuba always begins with dead Cuban Jews. He notes the monuments for the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust and the Jewish communists killed by the Machado government, and points to the tomb of Saul Yelin, a secular Jew who founded the Cuban Film Institute after the revolution.

All the children who attended the Jewish day school, as well as their teacher, left Cuba during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. But now, says Berezniak, there has been a resurgence of Judaism. Indeed, we witness the process of Jewish continuity and revival as Berezniak's own son becomes a bar mitzvah in the Adath Israel synagogue in Old Havana, on the very same bima where Berezniak himself became a bar mitzvah. That Jewish moment is followed by an exquisitely Cuban moment as the guests sit down to eat lunch to the sounds of a trio playing "Son de la loma," a classical song of the son montuno  tradition.

Yet overall the version of Berezniak's life presented in Burt's film is an "official story." For example, the fact that the Adath Israel congregation to which Berezniak belongs is under the control of the Lubavitcher and that this has caused controversy in the Jewish Cuban community is not discussed. Although Berezniak alludes to the difficulties of being an Orthodox Jew in Cuba, Burt doesn't pursue this discussion. Berezniak says at one point that it is easier to assimilate than to live a Jewish life. In his own case, he married a non-Jewish woman who converted to Judaism only in the last two years. Burt includes clips of Berezniak's wife on the day of the bar mitzvah, but isn't able to get her to discuss the difficulties she may have experienced in converting to Judaism and finding that the Lubavitch do not accept her as a Jew.

Eugenia Fair's story, in the second part of the film, is a gem. Engenia is a gifted storyteller wih an endearing and moving story to tell. She makes us recognize just how tenuous is the "and" that joins the two stories. Not only are Abraham and Eugenia unrelated and living on either end of the island, but they are at opposite ends of the spectrum with regard to their approach toward religion. Eugenia is in the early phases of fascination with religion; she is enveloped in the charisma of a Jew just returning to her faith with nostalgia, longing, and fervent hope. Abraham, on the other hand, has been at his faith longer and his practice is more routinized.

The juxtaposition of their two stories inadvertently shows the crucial role played by foreign Jewish solidarity groups in bolstering Judaism in Cuba. On the positive side, this attention, like foreign attention to human rights, protects Jews from posible persecution and anti-Semitism (which the three films continually insist do not exist in Cuba). On the negative side, this attention creates situations in which Jewish Cubans are put in the position of having to perform their identity for outsiders, to put on a "show" for Jewish visitors who want to bring back souvenirs of their trips, evidence that the Jews of Cuba are doing Jewish things, like celebrating Shabbat and Passover and learning Israeli dances. That level of foreign attention will probably never plague Santiago because of its distance from Havana, but some of it is now reaching its Jews too. The Jews of Santiago reclaimed their synagogue in July of 1995 (largely through the efforts of their extraordinary leader Rebeca Boton Behar) and their religious practice is just beginning to get off the ground.

So it is with truly unrehearsed and genuine emotion that Eugenia tells of the difficulties that confronted her and her two sisters when they came of age and had to try to live up to the dictum that to marry a non-Jew was a sin. How could they keep from sinning when the majority of Jews had left Cuba? The Farin sisters waited until they were almost thrity to make a decision. Finally they realized, notes Eugenia, that it would be a greater sin not to marry, for that would break the continuity of the generations. Having openly confronted the reality of intermarriage, Eugenia speaks with pride of her non-Jewish husband, who doesn't interfere with, nor participate in, her efforts to educate her daughters in the Jewish faith. With the tears brimming in her eyes, she says that her daughters have never heard the sound of the shofar, have never heard the old chants. "Maybe," she says, "Everything isn't over for us. It is beginning now."

Written and directed by Laura Paull, "Havana Nagilah" is a sophisticated documentary that offers a sweeping narrative of Jewish Cuban history from conquest times through independence, the struggles for nationhood, the Batista period, and the revolution. With articulate voiceover commentary, excellent sound track, and a range of well-chosen voices, Paull's one-hour film is more high-tech than Burt's two short films. It comes across more authoritatively, though it lacks the creative quirkiness and depth of feeling expressed in Burt's films. While Burt is interested in portraying Jewish Cubans who are believers, Paull gives more attention to Jewish Cubans who are intellectuals, questioning their faith and their traditions even as they express pride in their identity as Jews.

Paull is to be commended for her fascinating interviews with secular Cuban Jews who have been involved with the revolutionary process and consider that their Jewish identity, at least initially, found expression through participation in the cause of social justice. Among those interviewed are the architect Luis Lapidus (an important thinker and activist in the restoration of Old Havana who died suddenly of cancer in 1995), the oral surgeon Dr. Jose' Miller (the eloquent leader of the Patronato synagogue and Jewish community of Havana), Adela Dworin (the Patronato librarian who is also an Orthodox Jew), Rosa Behar (a gastroenterologist of Sephardic background who is the newly appointed leader of the Hadassah chapter in Cuba), and Moises Assis (a key figure in the Jewish Cuban revival movement who speaks of having had to go underground as a Jew to attain a university education and who has since emigated to Miami). Of special interest is the inclusion of two non-Jewish thinkers who offer key insights into the Jewish Cuban community - Maritza Corrales, a historian at the University of Havana who is the most knowledgeable and serious scholar of Jewish Cuban history, and Anton Arrufat, a major Cuban playwright, who reflects candidly on his family's prejudices toward Jews and how they were gradually overcome through friendship with a Jewish neighbor in the Santiago of the 1940s and 1950s.

One of the most important insights offered by "Havana Nagilah" is that the contemporary Jewish Cuban community is a new community that rose from the ashes of the Jewish Cuban community that emigrated to the United States after the revolution. The old community coped with the challenge of rising from peddlers to merchants while maintaining their identity through a closed social system of Jewish schools and institutions. The new community, on the other hand, has had to come to terms with thirty years of intermarriage, acculturation, economic hardship, and the pressure to conform to the rules of a secular state, in which "new men" and "new women" would remake society. It is clear that the Jews who stayed in Cuba after the revolution were those who were least involved in Jewish community life before the revolution. Most had already married non-Jews or would later do so out of necessity. A few idealists, like Luis Lapidus, stayed in Cuba because they wanted to build a new, more inclusive Cuban society and rejected the values of the closed Jewish society that his family had tried to inculcate in him.

It would have been interesting if Paull had explored why so few Jews felt as committed to the Cuban nationalist project of 1959 as did Lapidus and others of those interviewed. Certainly, the Jewish community in Cuba was a young community, just twenty-five years old when Fidel Castro took Havana. Most of the Jews arrived after the 1924 Immigration and Exclusion Act and it was their first-generation offspring, many of them just beginning to raise families of their own, who had to confront the difficult decision of whether to stay or leave after the revolution. The community froze prematurely in time and had to remake itself in the diaspora. It was also a community made up primarily of business people, with only a handful of intellectuals and writers who might have articulated a coherent vision of Jewish Cuban identity. Despite the fact that Cuba was hospitable to Jews, one wonderes whether, in some profound sense that has yet to be studied, Jewish Cubans could not be fully integrated into the Cuban national project. Is it an accident that all those Jewish Cubans interviewed dowplayed their Jewishness until recently? Perhaps, in the early years, Jewish identity posed too unsettling a contradiction for a revolution that was so utterly nationalist?

Finally, although these films are by no means insensitive, they don't even begin to analyze the situation that made them possible in the first place - the new "encounter" between privileged American Jews and desperately needy Jews in Cuba, many of whom would happily leave the island with their helpers, if only they could. How can American Jews offer a helping hand without humiliating those on whom they bestow their charity? How can American Jews return to Cuba to help without reproducing a new set of colonial relations, this time betwen the United States and the Jews of Cuba? These are the central, difficult questions that need to be addressed - in film, in writing, in our consciences.