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If you have visited Havana in the last 34 years, you certainly know Coppelia. For those of you who have not done so yet, but are certainly planning to, Coppelia is an ice cream parlour located in the very heart of the new city, in Vedado, across the street from what was once the Havana Hilton, later on the Havana Libre and now the Havana Libre Tryp.

Coppelia is not just any old ice cream place, it is THE ice cream parlour, and since the Strawberry and Chocolate film, better known as the ice cream Cathedral. According to original plans, it would offer 28 different flavours and unending variations with: fruits and/or syrups, cake, cookies, blended, with nuts….but life’s realities have greatly curtailed its offerings. Another change is that they now offer other ice cream brands, but I would suggest you try their own, even at the risk to your cholesterol of its 14 % milk fat contents, it is worth it, and what are vacations for if not to take high risks.

A few days ago, a friend invited me to Coppelia (luckily I am not fond of ice cream, I am overweight enough) but he is, so I accepted. It was a nice afternoon,. When we arrived it had just stopped raining, a real tropical downpour, so there were not the usual lines and we even got a table to ourselves, which is really incredible. My friend was somewhat downcast, which is not his style and finally told me that his son had just emigrated to Israel.

Now, my friend is not Jewish, but his wife is. They have been happily (I think) married for many years and have two children, the son who went to Israel and a daughter who works as an Engineer for a successful Cuban corporation. Luckily for my friend’s wife things had changed a lot in the Jewish community by the time she married, so she avoided the destiny of Sima, a young girl whose orthodox father had her murdered to stop her from entering a mixed marriage. But that was way back in the late 30s, early 40s, when the Hebrew community was large and strong.

The first Jews to come to the Americas came in the same boat with Christopher Columbus (Luis de Torres, shortly before baptised in Spain), some settled in Cuba towards the end of the XIX Century. In spite of their practising the Catholic faith, the hand of the inquisition still reached for them. The first trial of the Inquisition in Havana was against a Jew, Francisco Gomez de Leon, executed in Cartagena, after, of course, confiscating his large fortune, which without doubt was the cause of his persecution.

However, others fared better, and by bribing the proper authorities, were able to settle in peace and even prosper. Their contribution is not to be ignored, they were instrumental in bringing to the island what would constitute the main source of revenue until the middle of the XX Century: the sugar cane. Jews brought the sugar cane from Madeira to Brazil and from there to the Antilles. They were also the inventors of growing tobacco under a cloth, to protect it from the sun and wind. The system is still used today to produce the best and most expensive tobacco leaves in the world. Tobacco continues to be an important industry for the country.

The large Jewish migration occurred between 1910 – 1920. They came from Europe, trying to enter the US, which at the time had a very strict quota system, so they landed here, as a stop over. Then, according to Salim Tache Jalak, a member of the orthodox congregation belonging to the Adath Israel synagogue, they found here “the only land in the world in which there is no anti-Semitism”, a good climate, a friendly people, so many decided to stay and settle.

And settle they did, and many prospered, of course, in the garment industry. I remember, as a child, walking down Muralla Street in old Havana. Muralla, in case you are one of the few Canadians or Americans who do not speak Spanish yet, means Wall, but this was quite a different Wall Street. This was no financial emporium but a street completely lined with shops, each doorway a shop, most of them owned by Jews. Materials and ready made clothes were the main offerings. The owners, or sales clerks, would stand on the sidewalk announcing their wares to the passers by, and dragging you in by the arm, to offer the “greatest bargain, the latest fashion” and they did offer good prices for quality goods.

For some reason or another, Cubans decided to call Jews, Poles (Polacos). I’ve always thought there must have been an important Polish-Jewish migration at some time, but if that was the case, nobody knows about it. And the funny part is that anybody with a non-English accent became a Polaco, this included Germans, French, Hungarians, Turks, etc. Jewish or not, they were all Polacos, and all equally accepted. As all Spaniards were Gallegos, whether they came from Galitzia or Barcelona.

The very wealthy did discriminate against Jews, as they did against the poor, blacks, Chinese or anybody of mixed parentage, the latter constituted at the time somewhere around 40 % of the population of Cuba.

What this meant was that Jews were limited to attending the poor man’s Club: Casino Deportivo de La Habana. Clubs were very important to the resident of Havana. It was not only a place of social life and activities, but also the only easy access to beaches, or swimming pools, a dire need in our long hot summer.

The owner of the Casino Deportivo de La Habana, Alfredo Hornedo, an unsavoury Cuban politician, was originally the owner of a newspaper, El Pais, and later on a Theatre, which included an ice skating rink, named Blanquita, after his first wife, and later on renamed Karl Marx and a Hotel, Rosita, named after his second wife, much visited by the mob, later on renamed Sierra Maestra and now being refurbished

As his was not an exclusive club, and required of no large initial fee, some working class Cubans were members. I remember on Saturdays and Sundays the large Jewish membership, which kept very much apart, they did not want their girls and boys to fall in love with non Jews, and also because in many instances they carried their kosher lunch. The only members allowed to bring in food, the rest were expected to attend either the restaurant, cafeteria or bar managed by the Club.

After the revolution these clubs were turned over to the different unions but for lack of adequate maintenance, some collapsed, some are closed and others are still open to the public at large. But they do seem to be en route to disappearing in the near future as they are located in an area in which a lot of real state development is going on. One of the most luxurious, which catered to the very wealthy and exclusive society, the Havana Biltmore, has just been beautifully refurbished and turned into the Havana Club, catering to foreign business men and diplomats residing in Havana. It is also open to tourist. Cubans come in as guests.

But coming back to the Jewish presence in Cuba. Their number swelled to around 15,000 in Havana, with smaller communities (around a 100 each) in Santiago de Cuba, Camaguey and Cienfuegos. In Havana at the time there were 5 Synagogues, most of them orthodox, a Kosher restaurant, Moishe Pipik, and resident rabbis

Trying to find what was left of this large community, I went to Old Havana, where it had been originally established. What I found was a small group of people, mostly pensioners, whose life evolves around the Adath Israel Synagogue. They explained that in the early sixties, with the policy of nationalising all business, big and small, the Jewish community together with other businessmen, fled to the US, which finally opened its arms to it.

Now about my friend’s son, neither the mother, nor the daughter, and certainly not my friend, are religious, but the son, like many young people of different faiths in Cuba, made the decision of studying and practising his religion. And now, like many other young Cubans, he decided to emigrate. Of course, emigration is nothing new to the Jewish people or to the Cubans for that matter.

The community now numbers around 1500 members.. They maintain their temples and traditions mostly thanks to donations from other wealthy communities. They are not able to support a resident rabbi, so marriages and Bar Mitzvah must wait for a visitor. I could not find anybody who spoke even Yiddish. Some read Hebrew but only know the sounds, not the meaning of the words.

In the last 5 years, roughly 400 Jews, male and female, young and old, in families or alone, have emigrated to Israel. Others are preparing to follow suit, but some of the old ones, like those I found in Old Havana, are happy to stay.

“I have travelled to other countries in Latin America”, said one of them, “and have seen synagogues bombed. In Mexico, they frisk foreigners before letting them enter the temple, because there have been bomb threats and other acts of violence and Israel is a battle field. Only in Cuba have we always been allowed to practice our religion in peace.

The only time in their history in Cuba in which they experienced violence against them or their temples was during the Gulf War, when Arab students hurled stones at the windows of the Adath Israel Synagogue. But the police put an end to it very quickly, and except for some glass broken, no other damage was made, and nobody was hurt.

The Cuban Jewish community had a short history, but it made important contributions in all fields of life: social, cultural, political, economic: relevant university professors, writers, journalists, painters and sculptors, film makers, musicians, important party figures. Unfortunately it is now disappearing.

The City Historian, in an effort to preserve an important part of our cultural heritage is trying to refurbish the original synagogue in Old Havana, which ironies of life was located in Inquisidor (Inquisitor) Street, but the living force of the community, the people, are mostly gone.

Well, enough for the time being, will be with you soon. Love to all.

La Habanera

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