by June Safran
I just got back from
six weeks in Cuba where I had the wonderful experience of meeting
Cuban Jews all over the Island, celebrating Chanukah, Shabbat,
and even a bar mitzvah.
I spent the first week
in Santiago de Cuba with our friends at Comunidad Hebrea Hatikva
where I lived in two different homes of members of the community.
Even though more than thirty active members have made Aliyah to
Israel, the community is strong and the individuals are as warm
and loving as ever.Services continue to be moving in this community
even though most of their trained leadership made Aliyah early
We celebrated both
Shabbat and Chanukah but since there were no potatoes to be had
on Friday night, we honored Chanukah by eating fried chicken instead
of latkes. Of course, we ate fried chicken in honor of Shabbat,
also, since that is the custom each Friday night.
Shabbat was a wonderful
twenty-six hours as we prayed together, studied together, and
ate together. In other words, it was a usual Shabbat in Santiago.
On the fourth night of Chanukah we had a very special celebration
with lots of dreidle gaming, food, and lively singing and dancing
that was enhanced by the participation of the Jewish members and
friends of a choral group from Seattle.
At the end of the week,
two other people and I set out for most of the Jewish communities
on the Island. The landscape was inspiring, the Cuban people were
very nice, and the members of the Jewish communities were wonderful
to us. We discovered that they are very much involved with our
heritage and spent long hours talking and planning the future
as well as enjoying the present with each other.
Shabbat found us back
in Havana where we prayed and ate dinner in the social hall of
the Patronato. All activities now take place here while the Patronato
is being refurbished and is building classrooms in the old balcony.
Soon teachers will no longer have to compete with the sounds of
other classes sharing the same space nor will any class have to
sit on the floor of the sanctuary entranceway in order to have
a space of its own.
With Sunday came the
twenty-one members of our tour group who were to have a wonderful
time visiting three Jewish communities in Havana and three in
the countryside. We ate a very tasty and elaborate lunch in the
home of the president of Cienfuegos where we were entertained
with a performance by the children. Then they danced for us and
invited the two children of our group to join in.
Santa Clara was our
next stop where we were shocked at the poor condition of the Jewish
cemetery that is being used as a sports field by local children
who have no other open space in which to play ball. The walls
are gone, having become building material for the local homes
of these poor people who do not understand that they are being
disrespectful to our dead. All but two members of the community
met us for dinner at the hotel. It happened to be the night of
the brightest full moon in more than a century so we gathered
outside before dinner and made a Shehechianu upon seeing such
a bright moon for the first time. Suddenly, there was a circle
of people, arms entwined, singing Hebrew songs together as one
community. It's a wonder we ever reached the dinner table. Our
last community outside of Havana was Santiago. One of our greatest
joys was taking members of the local communities with us almost
everywhere we went and sharing meals with some of them almost
every day. Thus, there was a lot of information exchanged and
a lot of friendships made.
The most significant
highlight of the trip for the ten of us who have been to Cuba
before was the bar mitzvah in Santiago of Alejandro Aloma Farin,
son of Julio Aloma, religious leader, and nephew of Eugenia Farin,
president. Several members of the family participated in the services
and we enjoyed sharing this very joyous occasion watching the
parents and other relatives bursting with pride.
We spent the afternoon
studying, than celebrated in the evening at a party given by our
group with dinner, lots of dancing and even swimming . Yes, swimming.
We had dinner around the pool at a restaurant that I found just
outside of Santiago. Alejandro was raised in the traditional chair
before we added to his ritual gifts with a gift to fit the tradition
of being a Cuban male Ė a baseball glove, bat, ball, and even
a cap that proclaimed in Hebrew that he is part of Berkeley.
Among the many activities
in Havana was the Havana Lodge Bínai Bírith meeting. Warner Bein
Oberndoerfer, president of the Golden Pacific Region and a member
of our group, spoke about Bínai Bírith projects in the U.S. and
Dr. Robert Safran, member of the Oakland Lodge, gave a talk on
Prostate Cancer. Now, all Jewish men in Havana will want Vitamin
E because Dr. Safran told them it was the only preventive treatment
proven to help in the fight against this disease.
I want to leave other
tales of the trip for the future and tell you about our new project.
The American Jewish Ballet Company is planning to travel to Havana
for performances at the historic Lorca Theater on May 27th and
28th. They have been invited to participate in the Jewish communityís
program to commemorate the visit of the SS St. Louis to Havana
Harbor in 1939.
The AJB will present
both a Holocaust piece and other pieces based on Jewish life and
Biblical stories. Since the performances will be in the Lorca
Theater, a popular public hall, non-Jewish Cubans and tourists
will also be able to attend. This allows us to raise awareness
of the Holocaust among all Cubans and to give tourists another
(unexpected) venue for dealing with Holocaust. In addition, such
a public activity would serve to raise the stature of the Jewish
community in the eyes of the Office of Religious Affairs and other
government agencies with whom we will be dealing.
A sponsorís tour is
being organized for those who sponsor a dancer in the Send a Dancer
to Havana category at $1000 per dancer. Since there are only twelve
dancers to sponsor, be sure to act soon. Of course, we will happily
receive funds for arms and legs and torsos if you want to help
with the project but donít have an extra $1000 to spare.
Finally, people often
wonder if all this work is making a difference, especially since
so many Cubans are making Aliyah. Well, I can tell you that most
of them are going to Israel with knowledge of their new homeland,
some Hebrew, and a deep feeling of being Jewish. Several people
talked to me during the last week to tell me that the Jewish materials
we bring are essential to their growth as Jews, as are the individuals
we bring to teach. Over and over again, I was told that that they
look forward to our groups coming because the extent of our involvement
Iíll finish by telling
you about a comment from my friend, Isaac Gelen, that explains
why I expend so much energy for these people. As we returned from
our exciting day-long trip to Vinales with ten or more Cubans
along, Isaac leaned over from across the bus aisle and said, "June,
you donít bring people to Cuba, you bring love."
Letís work together
to fund the American Jewish Ballet in May,2000.