My Friend Luis

by Arturo López Levy

(Translator, Rochelle Wolf)

in Spanish

I do not remember exactly the day on which I met him, but I know that since then, in spite of the differences in age and character, Luis Chanivecky always treated me as a friend -- with extraordinary intelligence and cordiality. Luis was one of those people whom the young people of today could approach with confidence. He was a perpetual youth. It was not difficult to establish a dialogue with him about his family, one's own family, his life as a traveler, a composer, a Jew and a Cuban.

He was always the hospitable person, par excellence -- a conversationalist who was happy and welcoming. The synagogue, for him, was like his home. He used to enjoy sharing his reflections and his space with the rest of his acquaintances. I never saw hiim greet anyone half-heartedly or unwillingly. He was in charge of the religious services in the Patronato and even though his grave problems of vision and aging limited him, he did not skimp in involving even more Jews in the reading of the Torah, religious services, and the Jewish life of our community in general. If there is a single characteristic that was not his, it was arrogance. He was always very humble, with an open heart, noble, and hospitable.


June Safran photo

Since I first met him, I knew that he was a living fount of the history of our community and of the experience of living in this century as a Jew in Cuba. One day, I suggested to him that we go to the cemetery at Guanabacoa, so that he could tell me about the Jews buried there. Immediately, he accepted, with the sole condition that I call him beforehand and find transportation. He always used to walk too much [he tended to overexhert himself] and when I arrived to find him, Rosita called to me from the balcony, "Take care of him for me."

What a day! Arriving at the cemetery, for a moment I thought that he was not going to make it. Luis told me that I should ask him questions and he would answer me. We talked about what the Centro Israelita, Old Havana and the Patronato were like before the Revolution, even more than about those buried there in the cemetery.

I remember that we ate lunch at the paladar La Guarida, the location of the film "Strawberries and Chocolate," and we spent half the day there. We spoke about the owner of the photos hanging on the wall. At that point, the subject of Luis the composer took center stage: Luis, the composer of "La Luna en tu Mirada," "Locura Azul" and the "Bossa Cubana." When the film "Los Zafiros" debuted, I remember that Luis told me that they sang several of his compositions in the film. And so I told my friends, those of my generation (who only knew what their parents had told them about Los Zafiros) that a Jewish man had composed various songs for the stellar quartet. What a surprise to see the credits and observe that Luis's name was not listed! The following Kabbalat Shabbat I asked Luis what had happened. Modestly, he told me the story of what Hugo Cancio, the film's producer, the son of Miguel Cancio, had done - he had omitted Luis's name on the film credits. Unfortunately, the error was never corrected, but that did not decrease the pride of the community and his friends. The film, cassettes and CDs have received good reviews and are selling well.

Another recollection of that conversation remains with me. Luis gave me a cassette with most of his music, including "The Overture of Anna Frank," composed as a theatrical piece. Although the play was never staged in our community, Luis told me that in the United States, the music had been played after a program on the Jews of Cuba.

I would be able to say other things about that notable man whose major attributes were his humility and his modesty. He was characterized by a fine sense of humor and the happiness of one who knows that his life has been productive. He had an intense love for his family. I remember sitting at the lunch table at Viñales where we once went with June Safran. Luis was happy. June had invited him to go with one of the groups that she brought from the United States, and he begged to bring his grandson, Rosita and Livat. That foursome came along and sat side by side. There was a video of the Simcha group and a show about how as far away as New York one may meet a gentleman from Yaguajay.

These lines do not pretend to be a great homage to Luis. He never would have asked for something like this. These are only some passages that I remember about him. Those of us who participated in the collective Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony in 1997 were graciously given a set of tefilin by Dr. Miller, on behalf of the Patronato. It was Luis and Rabbi Roberto Feldman who taught me to use tefilin. Today, when we enter his synagogue, his community center, we ought not to forget Luis.

We thank Luis, Marcus Matterin, Moises Baldas, and others no longer with us and those here, that our society did not follow the destiny of the United Hebrew Congregation. We have the Patronato because it had founders who raised money to establish it and give it life. But also it exists because of the people, such as Luis, who, even in those difficult times of anti-religious discrimination, had a minyan -- Cuban or halachic -- in order that it never close. There was a renaissance of Jewish life in Cuba because there had been continuous supporters, even in the worst of times.

Luis was above all a good man. I do not know if he spoke ill about anyone; at least he never did it to me. He was good because that was the one and only way he knew to be. He was a man of the community, of his neighborhood, of his family. Luis was a common man, one of those down-to-earth men like Abraham Lincoln about whom it was said, "God loves them so much that he made many of them."

Arturo López Levy
July 2000