Un Recuerdo de Abraham Berezniak

by Bonnie Burt

On Friday, April 24th, 1998, my friend Abraham Berezniak died of kidney failure and other complications in Havana, Cuba. He had been the shochet (ritual butcher) and member of the burial society of the Havana Jewish community. He was most recently head of the Adath Israel congregation in Old Havana.

I had met Abraham on the first of my three trips to Cuba in January, 1994. I was immediately taken with his wry sense of humor on the one hand and his fierce need to ensure the continuity of his Jewish heritage in Cuba on the other.

Abraham, in his early 50's when he died, remembered the time before the 1959 Revolution when he had attended Jewish day schools and there had been a thriving Jewish community in Havana. He had lived through the post- revolutionary years when all religion was suspect and one had to choose being a "believer" or a Party member. It was a time when synagogue attendance was left to a handful of old people who didn't mind losing whatever benefits one might receive from being a Communist Party member.

Throughout the 35 post revolutionary years of economic hardship and massive emigration, Abraham never gave up his desire to see the synagogue full of people once again and to see his son become bar mitzvah. Somehow Abraham was able to maintain daily minyan at Adath Israel throughout the years. He was able to cope with the daily challenges of life in Cuba and with trying to keep a community together in a humorous, upbeat yet totally dedicated way.

I happened to be in Havana during the week of Yacob's bar mitzvah in December, 1994. Before the bar mitzvah Abraham invited me to his home to see one of the study sessions he had with Yacob. They would study together daily or I should say nightly, after all the day's work and homework was completed.

There in his apartment, up a steep set of stairs in Old Havana, in a dimly lit room with a turquoise color refrigerator, I saw Abraham and Yacob do what Jews do all over the world, learn Torah. Since Abraham was able to read Hebrew he was able to teach his son and prepare him for his bar mitzvah. Because Cuba has been cut off from the rest of the Jewish world until recently Abraham had to teach Yacob virtually by himself.

The bar mitzvah was not just a big event for Abraham it was also a big event for the entire community. It had been 15 years since the last bar mitzvah in Adath Israel and it was on the same bima that Abraham had his own bar mitzvah some 35 years earlier in 1959, the year of theCuban Revolution.

It was a joyous event with the bar mitzvah boy doing a wonderful job. The party afterward included a Cuban conjunto playing Cuban favorites under a picture of Rebbe Shneerson.

On a later visit to Cuba, Abraham desperately wanted to get a torah repaired so it would be kosher so they could use it at services. He said the bigger Torah in the ark was kosher but it was too heavy for the old men in the minyan to lift. Rabbi Kelman on our trip was both a rabbi and a sofer (ritual scribe) and agreed to bring it back to the States and repair it. Abraham waited for over 3 hours in our hotel for our delayed return from touring so he could make sure it got to Rabbi Kelman.

Ironically, in recent months, perhaps because of the Pope's visit and the concomitant world wide publicity the government had spruced up some of the religious institutions and Abraham's cherished Adath Israel had received some much needed attention. When Abraham became too ill to go up the steep stairway to his apartment, his community had moved a bed into the sanctuary at Adath Israel so he could be cared for by his people and, I imagine, so he could enjoy how beautiful his synagogue had become once again.

I will miss Abraham's wit, joy, strength, and friendship. Walking into Adath Israel will never be the same again for me. May his name be a blessing and may his work continue. Adios, mi amigo.

Bonnie Burt

Donations in Abraham's memory can be made to Jewish Solidarity, Joint Distribution Committee or to B'nai Brith  specifying "Cuba relief".