man came up and asked, in a stage whisper that cut through
all the prayers, "Are you Jewish?" He spoke in
a curious mix of Spanish, English, and Yiddish. "Have
you been brissed?" He made snip-snip motions with his
(excerpts from the book)
Adela and Abraham the butcher
insisted that I delay my trip to Cienfuegos long enough
to attend Jewish New Year services. A foreign Jewish
male was quite a catch for a Cuban synagogue, they admitted.
I'm not very religious, I countered, in fact I can't even
remember the last time ....
That's all right, they said.
We know. Then we can count on you?
So I committed myself to New
Year's services at one synagogue in the evening and at the
other the following morning, I wrote a shiksita back in
the States. I don't think this is why I came here; still,
it's a legitimate slice of Cuban life and they're really
very nice people. I must admit I did laugh to myself a little
when each, on the same day, implored me to come to their
services. For one brief moment, I was the hottest Jew in
* * *
Ten worshippers had already
begun New Year's services when I arrived at the shul in
Vedado the next morning. I picked a yarmulke from the
pile and tried to unobtrusively slip in to one of the back
An elderly man came up and
asked, in a stage whisper that cut through all the prayers,
"Are you Jewish?" He spoke in a curious mix of Spanish,
English, and Yiddish. "Have you been brissed?" He made snip-snip
motions with his fingers. "What was your father's name?"
Morris, which he took to be Moishe. "What was your mother's
surname?" Levy. "So you're Jewish!" With that he fetched
a prayer shawl and draped it over my shoulders. "You'll
take part in the service at the Torah!"
"But I'm just a judío secular.
I'm illiterate in Hebrew. I haven't looked at a word of
He brushed aside my protestation.
"You'll take part in the service! Tell me, have you been
to Israel?" No. "But you have it in your heart, eh?" He
sat down next to me. ...
I started to pull out my notepad.
The snip-snip man admonished me. "Don't take notes. You
can do that afterward when we gather downstairs to eat."
He invoked the Fourth Commandment about keeping the Sabbath
holy as his authority, then gravitated to the front, where
he got into a heated argument with the lay rabbi over Hebrew
pronunciation. The quarrel ended as abruptly as it had begun.
The man in front of me looked up from his newspaper.
Each worshipper was called
to the front to read a brief portion of the Torah and hold
it for the next reader. Snip-snip bellowed out from the
front, "Tom, ben-Moishe, please come up to the Holy Scrolls."
Blessed relief. Lying flat
on top of the Torah at my excerpt, underlined with an elaborate
metal marker, was a transliteration from the Hebrew so I
could pronounce my portion. Afterward we wished each other
a happy New Year with gefilte fish, bread, and cake. In
our blessing we thanked God for Tropicola.
* * *
Cover photo courtesy of Powells.com
just be the best travel book about Cuba ever
written." - Lonely Planet, Cuba
may be that few Americans know Cuba as well
as Tom Miller does. His Trading with the Enemy...is
required reading for anyone who proposes to
visit -- or even talk about -- Cuba today."
- ALAN RYAN, The Reader's Companion to Cuba
the book here:
(all links open new
Excerpt from Writers
of the Americas (a writer's group) (link
opens new browser window)
"Few Americans know Cuba
as well as Tom Miller," says
"The Reader's Companion to Cuba." His Trading
with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through
Castro's Cuba, and articles in LIFE, Smithsonian,
Natural History and many other publications,
have given Americans a literary and well-informed
look at Cuba.
The Panama Hat Trail is considered a
classic of modern travel writing, and a prior
book about the Mexican frontier, On the Border,
has become a permanent part of the southwestern
book, Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink: Off-beat
Travels through America's Southwest, comes
out in November 2000. It includes accounts of
Miller's visits to Jewish inmates in Arizona
prisons, as well as sections on Jewish cemeteries
in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands.
Miller has taught
in the Creative Writing Program at the University
of Arizona, and lectured on writing in the U.S.,
Canada, Mexico, and Cuba .
He is currently
Adjunct Research Associate at the University
of Arizona's Latin American Area Center, co-director
of Writers of the Americas, and co-director
of Writers of the Americas, which staged the
first ever U.S.-Cuba Writers Conference in Havana
in early 2000.