Trading with the Enemy:
A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba

by Tom Miller

(from the book)

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.

(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 Havana.

* * *

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 rows....

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 it since....-"

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.

* * *

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"May just be the best travel book about Cuba ever written." - Lonely Planet, Cuba

"It may be that few Americans know Cuba as well as Tom Miller does. His Trading with the required reading for anyone who proposes to visit -- or even talk about -- Cuba today." - ALAN RYAN, The Reader's Companion to Cuba

Buy the book here: (all links open new browser window)

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.

His book 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 literary landscape.

His latest 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.


(excerpts, continued)

A few days later, on my way back from a walk along the Malecón, I passed the entrance to the U.S. Interests Section and saw a short man wearing a yarmulke. I said in English, "You don't see many yarmulkes around here." Startled, he replied, "Are you Jewish?" He was an extremely Orthodox Jew, in Havana for a few days staying at a tourist hotel. He invited me to drop by later that evening.

In his room I asked what he did for a living. "Let's just say I have a degree in electrical engineering." He looked up at the ceiling. "They have a very lively smoke detector in this room." He implied that he works under contract to the State Department conducting routine electronic sweeps of overseas embassies.

He assumed his room was bugged. "I went to my rabbi about that. You know, under Jewish law it's forbidden to use electrical equipment on the Sabbath. I've sometimes found myself in situations where I knew I was speaking into a microphone on the Sabbath." He glanced up at the smoke detector. "I was very concerned that I was violating Jewish law. My rabbi said it was all right, that God understood I wasn't violating any of his commandments."

The debugger had a consuming interest in Cuba's Jewish community. "I've only seen official Havana. I'm not allowed to travel around town unless I'm with another person from the States. Regulations." He eats devoutly kosher, and packs not only his own food, but also cooking utensils, silverware, and serving dishes. Also tapes of Israeli music, Bibles, wine, a hot plate, soup mix, gefilte fish, salami, black bread; the whole shmear.

"When I go to another country I always travel with a suitcaseful of extra things to give to Jews who can use them." He practiced tzedakah, the Jewish act of charity, a trait taught in the Torah. He spread his traveling offerings out on the bed. "I'm leaving on the flight tomorrow. Do you think the community here could use any of this?" he asked, pointing to the treasure.

My jaw hung open and I slapped my cheek. "Could they use any of it? This stuff would be more welcomed than the Messiah!" In five minutes he loaded me down with enough chozzerai to stock a Hadassah flea market. "Just don't tell them my name. I'd like it to be from an anonymous foreigner."

Of the eight degrees of Jewish charity, the debugger ranked second highest: when the giver and receiver are both unaware of the other's identity. ..

The next day I dropped by the Patronato and Adath Israel with bagsful of the exotic food and cooking equipment. At the former, the recipient was astonished: "You're like Santa Claus!" At the shul in Habana Vieja, the tone was almost prayerful: "This is truly a milagro."

Excerpted from TRADING WITH THE ENEMY: A YANKEE TRAVELS THROUGH CASTRO'S CUBA (Basic Books), Tom Miller. Used by exclusive permission of the author. (c) 1992, 1996 Tom Miller.

(Webmaster's note: Although we do not usually present material which is not primarily focused on Cuban Judaism, and although we attempt to keep this site politically neutral, we recommend this book for its portrayal of Jewish life in Cuba. RS)