My husband Josh and I recently returned from 9 days in Cuba. We went with a group of 8 friends on a “people-to-people” trip. We had a fabulous time and would like to go back to explore more of the country. However, if you’re curious and thinking about going, please know that it’s not for the “faint of heart.” It’s a country filled with friendly, nice people, great weather, fascinating history and terrific music as well as lines for everything (restaurants, changing money are 2 examples), poverty, stray dogs, cats and chickens (some of which are dead on the side of the road).
As we always do when we travel, Josh and I sought out Havana’s Jewish community and food. Like many places in Europe, where Jewish communities once thrived, Havana’s Jewish scene is fairly light. Before the revolution in 1959, there was a significant Jewish community however most of the Jews of Havana left for Miami or Israel, leaving a very few (200 or so?) who currently live there. The Jewish food scene also is sparse. There are 2 “Jewish food” items I saw: “Grandma’s Chicken Soup,” which is on many restaurant menus and it is described the way we think of it but without the matzo balls. The other is “Cuban humous” which is made with black beans and possibly tahini (not 100% on this). If you can consider rum a Jewish food, then it’s abundant and possibly the best I’ve ever had (I am now a champion pina colada drinker and missing my daily double).
There are atleast 2 synagogues in Havana and one day we took a cab (one of those American cars that are long overdue in the car cemetery, in my opinion) to the Vedado section of Havana to find Congregation Beth Shalom. Vedado is also the area where University of Havana is located, which we were interested to see but was unfortunately closed for the official mourning day of Fidel’s death. We then started our navigation to the synagogue, which was not completely straightforward on the map, but a really pretty walk in an area very different from Havana Vieja (old Havana) where we were staying. In Vedado, the houses were large, beautiful and mostly old Spanish-style with palm trees and greenery. We sat in a pretty park and decided that this part of town was the Upper West Side of Havana (like NYC’s UWS) and Old Havana being more like Times Square.
Once we were about 10 blocks from Beth Shalom, we started to see signs for the synagogue like the one above, which we found comforting, not just for the obvious reason but also as it signified Havana’s respect for the synagogue and Jewish community. We found it and unfortunately it was closed BUT as we were leaving, someone ran after us calling us to come back. This kind man worked there and wanted us know that there would be a Shabbat service on Friday at 6:30 and we should come since “this is our home.” We were delighted by his friendliness and warmth and came back 3 days later for Shabbat, arriving just before 7.
When we walked into the sanctuary, we were taken aback by the almost-full sanctuary—200 or so people. This was not what we expected given the history. The bima was full of Virginia Tech students who were completing their week long community service trip with a final prayer from the Rabbi. Another group was there from a Minneapolis synagogue plus many local Havanites.
Unfortunately the service had actually started at 5:30 so we missed it almost entirely, which we were extremely disappointed about. But we met several of the people there and they could not have been more friendly. It was a lovely reminder of the Jewish solidarity that can be found anywhere in the world. When we returned to our travel buddies (sipping their mojitos–great rum!!!!), they were all excited to hear about our excursion and genuinely disappointed that we missed most of the service. As we had already learned several times already on the trip: “It’s Cuba,” which is travelese for “go with the flow.”