Cuba’s Jews Seek Outside Connections And Help

  • Washington Jewish Week
  • |
  • April 06, 2000

by Karen Feld

Cuba is the “only country in the world with no anti-Semitism,” says Salim Tache Jalak.

“We have total freedom of religion,” says Jalak, administrator of Adath Israel De Cuba, one of three synagogues on the island nation. The government’s attitude toward religion is, essentially, “live and let live.”

Officially the island has been an atheist state for most of Fidel Castro’s regime, but eight years ago a constitutional amendment changed the Cuban state from atheist to secular. This allows religious believers to belong to the Cuban Communist Party.

Adath Israel is Cuba's only Orthodox congregation.

Jalak, 71, was only 31 at the time of the revolution. His parents met in Cuba shortly after they arrived in the early 1900s — his mother from Damascus; and his father from Sfat, Israel, by way of Argentina. Jalak recalls his father telling him there were many anti-Semites in Argentina, so he had gone to Cuba, where he opened a clothing shop. Jalak’s brother is a medical doctor and university professor.

Now retired, Jalak was a manager in a textile factory. He also “imported and allotted” textiles from other countries. “I worked in government,” he explains.

“It’s so difficult in Cuba. People are hungry, but 11 million people have a car,” said Jalak, who drives a 1955 Dodge, typical of the vintage American cars on the streets. “I stayed here because I like my country, and I like the revolution.”

The synagogue and its furnishings were in shambles — “Termites,” he explains, noting he needs $15,000 to finish the chairs. They’re iron, so the termites can’t eat them. A Cuban artist carved a relief out of cedar so the termites wouldn’t eat it. Other artists created work in bronze, including hand-cut stars of David. “The historian of the city, Eusebio Leal, helps us to refurbish.”

Adath Israel, with its 400 members, is Cuba’s only Orthodox congregation. Services are held twice daily in a barren termite-ridden structure; one recent morning minyan drew 40 people. There’s also a Reform synagogue in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second largest city; another that opened a year ago in Camaguey in central Cuba.

“The Orthodox Jews in Panama are good friends,” explains Jalak. “They provide us with kosher foods for the 125 families who are members of the congregation. Fidel gives me the containers. I give oil, wine, soup and food every month to people in our synagogue, only to the families who make this synagogue alive.” Jalak’s wife cooks for Shabbat and helps in the kitchen at the synagogue.

Jalak is a believer in Fidel, but he also gets special treatment. “Battista was bad for us; he was repressive. Doctors were only in cities before. Now doctors are in the mountains, too. There is one for every 175 persons. Education [secular] is free; medicine is free.”

That’s the party line in Cuba. But the other side is expressed by Lillian, a fiftysomething woman who rents space at the open-air market for 60 pesos or three dollars a day, to sell her handicrafts to tourists. “I’m so afraid for this generation,” she says. “It’s hopeless here.”

Jalak is also afraid for the younger generation; like many Orthodox Jews throughout the world, he worries that they are marrying outside the faith. But as a believer in the revolution, his worries echo those of any loyal communist — that the generation under 40 is merely waiting for the end of Castro’s regime. Since 1995, more than 400 Jews have left for Israel with the Jewish Agency for Israel’s assistance; there are about 1,400 Jews in Cuba.

Some Cuban Jews are not afraid to speak privately; they’re looking to the tourism industry to earn dollars and learn a trade that is viable outside the closed society of Cuba.

But not all Cubans are so open. Cuba’s a closed society and its problems are exacerbated by low wages (the average Cuban worker makes the equivalent of $10 a month). This creates a division between those in the dollar economy, which is generated by tourist dollars, and those who earn pesos. The division extends into the Jewish community.

Both men and women were begging on the street for American dollars, soap and aspirin. In a street enterprise that has sprung up; tourists and visiting professionals get assistance, information and access for a small token of thanks, whether it’s a lipstick, aspirin or a rolled-up dollar bill. Several of the elderly offered to lead the way to the synagogue. They followed this reporter to the car, tapping on the window, looking pitiful and pleading for dollars.

Pope John Paul II’s visit two years ago boosted the public perception that openly practicing religion had become acceptable. That visit also paved the way for the ‘People-to-People’ program with the United States. Last year 85,000 Americans legally visited Cuba as part of this exchange designed to communicate with the Cuban people in order to ease the transition to a post-Castro government.

“The purpose of the People-to-People ties,” according to Vicki Huddleston, Chief of Mission of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana, “is not about encouraging tourism or business, but to help the Cuban people learn from their U.S. counterparts so they can prepare for their future.”

Huddleston’s hopes are that “If the U.S. program is a success, it will help Cubans determine how they want their nation governed in the 21st century.”

Jews, especially those from Germany, Spain, Israel, Canada, and Argentina, join the many other tourists visiting Cuba. But few Americans go, primarily because of the belief that the embargo and punitive measures set-up by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 banning U.S. travel is still the law of the land.

People-to-People groups have included lawyers, doctors, artists, historic preservationists and journalists, and specific licenses authorize travel by religious groups. In March, for example, Chicago UJA visited the island; the Phoenix UJA Mission is traveling there in April.

These Jewish groups are important for the economic survival of the Cuban Jewish community. “I’m okay, but I want all the people to be okay,” says Salim Tache Jalak.

Karen Feld is a Washington-based syndicated columnist and broadcaster.

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