Cuba's last Jews keep together any way they can

August 16, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

HAVANA -- Problems like this, you don't want to know from.

The last bar mitzvah here was in 1986. The boy was from Chicago, and so was the rabbi. The government took over the city's one remaining kosher butcher shop in 1980, and now, meat is available one day a week. They say it's kosher.

The last rabbi left town in 1961. He went to Miami.

"Thirty years without a rabbi," said Adela Dworin, the secretary of the Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba. "Maybe someone wants to come? But he has to live with a rationing book."

What's left of the Jewish community in Communist Cuba exists on faith, hope and chutzpah. Somehow, there is matzo for Passover and kosher wine for the High Holy Days and candles for Hanukkah.

There are fewer than 1,000 Jews left on the island, and only two Orthodox synagogues remain open in Havana. But a minyan of old men gathers each Saturday to pray and read from the Torah.

"Normally, you need 10 men to open the Torah, but in Cuba, the rules are eight is enough," said Dr. Jose Miller, an oral and facial surgeon who is president of the congregation.

The old laws are made pliable when a religion, and a way of life, struggle to remain alive.

Once, Cuba was home to 15,000 Jews. They began to arrive after the Spanish-American war, and the first synagogue was founded in Old Havana in 1914. The community gained strength and numbers in the 1920s and 1930s, when a wave of Eastern European immigrants swept ashore, seeking shelter during a gathering storm of anti-Semitism and fascism.

Before the 1959 revolution, Jews were prominent among the country's doctors, lawyers and businessmen. But the Jewish population shrank when Fidel Castro took power and nationalized the businesses.

"You don't need a reason to stay; you need a reason to leave," Mr. Miller said. "I never thought about leaving the country. I was not a rich man before the revolution. I was a middle-class man then, and I'm still a middle-class man."

Anti-Semitism in Cuba is virtually non-existent, Mr. Miller said. At ::TC an ecumenical council meeting in April 1990, President Castro strongly condemned discrimination.

"The first people he said that couldn't be discriminated against are the Jews," Mr.Miller said. "When the government has authority, it is difficult for anti-Semitism to grow."

The Jews left behind in Havana are the true believers. Mrs. Dworin, a raven-haired woman of 51 with a wry sense of humor, was a law student when Ms. Castro and his followers were in the mountains.

"Have you seen a lawyer who is not a revolutionary?" she said. "My father was a store owner, and he had this revolutionary daughter. When all his businesses were nationalized, he said, 'Oh, let us see now how we will eat.' "

She felt the tug of her religious roots after her father's death in 1971.

"I remembered I was a Jewess," she said. "I feel very Cuban, of course."

A walk through the sanctuary makes her recall her past and mourn the present.

"When it rains, it is a mess," she said. "I remember coming here with my mother and grandmother for Rosh Hashana [the Jewish New Year]. About 1,000 Jews used to come. We'd put on the new clothes and sit upstairs. It is a world that doesn't exist anymore."

The congregation's religious school building was sold to the government in 1981. The sanctuary is now closed. Birds nest in the ceiling. Windows are cracked. Seats are stained. The ark for the Torah is empty. The house of worship that cost $1 million to build in 1953 probably would cost 10 times as much today to clean and restore.

Still, there is a place to pray.

Last Saturday, 14 people gathered in a chapel with bookcases in the back and the ark in the front. The old men put on their yarmulkes and prayer shawls and sat on the right. The women sat on the left.

Luis Sklarz, a price specialist for the Ministry of Foreign Trade, chanted the prayers in Hebrew. Boris Berezdiven, a retired jeweler with snow-white hair and trembling hands, read from the Torah.

After the service, there was scotch to drink, and chicken soup, fried fish, steamed squash and a salad of avocados and string beans to eat. Matzo, left over from Passover, was used to extend the meager bread ration.

The old men talked of the problems they face trying to keep a religion alive. Jewish marriages are rare, they said. No one even

could remember the last time a Cuban boy had a bar mitzvah.

"Look at us," said Mr. Miller, silver-haired and 64. "There are no young people. In 10, 30, 50 years, what will we be? There is no future."

Mrs. Dworin, serving the lunch, interrupted for a moment. She talked of the new members that are to join the synagogue. A Jewish mother with 10 sons, ages 3 through 25, has stepped forward. A miracle. There is to be a bris, a circumcision, for all the sons. If only a rabbi can be found and a surgeon can be hired.

"Have you seen a Jew giving up?" Mrs. Dworin said. "Jews have always lived with hope. We are always expecting that tomorrow will be better."

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