Less than four hours from New York by plane, the dreamy island destination of Cuba—fabled home to vintage American cars, Hemingway mojitos, and charming pastel-colored buildings, and so long closed off to the average American—is easy to get to today. I landed in Havana on the December 2016 day when Fidel Castro’s ashes were buried in the city of Santa Clara, the culmination of nine days of state-imposed, nation-wide mourning.
For generations of leftists, Havana’s fading glory—so unlike the austere grayness of the former Communist eastern bloc—carried a special allure; Cuba under Castro, wrote the late French historian François Furet, “represented a Latin paradise and communitarian warmth.” Now that Americans can easily visit this “Latin paradise,” where the propaganda posters continue to function as ever-present reminders of just who’s boss—yesterday Fidel, today his brother Raúl—I jumped at the opportunity to see first-hand the realities of life for, in particular, its remaining Jews.
Throughout its lifespan as a Communist nation, the Soviet Union held captive one of the largest Jewish populations on earth. By contrast, 94 percent of Cuba’s Jewish community left soon after Castro’s revolution, escaping to the freedom of the United States or Israel. If Jews and Jewish groups visiting their brethren in the Soviet Union back in the 70s and 80s brought books, ritual objects, or humanitarian aid and returned with news of fear, oppression, and poverty, many of today’s Jewish travelers to Communist Cuba return with a message considerably more upbeat.
“Cuba is a country of complexity and contradictions,” reported one Jewish mission leader on the Rabbis Without Borders blog in January:
It is some of what you have heard or imagined it to be, while also being entirely different from much of what you have heard or imagined. It is a place where the people are far less free in many ways and yet more free in other ways than we are in the USA.
Really? In Cuba I saw mild hunger, various levels of fear and paranoia, and people resigned to their fate. There was nothing complex or contradictory about it, and certainly nothing free.
Shortly after arriving I met a student I’ll call Rubén, a non-Jewish Cuban with a Russian car and better-than-average English. Indeed, there seem to be as many beat-up Soviet-built vehicles in Cuba as American ones, but a taped-together 1980s Lada is less romantic than the bright red ’57 Chevies that you hear about. I asked him what he thought of the rise in American tourists. “It’s not a business for us,” he explained tersely, “It’s a business for the government.” I’d found my driver.
The next day, in the car, Rubén elaborated, starting with the food situation: “In Cuba everything is a problem, believe me.” Even the most basic staples like potatoes are available only once a month; onions and garlic, sold from little carts on street corners, are luxuries. “From the outside, everything in this country is beautiful,” said Rubén, as we drove down the Malecón, Havana’s seaside esplanade; he gestured toward at an expensive, government-run tourist hotel on one side of the car and the sea on the other as foreign tourists, snapping photos, passed us in open-topped American taxis. “No, no, no, you have to know the reality of this country; you have to live in this country to know the reality.”
Before the Castro revolution, there were 15,000 Jews in Havana alone. Today’s Jewish population is placed at 1,000-1,500, although people with direct knowledge tell me the true number is far lower. Seeing opportunity elsewhere, anywhere, young Jews leave for the United States, South America, and Israel. It’s mostly the older generations that remain, and it was with some of them that I was able to meet.
Two such encounters stand out. The first was with an elderly Jewish couple who welcomed me into their small apartment. The place wasn’t large but it was clean and pleasant, a rotating fan doing its best to cool the room. Later, I learned that before the revolution the entire building had belonged to the woman’s parents.
We talked for a while. I asked them if they considered leaving. “No,” the wife answered, before almost reflexively reconsidering: “Maybe. I don’t know what to do, because here we have this house.” She and her husband had spent their entire lives in Cuba, surviving through the hardest of times. Their children live abroad and send help—a common pattern—which makes things easier for them. “Here in Cuba we live with many difficulties but medicine and education are free for all,” she recited in what sounded like an oft-repeated line.
“Politically it’s difficult,” her husband put in, switching topics. “But they are not anti-Semites here; it is anti-Zionism. They are not against the Jews, but they talk against Israel. Because who are their friends? The Arabs.”
Before coming to Cuba, knowledgeable persons had told me to be generous with my food. This couple didn’t seem to be starving, but I had already brought with me a plastic bag filled with hallah rolls, kosher cold cuts, and a few cans of tuna. Although I know from experience that people can be easily offended by such handouts, that wasn’t the case here. “My husband likes this very much,” the elderly woman said, pointing at the cold cuts before taking the whole bag into her kitchen.
On my way out she gave me some recent copies of Granma, the mouthpiece of the Communist party. The front pages mourned the nation’s loss of Fidel. She laughed when I asked if she didn’t need them, insisting I take them as a souvenir.
My contact list was outdated; some Jews on it had left, others weren’t home. A friend had suggested I visit Isak, an elderly man with no telephone who lived in Old Havana. It took an hour in Rubén’s sweaty car to find Isak’s address in the rundown Belen neighborhood; in walking distance from the city’s tourist district, it is a thicket of filthy little streets. The shabby two-story house was painted a fading yellowish-orange and decorated with detailed stone corbels; a wrought-iron balcony hung off the second floor. Like so much of Havana, it might once have been a very pretty building.
“Isaaak!!!” yelled a neighborly woman from her balcony across the narrow street after observing me rapping hard but futilely on the 10-foot-high doors. Still no answer. Shrugging, she told Rubén in Spanish that Isak was likely at the synagogue a few blocks away—and there we eventually found him, standing outside.
In sandals, wearing a baseball cap on his head, and carrying a woven bag, the eighty-nine-year-old Isak led us slowly back to his house. We passed men, women, and children sitting in broken doorways, chatting, smoking, playing dominos. Many of them greeted Isak, evidently a neighborhood fixture. In a rudimentary Yiddish, he informed me that he went to the synagogue every day.
From the outside, Isak’s home had looked perfectly habitable, almost idyllic. The interior was a different story. A dark and extremely narrow staircase led us to the second floor, whose landing served as living and dining room, with an old refrigerator in the corner and a shaky table covered by pill bottles. From the high ceiling there hung a chandelier to which were tied food-filled plastic bags: protection from rats.
Crossing to a large window toward the rear of the room, Isak pulled away two heavy pieces of wood locking the shutters closed and pushed them open to allow a little—very little—light and air into the sweltering apartment. Taking pity on us as we wiped sweat from our foreheads, he extracted and handed us two handheld, homemade fans. They were constructed out of old matzah boxes. Then he pointed out various half-completed renovation projects he had undertaken, a large photo of himself in talilt and t’fillin, and, on top of the refrigerator, a portrait of the Lubavitcher rebbe.
His story was simple. Born in 1927 on a ship from Poland, Isak had grown up in this house. His father, a tailor, had died young. Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, he had spent a year working there before returning home to Cuba. His older sister, today aged ninety-six, had married the owner of a dry-cleaning shop that was confiscated during the revolution, after which they moved to Los Angeles. A widower, Isak also had a daughter living in Israel.
“I worked for 51 years in medicine, delivering medicines between hospitals. I retired in 1989,” he said without a trace of emotion. “I get a pension of ten Cuban pesos a month. I go to the synagogue every day. There isn’t anything for me to do at home, so if I’m here I just stay here and wait.” The monthly pension, after a half-century of service to the revolution, comes to roughly $12, less than what I had paid Rubén to drive me that day. When I drew twenty pesos from my pocket and placed them in his hand, his eyes filled with tears, he hugged me, and, hurrying into his tiny kitchen, emerged to present me with a box of matzah in return.
Isak’s dank apartment is only blocks away from El Capitolio, Cuba’s capitol building, which we passed on the way home. Tourists were taking pictures of its iconic dome against the backdrop of a bright blue sky.
“It is an eye-opening experience to learn about the revolution in Cuba . . . through a Cuban lens,” wrote the Jewish mission leader in her blogpost. “Having a guide who so generously and honestly opened up about the strengths and the flaws of the Cuban system—the problems and the opportunities—it caused us to reflect differently upon the strengths and the flaws of the country we live in.”
Among the so-called strengths of Cuba, its American apologists, like the Jewish couple I’d met the day before, like to bring up healthcare and education. But having health insurance is not the same as access to medical care, and literacy is not the same as receiving an education. The simple reality is that medical care in Cuba is substandard—which is why visitors bring all sorts of personal supplies with them—and access is blocked to books and other outlets that are not state-approved, thus undermining the very goal of literacy.
But even if such basic needs were being fulfilled, something equally if not more essential would remain missing. Writing in Hebrew to an Israeli kibbutz activist in the mid-1960s, the Lubavitcher rebbe, who had lived in the Soviet Union during its early years, noted:
The primary goal of the commune, to equalize individuals of diverse kinds, runs contrary to the essence of human nature. For human beings, “Just as their faces are different from one another, so are their minds and characters different from one another” [Talmud Sanhedrin 38a]. The individual thus finds satisfaction and fulfillment when able to actualize his full potential—not so much in areas he shares in common with his fellows, but specifically in those areas in which his individuality stands out from his compatriots and his society. For this [individuality] is his essence.
In Cuba, what with the added factors of a failed Marxist economic policy and the all-encompassing police state, almost all hope of actualizing one’s potential has disappeared. What remains is a naturally sunny people resigned to their forlorn reality. As for the remaining and mainly elderly Jews, they have seen their lives pass by, their God-given potential suffocated by a man-made revolution.
Just before my flight home I took a long walk down the Malecón. It was muggy and the air was heavy with the odor of diesel. Fishermen of all ages dotted the pedestrian pathway, dipping their makeshift rods into the wavy, polluted water. Heading from the embassy-lined Miramar neighborhood toward the Riviera, Meyer Lansky’s famous Havana hotel, I noticed tiny fish bones and tails littering the sidewalk. The skeletons were the size of goldfish, no more than two and a half inches in length; the flesh had been devoured by whoever had caught these specimens, the remains flicked away like cigarette butts.
The day before, Rubén had told me that, island or no island, the locals never get to eat fish. I asked him where all the fish went. “I don’t know,” he replied with a cynical grin. “Maybe Raúl ate them all!”