Saturday, September 7, 2013

What we can learn from Jewish Cuba

Lovely blogpost from my friend Rabbi Benjamin Sharff ....

What we can learn from Jewish Cuba (My Erev RH Sermon 5774)

            It was a rare Sunday afternoon.  There I was, on the couch, feeding the baby.  When I do this, I like to have some form of background noise, so I had the television on.  Usually I like to watch HGTV at moments like these because it really doesn’t require much concentration. But they were showing something I was not a particular fan of, so I switched to my second channel of choice, the Travel Channel. 

At that particular moment, No Reservations happened to be on. The star and host of No Reservations is Anthony (Tony) Bourdain.  Tony was a chef and is an author of numerous books including the one that really built his career: Kitchen Confidential.  Kitchen Confidential is really an expose of the working life of chefs.  This life has become increasingly exposed and some might say exploited by shows like Kitchen Impossible and Hell’s Kitchen. 

            In his book, Mr. Bourdain wrote a very unflattering depiction of his brief time working in Baltimore during the 1980’s.  Thankfully his perspective has evolved about our city since he has come back and had the chance to visit to sample a variety of foods and culinary styles.  In an interview not too long ago Bourdain admits that he “loves Baltimore. He doesn’t love it for the reasons we may want him to love Baltimore. He happens to love Baltimore because David Simon taught him to love Baltimore."[1] As an aside, for those of you not familiar, David Simon was the creator of one of the most well regarded shows on television: The Wire.  Now I am not sure if Bourdain’s quote is a compliment or a backhanded compliment, but what I can say for him is,it is, at least a step in the right direction.

What I enjoy about Mr. Bourdain’s former show in parciular is: the places he visits he really tries to stay off the beaten path, in order to understand the food and the culture of a city, a state, a country, and of course, a people.

            So I was excited when, on that particular lazy Sunday afternoon, when I was feeding Alex, Bourdain was visiting, of all places, Cuba.  I later found out that this episode aired about six months before our congregational trip to Cuba.  So I was curious to see if he had similar impressions of the country.  As another aside, Mr. Bourdain never visited Israel for an episode of No Reservations.  Thankfully, it appears that he will be visiting Israel for an upcoming episode of his new CNN series: Parts Unknown.[2]

            But back to Cuba.  For starters, Bourdain stayed at the Hotel Nacional, the very same hotel we stayed in during our time in Havana. This famous Cuban Hotel was opened on December 30, 1930.  According to descriptions, The hotel exhibits an eclectic architectural style, reflecting Art Deco, Arabic references, features of Hispano-Moorish architecture, and both neo-classical and neo-colonial elements. There are even details from the centuries-old Californian style. The resulting unique example of so many schools of architecture is the most unusual and interesting hotel in the Caribbean region”[3]

            Guests of this landmark hotel have included, Sir Winston Churchill, Johnny Weismuller (who played Tarzan), Edward VIII (prince of Wales), Jack Dempsey … Buster Keaton… Errol Flynn … Nelson Rockefeller, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gadner … Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando… John Wayne, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Walt Disney,” Cantor Gerber, and the list goes on and on.  Though perhaps most importantly for Cuba’s history guests of the Nacional also included the mobsters Santos Traficante and Meyer Lansky,”[4] who was there to work with Batista on bringing gambling to Cuba for the mafia.

               So needless to say, there was and is a lot of history in the walls of the hotel where we stayed.  Now of course, like Bourdain, we were there to sample Cuban cuisine.  We both tried the local beer: Crystal and Bucanero, which were actually surprisingly pretty decent.  And the food, for the most part, was better than what we were expecting.  

            But our culinary exposure to Cuban cuisine, like Mr. Bourdain’s, was not necessarily the genuinely authentic experience as writer Achy Obejas explains, “But here’s the honest to God truth: Most food in Cuba is awful.  Oh, sure, you can get a decent meal in a hotel. And in a casa particular – a private home that rents room – you might luck out with an especially talented owner who can whip up a yummy breakfast.

And, yes, there are paladares – private, family-run restaurants – that run the gamut from terrible to exquisite (and crazy expensive, and cash only), but to quote Frommer’s: You don’t come to Cuba for fine dining.

Generally speaking the food is starch-heavy, greasy, and not particularly flavorful. Service is all over the map...

Yes, part of the problem is that there are scarcities. Even the most upscale Cuban supermarkets (no, not all markets are created equal in Cuba), the variety is stunted. And at the markets that are accessible to the average Cuban, there’s rarely any variety at all and not much more than the basics.

But there is, in fact, a bigger problem. For more than half a century, Cubans have depended on the ration book, which provides a weekly distribution of foods that guarantees a basic level of nutrition to every Cuban. Unfortunately, the ration book is stuck in nutritional ideas from the 60s, with nary a green vegetable anywhere on its pages. Dairy products are also absent from the ration book, except for milk for kids under 7. And perhaps more importantly in a discussion about flavor, there are no spices on the ration book.

What this means is that most Cubans have been playing with the same handful of ingredients in their extremely limited kitchens for about 50 years. Kitchens which usually include only a couple of burners. It’s the rare Cuban with a working oven. Anyone with a microwave is pretty privileged. So the culinary imagination on the island is less epicurean than survivalist.”[5]

We experienced little of what Obejas described because we mostly ate at paladares, which were surprisingly good.  Though there was the occasional state run restaurant experience which was either excellent or terrible, with little in the way of middle ground.  The rum was terrific, as were the mojitos, but we knew, like Bourdain, that for the most part, this was not a genuine Cuban experience.  It was a tourist experience that very few Cubans will ever get to have.

As Jews, our culinary exposure was of tantamount importance.  But even more significant to us were the opportunities we would have interacting with our fellow Jews living on the island.  Our primary mission, the singular purpose of our trip, was to provide monetary support and supplies to the Cuban Jewish community.  What we did not expect was just how much we would learn from them about their lives and about our own.

The first recorded Jew to set foot on Cuba was Luis de Torres.  Luis converted to avoid the Spanish Expulsion in 1492.  He was then hired by Christopher Columbus to serve as an interpreter during what would become his famous discovery of the Americas.

De Torres was chosen by Columbus because he was adept at Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and Portuguese. Columbus hoped that the interpreter's skills would be useful in Asia because they would enable him to communicate with local Jewish traders.  There are some who speculate that Columbus hoped to find the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. As Dr. Alan Taylor wrote in his book American Colonies: The Settlement of North America, “Columbus believed the natives he discovered in North America were, in fact, of Jewish origins. Columbus even suggested that Spain could, "recruit their bodies and their wealth to assist Europeans in a final crusade to crush Islam and reclaim Jerusalem.”[6]

After arriving at Cuba, which he supposed to be the Asian coast, Columbus sent de Torres and the sailor Rodrigo de Jerez on an expedition of the Island on November 2, 1492. Not only were the two men received with great honors, but they also returned with a report of the natives drying leaves, inserting them in cane pipes, burning them and inhaling the smoke. De Torres was one of the first two Europeans to ever experience tobacco. 

When Columbus set off for Spain on January 4, 1493, Luis de Torres was among the 39 men who stayed behind at the settlement of La Navidad on Hispaniola.  Sadly, the whole colony was wiped out and de Torres was among those who died.  Thereby bringing an end to the first un-official Jewish presence in Cuba. 

A more permanent Jewish presence would have to wait another 340 years when, in1834, a handful of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews settled in Cuba.

Though the real growth in the Cuban Jewish population (or Juban as many refer to themselves), began in the early 20th century with many Jews fleeing Eastern Europe.  Unable to find their way into the United States due to immigration quotas, many fled to Latin America.

During the 1920s and 30s, these Jews founded a number of synagogues and communities throughout Cuba.  At its peak there were over 15,000 Jews living in Cuba.  However this all changed with Castro's conquest of Cuba in 1958.  The vast majority of Cuba's Jews fled the island, with many of them, like their compatriots, settling in South Florida.

Today there are an estimated 1500 Jews remaining in Cuba, though we heard numbers as low as 1258.  The majority of these Cuban Jews live in Havana, though there are still small pockets of Jews living in outlying communities as well.  With this in mind, we spent time with members of the Sephardic Center, the Patronado, and with Jews living in Cienfuegos.

We learned a few interesting tidbits along the way.  First off, Cuba has never been a strongly religious country.  Though it was under Catholic rule for centuries, the Inquisition never really followed the Jews living in Cuba.  This was in part because the Cubans were not really all that passionate about being Catholic.  As a result there have been almost no instances of Anti-Semitism on the Island.  Of course it doesn't hurt that almost no Cubans have an idea of what a Jew is, but that is another story.

Jews also have a special status in Cuban society.  What this means is that until the recent immigration reform in Cuba just a few months ago, Jews were among the only people who could immigrate off the island by making Aliyah to Israel.  The problem for the Cuban Jewish community is that this means many of their young people are leaving the island seeking out better economic opportunities.

During our Shabbat dinner at the Patranado, we had the pleasure to meet Ruth Behar. Ruth was born in Havana.  But following the 1959 Revolution, she was part of the mass exodus that fled to the United States.  Ruth was raised in New York, and is now a scholar in Michigan who periodically goes back to visit and document the lives of her fellow Jews and their struggles in Cuba.  Ruth has written a book called: An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba.  I highly recommend it. 

During the communist period, Communism was the official religion of Cuba.  As Ruth Behar wrote, "Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, all mention of God, spirits, and saints disappeared from everyday speech.  But in 1991, the Cuban Communist Party decided to reverse its adherence to the Marxist dogma that religion was the opiate of the people .... By 1992, it was written into the Cuban constitution that the state was now secular rather than atheist.”[7]

Behar goes on to explain, “The most photographed kosher butcher shop in the world has to be the kosher butcher shop around the corner from the Adath Israel synagogue on Calle Cuba between Acosta and Jesus Maria.  Foreign observers are continually amazed to learn the shop is open for business in Catro’s Cuba.

Perhaps the one of the best examples of the significance of the Jewish community is not a family or a synagogue, but a little shop not to far off the beaten path.  As Behar writes, “Rationed kosher beef has been provided in the shop to registered members of the Jewish community since the earliest years of the Revolution.  Such generosity toward the Jews is based on a curious cultural interpretation.  In Cuba, the most common form of meat is pork, and since Jews are forbidden by their religion to eat pork, this deprivation needs to be compensated by allowing them a ration of beef.  And that ration of beef makes the Jews uniquely privileged.  While the Revolution brought health and education to the masses, it turned beef into a luxury food.  Beef has been in short supply for decades, which is why Cubans who can remember the old days will often fantasize about eating a big plate of pounded palomilla steak and onions (always a favorite at Miami Cuban restaurants).  Cattle are so tightly controlled that it is a federal crime to slaughter a cow without official permission.  You hear Cubans joking frequently about how killing a cow will land you in jail for a longer sentence than killing your mother.”[8]

Lest we forget, they kept this butcher shop going when religion, all religions were, for all intents and purposes, outlawed for over forty years.  And they did this in so many other ways as well even if they needed special permission, special exceptions made for them by the government.

It is through these exceptions.  It is through a sense of historical memory and pride.  It is through the support of the worldwide Jewish community, that these Cuban Jews are able to cling so fiercely to their, to our heritage.  And in some ways, they have something we have lost, a sense of appreciation for their, for our tradition.

Here we can find kosher food in abundance.  Here we have no problem purchasing prayer books or tallitot.  Whether we choose to celebrate Shabbat or not at our synagogue, we know there is always the possibility of an excellent Shabbat dinner.  And whether one or two of us leave the fold, will not have the significant statistical impact on our lives as Jews.

What we did learn is that there is a sense of urgency for the Jews of Cuba that we are lacking.  There is also an impatience party because of the embargo, and it is partly because of the government.  And it is partly because they know if they do not act now, there may truly not be any more Jews left in Cuba.

I for one am glad we do not have these problems. But I will admit, I am a bit jealous of their sense of urgency.  Here we have the resources.  Here we have the freedoms.  Here we have the opportunities our brethren just off the coast of Miami are not afforded.  But all too often we do not take advantage of those opportunities afforded to us.  By living in a land of plenty and of plenty of Jewish experiences, we rarely see and appreciate just how fortunate we are. 

But back to Cuba, when we went to the Patronado for Shabbat Evening services, we were regaled by the musical styling of three young people.  They were enthusiastic and the melodies were almost familiar.  But here’s the catch, the entire service was either in Spanish or in Hebrew.  So for those of us familiar with the Hebrew, we were able to follow along pretty well.  And those of us familiar with Spanish, were also able to follow the drash, which was, of course, all in Spanish.  Now I knew it was a drash because the darshan kept referring to Sinai.  This was because the Torah portion that week was Yitro, where we find Matan Torah, the giving of the 10 Commandments to Moses at Har Sinai.

But for those not familiar with Spanish or with Hebrew, it was a confusing and confounding experience.  This just reinforced the notion of why it is so important to teach the technical skills of Hebrew to our students.  Hebrew is the language we share with all Jews, across all boundaries, in all countries.  It is a foundation for a common dialogue together and together with God.

And we were also reminded of the central Jewish tenant, Kol Yisrael averim zeh v’zeh, meaning, all of Israel is responsible for one another.  In Cuba, the Jewish communities work to support their fellow Jews first and foremost.  And when they have helped each other, they then reach out to help the greater Cuban community.

So too, we went there to help out our fellow Jews.  What we did not expect was how much we would be moved by the aid we offered.  As we learn from the Mishneh in Pirkei Avot,[9] "Ben Azzai said, run to perform [even] a minor mitzvah (commandment) and flee from sin, for one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin; for the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah and the 'reward' of a sin is a sin."

            Simply put, the reward for performing this mitzvah was the increased desire to keep performing the mitzvah of tzedakah.  We could see the very people we were helping and we could, just as equally, see the benefits afforded them from the world’s Jewish community who have not forgotten nor forsaken them.  For example, every year, Canadian Jews send down an entire cargo container of supplies for Passover.  There is enough matzah for everyone, which I am not sure is a good thing, but that too is another story.

            Following our trip, we had the chance to hear from Dov Ben-Shimon, a representative of the Joint Distribution Committee, the JDC.  The JDC goes into places like Cuba, the Former Soviet Union, South America, and the like, and they are funded in part by us.  The goal of the JDC is to make these Jewish communities self-sustaining, while at the same time, working vigorously to care for the most vulnerable in those same communities.  As one mitzvah leads to another, so too, we were inspired to keep helping in any way that we can.

In Cuba, the Jubans see something profound and beautiful about being Cuban and about being Jewish.  In a place where everyone is theoretically an equal among equals, they have made the choice to stand out.  So perhaps we can use the choices they have made to inspire our own choices about our Jewish lives.  And if we can return to clinging to it so passionately in the ways they do, we will continue to grow and prosper in ways unimaginable on that island not so far away.  Or as we learned from Diana Nyad, Cuba is only a 53-hour swim away from Key West.

But barring any plans to traverse the Florida Straits by self-locomotion, in the meantime, I am tentatively planning a return perhaps in the winter of 2015.  Let me know if you are interested.  It is a fascinating place to visit.  And who knows, maybe we will be able to share a mojito with Anthony Bourdain and discuss his bias against Baltimore in order to set the record straight.  We can also continue to grow in our understanding about how we Jews of Baltimore have so much to share and learn from our brethren whose cuisine may be different, but whose Jewish souls share the same spark and the same vibrancy we can recapture in our own lives in ways that would make a Juban proud.

L’shana Tova

[6] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settlement of North America, 33
[7] Behar, Ruth, An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 2007, pg. 20.
[8] Behar, Ruth pg. 73
[9] Pirkei Avot 4:2

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