What a day! Our group met this morning at the Miami airport. It was a relatively smooth process checking in. Even though more than 200 pounds of donated supplies were packed into our luggage, the airline didn't give us a problem with the weight issue.
Our plane was an American Eagle puddle-jumper (of the propeller variety!). The airport didn't have a jetway hooked up to it. Instead, we all took a bus out to the tarmac, where the plane was parked. We were crammed into this bus, and then stuck waiting in it for about 20 mins or so, while the pilot and the maintenance crew did some kind of work on the plane.
The delay gave us the chance to chat with some of the other people who would be travelling with us.
Who else flies to Cuba?
From Miami, it's predominantly Cuban American ex-pats (or their descendants) who are returning "home" to visit relatives, etc.
I wound up having a fascinating conversation with a young couple in their late 20s/early 30s - Priscilla and David. They just got engaged. Priscilla's family are Cuban Jehovah's Witnesses (she's non-practicing). They moved to Miami in the late '50s, when so many others left as Castro and company were coming to power.
David is an American Jew. She is interested in converting before the wedding. It was such an interesting conversation to have in advance of our arrival here. The notion of blended families and blended identities is a huge part of the Cuban Jewish story today (and our own American Jewish one, for that matter).
Anyway...this was Priscilla's very first trip to Cuba - ever! For whatever reason, after so many decades of living an American life, she was curious to re-connect with her roots. That notion resonated so deeply with me, and our trip here. Although none of us on the trip have Cuban ancestry, the reality is that any of our relatives COULD HAVE come to Cuba. It is merely the accident of history that our relatives made it to America. So many other Ashkenazi and Sephardic families in the early 20th century either chose (or were forced) to come to Cuba instead.
Anyway...the flight itself was a smooth one. Views from the plane were stunning. This picture is the view from above the Florida Keys.
Here's the requisite 'official' arrival photo:
Ahh...nothing like being welcomed with barbed wire. :o)
After getting through customs, we were met by our tour guide (Jorge) and bus driver (Jesus). Both have been warm and welcoming. We are looking forward to spending the coming week with them.
Then we sped off directly to our meeting, with Dr. Mayra Levy, President of the Sephardic synagogue of Havana. One of the most interesting parts of Dr. Levy's presentation included her observation that the old religious and ethnic lines that once separated Ashkenazic from Sephardic Jews here are now breaking down. Indeed, she said that the main demographic variable that distinguishes the Sephardic synagogue crowd on Shabbat from the Ashkenazic one at Beth Shalom (we'll be there tomorrow) is age. Older Havana Jews now hang out with the Sephardic community. And Beth Shalom is the happening, hip place where the younger generation hangs out.
After Dr. Levy's presentation, we went to the hotel, checked in, had a second to rest, and then met with Dr. Maritza Corrales, noted historian of the Cuban Jewish community. She did a fabulous job of putting Cuban Jewish history in perspective for us...walking us through the different stages of Jewish arrivals and departures from the island.
I was struck (and have a feeling that I will be thinking about this again and again during the trip) by how similar the patterns of Cuban Jewish life are to nearly every other Jewish community around the world: balancing the desire to assimilate vs. retaining traditions; the building of Jewish communal institutions (and always the cemetery first!); tzedakah initiatives to help those in need; the building of educational programs to pass Judaism on to the next generation; and even a healthy set of organizations that promoted different expressions of Zionism.
Here's a picture of Dr. Corrales:
After her talk, we jetted off to dinner...Had our first taste of black beans and rice. It was delicious!
I think that's a pretty good start for the blog, for now. Gotta get some sleep in advance of our busy day tomorrow (especially if I want to stay awake for some potential late night Cuban music or jazz possibilities).
I'll leave my observations about the politics of Cuba out of here until the end of the trip. But I will tell you that we have already observed that the country is completely devoid of commercial advertising. Every sign and billboard is a piece of government propaganda. It's everywhere!
That's a segue to my favorite view from the bus today: in the main square in Havana, there are artistic representations of 3 core leaders of the Revolution, including the iconic Che Guevara: