It hasn't even been 48 hours since our departure from Havana, but here are a few reflections about our visit:
Regarding the Jewish community there...There are some interesting similarities between the state of Jewish life in Cuba today and that of Jewish life in post-Holocaust Europe. To varying degrees, both communities had once-thriving centers of Jewish life, followed by the sudden decrease of a vast majority of the local Jewish population, followed by several decades of virtually no organized Jewish life. Today, in both central/Eastern Europe, and in Cuba, self-identifying Jews get to make a remarkable choice: do they accept the helping hand of the Jewish Agency and the State of Israel and continue to embrace their Jewish identity by making aliyah? Or, do they choose to stay in Europe/Cuba and re-build Jewish life from the remnants, with the help of an organization like the Joint?
Cuban Jews today are making both choices. In all of our stops, we were impressed by the repeated references that communal leaders made to programs like Birthright and the March of the Living. These communally funded trips to Israel provide a pathway for young people who are considering aliyah. The Jewish impulse to build the Jewish state, combined with the desire on the part of some to pursue a better life for themselves abroad, is leading some young people to aliyah. (Many of the communal leaders that we met had a child living in Israel.)
Nonetheless, the side of Jewish life in Cuba that we witnessed firsthand was represented by those Jews who have made the remarkable and inspiring decision to stay - to stay and re-build, insuring that Jewish life can continue to thrive on the Island, as it once did several decades ago.
The decision to stay and build is so inspiring because they are doing so much with so little. When I think of the kind of resources that our community at Temple Solel enjoys, I marvel at what these smaller communities are able to do with so much less. What they lack in actual dollars they make up for in courage and creativity.
Another Jewish reflection from the trip: I kept returning to the notion that it was only by the accident of history and fate that my great-grandparents landed in New York City from Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. History teaches us that it could have just as easily been that their passage might have been re-directed to Havana....and the rest of the history of my family would have been forever changed.
So, of course it's a chance for me to feel some humility, and gratitude, for having been born into the life I was born into.
But, for me, the greater learning from this reflection is not how different Cuban Jews are from us - but how similar they are....specifically, in this case, referring to our common origins.
We often quote the teaching from the Talmud that "all Jews are responsible one for the other." It's at the core of Jewish social ethics. But why are we all responsible for each other? I think that it's hard, in this day and age, to remember that we Jews really are all part of one giant family. My trip to Cuba helped to remind me of this essential lesson.
What to say about our visit to Cuba in general?
It wasn't the totalitarian state that I expected. There weren't armed guards on every corner. Who knows - maybe this blog was monitored, and maybe my phone calls were being listened to? But I certainly didn't feel it during the visit.
The political propaganda was a problem. Castro says that he is opposed to the cult of personality that is associated with someone like Stalin. But the reality is that Castro's face is plastered on practically every billboard in the country. And the rest of the leaders of the Revolution (Che, Camilo, Raul) all have their own iconagraphy plastered on the sides of buildings and monuments throughout the country.
What about the question of poverty?
Frankly, we didn't see it as much as I expected.
For a country where the average citizen supposedly is paid (officially anyway) only about $15/month, starvation/hunger wasn't something that we witnessed directly. There weren't even as many beggars as we expected.
But it's impossible to know if the Cubans that we came into contact with represented the average or not. (The Jews we met are supported by groups like our's as well as international Jewish orgs. And the Cubans that we met in tourist related places are supposedly better paid than the average Cuban.)
You know...on one of our bus trips, Jorge brought a DVD documentary along: "The Lost Son of Havana" - the story of Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant, and his return to Cuba after being away for decades. It's an excellent film. I highly recommend it.
At the very end of the film, as he is preparing to return to the US, his relatives finally break down in front of him, and admit that they are suffering from terrible, terrible poverty. One whispers to him: "We are surviving day to day on cigarettes." (The ration system that is in place to make sure that a minimal amount of food is available to every Cuban does not nearly meet people's basic needs.)
Tiant is overwhelmed by their vulnerability, and assures that family that he will do what he can to financially assist them, even after he leaves.
That scene, filmed only two or three years ago, really made an impact on me. Surviving day to day on cigarettes. That is, frankly, the kind of poverty that I was expecting to see during the trip.
We didn't, really.
And I'm not sure if that's because it really isn't that bad. Or if it's because our itinerary never really took us beyond what the government would prefer that we see.
One final reflection: I found Cuba to similar to Israel in a number of ways. There's the geography - with the stunning coastlines. And the architecture. Although Cuba doesn't have any Jerusalem stone (!), it should be pointed out that the urban cores of West Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Havana were all doing significant building in the 1920s and 1930s. Okay...I'm not an expert. But it seemed clear to me that all three cities seemed to be drawing on similar European influences for the architecture. (Another significant difference: since the Revolution, Cuba's building upkeep has plummeted, resulting in these stunning buildings that have been terribly tarnished. Very sad and depressing.)
A more important similarity that Israel and Cuba shares: it seems to me that politics affects the daily lives of Israelis and Cubans more directly than it ever does for Americans. Sure, the talking heads on cable would have us believe that life will hinge on this debate or that one. But, honestly, I'm not sure that that's true. Our way of life - the freedoms we enjoy, and the opportunities we have - are fairly secure, regardless of what Congress decides to do this year or next.
It's not so in Israel and Cuba. In drastically different ways, the everyday lives of the citizens of those countries are shaped so profoundly by the way in which their leaders govern. (In Israel, this revolves around security-related issues. In Cuba, it's all about economics.)
It's funny, though. In Cuba, lots of people complained to us about the politics and the government. Plenty of people talked to us about the futility of maintaining two forms of currency (the CUC and the peso). Unlike Israelis or Americans, though, Cubans aren't free (or empowered) to do anything about it.
It was a really strange experience, for me, to be in such a politically charged environment, where people weren't really behaving all that politically.
I'm not sure if that makes sense...
Let me try to say it a slightly different way.
Upon reflection, I keep returning back to the night at the Hotel Nacional, when we were privileged to listen to some incredible music from some of the musicians who were part of the Buena Vista Social Club project (a project aimed at celebrating and reclaiming so-called traditional Cuban music from the first half of the 20th century).
The night was so great because, for this brief sliver of time, we were transported to a time and place that was apolitical. The music of that evening transcended the Revolution, and Castro, the influence of the former USSR, the animosity toward America, the struggle of poverty, the unresolved bitterness of Cuban emigrants who lost everything, etc. etc. etc. Devoid of all that political baggage, the music just....was.
It would be irresponsible of me on so many levels if that music was the only thing I remembered about the trip.
But, the knowledge that that music lives on, despite all that has transpired there in the last five decades, gives me some comfort. And the memory of it makes it easier for me to remember all of the other parts of our trip: the unspoken struggles of the Cuban people that go on - hopefully toward a brighter future.