Thursday, January 14, 2010

Cuba tests Jews' faith

From the Dallas Morning News

Cuba tests Jews' faith
As Passover nears, community looks to outside aid for survival in socialist world
Published: April 5, 2004

Growing up in Cuba, they were typical Jewish kids. But as the years rolled by and they became men, one abandoned his faith for the sake of revolution while the other fought to save his Jewish community from the ravages of change.

Enrique Otulski is the rebel. The son of wealthy Jewish immigrants from Poland, he could have had an easy life. Instead, he risked everything and joined Fidel Castro's revolt in the 1950s.

"Growing up, I saw barefoot men dressed in rags, women sleeping in the park. I didn't feel good about that. I couldn't live like the rich when most people lived in misery," said Mr. Otulski, now 74 and a top official in the socialist government.

José Miller followed a different path. He agreed revolutionary change was needed but feared communism would drive off the entire Jewish community.

"By the 1980s, I'd go to the synagogue and there would be fewer and fewer people, sometimes just six, seven or eight. The feeling was that if we didn't do something, we'd disappear," said Mr. Miller, now 78, and president of Cuba's largest Jewish community center.

The story of these two men as Passover approaches is part of a broader tale about the clash of Cuba's once-thriving Jewish community and the socialist government.

For both sides, it's a story of survival.

The Castro government suffered the collapse of its chief sponsor, the former Soviet Union, in 1991. But it lives on, despite economic troubles and the U.S. embargo, the toughest, longest-lasting sanctions ever imposed on any country.

The Jewish community endured the loss of 94 percent of its followers after the socialist revolution. Many left after the government seized their businesses. Others left for family or personal reasons. Most sought refuge in the United States.

Those left behind

Cuban Jews who stayed behind have had to depend on support from outside Cuba.

For Passover, Jewish groups in Canada and other nations have shipped hundreds of pounds of kosher food and wine to Cuba for this week's celebration.

The donations include tea, vegetable oil, chunky white tuna and grape wine from New York. There are also boxes of matzo, or hard crackers, representing the unleavened bread that Jews hurriedly baked under the desert sun while escaping slavery in Egypt.

"You can find kosher food in Cuba. But getting these things from friends abroad lets us know that we haven't been abandoned," said Maritza Corrales, a Jewish historian in Havana. "The food we eat during Passover is something that unites us."

Unity has helped Jews endure such horrific events as the Holocaust.

In Cuba, Jews face a different challenge - co-existing with socialism. And that hasn't always been easy, said Mr. Otulski, who began drifting from the faith as a teenager.

"The more I studied science, the more I abandoned my religion," he said. "I became a free thinker."

His father, who owned a string of tanneries, had different ideas. He wanted his son to become a businessman and sent him to study at the University of Miami.

Young Enrique Otulski graduated with an architectural engineering degree in 1954, and Shell Oil Co. hired him to design gas stations in Cuba. But the seed had been planted. Change was on Mr. Otulski's mind.

His hero wasn't Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Israel. It was José Martí, the father of Cuban independence.

Soon he met others, including Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, the late Argentine rebel, and decided to join the revolution.

He kept his job at Shell while leading a secret life as Sierra, his nom de guerre.

His exploits are described in his 2002 book, Vida Clandestina: My Life in the Cuban Revolution. In it, he describes how he ran an underground newspaper, raised money for weapons and helped launch attacks on urban guerrilla targets.

He and the other insurgents prevailed in 1959, and Cuba became a socialist worker's state. Religions were repressed. Most of the country's 15,000 Jews fled by 1963, including the only remaining rabbi.

By the 1980s, only about 700 Jews were left. The country's few synagogues were plagued by termites, leaky roofs and broken windows. Some ran out of rent money and had to shut down.

Jews were told they had to choose between their faith and the Communist Party. And those who weren't party members risked missing out on jobs and other opportunities.

They also had to endure the government's extreme anti-Israel line. And they had to watch as Cuba sent thousands of soldiers to aid Syria in its attacks on Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

Some relief came in 1991 when the socialist government lifted its official policy of atheism and said Cubans could openly practice their religion.

But Cuban Jews couldn't rebuild their shattered community on their own. They needed humanitarian aid then as they do now. Fellow Jews around the world send them everything from clothes and medicine to Shabbat candlesticks and prayer books.

Appeal for help

Mr. Miller led the way in getting that kind of help, appealing in the early '90s to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York and other groups in the United States and other countries. The number of Cuban Jews has since more than doubled to about 1,500.

"Cuba's Jewish population is very dependent on fellow Jews throughout the world because of its small size and resources," said Stanley Cohen, head of a relief project for Cuban Jews at the B'nai B'rith Center for Public Policy in Pittsburgh.

"With our help, Cuba's Jewish community has grown stronger. Young Jews have become more active in the community," he said.

Mr. Cohen and other Jews have traveled frequently to Cuba to aid the community. The Cuban government welcomes such trips. And some state-run businesses now cater to Jewish travelers.

One is Hotel Raquel, an elegant 25-room boutique hotel that opened in June.

Its Garden of Eden restaurant in Old Havana serves everything from vegetable knishes to chicken soup with matzo balls. Rooms are named after Hannah, Sephora and other biblical characters. Chandeliers shaped like the Star of David hang above the gift shop. And the theme song from Schindler's List comes on when hotel operators put callers on hold.

Just blocks away are remnants of the once bustling Jewish community. They include the 90-year-old Chevet Achim synagogue, Cuba's oldest, and Calle Acosta, also known as Jewish Street, once lined with kosher bakeries. Then there's the city's only kosher butcher shop, where many Jews buy meat on Tuesdays.

City planners are considering highlighting some of these landmarks for tourists. But some critics say traveling to Cuba only props up a dictatorship. Agustín Blázquez, who produces documentaries critical of the socialist regime, recently described the Cuban government's message as this:

"Come on, you American Jews! Jump on the bandwagon and get down here and join in the resurgence of Cuban Judaism. But most important, don't forget to bring your dollars!"

There are other controversies, as well.

Some Jews privately say that some Cubans pursue the faith - and conversion to Judaism - because they hope to leave the impoverished island and move to Israel.

Indeed, more than 600 Cuban Jews have settled in Israel over the past decade, taking advantage of that country's open-door immigration policy to Jews.

But Jewish leaders say the community continues to grow despite the departures.

"A family of five might leave the country, but usually only one or two are Jewish," said Adela Dworin, vice president of the community center that Mr. Miller heads.

Moises Asis, a South Florida writer and former longtime activist in Cuba's Jewish community, said he doesn't care whether Cubans convert to Judaism so they can leave.

If they go to a "decent healthy spot where Fidel Castro's picture is not an object of veneration and where you can talk with freedom, all reasons are valid," said Mr. Asis, author of 14 books and hundreds of articles, some on the Jewish faith.

Government officials insist that there is religious freedom on the island. And Mr. Miller said he's confident young people will continue to invigorate the Jewish community.

"Throughout history, we've shown our ability to survive," he said.

Mr. Otulski, now vice minister of fisheries, said he's convinced that the revolution will also prevail and that the United States and Cuba will eventually learn to get along.

"We will see the day, very soon I hope, when the United States government is formed by intelligent people who don't think only of themselves. When that happens, our two nations will be the best of friends."

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