14ymedio, Nelson Garcia/Juan Izquierdo, Havana, 4 December 4, 2023 — On the tombs of the two Jewish cemeteries of Guanabacoa there are no flowers, but rather stones. It is an ancient custom that has survived throughout the centuries and that represents the solidity of Jewish traditions in the world. The cemetery, several synagogues, a hostel, a kosher butcher’s shop and not a few family homes retain the imprint of the Jews in Havana, the capital of a country whose government is hostile to their cultural and religious homeland: Israel.
The 14ymedio tour of the Jewish map of Havana, where the majority of the one thousand Jews who have stayed on the Island are concentrated, in addition to small groups in Santa Clara and Cienfuegos, begins in its only kosher butchery, at number 708A Cuba Street.
The term “kosher” defines the food that, according to Jewish law, which has been practiced for several millennia, a Jew can eat. Pork and its derivatives are prohibited, for example, while beef, chicken and eggs are allowed. About 95% of the 15,000 members of Cuba’s Jewish community have left the country since 1959, almost all for the United States and Israel.
The difficulties in respecting that tradition are obvious in a country that is undersupplied, especially with meat. “The butcher shop opens once a month, without a fixed date, when the product arrives,” a worker from the Sephardic Center of Havana tells this newspaper. The meat is regulated, according to the number of Jews registered at the establishment. To consume it, it is necessary for a rabbi – the spiritual leader of the community – to certify that the meat meets the parameters of purity required by law.
The same source, in a community that is always suspicious of strangers, answers 14ymedio’s questions. In Cuba, he admits, the Jewish community has not had frontal attacks or felt watched, but the regime’s support for the Palestinians, and the terms it uses about Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel, which triggered an armed conflict on October 7, are not welcome.
At the entrance of the Center and also in the Bet Shalom synagogue, a large poster has been installed with the photos of the more than 240 hostages kidnapped in Gaza: “Free them. Help us bring them home!”
“There have been many posts against Jews on social networks, which have bothered us, and although none of them refer directly to the Cuban Jewish community, it is known that the Government has a lot to do with those publications. We are disappointed and worried,” he says.
If someone wants to buy meat at the kosher establishment, they must first prove that they are Jewish. The community investigates, and if it’s true, the process is not difficult. If the shop is closed, it’s also a matter of survival: secrecy prevents informants of the regime and serves as a filter against unwanted visitors, especially after the conflict broke out in Gaza.
Like the stones on the tombs or the traditional diet, the hamsa — a hand-shaped symbol that Arabs and Jews share — is an everyday part of Jewish culture. These designs decorate the paintings and cushions of the Chateau Blanc hostel, near the Zoo on 26th Avenue, in the Nuevo Vedado neighborhood. They signify good fortune, divine protection and prosperity. The Raquel hotel and its restaurant, Garden of Eden, also serve Jewish clientele in a spectacular building built at the beginning of the 20th century in Old Havana and now owned by the Gaesa military conglomerate, which means it appears on the black list of accommodations published by the United States in 2020.
Highly recommended by several Jewish tourism magazines, Chateau Blanc — described on its website as a “Kosher Boutique Hotel” — was founded in 2018 by a Cuban-American who grew up in the Havana Jewish community and also offers a kosher diet to anyone who requests it. The kitchen, served by a Jewish baker and chef, offers fish, milk and vegetables. “We do not provide beef and chicken, because a rabbi must give the go-ahead,” explains the manager. On the wall, next to the newspaper clippings that praise the hostel, a letter signed by an American rabbi assures that the place is “strictly kosher.”
After Hamas missiles fell on Israel, many rabbis advised Jews around the world to be cautious. If they wanted to wear the kippa – the small ritual hat that orthodox Jewish men wear – it was advisable to put a cap on top. Take care of yourself, don’t expose yourself, walk with caution. The advice is also good for Cuban Jews, who watched with concern although without surprise, the recent march in support of Hamas called by the Government .
In Guanabacoa, the two adjacent Jewish cemeteries – one for the Ashkenazim, Jews who emigrated from Central Europe, and another Sephardic, for Jews of Spanish descent – are a haven of peace for those who visit them. Everything there invites you not to forget, especially the three-meter-high monument that pays tribute to the six million Jews who died during the Holocaust.
Under the stone lie six soaps, made with human fat from those killed by the Nazis in the concentration camp of Chelmno, Poland. For Roberto, caretaker of the “Polish cemetery” (Ashkenazi), the place has a special symbolism. For years, he has seen hundreds of families come to pay their respects to the deceased, or to put them in “the hole,” as he calls the grave.
The burial process is also unusual, Roberto says. The bodies are washed in a special room, dressed in white and make seven stops before reaching the grave. Along with the well-known Havana synagogues – two in El Vedado and one in Old Havana – the cemeteries have deep meaning for the Jewish community. Luckily, says Roberto, “no one has started desecrating tombs,” although an incident was reported in October 2013 when it was discovered that five tombs were opened to steal bones, probably for religious rituals.
The grave of Cuban filmmaker Saúl Yelin, who died in 1977 – visited by the film director Steven Spielberg – and that of the Cuban writer Jaime Sarusky are there
In his years as a caretaker, Roberto has seen important personalities pass through the cemetery, where about 1,100 people are buried, the same number of Jews who presently live in Havana. The grave of the Cuban filmmaker Saúl Yelin, who died in 1977 – which was visited by the film director Steven Spielberg – and that of the Cuban writer Jaime Sarusky, buried with his family, are there.
The Communal Services attend to the cemetery and pay the caretaker his salary. The Jews of Havana have wanted to pay him for his work, but the Government does not allow it, Roberto regrets. However, some foreign guests sometimes bring him “help and gifts.” And he is grateful as if he were part of them, even though, he admits, he is not Jewish.
There are hundreds of stories in the cemetery – such as that of the young Isaac Bondar, who died in the Korean War in 1952, fighting with American troops – and Roberto knows them all. Every stone on the graves, without going any further, is a life and a story.
Although the Jewish community in Havana has known better times, it does not renounce – in the face of the ruling party’s hostility – its best values: memory, tradition and a character as firm as the stones of the “Polish cemetery.”
Translated by Regina Anavy
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