Fidel Castro’s Favorite Jewish Holiday

In the Hanukkah spirit, Neil Goldstein Glick gives us a peek into the the lives of members of the Jewish community in Cuba

Did you know the late Fidel Castro had a favorite Jewish holiday?

Here’s a hint. It was not Yom Kippur.

Thanksgiving 2015, my partner and I visited the Jewish community in Havana, Cuba.

Thanksgiving is the holiday we in the United States associate with family, plenty, and abundance. The day after is associated with a debauched bacchanalia of shopping.

Havana lives at a much slower cadence. The lack of internet means people are not glued to their smart phones. People have conversations with one another. The vintage American cars are nostalgic of a bygone era; the splendid buildings, spanning 400 plus years, are crumbling due to lack of maintenance. Their former glory is clearly visible, yet there is no money to improve these buildings.

Life in Cuba is difficult for everyone. All Cubans receive meager food rations. Everyone receives 5 eggs, and 1 pound of chicken or pork. Members of the small Jewish community are in a slightly better position. They receive 1 kilogram of kosher beef or chicken – 2.2 pounds. These amounts are not per day, or even per week. They are for the month. Five eggs spread over 30 days does not make many omelets.

Through Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer, Rabbi of Bethesda Jewish Congregation, who also runs the Cuba America Jewish Mission (www.cajm.org), explained that community Shabbat dinners often provide the only weekly protein for most attendees.

In advance of our trip, we raised money from friends and family to sponsor a Shabbat dinner at the Ashkenazi synagogue, El Patronato Synagogue. The day before the dinner we visited El Patronato and met the leaders, and members, of a dynamic Jewish community. There are two other synagogues in Havana, a Sephardic and Orthodox. Due to an illness, my visits to the other synagogues did not happen.

We arrived at the Synagogue and there was a shorter gentleman, whose shaved head was covered with an embroidered kipah that had the flags of Israel and the USA. He was speaking in Spanish about the history of the Jews in Cuba. His name was Fidel Babani. Fidel’s speech was being translated into Hebrew for a large group of Israeli tourists. After the talk, we introduced ourselves to Fidel and he brought us to the offices of the community next door. There we met Adela Dworin and David Prinstein, the community President, and a community Vice President, respectively.

Adela is an impressive and friendly woman. Her English is beautiful. She greeted us with a warm smile. I was carrying a massive backpack “We brought you a few things…”

We pulled out bottles and bottles of different medicines. “I did not know what you needed, so I brought a variety. We also have some fun things for everyone…Chocolates, and they are kosher…” Everyone in the office looked up and smiled.

Adela’s eyes sparkled as she chimed in “chocolate is always welcome!”

“Here are some hamsa bracelets for the youth in your programs…” I placed several dozen on her desk. Staff members asked if there were enough for them.

“Of course, I brought plenty…this is Thanksgiving and an early Hanukah. My Grandfather was in the liquor business and in his memory, I bring you two bottles of his favorite whisky.” I asked David “can serve these on Friday night?”

“We will save these to serve them at Purim.”

“That’s perfect. Grandpa would be pleased.”

We had a few more surprises.

“Here is an envelope with the very first postage stamps of Israel, postmarked on the first day they were sold. When they were secretly printed in advance of Independence, the official name for the country had not been decided upon. The stamps say ‘Hebrew Post’ and not Israel. It is a fun piece of modern Israeli history. Next is a piece of ancient Jewish history. This is an authentic coin made by the nephew of Judah Maccabee. Whoever made this coin 2100 years ago made sacrifices at The Temple in Jerusalem. It’s a direct connection to Hanukah. Hold it in your hand – you are touching our Jewish history.”

Adela then gave me a tour of the center and Synagogue. One room was filled with toys. “This is what we will give out to children this year for Hanukah. See the powdered milk, which we give to children. In Cuba the extra milk rations for infants and children ends at age seven. We provide more.”

She pointed to a bronze plaque in the lobby of El Patronato. “This is my father’s name. He was one of the founders of the Synagogue.”

Above the lobby, is a pharmacy run by Dr. Rosa Behar. Rosa is in her late 70’s or 80’s who was a gastroenterologist doctor. When she retired, which was not too long ago, she came to work at El Patronato as their pharmacist.

“The pharmacy is open every Monday morning. Everyone is welcome and all the medicines are given away at no cost.”

“Is this only for Cuban Jews?”

She chuckled. “Everyone is welcome here. We are for Jews and non-Jews. We serve anyone in need.”

My stomach was not feeling so good for the past two days, so Dr. Behar listened to me explain the symptoms. Then the Jewish mother side of Rosa showed. “Take some Pepto-Bismol to help with the illness your stomach.”

“Coming from a land with so much, I can’t take medicine from Cubans who might need it more, and I’m doing OK.” The Cuban American Jewish Mission is the single biggest donor to the pharmacy and a major supplier of milk and baby supplies.

That Friday was “Black Friday” in the United States. In Havana, it was a lovely Shabbat where services were beautifully led in Hebrew by the Jewish community’s youth. The Synagogue is a lovely, open space, with a mid-century modern design. The service was well attended. Seeing the youth lead the services filled me, and everyone, with joy.

During the services I made a small presentation in Spanish of the Maccabee coin to the community.

At dinner, I had the honor to say Kiddush. It was the best meal we had in Havana and it was warm inside with 100 of our newest friends. At dinner I learned about 30 or 40 developmentally disabled youth and adults that the community serves.

“On my next visit to Havana, we can take them all out to Coppelia for ice cream. Let’s make a fun day of it.” Coppelia is the legendary ice cream parlor in Havana, that is close to El Patronato.

The next day, I felt worse and my partner also fell ill. We regretted not taking the medicine that was offered by Rosa. As we learned the hard way, medicine is not easy to find in Havana.

On Monday, we returned to El Patronato. “Adela did the Israeli tourists we saw donate money to the community?”

“They did not. Many people come visit, and even stay for Shabbat dinner, but not many people donate to fund our programs and services.”

Adela then told me about one program in particular “At the Mitriani Center, Rabbi Sunny helped us out a great deal by raising $10,000 to fund one year’s worth of adult diapers for our seniors. It’s one thing we can get in Cuba, but they are expensive. You can imagine this is not the most exciting program for which to raise money, but they are badly needed…”

My heart sank. “This is about dignity.” On top of the hundreds of dollars we raised and contributed to pay for Shabbat dinner, we reached into our pockets and each gave $100 more. “We want to help.” A little philanthropy in Cuba goes a very long way, and helps many, many people.

As we were walked out, Adela pointed to several pictures of her and David with Fidel and Raul Castro. There were several pictures of Castro at El Patronato Synagogue.

In 1998, she invited Fidel Castro – “El Comandante” to visit for a Hanukah celebration.

David Prinstein explained to me how El Comandante, loved the story of Hanukah, where a native people (Jews) and their native land (Judea) revolt against oppressive foreigners (Seleucid Greeks).

Fidel Castro, the famed revolutionary, appreciated the revolutionary ideals of Hanukah.

And that is how I learned that Hanukah was El Commandante’s favorite Jewish holiday.