We flew from Miami to Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city in Cuba. First stop – San Juan Hill, site of a decisive battle in the Spanish American War. We arrived midday. It was hot, and there was little wind. Except for our group of travelers, the battle scene was quiet. A few men were resting under the trees. A boy approached me, opened his palm and offered me a small wood carving in the shape of a dolphin. He pointed to a large tree with long, smooth leaves. The hard wooden nuts that hide amidst the branches were his medium. I gave him a dollar.
He followed me on the path around the monuments. More men rest in the shade. A horse stands motionless on one side of a tree. No one pays attention to the animal. I point to the horse. “Sin comida (no food),” the boy said, and I noticed the horse’s ribs. The men leaning against the tree, were thin, too. In town, we saw people standing in line for food rations.
That evening we attended Shabbat services in an old synagogue in Santiago. We are ushered in off the narrow street before I could stop to see if there was any marking on the outside of the building. Inside was a long narrow hall with white walls and windows covered with dark wood panels. The Cuban and Israeli flags flanked either sides of the room. The seats were plastic stackables, the inexpensive kind you find at a dollar store. At the end of the hall I saw familiar Jewish signs. A bookcase with menorahs. A dark wooden ark topped with the Ten Commandments. The Ner Tamid (the eternal flame).
A young man in a white shirt and black slacks led the service. There are no rabbis in Cuba. Our tour group of 29 fill the hall. It’s hard to say how many of the locals came – more than six? Less than twelve? A kind faced woman turned the page for me in the Spanish/Hebrew prayer book.
The Santiago congregation is 90 years old. They rely on donations, mostly from the Canadian Jewish community. They have about 30 congregants, mostly seniors, and their numbers are dwindling. How many will be here in the next five years?
It’s not clear how large this congregation once was. Later we learn that once there were 15,000 Jews in Cuba. Eighty percent left in 1959-1960. Most went to Florida. Some to Israel.
The young man who led our service was an engineer. He spent 4 months in a yeshiva in Jersusalem. He thought about making aliyah (immigrating to Israel) where he would have greater economic opportunities and more interesting work. Most of his peers have immigrated, but he doesn’t want to leave his elderly parents. The Jewish mothers in our group commented that he should be married, but where will he find a Jewish bride?
The congregants brought out fruits and snacks to share with us. It was too much food, and I felt guilty to take the food of people who live on rations and donations. But Jews share food, and that is what we did.