As we leave Santiago de Cuba, we see less and less cars. Except for the occasional horse drawn carts, some lone riders on horseback, and a couple of pedestrians, we have the highway to ourselves. We ride over long stretches covered with potholes. At some point, the bus makes a sudden stop for an ox to find his way to the grassy embankment on the other side of the road. We pass open fields, green sugar cane plants, and small shacks built with wood and cinder blocks. A lush, and for the most part, untouched landscape. In the distance, we see the Sierra Maestra mountains, where Castro hid out and plotted the revolution.
More than an hour after leaving Santiago, the road improves, and we enter Guantanamo. We are still in Cuba, a few miles from the U.S. military base. We drive through a residential neighborhood. Houses are in varying states of disrepair. Our bus stops in front of a house in better shape than its neighbors. The ornate columns and stucco façade are painted a color reminiscent of grasshopper pie. This is the synagogue. We climb a long flight of stairs to reach the sanctuary where we are greeted by people singing “Havenu Shalom Aleichem” (We bring peaceful greetings to you.) I don’t know who started the singing, our tour group or the congregants. Our voices join together in the language we share.
The leader boasts that this congregation is 86 years old. Once, there were 1200 Jews in Guantanamo. Most fled after the revolution. Now, there are 54 members of this congregation. The group survives with the help of Jewish communities from abroad. Not many Jewish tour groups make it this far east on the island. We bring them the bulk of our donations.
They give us sticky sweet treats of coconut and syrup wrapped in dried leaves. Does anyone know the name of these addictive concoctions?
A handful of the religious school students entertain us with Israeli dances. We stand watching. Their joy and vitality are contagious, and we join in.
Conversation is limited. My Spanish is poor, and none of the Cubans are fluent in English. We embrace before we leave. As I descend the stairs, I hear one of the woman say, “Esto es dios.” This is God