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Shalom, Havana! Jewish Cuba with my Catholic Mother-in-Law

August 5, 2010

My mother-in-law and I took our very first "mother-daughter" vacation this past April. When we met almost 15 years ago, I'm not sure I would have envisioned us traveling together. I definitely didn't foresee that Delores, a practicing Catholic, would travel to Cuba with me on a Jewish mission.

Cuba, however, was the perfect destination for us to learn more about one another's faiths and beliefs. Cuba's national hero, Jose Martí, is well-known for his intolerance of discrimination. Followers of his ideology are often referred to as "martians."

Dolores gives Daniel a siddur
Dana Reynolds' mother-in-law, Dolores, with Daniel, the man to whom she gave a Spanish-Hebrew siddur.

When first researching trips to Cuba, I was surprised to find that numerous Jewish organizations travel to Cuba with licenses issued by the U.S. government. Traveling legally with these visas, U.S. Jewish groups visit Cuba to offer support and supplies to the remaining small Jewish population of less than 1,500 people. The Jewish component was a bonus, but my main goal was to visit Cuba.

Delores had Cuba high on her places to visit and but would she go with me on a Jewish mission? When I called her in Denver to propose this trip, her enthusiasm and excitement confirmed that our trip together would be memorable. What I didn't know at the time is that as I collected toiletries, clothing and medicines to donate, Delores began putting much thought into the Jewish aspect of the trip, even meeting with a local rabbi to discuss donation ideas.

We first traveled to Miami, where we met to begin our journey to Havana. Only then did Delores tell me about her conversation with the rabbi and her trip to Denver's Judaica store. A bit shyly, she pulled from her bag a beautifully bound siddur, as well as several other prayer books, all written in Spanish and Hebrew. In addition, she had a box of children's bead projects that featured the Hebrew aleph-bet. Her thoughtfulness was touching and reminded me that I have always admired her consideration and kindness.

The mission trip was organized by the Jewish Community Center of Chicago and led by Miriam Levinson, a Cuban-born Jew who lived in Havana until she was 13 years old. Throughout the trip, Miriam shared with the group excerpts from her journals, as well as entries from her mother's diaries, who emigrated from Poland to Cuba in 1933. As she read aloud, we visited the places about which they wrote; from the port where her mother first entered Havana to their family's home to the beach club where the once-thriving Jewish community of over 15,000 people spent much of their time. Hearing Miriam's first-hand experiences touched everyone in our group and enhanced our understanding of life in Cuba for new immigrants, as well as for the Jewish community throughout the years leading to the revolution in 1959.

Cuban Israeli Independence Day celebration
Children dancing at Israeli Independence Day at El Patronato, the largest synagogue in Cuba.

The economic shift from capitalism to communism led the majority of Jews to emigrate after the revolution. Although anti-Semitism did not contribute to this exodus, the communist system frowned on religious practice, so most of the remaining Jews did not practice their faith. In 1992, Cuba revised its constitution and guaranteed freedom of religious observance, and many Cubans began returning to their religious communities. Bet Shalom, commonly known as El Patronato, is the largest synagogue and houses a community center, library and Sunday school. They also have a free pharmacy that distributes medication throughout the city, regardless of religious affiliation. Most of the medical supplies come as donations from visiting Jewish groups. In addition, they provide a meal to the congregation after Friday night and Saturday services, food that is appreciated and counted on by all who attend. Cubans live under a ration system that ensures they have food to eat, though it is never enough due to small allotments and frequently empty stores.

Israel's Independence Day occurred while we were in Havana, and the Cuban Jews celebrated in grand style, Delores and I happily joining in the festivities. The small community room at El Patronato was crowded with people, clapping and singing along with the dancing children. Geography and history were transcended as Cuban Jews celebrated along with the rest of the world's Jewry, a reminder of our determination and perseverance. The Cuban and Israeli flags hung side by side, an expression of pride in both their faith and country. In Cuba, where people don't have much and the future is uncertain, the level of involvement at the synagogues is moving. More than just their commitment to learn Hebrew and Torah, most striking is the desire to absorb our culture, the return to our traditions and the increase of hope and meaning that have come from the rebirth of the Jewish community. Taking none of it for granted, this community of survivors--within a country of survivors--inspired my own mindfulness and gratitude.

Delores, too, was moved by our experiences and her growing understanding of Judaism. She spoke of her admiration for the Jewish community, observing the ways in which Jews reach out to one another with a strong sense of community, despite language, cultural or socioeconomic differences. From our group's first informational meeting in Miami, through a week of visits to synagogues, a lecture from a Jewish professor and a celebration of Israel's Independence Day, I was proud to have Delores with me. She is a relaxed travel companion, a wonderful listener and a sensitive woman.

Before leaving Cuba, we spent time at an old Jewish cemetery, helping with weeding and cleaning up. The cemetery is an amazing place, with ornate above-ground, crumbling tombs. We gathered for a few minutes to say Kaddish at a memorial to the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. I explained to Delores that the stones she saw at many of the gravesites are a Jewish tradition of leaving something behind when we visit our loved ones.

As we left the Jewish cemetery, Delores handed me a stone she found on the ground and said she thought I might like to take it back to Virginia to leave at my brother's grave. Teary-eyed, I was once again struck by my mother-in-law's gift of sensitivity and understanding. My week with Delores firmly cemented what was already a special relationship. In addition to the many complimentary words I can use to describe my mother-in-law, what most resonates with me now is that Delores truly epitomizes the Cuban definition of "martian."

The Hebrew alphabet, of which alef and bet are the first two letters. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "holy," a prayer found in Jewish prayer services. There are many versions of the Kaddish, the best known being the Mourner's Kaddish, said by mourners. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Dana Reynolds

Dana Reynolds an avid traveler and reader, enjoys experiencing different cultures. She has been married to a Catholic man since 1998. They are raising their two sons in a Jewish home with appreciation and respect for all faiths and cultures.

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