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Former Jewish area of Old Havana, Cuba

 
TRAVEL : RESTORING JEWISH OLD HAVANA IN CUBA

By Rhonda Spivak

The historic heart of Old Havana, Cuba, (Habana Vieja) which was declared part of the cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 1982, is a must see destination for travelers with an interest in modern Jewish history.

It is hard to imagine while walking through the narrow streets of old Havana, amidst crumbling Hispanic-Andalusian architectural gems, and 1950’s rusting American cars, that there once was a bustling Jewish community here. Over ninety per cent of Havana’s Jews left Cuba after the 1959 revolution when Fidel Castro rose to power, and today there are a few rather remarkable signs of surviving Jewish life in old Havana.

One of those signs of life is the only orthodox synagogue in Cuba, Adath Israel on the corner of Old Havana’s Acosta and Picota streets. To get there, I rode on a vehicle made only in Cuba that looks like it ought to be in a children’s fantasy theme park- the yellow Coco taxi with its rounded roof. According to my driver, the Coco taxi was made “by adapting the Italian vestpa motorcycle.” The spine-tingling ride came with no seatbelt, no helmet, and a lot of noise, and is only recommended for adventurous travelers. Cuban Coco-Taxi
Cuban Coco-Taxi
Boys looking out of balcony
Boys looking out of balcony from home in
Old Havana near restored synagogue.
On my arrival at Acosta street, I found my eyes gazing at a sad looking building with a broken turquoise door frame, some lime green and pink balconies with laundry hanging, men playing chess in dusty alleys or sitting aimlessly, a Czech made motorcycle, a renovated upscale restaurant, a shabby pharmacy where Cubans waited in line for scarce medication, and a bakery with barren shelves selling one kind of white bread. There was also a dilapidated store selling eggs only (there being no pork available that day) where Cubans came to receive their ration of five eggs per month.
There in the middle of this scene I located the freshly painted doorway of the Adath Israel synagogue, which was built in 1959, only months before Castro rose to power. The synagogue’s founders were Ashkenazi Jews whose descendents began arriving in Cuba from Russia and Poland after World War 1. Initially, many were looking at Cuba as a temporary stop on their way to America, but after not obtaining American visas, they decided to stay. After Castro rose to power, the synagogue’s president and founders fled to Florida. Store distributing eggs in Old Havana
Store distributing eggs in Old Havana
Restored Adath Israel Synagogue
Restored Adath Israel Synagogue in
Old Havana
Inside the synagogue, there is a beautifully restored second floor sanctuary, with six hundred seats, reception hall, rose painted walls and large coloured glass windows. The restoration of this sanctuary, used only on high holidays, was funded by private Jewish foundations and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in 2005. The modest lower chapel on the main floor is where daily prayer takes place.
Visitors to the synagogue ought to ask to see the selection of gorgeous hand-made dolls that Jewish seniors make. The dolls cost about $10 dollars each, and are an excellent way to support the synagogue, especially since the average Cuban makes about $15 dollars a year. Dolls made by seniors
Dolls made by seniors
at the Adath Israel synagogue
Menora in restored park
Menora in restored park in honour of
Jewish community of Havana
Nearby the synagogue, there is a building that used to be a restaurant called “Moshe Pipik’s”, and the one kosher butcher in Havana, (providing kosher chicken, not meat) just down the street.
Le Chaim Bar, Hotel Raquel
Le Chaim Bar, Hotel Raquel
In the midst of some decaying buildings, I was rather taken aback to see a large gleaming menorah in a fenced off public courtyard. As my Cuban guide explained, the former splendor of old Havana is being restored by the Office of the City Historian directed by Eusebio Leal Spengler. He decided to erect a park as a tribute to Havana’s Jewish community, which contributed greatly to Cuban society. It is a little known fact, for example, that four Ashkenazic Jews (Grobert, Grimberg, Vasserman, and Gurbich) were in the small original group of about 10-14 adults that founded the first Communist Party of Cuba in 1925.
Nearby the Menorah courtyard, I never imagined finding an exquisite marble columned boutique establishment Hotel Raquel, which was also restored by the Office of the City Historian to honour Jewish tradition. The arched entrance way has a large mezuzah, and the hotel’s “Garden of Eden” restaurant serves traditional Jewish food such as latkes and borscht, and adjoins the “LeChaim” Lobby-Bar. The Stars of David, and a Menorah in the lobby area will also
 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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