Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Our trip to Cuba took two-and-a-half hours by plane and 60 years by history. Travel to Havana from Houston’s IAH was easy and customs in Cuba wasn’t difficult. The journey really began as our eyes opened to a world that stopped changing in 1959. Buildings, cars, infrastructure, and people have been locked in a bubble that hasn’t known real change since Castro’s Revolution.
Across the street from our hotel was the Habana Riviera Hotel, Meyer Lansky’s notorious hangout and casino. To enter it was to cross a threshold into 1950. The sounds of live saxophone music still poured out of a small lounge off the lobby. Peering inside, three people sat along the wall against a backdrop of chairs, wall sconces, wallpaper, and light fixtures that hailed from mid-century, including the nicotine that hung in the air. Outside, we found classic cars painted in classic Cuban colors. Bright red, gleaming sea blue, and pale purple convertible 1950-era Chevys, Chryslers, and Cadillacs caught the attention of tourists with cameras and a few Cuban dollars (CUCs) for rides along the seawall, or malecón.
In Old Havana, the city revealed what our guide called “a city of contrasts.” Extraordinary buildings of great craftsmanship and design stood in various stages of disrepair and decline. The Hotel Rachel, a Jewish establishment with a mezuzah on the front door and every guest room still contained the original furniture, cage-elevator, and extraordinary stained-glass ceiling that illuminated the 5-story atrium from rooftop to lobby. We felt like time-travelers looking for people to emerge and tell us about life there. Instead, we settled for a fresh espresso served on small tables in the lobby where a few hotel guests gathered for lunch and conversation. Around Old Havana were signs of some city life, including former churches that were overtaken by the government and used for civic purposes, former mansions now occupied by more than 50 families living in squalor, and some signs of renewal where bright Cuban colors still reflected the sun pouring into large city squares from the Caribbean sky.
Monuments abounded to honor Cuban heroes, most notably Jose Marti, who aimed to liberate Cuba from Spanish Colonialists. He is adored by Cubans and remembered for the hope he gave them. Obvious to everyone were billboards that celebrated the Revolution and its leaders, chief among them, Fidel Castro. Though the bulk of Castro’s communism died with the fall of the Soviet Union, socialism persists in a struggling economy and fledgling private enterprises. Much of the country subsists on government rations and $20 per month on average. Even then, stores and inventories lacked goods. More tourism and regular cruise ships deepen daily strife because travelers need to be fed. “Paladors,” or private restaurants, feed hungry tourist appetites with food that most Cubans need, but will never see or taste.
Our hotel was a haven for tired soles. The pool and air-conditioned rooms brought us “back to the future” where some familiar comforts were very welcome. Our hotel was also a haven for tired souls. We gathered to talk more casually about what we saw, how we felt about it, and what we thought we could do about it. Our guide told us that there was little if anything we could do. Our American dollars and sentiments could never be enough; it would take another transformation of the government to change the slow trend away from such persistent and harsh conditions. Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and successor, will step down in two years. After him, it’s unclear who will lead and what will become of Cuba and its endearing people, warm spirit, and beautiful landscape. Until better times, Congregation Beth Israel will aim to support Havana’s Jewish community with gifts and donations, just as other congregations and Jewish Federations have done.
Cuba is an island full of potential. We saw buds of freedom in artists whose music, crafts, and dances were never held down by dictators or edicts. We brought home samples of their music on CDs, examples of their art on canvases and tiles, and memories of their moves on the dance floor. The human spirit always finds the path of least resistance to express what God created and man cannot suppress.
There is much more to say about our week in Cuba. Blogs, sermons, and High Holy Day messages will surely address how a people, among them Jewish families who share a covenant bound up in the words of Torah, is on its way to becoming something more than it is, today.