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Tenuous Hold In Havana

Ari Greenspan and Ari Z. Zivotofsky, Havana

Cuba is home to 12 million people, but just two of them, Yacob and Sarah Berezniak, are observant Jews. The Berezniaks devotedly serve the small congregation of the historic Adath Israel shul, hoping to breathe new life into a community diminished by the combined forces of Communism and assimilation. On their visit to the Berezniaks, Mishpacha’s Ari and Ari duo took in a mélange of sights, sounds, and experiences — from candy-throwing to aging cars to an unexpectedly adventurous quest for Cuban cholent.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

It’s Thursday morning. About fifteen men, most of them elderly, have assembled to daven Shacharis. Half a dozen women join them. A young man with a bushy beard, big black yarmulke, and tzitzis hanging, is leading the services. All in all, a pretty typical scene — except that our venue is the sole active shul in the country of Cuba.

Cuba conjures up images of Guantanamo Bay, cigars, the Bay of Pigs, and 1950s cars. Few would think of it as a flourishing hub of Judaism. But in the mid twentieth century, Cuba was home to a sizable Jewish population. It began when a wave of Turkish Jews began to flood the island, seeking a refuge from post-World War I instability. Then the interwar years brought Ashkenazim who could not gain entry into the United States. For a good few decades, the Jews of Cuba flourished — until the Castro revolution started in 1959, bringing spiritual desolation. The Cuba we visited was a sad place, where a tiny Jewish community remains mired in the mud of history.

 

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