Friday, June 29, 2007

When Fidel Almost Addressed Cuba's Jews

When Fidel Almost Addressed Cuba's Jews
Marsha Poliakoff
Special to the Jewish Times

JUNE 29, 2007

Fidel Castro made headlines recently when he failed to attend the
elaborate celebration of his 80th birthday. There was no explanation… My
thoughts returned to Cuba in 1959, when my late husband, Matthew
Poliakoff and I were among the last American tourists before the
cementing of the communist takeover and the break with the United States.

After a bar association meeting in Miami, we made the short trip to
Cuba. We were intrigued by Castro's heroism in the Sierra Maestras, his
takeover of Cuba and promises of improved education, health care and
democracy. Commentators had spoken of our government's rejecting him for
his connections with the Soviets. Castro countered that all he wanted
was friendship with the U.S.

But what about Cuba's Jewish population? Just before Castro came into
power, Cuba had a bustling Jewish community with 15,000 Jews and five
synagogues in Havana. We wondered what Castro would do if Havana were
like Pikesville with shuls on every corner. Pikesville would make Castro
think that Jews were a force to reckon with. My brother Alvin Levin
counts 23 shuls within walking distance from his house on Park Heights
Avenue. It's not that there are so many Jews in Pikesville; it's simply
that Jews won't put up with situations they don't like. Maybe that's why
so many Jews had fled the island during the first year of Castro's

We wanted to know if most of the Jews had left for economic reasons or
if Castro had stifled Jewish worship so that many observant Jews were
forced to leave. We had heard that so few Jews came to pray that a new
concept, the Cuban minyan, had been created: each Torah was counted as a
qualifying member, so that the required quorum of 10 for certain prayers
was made possible. We wanted to know more.

In less than an hour, a small plane had flown us across a short stretch
of Caribbean and landed with wheels crushing stones on the unpaved
runway. Along the road to Havana, walls and buildings were spray-painted
with "Gracias, Fidel." Thanks for what? We wondered how much was gained…
and what the Jews had lost. At the Habana Hilton, bellmen offered icy
daiquiris, poker chips and invitations to a cocktail party Castro was
hosting for us that evening, as visiting lawyers and their spouses.
Later, browsing the marketplace, I bought 3 photos of Fidel eating at a
Chinese restaurant.

We accepted our hotel's offer of a tour of Havana and the outlying area.
Our driver was a plump and delightful Cuban named Abraham, who laughed a
lot and spoke pigeon English. He took us to a cigar factory where old
people bent over counters were hand-rolling cigars; and he took us to a
tasting party at a rum factory and he drove us through a beautiful beach
past a sugar cane plantation.

We stopped at the Presidential Palace, the Parliament Chamber, and my
husband asked when the House will be in session. He said, "Not yet. We
will have people's government soon with democracy, I'm very sure." I
asked him to take us to a synagogue and he said that there wasn't time
that day, and maybe another time. I wanted to know if he had Jewish
friends and he said that he didn't know any Jews. I asked if his life
was better now that Castro was in power, and he said yes, but he would
like to get on the plane with us and live in the United States.

We returned to the Habana Hilton, got dressed for the party, and I
brought Castro's photos with me hoping he would sign them. At the party
in an elegant ballroom with tiered chandeliers, an aide announced that
Prime Minister Castro would be there in 20 minutes. He added that Castro
wanted to speak to lawyers from the U.S. and Castro, himself, was a lawyer.

After two hours, our host had not arrived. Just as people were leaving,
a van pulled up to take us to the Trocadero, as Castro's guests. The van
bumped and lurched, and we clutched the seatbacks in front of us.
Eventually, we came to a neon-lit night club decorated with huge,
tropical plants. For us, everything was complimentary. A chorus line of
tall, Las Vegas-type dancers sang American tunes in broken English… and
the show was almost American.

When we returned to the hotel, some of our crowd were winning abundantly
at the mezzanine casino with poker chips they had been given. We were
saying goodnight, when I noticed the elevator door opening, and a small
band of soldiers in green army fatigues, in marching order, poured out
of the elevator onto the mezzanine. A taller figure, also in army
fatigues, towered over them. It was easy to recognize Fidel, aquiline
nose and thick neck. It was a now or never opportunity.

I approached the band of soldiers and called 'Fidel!" hoping he could
hear me. The soldiers instantly reached for their holsters. Fidel waved
them back. He turned around and looked at me. I said, "We were
disappointed! We waited for you, but you didn't come to your party." He
smiled sadly and said, in accented English, "I am so sorry, Senora, I
was at a Bank meeting and could not leave."

He seemed sincere… All evening, I had been clutching the three
photographs of Castro hoping that somehow we would meet up with him. I
gulped and offered him a photograph, and said "Would you, uh… please…He
signed it, and I pushed a second photo at him and then, the third; he
hesitated and signed. Oh, was I being crass! It was my Baltimore
chutzpah! but he seemed not to notice.

"How long will you be in Cuba?" he asked. We told him that we had to
leave in the morning. He asked what time. Someone said 9 o'clock. He
paused momentarily and said "I'll meet you at the airport and see you off."

We went to bed excited. Tomorrow morning I would be able to ask him
personally about Jewish life in Cuba and his intentions for the Jews.
What a wonderful way to end the trip! … But at the airport he didn't
show up.

At present, nearly 50 years after we met Fidel Castro, historians are
piecing together Cuba's history, a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing and
some that don't fit. Filled in are pieces of high literacy, health care
and medical advances. Overlaps exist in Castro's interminable speeches
and personal magnetism, but emptiness prevails in appropriation of
wealth, nationalized business and property, few civil rights, suspended
parliamentary procedures, arrests, even annihilation of political opponents.

Where Jews are concerned, it was not until 1992, after the fall of the
Soviet Union, that Cuba allowed religious freedom. The Jewish community
began to rebuild, and currently there are three active synagogues in
Havana, but no rabbi. Baltimore has so many rabbis, that some become
assistant rabbis. There might be a great opportunity in Cuba for
Baltimore's rabbis, if Castro would match the number of shuls in
Pikesville. But then, he would have to entice Jews to return to Cuba.

Although some of Castro's accomplishments were progressive, the history
of his long administration will be tainted by voids and devastating
mistakes. For one thing, he should not have limited the number of
synagogues. He has been out of sight since December 2006 with an
illness. Will he return?

Speculation was that Castro, reassuming power, would attend Cuba's May
Day Parade, but… you guessed it; he was a no-show. It's likely he will
return to power. Regardless, Castro is an essential part of Cuba's
history. Ultimately, he won't be a no-show. But if he shows up in
Pikesville, he'll plotz when he sees the number of shuls.

Marsha Poliakoff, who writes from Spartanburg, S.C. and is active in the
Southern Jewish Historical Society, was born and raised in Baltimore.
She graduated from Western High School.

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