A retired nurse I met in Cuba described her experience visiting there as “Schizophrenic.” Perhapsa common feeling for a country in transition, with one foot in the past, and a second in a future which is still defining itself. An instructive moment of this comes from my trip there in 2013; I was on the bus back to the airport, striking up a conversation with the attractive tour company representative. Her sandy brown hair and narrow face reminded me of someone I’ve met before, maybe a relative. My friends have a word for this; “Begaling,” the delicate art of outing some who is ambiguously Jewish.
“Miss, where is your family from?”
“Cuba.” She looks at me without flinching.
“I meant, before you came where, where did they come from?”
“Cuba,” she says, “We have always been from Cuba. We are part of the Cuban people.”
I really should know when to shut up, but I am determined. “Miss, are there any synagogues in Cuba?”
“I know of none.”
I know from internet searches there are several, representing denominations from Reform to Orthodox. Despite decades of Communism, under which different religions did not officially exist, belief and ethnic identities still persist, and are starting to reassert themselves. Guidebooks speak of many waves of immigrants who have made Cuba their home: seafaring Tainos, Spanish conversos fleeing Old World persecution, and African slaves brought here to harvest the sugarcane.
As someone who has come back to Judaism relatively late in life, I have a preoccupation with how Judaism is practiced in different parts of the world. The first thing I do when I arrive is check out the local Jewish community. There are practical reasons for this. On Fridays, I like to attend Shabbat services. I keep kosher, and all the food I am going to eat while in Cuba is what I packed with me.
When booking my hotel, I accidentally confused La Havana, a beach district just outside of town, with Havana, where all the synagogues are located. In the end, I wind up praying alone in my room. I awkwardly dodge questions from my fellow travelers about why I never dine with them.
“Miss, the other day, I was walking along the beach, and, well, there were all these, um, chickens…” This conversation has started attracting the attention of the other passengers on the bus, an old German couple and a few backpackers from Canada.
“Someone’s livestock?” offers the young girl behind me. There are several small homesteads on the drive to the airport, each with a few chickens and languid cows, looking mildly fatigued in the Caribbean heat. However, there were no farms near the stretch of white sandy beach across the road from our hotels. We are in Playas del Este. Cubans flock here in the warm summer months, far from the glitzy tourist strip of Veradero. Someone appears to have left these birds as offerings, up and down the coast.
Toward the airport, our coach had driven through Matanzas, a sleepy town of ancient bridges and magnificent crumbling buildings in the Spanish colonial style. The “Athens of Cuba,” according to my guidebook. It was founded by slaves. Allowed to congregate in tribes from which they were taken, they banded together in mutual support societies. To this day, a faith based on African religions is practiced here.
And at the Museum of Archaeological, the docent tells me, in broken English, that the villa which now houses the museum and its modest collection, had belonged to a freed mulatto slave. Black like me, she said with a note of pride, touching a hand to her face. At the end of the brief tour is a mural, discovered when renovators clumsily chipped away layers of old paint. The entire room is covered in dozens of scenes of daily life in the 17th century. The two of us sit dumbstruck, staring at the tiny water color images of carriages, ships, and men and women parading in elaborate dress, down narrow lanes and gardens. On our way out she points out dozens of termite tunnels along the wall and ceiling. This building may soon collapse.
There is no denying Cuba’s raw beauty. From the Isla de la Juventud, the inspiration for the Treasure Island of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, to the palm tree jungles of Sierra Maestra National Park, where Castro and his revolutionaries encamped before overthrowing the government. The country offers its best to attract foreign tourists and the much needed revenue they represent. Individual Cubans, as many do around the Caribbean, eke out a meager living. The legacy of Communism is still a reality. A house-sized mural of Che Guevara adorns the Olympic stadium outside of Havana, not far from the checkpoint, which ensures the city is not flooded with poor job seekers.
As political ideologies evolve, other identities resurface, like the promenading figures in the mural at the Museum of Archaeologist. And despite the crushing poverty, it’s hard not to be impressed by the friendliness of the people; I wonder what the future will bring for them. As a tourist, I know I had a privileged time here. I barely scratched the surface.
Mercifully, the bus pulls up to the small airport. My fellow travelers scramble to collect their bags. As I step down to disembark, a local, who had been listening to me on the bus, whispers into my ear, “Cuba is a Communist country, officially there are no religions here…”
Saul Ginsburg teaches English as a Second Language in Toronto.
Top Photo: Two pedestrians in Cuba walk past a sign that reads: Long Live Free Cuba