I went on a hunger strike in order to leave the Soviet Union. I was willing to die to get out. I recently went to Cuba to remind myself of what I was running from.
What I found was a country of paradoxes. Health care and education are free. There is beautiful art, dance and music. There is very little street crime.
In recent times a limited private sector has been permitted: home restaurants, artists’ studios, taxi cabs. Our tour guide, a former lawyer, told me that earnings from a single group’s tips were equivalent to six months income from the practice of law. The average salary of a citizen is $20 a month.
We learned from a sociology professor that her Jewish husband, a loyal communist and former member of the government, receives a pension of $18 a month. The average person’s pension is $9.50 a month.
Doctors in Cuba are well-trained and in abundance, however hospital patients must supply their own bedding, syringes, bandages and medications.
Visitors from abroad are urged to donate basic items that we take for granted: soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, socks, underwear, old sneakers, toys. Even sugar and coffee, traditional Cuban products, are brought in from the outside. Almost everything in life is obtained by bribery.
And then there is the paradox of the Cuban Jewish community. In the Soviet Union Jews were hated and trapped. Communist Cuba allows Jews to leave if they emigrate to Israel. I was comfortable wearing my kippah on the streets of Havana day and night. In my recent travels to London and Scandinavia I was urged by the rabbis to remove my kippah as it would have endangered me.
Unlike most Latin American countries, Cuba is not and has never been Catholic. Only 2-3% of Cubans are Roman Catholics due to the cultural influence of West African slaves. There has therefore never been an Inquisition in Cuba and there is no history of anti-Semitism.
Jews have lived in Cuba for centuries. Some trace their ancestry to the Conversos (forced converts) of Iberia escaping from the Inquisition.
Most of these Jews have long since assimilated.
There was a considerable immigration from Turkey after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI. Since the U.S. closed its doors to European immigration in 1924, more than 24,000 Jews came to Cuba in the hope of eventually entering the U.S.
The 1930s saw additional Jewish immigrants escaping persecution from Nazi Europe. By 1959, prior to the Revolution, an estimated 15,000 Jews lived in Havana with a small number living outside the capital.
95% of Cuban Jews left for the U.S. when Fidel Castro came to power. Today there are about 1100 Jews living in Cuba. Jews can live and practice Judaism openly in Cuba today. Synagogues are unguarded. There is a privately owned kosher butcher, which Castro never closed, and, whereas all foreign programs are forbidden, Yiddish radio is not.
The frequently asked question is why didn’t the remaining Jews leave with their countrymen?
Many of them were part of the Revolution! Several Jews played prominent roles in its leadership. In fact, the Cuban Communist Party was founded by Polish Jewish immigrants.
As far back as 1949 Cuba voted against the U.N. Partition establishing the State of Israel. After 1967 Castro sent forces against Israel and broke diplomatic relations.
The government is fervently anti-Zionist and consistently votes against Israel. Today Cuba has alliances with Iran, Venezuela and the Palestinians.
It is entirely dependent for oil on Venezuela. In the event of the collapse of the Maduro government, the Cuban economy will come to a halt and the country will go dark for lack of electricity and all that goes with it.
As I drove through Havana, I was saddened to see formerly beautiful palaces, elegant mansions and hotels facing the ocean, dilapidated, faded colors, abandoned buildings without windows, covered in grime, literally falling apart.
After five days in Cuba, I couldn’t wait to go home to America and away from the painfully familiar ruins of Communism.
Rabbi Leonid Feldman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in West Palm Beach. A graduate of the Jewish theological Seminary, he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He has taught at the Moscow State University and is currently an instructor at the Wexner Heritage Foundation and the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL).