I had always wanted to visit Cuba since I was a revolutionary sociology student at Durham University, complete with Afghan coat and ethnic beads, attracted by the romance and idealism of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. These days, however, as a ‘tourist’ and definitely not a ‘traveller’, I needed the reassurance of amenities such as running water and electricity. Once I ascertained that Cuba had these – albeit intermittently – our plans were made.
For husband Charles, the first stage of any overseas visit is to obtain a list of local fish with the requisite scales and fins (thus kosher). The second is to find the location of any synagogues. Cuba’s fish list included the unlikely Muttonfish, Smelt – which they mostly did; Kingsish (probably a ‘typo’ in the Jewish Travel Guide) and Roballo and Pompano which sounded more like members of the Cuban football team.
Not unsurprisingly, Havana had the requisite two synagogues, both welcoming tourists who might be persuaded to bring basic commodities. Everything was scarce and anything was appreciated. Before departing, Charles telephoned one of the synagogues to ask what they needed and was told “ Antibiotics and shechita knives – one for beef, another for chicken.”
As shechita knives are not items purchased regularly in our household, and after confirming that John Lewis did not stock them, we decided to try our luck in Jerusalem. We assumed this would be a voyage of discovery so it was a little disappointing to find that the shop which ‘everyone’ knew about, was on Rehov Strauss where knives were displayed alongside other essentials such as tools for removing stones from cherries, an item without which no self respecting household can exist.
We arrived at the store. “We are looking for shechita knives” we ventured. “Fine”, replied the proprietor, “would you like beef, lamb or chicken?” using precisely the same the same tone as an airhostess on the El Al flight. “Beef and chicken” we replied, whereupon he presented us with two flat ended blades – the larger being 24” long and 2.5” wide. An involuntary shudder at the sight of these confirmed my lifelong devotion to tofu and the resolution to continue refusing to eat anything that has ever breathed.
We asked him to pack them suitably for travel, whereupon he wrote ‘KNIVES FOR SLAUGHTERING PURPOSES’ on the wrapper. As an afterthought he added the word ‘RITUAL’ before SLAUGHTERING in the confident belief that this would ease our passage with customs officials in London, Madrid, Mexico, Miami and Cuba – the route the knives had to travel.
Everything proceeded without incident until Mexico where we were asked to open our cases. You must understand that Charles travels with everything that can be removed from home without actually being unscrewed, so his luggage contents are impressive. I had diligently prepared myself for the possibility of this encounter with officialdom, spending hours rehearsing basic sentences in Spanish to explain the unusual contents of our cases. “We are Jewish so we cannot eat meat or chicken unless the animal’s throat has been cut so that it bleeds to death. This act must be performed by a specially appointed ritual slaughterer”.
These are not, you must appreciate, the usual phrases found in the ‘Teach Yourself Spanish’ manual. My Instant Phrase Book was great if I needed directions to the Cathedral, or wanted to order Huevos Revueltos ( scrambled eggs, not revolting eggs). However the shortcomings of the book became increasingly apparent as I struggled to explain the intricacies of shechita.
In addition to these weapons of slaughter, Charles’ case contained three hundred packets of antibiotics for the Jewish medical centre in Havana. The moustachioed official, acting like Manuel in ‘Fawlty Towers” opened the case. At the sight of rows and rows of boxed pills his expression was one of incredulity. His eyes widened; his eyebrows raised. He called his supervisor.
Charles turned to me hissing, “Don’t say a word!” I took a dose of Bach Rescue Remedy – always useful in times of stress. Images flashed through my mind of movies showing the horrors of Latin American prisons and here we were smuggling not only lethal weapons but also large quantities of drugs.
“What are THESE?” demanded the official severely. “They are mine” replied Charles coolly, assuming his most impressive legal stance. I felt the need to explain that Charles had a really bad infection that necessitated taking antibiotics for the next 23 years, but resisted the urge. The official, after conferring with his colleague for what seemed an age, cast a sympathetic look in my direction, shook his head and shrugged his shoulders as if to say “Good luck with this odd person’ and waved us through.
It occurred to me in retrospect that Mexicans, being descendants of the Mayan culture that went in regularly for religious decapitation, were probably totally unfazed by ‘slaughtering knives for ritual purposes’ and may even have welcomed a revival of their age old custom.
On entry to Cuba we had to complete a declaration form stating whether we had weapons or drugs of any kind. Charles wrote YES, I AM CARRYING SOME EXTREMELY LARGE AND DANGEROUS KNIVES FOR RITUAL KILLING AND ALSO A VAST QUANTITY OF DRUGS – but no–one paid any attention which convinced me that nobody ever reads these forms and they were probably just designed to keep some clerk occupied at a desk job in Havana.
On arrival at our hotel, the first duty was to take these clandestine goods to the synagogue. En route I wondered what would happen if we were mugged and remembered the Crocodile Dundee film when, faced with a mugger in New York threatening him with a knife, Dundee takes a enormous machete out of his back pocket, points at the muggers knife and said ‘You think that’s a knife!” I was quite prepared to recreate this scene, but disappointingly did not have the opportunity to do so.
And so, with everything ensconsed in an anonymous plastic bag and after furtively negotiating narrow rubble-filled dilapidated streets, we reached our destination. Here we were greeted like royalty with everyone wanting their photographs taken brandishing the knives.
It is always moving to visit small communities in distant parts of the world and see how they heroically struggle to maintain their Jewish identity. The members of this community told us about their lives. Compared to how we live in the West, they live in awesome poverty. A Jewish lawyer earned $8 a month, a doctor $12. Our taxi driver a professor of Spanish at Havana University who then became a diplomat for 16 years now drove a taxi to be able to afford to buy food.
However food was rationed -the monthly allowance per person was eight eggs, one bread roll, 5 lbs beans, 5lbs sugar 6lbs rice, one cup of oil, 4ozs coffee, one quarter of a chicken, and sometimes 1 kilo of beef. The synagogue received one cow a month, which hardly seemed to justify needing the shechita knives. Fish was rarely available, surprising as Cuba is surrounded by sea.
Milk is only for children under seven or pregnant mothers. Fresh fruit and vegetables may be bought at a local market where one banana can cost one tenth of the daily income.At Passover the community received gefilte fish and matzo from Canada, but insisted on making their own kneidlich. Every morning at the orthodox synagogue, a free breakfast was provided for some thirty congregants. These same people then went to the Reform Shul where after mincha they received supper. “This way”, said the vice president of the synagogue, “we know that they are being fed”. As with Jews world wide, it is food that holds them together.
Following the 1960 Revolution many Jews left for Florida, but some could not leave for whatever reason. A few had relatives abroad who helped financially, but there were still many, particularly the elderly, who had to rely on the synagogues for help. At one time the community urgently needed wheelchairs when it was forbidden to import them. They solved this by enlisting the help of three tourists who arrived in wheelchairs. Once in Cuba, the chairs were immediately occupied by three local handicapped Jews.
Some notable personalities had visited Cuba prior to our trip – Steven Spielberg was so impressed that he wrote “When I see how much cultural restoration has been done it reminds me again of why I am so proud to be a Jew.” We also heard that a former Israeli Chief of Staff regularly visited an ‘awfully important person’ in Cuba. The latter would call the Israeli when he could not sleep and made him tell stories to help him relax. A tale that had a certain biblical resonance!
Most Cubans had little understanding of colour or religious prejudice and were intrigued to know about Judaism. They were eager to engage in conversation, and not just about football. We met one charming non Jew who surprised us by telling us that he spoke five languages including Hebrew and Aramaic.
Life was undoubtedly difficult in many respects, but it was a pleasure to be in an internet free zone and experience the joyousness of the place with music playing on every street corner. It was the first time I have ever seen an on duty policeman dancing the salsa with a passer-by. We were delighted that we visited Cuba while it was still a Macdonalds free zone and we can’t wait to go back before it changes.