January 22, 2007 Salomon Mitrani sat through his wedding ceremony. After all, at 84 years old he finds it hard to stand. By Cuban law, he has been married to his wife, Pilar, for 55 years, and they have eight grandchildren. But, in a ceremony last week, he was finally getting married under a Chuppah canopy according to Jewish custom.

It was no ordinary ceremony. Twenty other couples of all ages took their marriage vows in a ritual officiated by three visiting Argentine rabbis. The grooms smashed their wine glasses underfoot as a cantor sang age-old blessings in Hebrew.

It was the largest wedding members of ’s depleted Jewish community can remember and a sign of a revival of Judaism in a country where there has been no resident rabbi since an exodus of Jews fleeing President Fidel Castro’s communist government in the early 1960s. “I’ve always felt Jewish. I went to fight for Israel’s independence in 1948,” said Mitrani, a painter and sculptor whose parents, Sephardic Jews, immigrated to in 1913 from Turkey.

The mass nuptials at the restored conservative Beth Shalom synagogue, the largest of three in Havana, were preceded by 70 conversions, including whole families, dozens of young Cubans, and Mitrani’s wife Pilar, 75. “I wanted to have a Jewish family like my forefathers. The family is vital to maintain our customs and perpetuate the values of the Torah,” said Alberto Behar, a computer analyst like his wife Caridad Morales, who converted for the wedding.

has a mix of Sephardic Jews, who came mainly from Turkey and the Balkans before World War One, and Ashkenazic Jews who escaped turmoil in Eastern Europe, mostly Poland and Russia. As many as 25,000 refugees from Nazi persecution arrived from Austria, Germany, France and Belgium in the 1930s en route to the United States. Refused entry due to US immigration quotas, they landed in what became known as “Hotel Cuba.”


When Castro took power in 1959, there was a flourishing and prosperous Jewish community of 15,000 in Cuba. Within a few years, as the new government nationalized businesses and steered toward communism, 90 percent of them left for southern Florida, Mexico, Venezuela and Israel.

became an atheist state and the synagogues emptied. Congregations fell below the quorum for prayer ceremonies as Jews that stayed assimilated into the new status quo, stopped teaching their children Hebrew and lost their customs. Years of isolation followed. Castro broke off diplomatic ties with Israel in 1974 following the Yom Kippur war. “They were difficult years, but Jews are used to being persistent in the face of adversity,” said Simon Goldsztein, a 69-year-old groom wearing a Tallit prayer shawl. “That has been our history.”

Things changed after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and struggled to survive a severe economic crisis. became a secular state and allowed religious worship even by card-carrying Communist Party members. Impoverished Cuban Jews began to receive aid from abroad, especially the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has helped rebuild a community of 1,500 people.

Community leaders say their numbers have doubled, but many young Cuban Jews have immigrated to Israel. “People have left for different reasons, but there has been a constant renewal. This is a crucial moment in our revival,” said Annette Eli, a young architect.

Kenneth Cohen, a rabbi who visited in January with a group of students from American University in Washington, was impressed by the commitment of young Cuban Jews. During his visit, he noted that a group of men in their 20s had recently been circumcised. “That is a big commitment,” he said. Cohen went to isolated communities in provincial towns that needed more help from abroad. In Sancti Spiritus, a town with a distinctly Catholic name, he was told he was the second rabbi to visit in 50 years. “Seeing these communities of only 18 people struggling to hold on, with a matron teaching little kids how to read Hebrew, almost moved me to tears,” he said.

One problem with being Jewish in is coping with the local cuisine, which is based almost entirely on pork. But the community now has its own kosher butcher shop, to the relief of many. “We try to avoid pork. When we can’t, we just eat less, so it doesn’t become our diet,” said Behar.


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