We happily departed our hotel in Trinidad on Tuesday morning, as we made our way back to “civilization” in Havana. Along the way, we stopped at the government museum at the Bay of Pigs for Fidel’s rendition of the 1961 incident, which was framed in the wider context of the success and legitimacy of his Revolution. Then: off to lunch with a beautiful view of the aforementioned Bay. The long drive back to Havana gave us a chance to rest and reflect on all of the compelling stories (or sides of the story) of Cuba that we’ve encountered this week.
Wednesday, our last full day here, brought us to the Sephardic synagogue of Havana, which is home to three hundred Jewish families here in the capital. They work in close collaboration with their Jewish neighbors at the Patronato and the local Orthodox synagogue. And they have strong disagreements with those neighbors and sometimes keep their distance. Sounds just like every other Jewish community I’ve been a part of! The Sephardic synagogue’s president, Dr. Mayra Levy, was a joy to learn with. Her warmth and passion for the community she serves inspired all of us.
From there: it was on to the Ashkenazi cemetery on the outskirts of the city, founded in 1906 by a group of American Reform Jews then living in Havana. The cemetery has a remarkable memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, and we believe it is oldest Holocaust memorial in the Western hemisphere.
Like Dr. Levy and her community, the Sephardic Jews of early 20th century Cuba also had issues with their Eastern European brethren, and apparently wouldn’t have been caught dead with them - literally. Just down the hill from the Ashkenazi cemetery is the separate Sephardi one.
The latter part of our final day was a last chance to be exposed to contemporary Cuban culture. We visited the impressive contemporary art museum in the afternoon, and listened to the amazing music of the Buena Vista Social Club in the evening.
As we now prepare to leave, how to put this week in to some kind of final perspective?
Rudyard Kipling once wrote that: “All things considered, there are only two kind of men in the world - those that stay at home, and those that do not. The second are the most interesting.”
I could not be prouder of our group for having the courage, and desire, to leave the familiarity and comfort of home to come on this journey to see this beautiful, and inspiring, and difficult, and complex place.
While it might be boring if we lived our lives only at home, when we leave - we are inevitably leaving the ones we love behind. That was certainly true for me this week, as this journey took me away from my dear family in New York.
But notions of home, and distance from it, also play out in other ways here in Cuba.
Sephardic Jews are, and were, here in Cuba because they were forced to flee economic and political conditions in Turkey. And we could go further back in history and say that they were only in Turkey because they were forced to flee from 15th century Spain.
And Ashkenazi Jews are, and were, here in Cuba because they were forced to flee the pogroms of early 20th century Eastern European Jewish life, and of course the Holocaust as well.
And what about the Cubans, as a people? To what degree have they been yearning to return home? Perhaps not in a geographic sense, but in an existential one….given the long period of corrupt or destructive influence of outside authorities…Spanish colonization in the through the very late 19th century, outsize American influence in the late 19th and early 20th century, then a string of corrupt Cuban leaders through Battista in the late 1950s, and then Fidel’s Revolution, so glorified in the iconography of this country today, and yet paradoxically unglorified if one pays attention to the neglect of the people, the poverty, and the architecture.
There is unbounded hope and optimism in the Cubans we met this week, and one way of understanding that optimism is around the notion that they are returning home…helping to build this country into an ever more perfect version of the ideal vision of Cuba that is at the heart of what it means to be Cuban.
Home - and distance from it - also relates to all of the Cubans and Jewbans who have left here since the Revolution. They are now in exile (or at least will be until regularly scheduled flights from American to Havana begin next week)…kept at a distance by their personal choice, or by fiat from the Cuban government…in search of a better life abroad, but also mourning the loss of home here on the Island.
My week here was enriched by my reading of the memoir Before Night Falls, by the gay poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas. The book chronicles three decades of tension and persecution, as he navigated life as a Cuban gay man and artist who protested much of what the Revolution stood for. In the early 1980s, he finally had the opportunity to leave Cuba, settling first in Miami and then in New York. At the end of the book, he wrote this about his new freedom in the States:
“I realized immediately that Miami was not for me. […] I did not want to stay too long in that place, which was like a caricature of Cuba, the worst of Cuba: the eternal gossip, the chicanery, the envy. I also hated the flatness of the scenery, which could not compare with the beauty of an island; it was like a ghost of our Island, a barren and pestiferous peninsula, trying to become, for a million exiles, the dream of a tropical island: aerial, bathed by the oceans waters and the tropical breeze.”
For 291 pages, I had waited with baited breath to hear the story of Arenas’ escape. And then I was so unexpectedly struck by the sadness that came with his freedom, because he realized that he was far from home.
I wonder how similar that sadness is to the conflicted feelings we carried when we set off on our journey this week, still processing the results of the election - and the existential distance the results imposed for some of us from our sense of what home was and should be.
Above all else: Arenas calls to mind the complex emotional dance that all Jews have been doing for 2,000 years: trying to figure out how to settle down in a home-that-is-far-from-home, in this case, the historic Land of Israel.
In all of these ways, home, distance from it, and a desire to it, capture some of the different facets of our journey.
I also had the chance to read about Cuban baseball this week, and found these words - on this ever present desire to return home…in life, and in baseball too…- from former MLB commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti:
“The journey begins at home, negotiates the twists and turns at first base, and often founders far out at the edges of the ordered world at rocky second - the farthest point from home. […] Home is finally beyond reach in a hostile world full of quirks and tricks and hostile folks. There are no dragons in baseball, only shortstops, but they can emerge from nowhere to cut one down. And when it is given one to round third, a long journey seemingly over, the end in sight, the hunger for home, the drive to rejoin one’s self and one’s fellow, is a pressing, growing, screaming in the blood.”
The passion - in the blood - to return home…literally, as I will be privileged to do so later today, God willing.
But for all of us: existentially….the ongoing journey of our lives