A Review of The Believers: Stories
from Jewish Havana
East Bay filmmaker
documents Cuban Jews
By Larry Kanter, Jewish Bulletin,
April 29, 1994
In Cuba, people refer
to the five years since the collapse of the Soviet Union as El
Perdido Espicial - "The Special Period."
In fact, the past
half-decade has been anything but "special" for people on the
Communist Caribbean island nation. Deprived of its Soviet benefactor
and still saddled with a U.S. economic blockade, Cuba suffers
from a devastated economy, a crumbling infrastructure and chronic
shortages of just about everything.
But for the island's
1,300 Jews, the past five years have been something special indeed.
After some 35 years of having their religion actively discouraged
by the Communist governement, Judaism is experiencing a startling
East Bay filmmaker
Bonnie Burt takes a rare look at Cuba's emerging Jewish community
in her new video The Believers: Stories from Jewish Havana, which
juxtaposes the economic hardships of Cuban life with the rebirth
of Jadaism there.
Burt met the Jews
of Cuba on a recent Jewish humanitarian mission to Havana, where
the majority of them live. "We saw teenagers who could daven, young
people who could lead services," she said. "It was an incredible
display of their yearning for Judaism.
"As depressing as
it was to see the need that existed, that's how exciting it was
to see this return to Jewish life."
And the extent of
the need there is certainly depressing. According to Burt, Jews
- and nearly everyone else in Cuba - lack even the most basic
medical and food supplies. Meat is seldom available; because of
rationing, many people subsist on only one full meal a day, which
they supplement with glasses of sugar-water for energy.
Public services, such
as transportation, aren't much better. Burt's video tells the
story of one physician who gets to the bus stop each morning at
7. If the bus doesn't arrive by 11, she gives up and goes home
for the day. "Even if she got to work, there are no medicines
for her to prescribe," Burt said.
Because of gasoline
shortages, electricity blackouts are common, she added; most Cubans
get around on bicycle.
Given such difficult
circumstances, it would seem that religious worship would drop
off. In fact, for Havana's Jews, the opposite has happened. The
city's four synagogues - two Ashkenazi, two Sephardic - are full
each Shabbat, with young people eager to recover their Jewish
"Here we take going
to synagogue for granted; there they make extraordinary efforts
to come every week," said Burt. "It was quite something to realize
how much it meant to them."
The new blossoming
of Cuban Jewry arises mainly from the confluence of two events
in 1991. In October of that year, the Cuban government relaxed
restrictions on religious believers joining the Communist Party.
Shortly thereafter, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
began sending in needed supplies such as books and foods, as well
as sponsoring visits by a Mexican rabbi four times a year.
Jews have lived in
Cuba since the time of Columbus. In the early part of the century,
thousands fleeing Europe viewed Cuba as a temporary stop on their
way to the United States. Few expected to stay, but exit visas
were hard to come by, and as time passed, the Jews built lives
During the revolution
of 1959, most of the country's 15,000 Jews fled to Miami, Mexico
According to Burt,
many of those who remain would live to immigrate to Israel, but
the government seldom allows entire families to leave the country
at the same time. However, she added, "the Chief Rabbi of Israel
just visited Fidel (Castro) and they hope that some arrangements
can be made."
Burt hopes to use
her video to raise consciousness - and money - for the Jews of
Cuba. "We hear very little in the United States about Cuba," she
said. "A lot of people don't know that there's a Jewish community
down there, much less that there's a need."