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 renaissance.

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 roots.

"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 for themselves.

During the revolution of 1959, most of the country's 15,000 Jews fled to Miami, Mexico or Israel.

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."