| The CHRONICLE
1999 / ISSUE 57
by Cantor Michael M. Mandel (SSM '97)
Alejo Carpentier, a French-Cuban novelist, wrote a book entitled
Viaje a la Semilla, in which the story's main character
travels backwards through time, moving from adulthood to the
seed from which he came. For several years I also had been trying
to find a way to return to Cuba, where I was born in 1956. In
1962, my family and I emigrated as refugees to the United States.
Through the goodness of the HIAS and the Triester family, we
found ourselves in Worcester, Massachusetts, surely no sister
city to Havana and as foreign to my impressionable five year-old
eyes as anything I had ever seen. After we settled, my mother
insisted we speak only Spanish at home, for which I am grateful.
Nothing could have prepared me sufficiently for the
voyage back to my childhood--a childhood from which
I had retained only some memories. But there are things
about Cuba, its land, and its people, that are such
an innate part of me that I instantly felt a sense of
home upon seeing it for the first time in 35 years.
In 1993, I entered the School of Sacred Music to begin my cantorial
studies. While a first-year student in Israel, I began to read
and hear information about the remaining Jewish community in
Cuba, including articles written about rabbis from Mexico and
Colombia who were traveling to Cuba to lend religious support.
After making inquiries at several organizations, I received
an invitation from Warren Eisenberg, the Director of the Center
for Public Policy at B'nai Brith International in Washington,
D.C., to join a humanitarian mission to Cuba during the last
week of January, 1997. The purpose of the mission was to bring
badly-needed medical supplies to the Jewish community and to
meet with the community's leaders. I was invited to provide
religious and cultural support by leading Shabbat services
at the Patronato Synagogue in Havana, meeting with the children
of the religious school, and presenting two recitals of Jewish
music--one in Havana, and one in Santiago de Cuba in Oriente
province at the far eastern extreme of the island.
Nothing could have prepared me sufficiently for the voyage
back to my childhood--a childhood from which I had retained
only some memories. But there are things about Cuba, its land,
and its people, that are such an innate part of me that I instantly
felt a sense of home upon seeing it for the first time in 35
In the 1950's, before Castro came to power, there were almost
20,000 Jews in Cuba: a minority of Sephardic Jews, primarily
of Turkish descent, who had been in Cuba for several hundred
years, and a large number of Ashkenazic Jews who came from Eastern
Europe (primarily Poland) mainly during the 1920's and 1930's.
Today's Cuban-Jewish community consists of about 1,400 individuals,
spread throughout the country. In the past few years, the Castro
government has given the Jewish community increasing freedom
to practice Judaism and has allowed 60 families to emigrate
to Israel. There are about 390 Jewish families in Havana and
four active synagogues: the Ashkenazic Conservative (the Patronato),
the Sephardic Conservative, the Ashkenazic Orthodox, and the
Sephardic Orthodox. Dr. Jose Miller, the head of Cuba's Jewish
community, met our group in Havana. Our group of 31 hailed primarily
from Dallas and Washington, D.C., and included Tommy Baer, the
president of B'nai B'rith International, and Ruth Padorr, a
Cuban native from Chicago who sang with me during recitals.
Together, we visited all of the synagogues, met with the members
of the communities, prayed Shacharit in the Ashkenazic
Orthodox synagogue and prayed together for Friday evening Shabbat
services at the Patronato.
Upon entering the lobby of the Patronato synagogue--where,
long ago, members of my family were married and where I served
as ring boy 36 years earlier--I noticed an inscription of my
great uncle's name, Israel Ticochinsky, as one of the founders
of the synagogue. Dr. Miller saw me notice this and told me
that I had a second cousin, Yolanda, who still lived in Cuba
and came to services every week. He put me in contact with her
and we spent an amazing day together recreating my family's
She took me to two places where I and my family once lived.
The people living there now were charming, and invited us in
for coffee. I actually remembered the layout of the last place
we lived in before leaving Cuba. My father's clothing store
was now a cafeteria, my grandmother's apartment was a restaurant
and the school I attended was divided up into several apartments.
Ruth Padorr and I performed in Santiago and gave
another concert in the Patronato synagogue, accompanied by the
pianist from the Havana Lyric Opera company. The services were
memorable for several reasons: it was the first time I had prayed
in Spanish (to my recollection), and I was leading services
in the synagogue that my great-uncle helped found. The synagogue's
beautiful purple tinted windows, high above the ark, were almost
all broken, and various animals and birds had taken up residence
in the sanctuary. I was overcome by the strange beauty of seeing
birds fly overhead during the service.
Exactly one week after we arrived, we left Havana and returned
to our respective cities in the U.S. But I felt I had returned.
If not quite to the seed, then at least to the point where recollection
is more physical than verbal; to a place where, for better or
for worse, I have attempted to recapture my feelings with words--words
that can never be sufficient to explain what I felt.
Most recent update 11 May 1999
Copyright © 1999 Hebrew
Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion