Un Recuerdo de Abraham Berezniak
by Bonnie Burt
On Friday, April 24th, 1998, my friend Abraham Berezniak died of
kidney failure and other complications in Havana, Cuba. He had been
the shochet (ritual butcher) and member of the burial society of
the Havana Jewish community. He was most recently head of the Adath
Israel congregation in Old Havana.
I had met Abraham on the first of my three trips to Cuba in
January, 1994. I was immediately taken with his wry sense of humor
on the one hand and his fierce need to ensure the continuity of
his Jewish heritage in Cuba on the other.
Abraham, in his early 50's when he died, remembered the time
before the 1959 Revolution when he had attended Jewish day schools
and there had been a thriving Jewish community in Havana. He had
lived through the post- revolutionary years when all religion
was suspect and one had to choose being a "believer" or a Party
member. It was a time when synagogue attendance was left to a
handful of old people who didn't mind losing whatever benefits
one might receive from being a Communist Party member.
Throughout the 35 post revolutionary years of economic hardship
and massive emigration, Abraham never gave up his desire to see
the synagogue full of people once again and to see his son become
bar mitzvah. Somehow Abraham was able to maintain daily minyan
at Adath Israel throughout the years. He was able to cope with
the daily challenges of life in Cuba and with trying to keep a
community together in a humorous, upbeat yet totally dedicated
I happened to be in Havana during the week of Yacob's bar mitzvah
in December, 1994. Before the bar mitzvah Abraham invited me to
his home to see one of the study sessions he had with Yacob.
They would study together daily or I should say nightly, after
all the day's work and homework was completed.
There in his apartment, up a steep set of stairs in Old Havana,
in a dimly lit room with a turquoise color refrigerator, I saw
Abraham and Yacob do what Jews do all over the world, learn Torah.
Since Abraham was able to read Hebrew he was able to teach his
son and prepare him for his bar mitzvah. Because Cuba has been
cut off from the rest of the Jewish world until recently Abraham
had to teach Yacob virtually by himself.
The bar mitzvah was not just a big event for Abraham it was
also a big event for the entire community. It had been 15 years
since the last bar mitzvah in Adath Israel and it was on the same
bima that Abraham had his own bar mitzvah some 35 years earlier
in 1959, the year of theCuban Revolution.
It was a joyous event with the bar mitzvah boy doing a wonderful
job. The party afterward included a Cuban conjunto playing Cuban
favorites under a picture of Rebbe Shneerson.
On a later visit to Cuba, Abraham desperately wanted to get
a torah repaired so it would be kosher so they could use it at
services. He said the bigger Torah in the ark was kosher but it
was too heavy for the old men in the minyan to lift. Rabbi Kelman
on our trip was both a rabbi and a sofer (ritual scribe) and agreed
to bring it back to the States and repair it. Abraham waited for
over 3 hours in our hotel for our delayed return from touring
so he could make sure it got to Rabbi Kelman.
Ironically, in recent months, perhaps because of the Pope's
visit and the concomitant world wide publicity the government
had spruced up some of the religious institutions and Abraham's
cherished Adath Israel had received some much needed attention.
When Abraham became too ill to go up the steep stairway to his
apartment, his community had moved a bed into the sanctuary at
Adath Israel so he could be cared for by his people and, I imagine,
so he could enjoy how beautiful his synagogue had become once
I will miss Abraham's wit, joy, strength, and friendship. Walking
into Adath Israel will never be the same again for me. May his
name be a blessing and may his work continue. Adios, mi amigo.
Donations in Abraham's memory can be made to Jewish
Solidarity, Joint Distribution Committee or to B'nai Brith
specifying "Cuba relief".