Mojitos, Mezuzahs… and Ration Cards? Oh my
By Rachel Eisenberg
I’ve always been fascinated with Cuba. Partly because of the forbidden fruit element, partly because it is a time capsule from the 50’s, but mostly it is because people just like me could lead such different lives and only live 90 miles from America. When I saw that the JDC was offering a trip to Cuba, focused on engaging the country’s Jewish community, I jumped at the chance.
Let’s start with a little bit of background. Cuba has been under Fidel Castro’s reign since 1959, which means that at this point the majority of the Cuban population has never known any other government. Picture a city with palm trees, European influences, and 1950’s Fords everywhere - that’s Havana. While I knew getting to Cuba meant mojitos, cigars, street art and seeing a Communist society in action, I had not fully processed what that meant for daily life.
People live on ration cards; that means that the government determines what food the people are allotted each month. Each person gets one pound of chicken per month. I can go through one pound of chicken in two days. Or when you go to the store to pick up toothpaste, it doesn’t take them 10 minutes of debating whitening vs. tartar control - they buy the only brand of toothpaste that is carried, there’s only one. It sounds small, but having the people we spoke to complain that the soap itches their skin and they had no other options, was really eye opening. It made me wonder what would happen if we brought the average Cuban to Target?
Even with the restrictions on everything from food to medication to basic toiletries, the Cuban people are happy, content, warm and giving. Our group had the pleasure of interacting closely with a group of young people in the Jewish community and in many ways they are just like us. They are in college and are young professionals. They are getting married and determining how they want to incorporate Judaism into their adult lives.
But unlike a typical American Jewish Community,they are the leaders of the community. These young people led Shabbat services. They went door to door to invite people to rejoin the Jewish community. (Cubans were not granted freedom of religion by the government until 1992 and even then, most did not embrace the change for many years.) These young people are the ones keeping the Jewish community alive and thriving. In America, it is so often our parents’ generation who are the driving force behind keeping Judaism alive; in Cuba, it’s the exact opposite. These young people are bringing their parents to the synagogue!
I was endlessly impressed by these young people. Their passion and drive is incredible. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in everyday American life, and was such a privilege to be able to see this parallel society first hand. This post in no way does this community and the general Cuban society justice. Go see it yourself. JDC Entwine’s trip provides such intimate experiences that traveling as a tourist would never cover. As an avid traveler who has spent the last few years seeing as much of this world as possible, I could not recommend this trip more whole heartedly.
In Boston Thursday night? Join JDC Entwine for Una Noche: Inside Jewish Cuba, an in-depth look at the history and needs of this incredible Jewish community. RSVP: http://jdcentwine.org/events/unanocheboston