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Return to Havana

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 years.

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 past.

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.