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Under the Chuppah in Havana

The revival of Cuba’s Jewish community

Ruth Oratz
January 14, 2019
Ruth Oratz
Ruth Oratz
Ruth Oratz
Ruth Oratz

I had never been to a group wedding. Nor did I ever think I would experience my first during a balmy December evening in Havana.

But 60 years after Castro’s revolution, this wildly romantic and surreal event was the culmination of my visit to Cuba’s Jewish community, which today is reviving in ways most people could never expect.

Indeed, standing in a synagogue where 16 couples joined together in Jewish traditions once outlawed on the island, one would think that it never ceased.

Jewish life in Cuba dates back to the early 1900s when American, European and Middle Eastern Jews immigrated to the island seeking opportunity and tolerance. This was followed by waves fleeing oppressive regimes and anti-Semitism before and during the Holocaust. By the 1950s, Jews in Cuba numbered 15,000. They were successful in business, culture, and building Jewish life: Havana, capital of that achievement, had three synagogues, six Jewish day schools, a kosher butcher, and two cemeteries.

But in the early 1960s, the Jewish community, like many others, was devastated when the revolution led to mass migration. For those who were left behind, Communist rule meant the secularization of Cuban culture and closing down of all religious activity.

In the beginning of the 1990s the Soviet Union dissolved and departed Cuba. At that time, Castro loosened some regulations and lifted some religious restrictions. The remaining Jewish community contacted the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jewish humanitarian group, for help. JDC partnered with the community to rebuild Jewish life over the next two decades.

That revival, which I saw first hand, was fostered through the establishment of Hebrew schools, weekly Shabbat services and meals, lively Israeli dancing and Jewish cultural activities, and exchanges between Cuban Jews and those from the U.S., Canada, and around the world. And 2018, despite ongoing concerns like poverty, was a banner year for Jewish life: a bris, three baby namings, and eight B’nai Mitzvahs. And, of course, the wedding of 32-community members.

To get to the chuppah, or wedding canopy, each couple took a different and widely personal journey. And due to high rate of intermarriage, there was an active effort to help families deepen their Jewish ties, including the conversion of some non-Jewish spouses. Part of this effort included a rigorous, year-long course of study for the couples and their children who were old enough to attend Sunday school.

On the Friday morning ahead of the wedding, I was part of a delegation who traveled with JDC to Cuba. It was there we joined the community for a series of celebrations. First was the formal conversion, which took place in the sea because the one very small mikvah, or ritual bath, could not accommodate the 80 plus celebrants. Later that evening, hundreds gathered for Shabbat services in the historic Patronato synagogue with its high vaulted ceiling, bright lights, and tall windows. The service was conducted by young teens who had recently become bnai mitzvah, proudly leading the congregation in prayer and song.

As the buzz toward the Saturday night wedding ceremony was growing, all had a hand in the festivities. Some sewed dresses while others prepared gifts or decorated the synagogue with white ribbons, large clusters of crepe paper flowers, and bouquets of fresh roses and gladiolas. A giant chuppah was erected. Extra chairs and benches were carried up to the sanctuary. A jeweler in the community fashioned many of the wedding rings. Women were recruited to do makeup and hairstyling. Photographers were enlisted and tasty delicacies prepared.

As the sun went down and the lights in the sanctuary were dimmed to darkness, the golden flicker of the Havdalah candle, ushering out the Sabbath, set the mood.

The ceremony was about to begin.

Although these couples were already married under Cuban civil law, they were about to be wed according to Jewish tradition. Each couple signed their ketubah, a traditional Jewish wedding contract. One couple had been married for 50 years. Another was there with their newborn son. They were Ashkenazi and Sephardi, some born Jewish and others who had just joined our people, drawing from the full ethnic fabric of Cuban society.

The doors of the sanctuary were flung open, and young children led the bridal procession strewing paper flower petals. Each couple marched, arm in arm, down the long aisle. In groups of eight, the couples were called up and stood together under the canopy. Rabbi Steinhendler, an Argentine rabbi who has visited the island for two-plus decades to conduct life cycle events and more, led the weddings.

Once the wedding rings were securely placed, the couples lined up together and the grooms stomped on a cloth-covered glass. L’chaim!—to life— we shouted, together with cries of Mazal Tov as the celebration truly began. The couples kissed, children shrieked, cameras snapped, and overwhelming happiness filled the air.

As we all floated in our euphoria to the social hall, we began the singing, dancing, and toasting, white lace and tulle spinning. The children of the community were enraptured, dreaming of their future wedding day. One bride sat off to the side, quietly breastfeeding her newborn in perfect bliss.

The Jewish future was bright, even in this most unexpected of places.

Ruth Oratz is a Professor of Medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center.