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A Synagogue and a Mad Artist

March 15, 2012

Wednsday morning we visited the main synagogue in Havana. The building is well maintained, with no security, because (the director  tells us) there is no anti-Semitism in Cuba. There are 1,500 Jews in Cuba (if my notes are correct) and 5 synagogues.

According to the director, 90% of Jews left after the revolution; many stayed in Miami and are affectionately called “Ju-bans.” But those who stayed in Cuba kept their homes and professions. They had to practice religion in secret, as did Christians. Ju-bans sent them gefilte fish and matzoh every year at Passover.

However, after the Pope’s visit, the Havana Jews invited Castro to a Hanukah party. Castro accepted the invitation. He came and delivered a short 2-hour lecture on the history of the Jews. Since then, Jews have been allowed to practice their religion openly. I saw in the library a young man learning Hebrew from a teacher.

The synagogue also maintains a pharmacy supplied largely by donations from American Jews. They need this because all medicines are in short supply. The pharmacy supplies medicines to anyone in the community, besides the congregation. I wonder if R. might get help there.

Cuba has no diplomatic relations with Israel, but Cuban Jews are allowed to visit or to emigrate. Throughout the synagogue I saw the Cuban flag next to the flag of Israel. Jews provide valuable professions and skills for Cuba, which lost so many professionals after the Revolution.

I asked about the availability of the internet. The synagogue director said they can get Wikipedia and the Washington Post. This is true also of Cuban university students. They get Wikipedia, and a few newspapers, and nothing else (according to R.)

In the afternoon we visited the Museum of the Revolution. There were many interesting historical photographs, plus real bullet holes in the marble walls (this too used to be a colonial mansion). Another interesting thing was the life-size cartoons of three American presidents. We laughed, especially at the one of Bush with donkey ears and a book turned upside down. I was reminded how fortunate we are back in the USA to have a country where we can laugh in public about our own leaders.

Then we visited the studio, private home, of an amazing artist, Alicia Leal. Leal makes paintings of a dream-like quality about Cuban life and Biblical themes. One especially interesting shows the expulsion from the Garden. The snake is female, whereas the expelling angel is an anatomically correct male. In her other paintings there are dream-like ghosts that arise out of people amidsts many natural animals and plants. I took a catalogue, and I hope they put her work on a website.

Then we visited the home of another artist, who is also amazing and his neighbors call him “mad.” He has convinced most of his neighbors to let him plaster their homes with mosaic tiled designs, in a style influenced by Picasso and other Spanish artists. The name is Jose Fuster; there is a video about him at the Havana Cultura website. His entire home and block have become a 3D wonderland of clay-tiles hurricane-proof art. He does paintings in which scenes of Cuban life sit on top of an alligator (approximately the shape of Cuba). We sat outdoors in the middle of this spectacle for a dinner of fish, beans, and lobster. I can’t describe any more, but the on-line video gives you a small idea of it. Since that video, the creations have grown and spread down the block; you can only come to Cuba to see it.

Well, after the morning of our group’s contributions to the synagogue, and all the art we bought today,  there should be a bump in the Cuban economy.

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