Through a Cuban Prism: a Kosher Butcher in Havana
HAVANA DE CUBA—A group of French Jews recently purchased a van for use by the Adath Israel synagogue, the only Orthodox congregation in Cuba. Transportation is a luxury in Cuba and carries an expense, but its value is inestimable.
“It’s the only way we can assure having a daily minyan,” said Yakob Berezniak Hernandez, young and thickly bearded.
Hernandez is a fixture in the Jewish community. He is the synagogue’s cantor, burial committee, treasurer, shochet and mohel. His shochet license hangs on the wall of the small kosher butcher that is situated several blocks away from the shul. He became certified in 2009, when he spent four months in Haifa studying kashrut.
Like other Cubans, Jews receive an allotment of meat under Cuba’s rationing system. Hernandez manages the kosher kills and processing. The meat is available to a select group of Jews once a month. B’nai B’rith mission participants sit in the downstairs chapel and listen to Hernandez discuss the problematic lives of his community.
The B’nai B’rith members pass through a multipurpose room that provides seniors with kosher meals and makes available for roughly $10 apiece blue and white kipot that have been stitched with menorahs and Israeli and Cuban flags. They are popular with the B’nai B’rith visitors, as they are with other visitors, and a good way to raise funds for the synagogue. The mission participants take advantage of this opportunity and, separately, feed the tzedakah box.
The currency in Cuba for foreigners is a CUC, a Cuban convertible peso, one of two official currencies in Cuba. Local Cubans operate with their own peso. The price tag for each kipot represents a little less than a monthly income for many Cubans. Physicians here, for example, earn about $50 a month. People do find ways to supplement their income but such extras are taxed highly by the Cuban government, explains our guide, who adds as an aside that Cuban Olympic gold medalists are regarded heroes of the nation and the revolution and earn $150 a month …. for life.
Upstairs, the history of Adath Israel and the tremendous support is in full evidence. The large synagogue with its balcony, even by American standards, is at once an artistic treasure. Hernandez said the Orthodox community numbers maybe 300.
He’s asked, so why do you need such a huge sanctuary? “The cost to modify it or tear it down and start over would be so great it’s better just to keep the space,” Hernandez says.
Before the revolution, the Jewish community in Cuba numbered up to 25,000, with Havana representing the lion’s share of that figure. The space was needed then. More than 90 percent of the community left with the revolution. Another wave of Jews left when the Soviets arrived decades later and placed prohibitions on the public practice of religion. When the Soviets left in the ‘90s, the Jewish community experienced a revival. And here we are….
During the B’nai B’rith visit to Adath Israel, the mechitzah (for separate seating) is decorated for Chanukah. The synagogue also uses significant space in the main sanctuary to display historic documents under glass cases.
Back to the kosher butcher. Hernandez said a few Jews make kosher meat a part of following the dietary laws, though other Jewish leaders here suggest about 20 people “keep kosher.” During the day of the B’nai B’rith mission visits, not one morsel of meat is visible. A couple of racks of large S-curve hooks normally would be used to move sides of beef. Today, they are perfectly clean and hang on the racks. Hernandez stands behind an empty counter and in front of an open freezer locker. It’s a remarkable remnant of Cuban Jewish life, past and present.
- by B'nai B'rith International Senior Vice President Charles Kaufman
Cuban Jewish Relief Blog
Reports on the B'nai B'rith International Cuba Jewish Relief project.
March 19-26, 2015
For more information on ways to get involved in the Cuban Jewish Relief Project or for mission registration, please contact:
B'nai B'rith Cuban
Jewish Relief Project
B'nai B'rith International
1120 20th St NW
Suite 300 N
Washington, DC 20036