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Another week in Havana - via Toronto

Author: RichardNika (More Trip Reviews by RichardNika)
Date of Trip: September 2011

One particularly large and long chamber included a hall of original flags - of Spain, colonial and independent Cuba, and various other countries. Mounted on one wall was a collection of at least 50 or 60 world leaders from the early 20th century, presumably assembled by the Cuban government. My own favorite aspect of the room was an enormous air conditioner, the first I’d seen in this Museo. If I stood or sat in front of it, as I did for at least ten minutes, I felt transplanted from a hot humid Havana summer day to a windy late autumn or early winter day in Vermont. I could feel the accumulated sweat disappearing. But then it was time to move on.

At the far end of this hall was The Room of the American Involvement. The subject had nothing to do with US support for pre-Castro dictators or meddling and worse with Castro’s government; it focused on the events before, during and after the Spanish-American war, which brought to intervention to a height never dreamed of by the Kennedy brothers and their successors. There were photos and headlines regarding the explosion that had destroyed the US ship The Maine, in Havana harbor - an event that had served as a convenient excuse for a declaration of war, and the cause of which is still debated today. Following the quick American victory, Cuba was virtually ruled by the aforementioned general, Leonard Wood, for several years, and independence was granted with many strings, the longest and strongest of which, the lease on the Guantanamo Naval Base, will not expire until 2033. Flags, photos, signs, and documents lined the room, and a letter from Theodore Roosevelt, signed as president, was under glass. Dated May 10, 1902, it stated that Cuba was now being granted its independence - such as it was - and that the US occupation was about to end. The room also featured a fine painting of Abraham Lincoln.

Another elaborately furnished room had been created especially to receive a Spanish ruler whenever he or she should deign to visit Havana. None ever did. Perhaps some day Juan Carlos or hsi successor will drop in. Back in the plaza, school children dressed in white tops, blue sashes and dark red skirts carried their bags.

At our shuttle stop destination, those especially pretty and shiny 50s cars were still parked across the street. There was time to kill, so we crossed and bought beers from a stand. We sat on a bench adjoining a small group of policemen; their cruiser was parked by the curb in front of us. Two were talking animatedly; one was talking nonstop and rapid fire, a style rarely heard in Havana but far more frequently in Miami’s Cuban community. I bought five refrigerator magnets for the equivalent of a dollar each from a little store. A light rain arrived with our shuttle, but didn’t prevent us from seeing the red ball of the sun set over Vedado as we rode west along the now-familiar Malecon. In our room, each bed featured a towel folded into an arrangement of four matching abstract hearts.

Our plan for the evening was to attend Friday evening services at Havana’s largest synagogue, the conservative Bet Sholom in Vedado. My daughter and I had been there for Rosh Hashonah - the Jewish New Year - afternoon services in 2006. We needed to get back to the hotel and change, and I needed to bathe, and what better way to do so than another immersion in the Occidental’s huge pool complex? Back at the hotel, we changed and I swam. It was a busy day.

The directions I gave the cab driver for the synagogue were too short and, as it turned out, faulty - the stated corner would have been a few hundred yards out in the ocean. We could have had the driver return to the hotel and I could have looked up better directions, but I was certain that they would also have Sabbath services on Saturday, probably in mid morning, and in any event we could certainly gain entrance so that we could both tour the facility. And so, I asked the driver to take us to the Canadian embassy. Hopefully, Casey and Bridget would be there, but, if not, we could at least have a drink at their “Polar Bar,” have one of their touted burgers, and perhaps make some new friends. Ellen had suggested, earlier, that we might be out if place there, not being Canadians. I responded that we were “honorary Canadians” - we’d both lived in Buffalo, a border city, I’d lived for four years in Montreal and been a bona fide Canadian landed immigrant, I’d gone to summer camp in Ontario, and she’d spent a summer studying in Quebec. Most of the embassies in Havana are in Miramar, and most of those are on Fifth Avenue, but Canada’s is on the corner of Third and 30th Street. A guard asked if we were Canadians. I said yes. He asked for our passports. I said we’d left them at the hotel. He let us in. We followed a path around the building. There was a pool and a few people sitting nearby, eating, drinking and socializing. They seemed oblivious to our presence. Casey and Bridget were nowhere to be seen. There was a counter behind which burgers were being cooked. They looked and smelled delicious. When I approached the counter, I was reminded that I needed to go inside and get my tickets. Inside, there was a counter. Nothing was free. The burgers were 3.5 CUCs. Everything was priced - beer and even soft drinks and condiments. Had we been able to use credit or debit cards, we’d have succumbed to the temptation of the burgers, but the need to conserve our steadily dwindling supply of CUCs plus the fact that we knew no one there and no one seemed especially interested I getting to know us resulted in a decision to leave.

We decided to walk back. It was twilight, not quite as hot, and no sun out. From 30th to 70th street was a good walk, but Casey had mentioned that the street numbers took a sudden leap in the 40s. We walked back via Fifth Avenue - embassy row. We passed territorial enclaves belonging to Turkey, Ukraine. Cambodia and others, including Nigeria, or, as its guard pointed out, Ni-HEER-ee-ya, However, one of Havana’s most important embassies, that of Spain, is a huge wedding-cake-resembling affair, only a few blocks from the Prado and Malecon. I was struck, as before, by the unusual traffic signals in Miramar. I had never seen one five years earlier, but then I hadn’t been in that area. Many US traffic signals flash descending numbers, designed to show pedestrians how many seconds they have left to cross safely. That number rarely exceeds or even reaches 20 and then drops. Here, the light will turn red and numbers will begin as high as the 50s and then descend. Then the light will turn green and the same thing will happen. My wife tried to explain their system to me, saying that it totally orinted to drivers, not pedestrians, but I never did “get it.”

The entire walk paralleled a grassy median with a walkway in the middle, with trees and benches at each end. Couples and families were strolling. To our relief, there was a sudden jump from 46th to 60th street. Back to our usual in-house meal. My wife accompanied me to the pool, but I stayed longer than her - the lure of fresh water, especially not smelling of chlorine, was real.


We set out again for the synagogue that morning with detailed directions. Bet Sholom is in Vedado, amidst low and medium rise apartments and small homes. I had found that it was only a few blocks from the Museo de Artes Decorativos, and we had learned from touring decorative arts museums in New York and Buenos Aires that they are well worth a visit. If we left the synagogue after an hour or so, we’d be able to walk to the museum.

Ironically, our Miami Beach house is less than four blocks from a Cuban synagogue - the only one I know of in the United States. Neither of us had ever been inside, but we had seen the outdoor part of its initial dedication, with a Torah being carried down the sidewalk and through the door. It caters primarily to “Jewbans” - a popular term for Jewish Cubans who have emigrated, and their children. Many of then live in Miami Beach, and the fact that our youngest daughter had made many if not most of her best friends in that community accounted for her fluency in Spanish. It also accounted for her mild embarrassment when, studying in Madrid, a professor had told ehr she spoke Spanish with a Cuban accent.

Sinagoga Bet Sholom is a modern building, built in the 1990s, with stairs leading down to a lobby and large reception hall in which my daughter and I had been treated to a holiday dinner, and an upstairs sanctuary seating close to 300. The outer doors feature designs including lions and menorahs. Above it, on the outer wall, is a large six-pointed Star of David. As it happened, we arrived shortly before the Shabbat morning service. My daughter Lori and I had been greeted by an officer with some enthusiasm - this time, there was little such, but we were heartened by the attendance. In many US synagogues, Saturday services are held primarily for the benefit of the religious school students, and otherwise sparsely attended. On this occasion, there were at least 50 to 60 people, at least as many as had been there for the holiday service in ‘06.

The lobby also serves as a small museum, which includes, encased in glass, a cobblestone from the Warsaw ghetto, a letter from movie director Steven Spielberg praising the fortitude of Havana’s Jewish community, and various plaques and tributes. One plaque, of marble, lists there Jewish organizations that financed the structure. My father had served as director of one of them, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, for 12 years. There were names of individuals in South Florida whom I recognized. One was the father of one of my youngest daughter’s “Jewban” friends.

We took seats near the back of the sanctuary, as we expected we would want to leave in mid-service. Bet Sholom has no rabbi, nor does any other synagogue in Cuba. There’s an estimated 2,000 Jews in the country, about half of them in Havana, which also has two smaller synagogues, one of which is Orthodox. There had been a far larger Jewish population in Cuba before 1959, but most of them lost little time in emigrating after the Jan. 1, 1959 regime change. While there were problems between the dominant Roman Catholic Church and the Castro government in its earlier years, the Jewish community was spared, despite the government’s consistent anti-Israel positions. In the late 1990s, a synagogue official reportedly asked Fidel why he had never visited. He responded that he had never been invited. An invitation was dfuly extended, and he showed up at the annual Chanukah party. Photos of that visit are displayed in the lobby, wearing fatiqgues. Another, presumably taken on a different date, shows him with synagogue officers, wearing a red and white checked shirt. In 2010, Raul Castro attended that event as well.

The service was conducted using a Spanish and Hebrew prayer book, published in Buenos Aires in 2000. It was the same one I’d seen there in ‘06. We left after about an hour. On the way out, I saw that a reception hall had had tables set, presumably for a luncheon for the congregants. We’d have stayed for ir, but our time was limited.

The Decorative Arts Museum, like the synagogue, was surrounded by conventional Vedado residences. Most had two floors and were well kept. The museum also had two floors, a elaborate white front, and consisted of perhaps 15 or 20 rooms, lavishly furnished with furnishings and artworks from past generations. It shows how wealthy and important families during the Spanish and pre-Castro eras lived in luxury. The will violate the anti-cliche creed of good travel writing by saying that the exhibits were stunning. The building was not air conditioned, but the exhibit rooms were. Different woman guides would escort us into each room, carefully unlocking it for us, then locking it as we’d leave. The rooms, while not dim, were not brightly lit, so that works on cloth and paper and paint and print would be better preserved. One room was for dining, another devoted to Chinese lacquer ware. Another featured Sevres porcelain, another French and French-style Second Empire furnishings. There was a “Salon Anglais.” a “Salon Orientale” and a “Salon Eclectique.” There was an amazing bathroom, featuring silver and crystal and an Art Deco stye. There were no limits on the time spent browsing. Explanations were offered, but the ladies spoke no English. Unfortunately, photography was strictly prohibited, but we were offered illustrated leaflets.

While taxis abound in major tourist-oriented sections of any big city, there were none to be seen around 17th and D in Vedado, and we finally returned to the museum, where one was called for us. We photoed the interior of Vedado en route. A red, white and blue sign above a garage proclaimed “SOCIALISMO. Unica Garantia de Ser Libres y Independientes.” We needed to freshen up and change, as we were about to take up a dinner invitation to the home of a Havana family.

It was a relief to take a break from the heat and effort of sightseeing and enjoy the pools in full daylight. They were busier than I’d seen before, particularly the upper-level pool. Through casual brief conversation and eavesdropping, I realized that the people around me came from a wide range of countries, mostly in Europe. I saw an actual water basketball game in progress. We had the usual small lunch and drink in our room. More than before, I reflected on what seemed like the inappropriate decadence of being here in a country with such critical economic problems, especially in view of my previous trip, when I’d stayed with a local family in the heart of the city. But I was too relaxed to be much troubled by it.

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