by Yasmine Moideen
“Por la calle y la Calle trece.”
My friends and I entered the dented, sky-blue, 1954 Bel Aire landing on creaky seats, shutting the doors harder than we should have. We were in Havana, Cuba on a trip with our synagogue. It was nearing Shabbat, around 6:30 pm. That day, our group decided to split up and explore the city in small groups. The plan was to meet back at El Patronato (Temple Beth Shalom), the largest synagogue in Cuba, for Shabbat services around 7 pm. After walking around the hot, humid streets of Havana, my group of three found ourselves running late. We were strangers in a strange land, at the mercy of our broken Spanish, trying to make our way to services on time.
As we hurriedly drove through the streets, it began to drizzle. Our cab driver pointed out a fancy car parked on the street, with a Cuban flag and an American flag on the dashboard. He told us that this car was for President Obama’s visit; he was slated to visit Cuba in two days. This was a historic visit because President Obama was expected to begin the process of lifting the American embargo. Cubans refer to the embargo as, El Bloqueo. It has had devastating economic consequences for the Cuban people. With hesitation, I asked our cab driver, “¿Te gusta Obama?” “Do you like President Obama?” He said, “Si. La visita es una oportunidad para cambio.” “It is an opportunity for change.” He briefly explained how life in Cuba is difficult and that he has to work three jobs in order to provide for his family.
Soon it was 6:50 pm. The cab driver asked, “¿Buscando una casa?” “Is it a house we are looking for?” I said, “No. Es una sinagoga.” “It’s a synagogue.” He looked confused. I said, “Es un templo. Como una iglesia para los Judíos.” “It’s a temple, like a church for Jews.” He did a double-take and looked at me with curiosity. “Eres Judía?” “Are you Jewish?” He asked this incredulously.
I wasn’t surprised… I don’t “look Jewish” according to some. I was born in India and grew up in New York. I’ve lived in the Midwest for 30 years and have the accent to prove it. I have brown skin and black hair. I found Judaism at age 18, when I met a Jewish man who would later be my husband. Over the years, I grew to love the soul of Judaism, the search for your own personal truth. At the age of 46, I took the literal plunge into the mikveh. I officially became a Jew.
I frequently “out” myself as Jewish when I find the right moment and right person. I think I unconsciously observe people for signs of kindness and openness. Where I once feared not fitting into Judaism, I have found that others surprisingly embrace my Judaism. My “outing” forces people outside of their own narrow definition of what Jews are. I see them listening, curious, trying to connect the dots.
In that cab in Havana, my “outing” was by happenstance. Our cab driver said that he didn’t even know that there was a synagogue in that part of town, as Jewish life has had a precarious history. There are 1,500 Jews in Cuba, about 1,100 residing in Havana. Before the revolution, in 1959, Cuba had 15,000 Jews. After the revolution, many left. Under communism, people were not allowed to openly practice religion. They have survived so much. It’s both heartbreaking and inspiring to be reminded of the resilience of Cuban Jewry en route to Shabbat services.
As the Bel Aire pulled up to El Patronato, the rain let up and we realized that we were not, in fact, late to meet the group. We asked how much the fare was, and he told us that we could decide how much we wanted to pay. Oy… What to do? We spoke in hushed tones and decide on 15 CUCs. We hoped that it would be enough and that this amount of money would convey our gratitude for his service, and above all, kindness to us as Americans and Jews.
Yasmine Moideen is a clinical psychologist. She lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with her husband and boy/girl twins, age 14. They are members of Mount Zion Temple, in St. Paul. Yasmine went with Mount Zion to Cuba in March 2016 on a mission trip led by Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker.