Going Back to Cuba
This post was brought to you by Ben M.
On the first night of our stay in Cuba, I began to chat with the server that was frying fish in the buffet line and when he found out that I was born in La Habana, had left in 1961, and this was my first visit after over 55 years, he said that I was more American than Cuban. I agreed with him, but now that the trip is over I can say that the gap has narrowed greatly.
Here are some of my childhood memories that came back while walking, or riding through some of the streets in La Habana, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad, Cuba.
In the city of Trinidad while people were looking at the colorful architecture, I also watche a group of four men playing dominoes, this reminded of my uncle Ydo Shapochnick who had a regular game of dominoes with four friends. Although, they could have played in his comfortable home, it was normal to bring a table and four chairs to the sidewalk and play during the lunch hour while keeping an eye on his store.
During the 2nd day of the trip, we saw children flying their kites in an open area. I remembered when we used to go to the little sundry store on the corner of our block, and buy the materials to build a kite. It would take several days to get the kite ready to fly. We then would put 2 razor blades in the tail, and try to cut the string of our friend’s kite. Then we would chase the kite for blocks until it came down from the sky and grab it as our winning trophy. I was also reminded of going to the same store to buy comic books and packets of baseball cards which we would collect, trade, or used to gamble by using the numbers on the back of the cards. Highest number wins, and you keep the other card.
In the Cathedral Plaza of Havana I bought 5 paper cones of roasted peanuts from a peddler for 2 pesos, and shared them with some in the group. It reminded me of how popular it was throughout Havana to encounter the maniceros, the peanut sellers. So popular that one of Cuba’s most popular old songs is called El Manicero. The vendor would try to outdo each other with their vender’s cry while pushing their carts that kept the peanuts warm.
Our first stop in Havana was The Ashkenazi Jewish Cemetery. We visited the Holocaust Memorial there which I visited in 1960 during a ceremony with my Zionist youth group. We also visited the grave of my father’s aunt, Paye Minoff Meles. She saved my father’s life by helping bring him to Cuba before the war while his whole family was killed in the Holocaust. She also provided lunch for my brother and me during school days, because we lived very far from our school and the buses would not do long runs for lunch. Lunch was the main meal of the day and most of the time she would grill a steak with fries. Probably the only thing she knew how to make.
Seeing all the kids in their colorful school uniforms reminded me of the uniforms we wore while walking to school when we lived nearby, or riding the red Candler College buses. We would yell at the kids from other schools when we passed their buses.
We celebrated the Jewish holidays of Passover and Hanukah with our uncles, aunts and cousins, at my grandparent’s apartment in Vedado. That came to mind when our tour bus drove near the area where my grandparents lived.
Another memory while visiting our old apartment, was the almost daily trip to a bodega ( small food shop) two blocks away to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, rice, etc for the daily meal.
The two visits to The Hotel Nacional and the visit to The Tropicana Night Club reminded me of the stories my parents told us about going dancing and dining in those popular attractions. They also took American relatives who came to visit Cuba for their wedding.
When we drove on Reina st. I was able to see what’s left of the building my parents had a women’s clothing store and remember how I hated the days when they took me to the store, but I loved the lunch from a cart right in front of their store. A steak sandwich with very thin fries, and a chocolate soda bought at the bar next door.
We visited several synagogues and Jewish communities during the trip. The visit to El Patronato, the largest and most impressive synagogue, reminded me of Sunday School days, and how we used to go to a nearby movie theater after religious school. It also reminded me of celebrating Jewish holidays .
Walking through Old Havana reminded me of the stories of Jewish emigrations to Cuba. Most Jews, including my grandparents, my mother and two brothers settled in Old Havana within walking distance of the first synagogue, kosher butcher, and kosher restaurant. They moved to more modern areas as their economic conditions improved.
Visiting the two homes where I remember living ,the swim club where we just about lived every Sunday, the school I attended for seven years, the baseball field I spent so much time in, and other playing areas, took me back to my care free days.
We went shopping for souvenirs in a building near the docks, and remembered that this was the building where we took the ferry boat to America, and reminded me of that great adventure on June 21, 1961.
During Social Studies in Cuban elementary schools at the time, every class was reminded the words of Christopher Columbus when he landed in Cuba in 1492. He said, ”This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen”. Although Columbus never saw the interior of the country, and things were much different in 1492, I was reminded of this when we went to El Nicho, the beautiful park with the breathtaking waterfalls.
In total, we visited five synagogues or Jewish communities. In each I would ask the people in charge if they were familiar with my last name, my cousin’s last names, or my mother’s and grandparents last names. In two of the synagogues, the orthodox synagogue in Old Havana, and the main synagogue of El Patronato, my grandparents last name of Szapochnik was instantly recognized. My grandmother, Esther Szapochnik, made it her life work to collect money for Israel and was honored several times in Cuba. Her highest honor was when she went to Israel, and was met at the airport by Golda Meir, the Prime Minister of Israel, who presented her with a necklace and a star of David, that is now worn by our son Michael.
I believe that more memories will surface as we look at our photos. Thank you for going on this journey and helping me bring these memories back.