MUNSTER | During the 1920s, Yiddish-speaking Jews traveled to Cuba from Eastern Europe. Rather than a stopover on the way to the United States, Cuba became home.
Before Fidel Castro’s rise to power, the Jewish community in Havana created a culture often closely associated with nightlife, gambling and prostitution, said Michael Steinberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Northwest Indiana.
“Meyer Lansky is revered more than (former Cuban leader) Batista,” said Steinberg, who visited the Jewish community in Havana and other small communities from Feb. 12 to 18 with a delegation of 30 directors of small Jewish Federations from across the United States.
Lansky was a member of the Jewish mob who oversaw gambling concessions in Cuba and who is portrayed in the “The Godfather” books and movies as Hyman Roth.
Fulgencio Batista was elected president of Cuba in 1940 and constitutionally could serve only one term. He seized power again in 1952.
Although his regime was corrupt, Cuba flourished economically. However, when Batista fled Cuba on Jan. 1, 1959, Fidel Castro came to power and the economy of Cuba spiraled into poverty, which is what Steinberg said he witnessed during his trip.
“We brought 3,000 pounds of aid with us. That was part of the mission to Cuba,” Steinberg said. “Cubans live on $20 a month. It’s extremely difficult for them to make ends meet.”
Doctors don’t always have prescription medications that are needed, he said of some of the aid the Jewish Federation directors took with them.
“Cuba is a Third World country. It is an experiment that failed,” Steinberg said.
Although Havana is only a 41-minute flight from Miami, for the travelers, “it was going from one world to the next.”
Vegetable markets are part of the local scene, he said, but many Cubans can’t afford to buy the produce and have ration books that allow only so much food to be obtained.
Hygiene is another area where poverty hits hard, Steinberg said.
“A woman drove up to the hotel in a beautiful ’54 Chevy taxi. I have lots of chutzpah, so I asked her if I could take it around the block. She said ‘no’ but I got in anyway,” Steinberg said. “I gave her three bars of soap to drive it around the block. It was gold to her.”
Bars of soap, bottles of shampoo and Cuban cigars he bought also got Steinberg photos of the people of Havana. Cuban cigars are plentiful, but most Cubans can’t afford them, he said.
Members of the Jewish community in Havana and nearby villages take care of each other by providing senior programs, which include health care, medicine, hot lunches and additional food items, he said.
“If someone is in need of something, they will try to provide it also for those who are not Jewish,” Steinberg said. “If they have it, they will gladly share it.”
Being a light to the world is part of Jewish faith, which is reflected in the acts of kindness shown by the Jewish community in Havana, he said.
“Hillel (a famous ancient Jewish leader, scholar and sage associated with the development of the Mishnah, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism) said it best,” Steinberg said. “Hillel stated, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’”