Sunday, April 4, 2010

April 4: Passover in Havana

My daughter, Zulema, and I went to the Passover seder at the Sephardic synagogue in Vedado, called the Patronto. It was held in a large hall in the basement, decorated with Jewish stars and a Cuban flag. We sat at long tables and happened to be in front of a couple of young Cuban women who had been invited by their Israeli friend. They had no idea what was going on, and they lasted for fifteen minutes and then disappeared. The other people at our table were a couple from Los Angeles, who it turned out had brought the chocolate covered matzoh and horseradish from Trader Joes. The woman in the couple had left Cuba when she was very young, and hadn’t been back. The other couple we talked to were Argentine and Mexican, but now living in New York. It may have been a coincidence, but it seemed like more than half of the people at the seder were non-Cubans.

The Jewish community in Cuba is quite small, and getting smaller all the time as the older generation dies out and the younger generation emigrates. It is also relatively well-off given all of the donations they receive from well-meaning foreign Jews who come to Cuba. The seder was modest, and our table never received the full seder plate, but we made due with matzoh and harroset. Nonetheless, the mere fact that they had a data projector which showed a video made by kids recreating the story of the Jews in Egypt suggests that the synagogue has more resources than the universities where data projectors are impossible to come by.

The other sub-culture in Havana that I visited this week was Los Kent. This rock band was started in 1965, and has continued to play American and British rock classic covers throughout the revolution. They play every Sunday at the café cantante, literarily and metaphorically underground in the teatro nacional in the plaza de la revolución. These long-haired and bare chested sixty-year old Cuban rockers belt out their songs on the loudest sound system I have heard in years. The crowd is a bizarre mix of sixty year olds who shake like they are at a blues concert in Portland, and younger folks who weren’t even born when the Rolling Stones got started. The highlight of the evening, and one which they repeated twice for the benefits of video cameras recording this 45th anniversary of the band, was a rendition of the song “An American Band.” There was something charming and slightly creepy about this straggly haired sixty-year old Cuban singing, “We’re an American band. We’re coming to your town. We’re going to party down.” The politics of that song being played just beneath the plaza de la revolución with Che, Camilo and José Martí looking down was just too much to comprehend for me on that particular Sunday evening.

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