Cuba: Land of my Bubbe

I was alone in a small town in central Cuba, and I had lost the only person I knew. 

The town was Santo Domingo, and it had taken a full morning of driving to get there. It’s a sleepy, slow-moving place, where American cars from the 1950s share the road with horse-drawn carts — and many of those carts act as taxis. Produce vendors wheel their fruits and vegetables down the street while wearing necklaces of garlic slung around their necks, and locals on bicycles ride with live chickens casually perched on their laps. The town has a couple of street-front pizza shops, as well as several makeshift stores — folding tables set up in front of houses that sell an odd assortment of faucets, spoons, thread and record albums. On a Friday this past March, I was there, too, wandering down Independence Street.

My driver, Yudelbi, had said he’d wait for me across from the town plaza, but when I got there, he was nowhere to be found. I didn’t have a working phone, nor did I know Yudelbi’s phone number.

I felt strangely calm. I was alone, yes, and I was isolated and incommunicado in a country completely foreign to my New York-Los Angeles existence. But it was hard to feel completely lost in the face of a major find. I knew exactly where I was: the street where my grandmother and great-uncle grew up. 

In the early decades of the 20th century, my family, like many other Ashkenazi Jews, fled the old country and its onslaught of pogroms in search of a better life. My paternal grandmother, Fay, and her brother, my great-uncle Joe, were born in a shtetl near Chernobyl, and their father, my great-grandfather, died during a pogrom. They dreamed of moving to the United States, but newly imposed immigration limits made that impossible. They applied for entry to various other countries — South Africa, Canada, China — and were summarily denied entry permits. Finally, they heard of a little island near the United States that had an open-door immigration policy. In 1921, knowing no more about the country than its location and the all-important fact that its government would not turn them away, my family set sail for Cuba.

Cuba had become an increasingly popular destination — or stopping-off point — for Eastern European Jews fleeing persecution. Few of these Jews planned to settle in Cuba permanently — a number had been told that after a year of living in Cuba they would be able to qualify more easily for entry to the United States. As anthropologist Ruth Behar has recounted, many Jews began referring to Cuba as Akhsanie Kuba in Yiddish: Hotel Cuba.

But this nickname had to be reconsidered when, in the early 1920s, the United States further restricted immigration, and a year residing in Cuba was no longer enough to earn entry. Thousands of Jews had their hopes dashed and were forced to extend their reservations at Hotel Cuba indefinitely and turn what they had thought of as a hotel into a home — or something like it. 

My grandmother and great-uncle grew up in Cuba, first in Havana and then in Santo Domingo. When they were teenagers, the family managed to finagle tickets on a cruise ship that traveled between New York and Havana. When the ship docked for its weekly eight-hour stopover in New York, they slipped off the boat and never returned. They made it to the United States in the fall of 1930, a decade later than anticipated.

Left: The author’s grandmother, Fay Katz (later Kaplan), bottom right, with family and friends in Cuba, circa 1925.
Right: The author’s great-uncle, Joe Katz, on his bar mitzvah day.

I did not know almost any of this until recently. Until last summer, all I knew was that my family on my father’s side was from the shtetl in the old country — the Ashkenazic equivalent of saying that you come from planet Earth. I did know that the family had traveled to the United States via Cuba, but I had no concept of how long they were there or where they lived or what the experience was like.

I didn’t see my relatives often when I was growing up — ours was the branch of the family tree that had moved farthest away, across the country to Los Angeles. In spite of — or perhaps because of — this, I’ve long been curious about my family history. It has figured into my literary imagination as a fiction writer, as well as, increasingly, into my real-life activities.

Although I longed to know more about my family history, I didn’t quite believe or realize that I could. Maybe that’s why I instinctively found myself writing fiction about the subject — I didn’t think that I could obtain facts. It all felt sort of mythical to me: the lost world of the shtetl, the old country and Cuba — enigmatic, isolated and vague.

Then, last summer, shortly after I graduated from college, I paid a visit to my great-uncle Joe, 96, and his wife, my great-aunt Ceil, 91, in Providence, R.I. I had not seen them in years, and this was my first time visiting on my own, as a “grownup.” I regretted that I had not had the opportunities to spend more time with them in previous years, but I was grateful to have the chance to rectify that and to forge my own direct bonds of connection.

I had called Uncle Joe a year earlier from Ukraine, where I was teaching English to Jewish elementary school students. Standing outside a synagogue with my Kyivstar rental cell phone pressed to my ear, I told Uncle Joe I was in the old country, and I was hoping to visit the shtetl where he and Grandma Fay were born, except first I was wondering if he might be able to tell me what region of the country it was in. Obtaining the name of the shtetl felt like a profound triumph.

When I visited Uncle Joe and Aunt Ceil in Providence the next summer, I brought with me photos of the shtetl and a deep hunger for information of any sort. What I came away with that day exceeded my wildest hopes and dreams. Uncle Joe shared with me the four spiral-bound notebooks that contained his memoirs-in-progress. He told me he had been working on them for a long time but was having trouble finishing and pulling the stories together. I eagerly offered to provide any help I could. I left Joe and Ceil’s apartment that day clutching the four spiral-bound notebooks protectively as if they were a treasure map. 

I eagerly immersed myself in my great-uncle’s past, overwhelmed by the wealth of information. I set to work on transcribing his vignettes, and Uncle Joe and I talked frequently during the next few weeks: I would call as I read, and we would discuss; I would ask questions, and he would expand on and clarify certain stories.

Then, barely a month after my visit, Uncle Joe passed away. The timing was painful. I was grateful to have had the chance to reconnect with him but devastated by the sudden loss. 

And that is why, this spring, I traveled to Cuba, hoping to see the streets where Uncle Joe and my grandmother lived, the places they learned, played and prayed, and the country of their childhood — or what it had become.

A horse-drawn carriage remains common on Calle Independencia (Independence Street) at the center of Santo Domingo, the small village where the author’s grandmother and great-uncle grew up. Photo by Isabel Kaplan

Like my family, I started my journey through Cuba in Havana. With my uncle’s memoirs and a Lonely Planet city map to guide me, I set off through the bright, grimy, narrow and crumbling streets of Central Havana toward the harbor and the city’s most historic section, Habana Vieja.

When my family first arrived in Havana, they rented a single room for the seven of them on the third floor of a building on Calle Oficios, just a few blocks from Havana Bay Harbor.

In his memoirs, my uncle recalled, “The house where we lived must have been a beautiful palace in its day. The walls of the building were about 3 feet in thickness. The staircases and floors were marble and every room had a huge balcony. … From the flat roof we could watch the beautiful cruise ships come in from overseas. Here on the roof I spent countless hours in pleasant reveries.” He continued, “I understand that in later years, the neighborhood became a depressing slum area, but for me, it still holds wonderful memories.”

I walked down Calle Oficios a number of times during my week in Havana, each time trying to catch a glimpse of a lost time, a lost place and a lost person. 

Today the neighborhood is a striking study in contrasts. In 1982, Habana Vieja was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the city has since embarked on an ambitious project to restore the crumbling and mildewed colonial mansions, repave the narrow cobblestone streets, refresh and invigorate the public squares and restore the historic majesty of the city.

Most of this restoration has centered on buildings and areas with tourist potential, and, unfortunately, Cubans themselves have reaped few benefits of the money being poured into these projects. Dilapidated buildings that have been left to languish, where impoverished Cubans continue to struggle, surround the restored pockets of Habana Vieja. Even the blocks that have been restored are still works in progress. Fresh, brightly painted renovated building facades strike a sharp contrast with mountains of bricks and dusty, newly dug-up streets.

When they first arrived in Cuba, my family relied upon financial support from relatives who had already managed to reach the elusive United States. But these installments of cash were not enough to support a family of seven — and certainly not for an indefinite period of time. My step-great-grandfather could not find work in Havana, so he departed for the interior of the island in search of possible business opportunities. He ultimately set up a dry goods store in the little town of Santo Domingo.

I saved my pilgrimage to Santo Domingo for the end of my two weeks in Cuba — partly because it felt like something to build up to, something to anticipate and savor, and partly because I had no idea how to get to Santo Domingo.

Uncle Joe wrote that Santo Domingo was located on the Carretera Central, the country’s main thoroughfare, in the province of Santa Clara, and I was pleased to find its name as a dot on the country’s map, but nobody I spoke to in Cuba had ever been to Santo Domingo or knew what it was like today. I ended up traveling farther east first, taking a six-hour bus ride from Havana to the city of Trinidad, on the southern coast. From there, the owner of the casa particular — private house — where I was staying helped me hire a driver to take me on a daytrip to Santo Domingo.

The night before I visited Santo Domingo, before I went to sleep, I reread Uncle Joe’s reminiscences about the town and his time there: 

“The dry goods store was on Calle Independencia number 52, next to the post office. The store was on the main street, which later became part of the Carretera Central. … Our living quarters were behind the store. There were several rooms we used as bedrooms. The house was roofed by red tiles. These were used to collect rainwater in barrels. We had to buy drinking water from a campesino who called every few days driving a cart and little tank pulled by a donkey. 

“We were the only Jews in Santo Domingo. The natives had never met many strangers. Cuba had sympathized with Germany in World War I because Germany was a good customer for their sugar and also because of antipathy toward the Big Bully to the north — the United States. And so when we came to live in town, everybody assumed we were from ‘Alemania’ — Germany. We knew that Catholics had little love for Jews, and we did not try to enlighten them. In fact, as children we helped them sing a little Spanish ditty — ‘Aleman, prepara tu cañón’ (German, prepare your cannon).

“Here in Santo Domingo, we children went to elementary school like the other Cubans. For some reason, I was considered a superior student and was always selected to give patriotic orations whenever there was a holiday or school event. We were liked by everybody and made many friends. …

“Near the center of town, there was a square plaza with trees and benches on each border. In the center of the plaza was a gazebo with a stage. Every Sunday evening, local musicians played as people walked round and round. The concert was delightful. These Sunday nights were the highlight of my week.

“Sometime during our stay in Santo Domingo, the leader of the music band approached me and asked if I could sing for him the German national anthem, which he wanted to play next week. All I knew were a few bars of ‘Hatikvah,’ which I hummed for him. Several weeks later he told me that he was surprised at me for not knowing the German national anthem which he had found somewhere. Every Cuban knew the Cuban national anthem, and he could not understand why a German kid did not know the anthem of his country. Could it be because I was not a real Aleman???”

Partially renovated, Calle Oficios in Habana Vieja is the street where the author’s family lived when they first moved from the Soviet Union to Cuba in 1921. Photo by Isabel Kaplan

I tried not to have too many expectations for Santo Domingo. The fact that it existed and I was going to be able to visit it was enough. I couldn’t help but hope that I might be able to track down some of the sites of Uncle Joe’s memories, but I told myself not to expect much. Uncle Joe had been writing about the 1920s, and here I was, almost a century later. There was no way of knowing what had or had not been preserved. 

My driver, Yudelbi, picked me up early in the morning in his car — small, red, Russian and years older than me — and we set off along the Carretera Central. The car had no seatbelts, and a falling mango had caused an impressive web of cracks in the windshield.

The journey began with an hour of driving over the live crabs that perpetually cover the highway leading out of Trinidad. It was good we left in the morning, Yudelbi told me, because the number of crabs — and, in turn, the risk of major tire damage — increases throughout the day. We drove slowly, and I tried not to dwell on the crunching sounds coming from beneath the tires.

We made it to Santo Domingo three hours later, our arrival greeted by a large wire sign on the side of the road that read SANTO DOMINGO: SIEMPRE EN 26, a reference to the 26th of July Movement, which marked the start of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s revolutionary movement to overthrow the Batista government. 

The main street is still called Independencia — although the implications of the name have shifted to suit the times: In my Uncle Joe’s years there, it referred to Cuba’s independence from Spain. Today, like nearly everything else in the country, it is yet another reminder of the communist revolution. 

I walked down Calle Independencia and found No. 52, which is still the site of a general store today, although one that has clearly been remodeled since Uncle Joe’s time. The building is new, and there are spray-painted slogans on the windows: Trabajamos para usted! one reads: We work for you. Another: 54 razones para celebrar, in reference to the 54th anniversary of the revolution. I found the post office, a chess club, a little bookstore, a cathedral and the central town plaza, with its large pathways and trees and dark green benches angled perfectly for people watching.

And along the way, I lost Yudelbi, for the first time that day. As I waited for him, hoping and assuming that he would return, I sat on one of the benches lining the walkway in the plaza and tried to imagine my great-uncle sitting there on Sunday nights.

A Cuban man strolling through the plaza stopped to chat with me. He sat down next to me on the bench. “De que país?” he asked me. What country are you from? And then, before I had a chance to respond, he ventured a guess: “Alemania?”

I smiled. For a moment, for the sake of symmetry, I was tempted to say yes.

My family concealed their Judaism in Santo Domingo out of fear of persecution. Uncle Joe would likely have been shocked — as I was — to hear that there is no anti-Semitism in Cuba. 

It was a difficult idea to wrap my head around. One of the most enduring lessons I learned from years of Hebrew school is that for as long as there have been Jews and non-Jews, there has been anti-Semitism. 

And here I was, in a country famous for its oppressive restrictions on its citizens.

So how could there be no anti-Semitism in Cuba?

Maybe part of it is that, for decades after Castro took power, all religions were considered enemies of the state, and there was no domination by one religious group. 

It’s not that there was no freedom of religion, exactly. You were free to be a Jew or, for example, a Catholic. But if you were, and if you publicly identified as such, then you could not be a member of the Communist Party. And if you were not a member of the Communist Party, you were free to accept the consequences of that.

Needless to say, Cuba was left with few Jews.

Ninety-five percent of Cuba’s Jewish community fled after Castro took power in 1959, and religious life of all stripes languished during the following decades. But then, in the early 1990s, the government removed its religious restrictions, and public religious practices slowly and cautiously returned. Jewish charities stepped in, sending support, material goods and missions to help revive and rebuild the Jewish community in Cuba. Today, there are somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 Jews on the island, most of them concentrated in Havana. Havana has three synagogues: El Patronato, El Centro Sefardi and Adath Israel. There is a Sunday school, youth groups, a senior citizens center, a pharmacy well-stocked entirely with donated medicines at El Patronato, an exhibit on the Holocaust as well as the history of Cuban Jewry at El Centro Sefardi, and even a mikveh at Adath Israel, the one Orthodox synagogue. There is, however, no permanent rabbi — and this is no small issue. The Cuban Jews must wait for visits paid by foreign rabbis on Jewish missions to have religious ceremonies performed.

But there is energy, and there is hope, and there are donations, and there is, I have been told, no anti-Semitism.

Maybe part of it is that, for Cubans, the Jewish narrative is a familiar, sympathetic one: They identify with the underdog story of oppression and perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. 

Many Cubans, as well as Cuban exiles, think of and refer to themselves as los judios del caribe: the Jews of the Caribbean. 

Even Fidel Castro has a soft spot for the Jews. He has visited El Patronato multiple times, and in 2010, he told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, “I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews. … The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours.” 

Rafael Campo, a Cuban-American, wrote a poem titled “The Jews of the Caribbean,” which opens:

“My people, of a solitary star, 
who wander, searching for a home someplace …”

I went to Cuba not in search of a home, but in search of a narrative. In search of an understanding of my uncle, my family and, in turn, myself and my own identity, during a period of major geographic, professional and personal transitions.

Today, I sit at my desk in my new apartment in New York, almost exactly a year after my visit with Uncle Joe, and I look up at a painting I brought back from Cuba and have hung above my desk. The painting is of a wooden door, and there are two flags on it: on top, the Cuban flag, and on the bottom, the Israeli flag. In between the flags, a single word is printed on a sheet of paper, painted to look like it has been affixed to the door with masking tape: SHALOM.

I think of Campo’s poem, and his urging, “My people, save the grains of golden sand / from beaches where your footprints were erased, / save postcards, recipes, the ranch laid waste, / save even what your son can’t understand …”

And I think of Joan Didion, who famously wrote, “We tell stories in order to live. … We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

The working title of my great-uncle’s memoirs is “The Nine Lives of Katz.” 

I’ve found myself trying to squeeze out at least nine more. Uncle Joe may no longer be alive, but his story lives on and will continue to guide me — as I wander, as I tell stories, and as I search for and put down roots of my own.

The Sinagoga Bet Shalom (aka El Patronato) in Havana, is the largest synagogue in Cuba. Photo by Isabel Kaplan