The Havana Jewish Social Club

My husband and I arrived in Havana in the early hours of Sunday morning; we had flown to Cuba via Tijuana to spend a week exploring and, hopefully, to find someone in the Jewish community to speak with. Although the majority of Cuban Jews had fled to the United States and Israel after the 1959 revolution, I wanted to find a typical family that had remained, and to hear about their life now that Castro had opened the way for religious freedom.

As we left customs, we caught a taxi to our hotel. Speeding down the main artery into Havana, we passed large billboards with revolutionary slogans, crowds of people waiting for the bus. The pace seemed immediately different: Lovers strolled in slow motion, bicycles meandered down the street. We arrived at our hotel in tree-lined Vedado at 3:30 a.m., too excited to sleep.

The next day, we set out to find the Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba, or Patronato, as it is known, located near our hotel. After a half hour of walking in circles, we finally found it. A once-prosperous Conservative synagogue and community center built in the 1950s, the Patronato is still a grand building, taking up the entire corner of Calle I and 13.

Inside, an attractive woman in her early 60s emerged from the office and greeted us. She introduced herself as Adela Dworin, the vice president and librarian of the Patronato. (Her English was impeccable.) She was wearing a spiffy black outfit, studded with Jewish stars, and her light-colored hair and complexion reminded me, uncannily, of the women in my own family.

I told her what I wanted to do, and she smiled. “That might be difficult,” she said. There was a long silence, and I feared all might be lost when Adela offered: “But you could interview me. I am your typical Jewish family.”

And so she was. Due to a system of quotas that limited U.S. immigration in the 1920s, Adela’s mother and father followed the path of many Eastern Europeans out of an economically deprived Europe, into the lush waters of the Caribbean, to make Cuba their home.

Adela Dworin’s father came to Cuba from Pinsk in 1924, her mother in 1930. Back then, a young man’s dream was to come to Cuba for a few short years, make enough money and then re-emigrate to the States. “They used to call Cuba ‘Hotel Cuba,’ ” Adela said.