Mobster Meyer Lansky’s heirs seeking compensation for Havana hotel casino

The descendants of Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky are seeking compensation for a hotel casino in Cuba he built in the 1950s.

Talks between the United States and Cuba regarding claims by Americans to property nationalized after the Cuban revolution opened Tuesday, and Lansky’s heirs are considering filing a claim, Reuters reported Thursday.

Gary Rapoport, Lansky’s grandson, told Reuters that he, his mother and his uncle are beneficiaries of Lansky’s estate and thus are entitled to compensation from the Cuban government for the Havana hotel casino, which opened just a year before Fidel Castro took over and outlawed gambling.

Rapoport, 60, said he was raised by Lansky after his mother’s divorce.

“Trust me, I’m not looking to move down to Cuba and take over the business,” Rapoport said. “I believe my family is entitled to something.”

Rapoport, of Tampa, Florida, told Reuters he worked in Lansky’s Miami Beach hotel, the Singapore.

Lansky, who died in 1983, was described in his JTA obituary as an “acknowledged financial wizard and one-time reputed czar of organized crime in the U.S. and many points overseas.”

Over the course of his career, he was associated with such convicted racketeers as Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, both boyhood chums, as well as “Dutch” Schultz, Al Capone and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, the “hit man” of the notorious “Murder Inc.”

But although linked to illicit gambling and other forms of vice, Lansky was never convicted of a serious crime. He went to jail only once — a two-month sentence in 1953 on a gambling conviction in Saratoga, New York.

In 1972, he sought to immigrate to Israel under its Law of Return, but his application was denied because of his criminal past.

He was the inspiration for the Hyman Roth character in the 1974 film “The Godfather: Part II,” according to Reuters. In 1998, Richard Dreyfuss portrayed him in the HBO biopic “Lansky.”

Lansky’s Havana hotel casino, now called the Hotel Riviera Habana, is still operating and its website mentions Lansky’s founding.

While noting that its “mafia and gambling vestiges were quickly scrapped,” the hotel website says the lobby “still reflects elements typical of the era.”

Rapoport told Reuters he is optimistic the Cuban government will consider his family’s claim.

The talks over compensation come in the aftermath of a historic agreement last year to thaw U.S.-Cuba ties. Jewish contractor Alan Gross, who had been in a Cuban prison for five years, was released as part of the deal.

Alan Gross, ‘normalization’ of U.S.-Cuba relations and the American spy flying under the radar

The news on Dec. 17 about the sudden thaw in diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana was so surprising that we really won’t know for months — or years — what the impact will be. In the meantime, here are seven key points about the deal:

1. The timing made sense.

President Barack Obama knew he would draw sharp criticism from powerful Republican and Democratic politicians, and in just a few weeks, Republicans will officially take control of the Senate, giving them a much louder microphone. If Obama had any hesitation about political blowback from an outgoing Congress, his feet would be a lot colder in February.

He also found himself in the position of trying to accomplish something without hurting his party’s chances of retaining the White House in 2016. In that regard, timing was, again, important. In six months, most Americans will forget anything ever happened. It helps that the political gamble may not have been huge — and perhaps not even a gamble. Polls indicate a majority of Americans support Obama’s detente.

2. Gross was not the most valuable American in captivity.

Gross is the face of this deal, but perhaps the real ace in the hole was Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban-born spy who was apparently a treasured American intelligence agent. It appears that Trujillo, like Gross, was always going to be a crucial piece of any larger diplomatic breakthrough. All we know about him is that he was in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years and was working for the Cuban government as a cryptologist before the CIA turned him.

Trujillo helped uncover numerous Cuban intelligence operations in the U.S. and apparently even helped bring down the “Cuban Five,” intelligence agents who were arrested in Florida in 1998 and convicted and imprisoned for espionage. The three remaining Cuban prisoners (one died and one was released) were also always going to be part of any prisoner deal or normalization.

3. The normalization deal favors Cuba.

Washington demanded little from Havana in exchange for normalized relations and the privilege of hosting an American embassy in Havana. We don’t know whether Cuba would release Gross without a larger detente, but if the two aspects of the deal are analyzed separately, Havana clearly won the normalization part. It held on to its communist political and economic systems, and did not renounce any of its routine human rights abuses.

The extent of Cuba’s compromise in this deal was a yet-to-be-fulfilled commitment to release 53 prisoners being held in Cuban prisons.

4. The U.S. owed it to Gross to make a deal, even a bad one.

The State Department put the administration in this position when it sent Gross to Cuba in 2009 on what can be called a crackpot, democracy-building mission. Gross had zero experience or training in covert or discreet fieldwork. In Cuba, setting up illegal Internet networks without attracting attention requires someone with operational experience in totalitarian countries; Gross was not that person. He’s a telecommunications expert who had a passion for bringing 21st-century technology to underserved communities.

5. U.S.-Cuba relations are still far from normal.

The focus on the restoration of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba distracts from the fact that the deal does little to restore any type of open economic relationship. Only Congress can lift America’s economic embargo on Cuba and, even if that is lifted, only the Cuban government can pull its own population out of abject poverty by opening its market.

A fact sheet put together by the White House notes American businesses will be authorized to export “certain building materials for private residential construction, goods for use by private sector entrepreneurs and agricultural equipment for small farmers.” U.S. banks and financial institutions will be able to open accounts at Cuban banks, and American travelers will be able to use credit and debit cards in Cuba. But the impact of these moves likely will be marginal.

6. Life in Cuba still will be miserable for the average Cuban.

American telecommunications companies will be able to export equipment that will (hopefully) be used to connect more Cubans to the Internet. The big question, though, is whether the Castro regime will give Cubans any meaningful access to the outside world.

The agreement does little, if anything, to change the totalitarian nature of the regime. It wasn’t designed to do that. But maybe it’s the first step. Supporters of this deal have long said that increasing the amount of interaction between Cubans and Americans (and American goods) may also increase the penetration of American ideas into Cuba.

7. American Jews made sure Gross’ freedom was a deal-breaker.

Addressing the media in Washington, Gross sounded thrilled to be home. After five years in confinement, he was eager to thank everyone who helped make the deal happen, including the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and its executive director, Ron Halber, who was among Gross’ loudest advocates, along with his wife, Judy, and attorney, Scott Gilbert.

Halber organized signature campaigns that were sent to top White House officials, led vigils outside a Cuban government office in Washington and met with State Department officials to discuss Gross’ fate. Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (the parent body of the JCRC), told the Journal in September that American Jews had to continue pushing for Gross’ release in order to ensure he remained a top priority on the State Department’s to-do list.

We may never know the extent of the impact Jewish leaders had in ensuring that Washington demanded Gross’ release as part of a larger deal, but their work surely helped keep his fate at the forefront of the minds of key players in Washington.

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

Opinion: Our man in Havana

I just returned from a week in Cuba on a people-to-people exchange tour to meet with members of Jewish communities in several cities and to learn about the country.

It has intrigued me that this weak and crumbling country has the mighty United States so terrified that we would rather deal with Vietnam, North Korea, Syria and Iran before talking to the Castro regime.  Much is the result of politicians of both parties who fear the disproportionate power wielded by a small but influential and vindictive émigré community, primarily in south Florida.

Fidel Castro, 85, is in failing health and has turned over the presidency to his brother, Raul, 80.  The Castro era is over, we heard from academics and others we met, and the country is entering a period of transition; the Americans are very likely to miss an opportunity to help shape the future because our policy is driven by forces more concerned with revenge on the Castros and getting back property lost in the 1959 revolution.

Cuba is a failed state with a deteriorating economy and infrastructure. It is said that three buildings collapse every day in Havana. More than half a century after the revolution, Cubans still have food rationing and extensive shortages of essential commodities including medicines.

Participants in Jewish missions are asked to bring such basic staples as medicines, toiletries, toothpaste, soap, first aid kits, as well as sports equipment, musical instrument and art supplies, dance shoes and attire for children.  Medicines of any kind go to the Patranato, the large Havana synagogue which operates a community pharmacy.

Many people can’t get electricity around the clock.  The plumbing is often in disrepair and unreliable. The government controls the media and there is no independent news coverage.  Only the hotels for foreign tourists and the few Cubans with power and money can get foreign cable news; CNN and China’s CCTV broadcast English and Spanish channels, when it is working.

Internet service is rare, antiquated, expensive, tightly controlled and at the heart of a Cuban-American dispute that involves Jewish communities in both countries.

Alan Gross, from the Washington, D.C. suburb of Potomac, MD, was a subcontractor hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of an American initiative to promote democracy by bringing computer and communications equipment for the Cuban Jewish community.

He made five trips in 2009 – the year after the ban on ownership of computers and mobile phones was lifted – until he was arrested as he prepared to leave on December 3 and charged with bringing in electronic equipment without the required Cuban government permits.

He had traveled that year with several missions sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, asking participants to put small items like modems, cables, cell phones in the carry-on bags – but not checked luggage where it might be inspected – and return it to him after leaving the airport. Gross brought the larger items and apparently had no trouble getting them into the country.  Their bus would drop him at his hotel and they wouldn’t see him again until boarding their return flights.

When they found out about Gross’s arrest, some of those who had helped him and been assured there was no risk, felt they’d been needlessly put at risk.

When I arrived in Cuba earlier this month I had to fill out a customs form asking whether I was bringing in satellite or other communications equipment.  I was not.

Gross was accused of attempting to “undermine the integrity and independence” of Cuba and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Cuban President Raul Castro told two visiting U.S. senators in February that Gross “was no spy,” but he refused the request of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Richard Shelby (R-AL) to let them take him home.

My conversations with Cubans I met – no government officials, per se, but all meetings had to be approved by the government – left no doubt that the real motivation behind Gross’s arrest was very likely a swap for five Cuban intelligence agents serving prison sentences in the United States.

One of those Cubans, Rene Gonzalez, was paroled and allowed to return to Cuba for 15 days to visit his terminally ill brother, prompting efforts to persuade the Cubans to reciprocate by letting Gross visit his mother, 90, who has inoperable lung cancer, and his daughter who has breast cancer.  There was hope that both men would be able to stay at home and not return, but the Castro government refused.  Gonzales returned to Florida this week.

Gross, who gets one phone call a week, used last week’s to contact NBC’s Andrea Mitchell with a simple plea, “Get me the hell out of here.”  He told her, as his family and friends continue to insist, “I did nothing legally or morally wrong.”

The Cubans have suggested a five-for-one swap, which under standards set by the Israeli government in exchanging a single prisoner for over a thousand terrorists, doesn’t seem like much.  But the Cuban Five, who were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder and other crimes, are symbolically more important to both governments.

A swap for Gross would be popular in the Jewish community but not in the Cuban-American community, which rails against any deals with the “terrorist regime” in Havana, especially since it could mean handing the Castros a major propaganda victory.

Signs extolling the five as heroes are seen around Cuba and their giant size portraits are on the memorial to revolutionary hero Che Guevara.

And in this volatile political year, where Florida’s electoral votes could be decisive, a swap is highly unlikely.

Meanwhile, it seems unlikely the Cubans will send Alan Gross home any time soon.  Like relations between the two countries, he is being held hostage to outmoded, counterproductive and politically motivated policies.

High Ideals and a Hot Bod

Writers as varied as Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott have written of the exotic beauty of Jewish women. But what about Jewish men?

In “It Happened in Havana,” a new play by Raul De Cardenas, that is playing at the Bilingual Foundation for the Arts, Marcos, a Jewish Cuban American, attracts the attention of three sisters and other assorted women, who describe him as “an appetizer,” a “dessert” and other delectations. They can tell that there is something different about him, an idealistic streak, a fierce integrity leavened by a kind of playfulness. Only later does he tell them he is Jewish.

De Cardenas, 67, is Catholic, but his work is informed by family ties to Jews and a lifetime of impressions. He remembers watching newsreels of concentration camps when his parents took him to movie theaters toward the end of World War II. And he grew up with a Jewish aunt and Jewish cousins.

In Marcos, De Cardenas has created a dreamer who is pragmatic without losing his humanity. In the plot’s love triangle, there is one woman who shares his imagination and independence.

The play conspicuously recalls “Romeo and Juliet” with its lovers from warring families, but lacks that play’s tragedy, taking on instead the magical quality of some of the Bard’s later plays. Cuba here becomes a stand-in for the enchanted island in “The Tempest” with Fernanda, the matriarch, a bigoted, female version of Prospero, trying to cast a spell over and rule the lives of all of the subjects in her sphere.

While the Bilingual Foundation for the Arts typically stages plays that were written or take place in the Renaissance, “Havana” is set on Christmas Eve, 1902, just after Cuba has become an independent republic.

A nice touch occurs when Claudia, a vibrant idealist herself, quotes Cuban patriot Jose Marti, only to have her sentence finished by Marcos, quoting Moses. The seamless connection underscores a shared spirit and the dream of all people to be free.

“You can send a message much better with a smile than a tear,” De Cardenas says.

“It Happened In Havana” runs through May 21. All remaining performances are in Spanish: Thurs., Fri., Sat. at 8 p.m.; matinees Sat. at 4 p.m., Sun. at 3 p.m. Bilingual Foundation for the Arts, 421 N. Avenue 19, Lincoln Heights, (323) 225-4044.


Cuban Jews’ Plight Sparks Drive to Help

Tourist Cuba is a bit like a time-machine ride through a Cold War theme park. Vintage Detroit autos rumble past charming Havana hotels refurbished to their pre-revolutionary glory. Posters for featured movies at a film festival keep company with ones that blare slogans like, "La Revolucion Siempre," or the revolution always.

Yet, when Roe Gruber and her daughter took a Havana apartment for a month last summer, the Tustin residents were able to escape the tourist cocoon. They learned new skills, like coping with Third World shortages by offering bribes for tomatoes and theater tickets.

Along the way, they were warmly welcomed by an anemic population of 1,300 Jews, who after 40 years only recently have been permitted to resuscitate religious practices without risk of political stigma.

In a nation of 11 million, where a physician earns $25 a month and government-owned housing is left to decay, among the worst off are elderly Jews, most of them refugees from Nazi oppression and without surviving relatives for outside support. They scrape by in crumbling apartments on $3-a-month pensions and ration cards for food and clothing.

Such privations ignited a passion in Gruber, whose parents were Holocaust survivors. "Any of those women could have been my grandma," she said.

Like Dina Nudelfunden, 78, who prizes the 1953 Coldspot refrigerator in her kitchen, equipped with a one-burner stove. She spends two hours each day commuting for a hot meal served at her Orthodox synagogue, one of five in Havana.

She was overjoyed when Gruber and her daughter, Daniella, delivered a sackful of groceries and $10. "You would have thought I gave her gold," Gruber said.

Or Eva Nissembaum, 78, who shares two cinderblock rooms with three brothers. One is Maximo, 69, a victim of childhood polio, who cannot leave the apartment because his wheelchair is broken.

Since her first venture to Cuba three years ago, Gruber, by trade a travel agent who specializes in exotic locations, has organized a tzedakah (charity) project that is unusual on several counts.

Aid for religious, humanitarian or educational purposes is permitted into Cuba for nonprofit groups that apply for a federally sanctioned license. Gruber established the Sephardic Friendship Committee, so-named assuming the origin of Cuba’s Jews — wrongly as it turned out, since many of Cuba’s Jews immigrated from Ashkenazic countries.

Advertising lures fellow travelers who are each expected to schlep 20 pounds in donated food, clothing and medical supplies that Gruber collects. Some are also persuaded that they have acquired disabilities requiring the need of a wheelchair. Miraculously, they always leave Cuba cured and are forced to jettison their wheelchairs — a precious commodity in a nation where food is rationed and medicine is scarce.

After a 1998 papal visit to Cuba, Fidel Castro lifted the ban on organized religion imposed when he seized power in 1959. Soon after, details emerged about a quiet exodus to Israel of 400 Cuban Jews underway since 1995. Israel’s Jewish Agency made a deal with Castro for silence, in return for obstacle-free emigration, the report said.

Before the revolution, Cuba’s Jewish population was 15,000, supporting five synagogues, three Jewish elementary schools and a network of cultural, social and Zionist groups. The Balkan wars of 1910 had brought a steady stream of Jewish exiles from Turkey. Impoverished Polish and Romanian Jews arrived after World War I. And a third wave of immigrants fled Europe in the 1930s.

In Castro’s Cuba, though, the tide of emigres reversed direction. Havana’s largest synagogue fell into disrepair, its ceiling missing tiles and birds flying through broken windows.

Today, 150 younger, middle-class families flock to the repaired sanctuary of the Reform synagogue, which doubles as a Jewish Community Center and pharmacy, all known as the Patronato. In the absence of a rabbi, Dr. Jose Miller, a retired surgeon, is its leader.

A photo on its wall shows Miller posing with Castro, who attended a 1998 Chanukah party at Miller’s invitation. Visiting rabbis perform conversions of the many non-Jewish spouses, giving the tropical Diaspora a multiethnic mix.

"They had not been allowed to be Jewish openly. Now, they are really excited about it," Gruber said. "It’s not taken for granted."

Last June, she informally started a Cuba fund drive at her Conservative synagogue, Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel, and her daughter’s school, Irvine’s Tarbut V’Torah. Her goal was $3,600, enough to double the annual income for each of 30 elderly Jews.

"That’s not what happened," she said. "It was amazing."

Gruber ended up with $6,000 and is now considering how to expand the committee’s support beyond food staples to assist the elderly with home repairs. She returned to Cuba last month to meet with Miller, who plays a role in distributing charity.

Gruber and her 15-year-old daughter took a fourth-floor walk-up apartment while enrolled at the University of Havana in an intensive Spanish-language course. Gruber wanted to see the Jewish community from the inside.

At Havana’s 400-bed Children’s Hospital, she found quality medical care provided by well-educated staff, but a shortage of medicine and equipment. Dr. Sylvia Leone begged her for syringes. On the streets, women would approach Gruber, rubbing their forearms, a signal they were seeking soap.

Cuba is currency starved. After losing an estimated $5.8 billion a year in subsidies from its chief benefactor, the former Soviet Union, Cuba’s economic plight grew worse last year because of the worldwide decline in tourism. Clothing rations for each citizen were cut from three articles to none this year. Desperate for dollars, the Cuban government is restoring portions of Havana to lure tourists and loosening rules on foreign charity efforts.

Several other United States-based groups also are intent on aiding Cuban Jews. The Berkeley-based Cuba-America Jewish Mission started as a Hadassah membership drive in 1994 and has returned 14 times since, said June Safran, its executive director. "I saw that I could do some good," she said.

The Cuban Jewish Relief Project of B’nai B’rith’s Center for Public Policy in Philadelphia estimates it has shipped $3 million in supplies to Cuba over three years. At least six U.S. synagogues have Cuban projects.

However, some in the Cuban exile community are ambivalent about aid, viewing it as perpetuating a government they oppose.

"One thing we don’t advocate is starving," said Dennis K. Hays, a former U.S. ambassador and executive vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation, the oldest and largest exile community.

"Well-meaning individuals get pulled into the regime’s orbit," Hays said. "With some effort you can get it into the hands of the people."

Hays warned that charitable groups should be suspicious of having to rely on an "official interlocutor."

"Our position is we support efforts that help Cuban people," Hays said. "If they are going down and working independently, we would be supportive."

Gruber returned to the United States with a fresh perspective. In the supermarket, the produce manager wondered why she remained rooted in front of a heap of tomatoes.

"It makes you realize there’s an imbalance," she said. "We have too much, and they have too little."