Mojitos and Matzah Balls in Havana
Care for an authentic Cuban mojito at the L’chaim bar? How about Israeli salad, matzah ball soup and cheese blintzes?
They’re all now on the menu at the Hotel Raquel, Cuba’s first boutique hotel catering specifically to adventurous Jewish tourists.
Richly illustrated passages from the Bible cover the walls of the small but elegant property, located in what was once a thriving Jewish neighborhood of Old Havana.
The 25-room hotel originally was built as a bank in 1908, a time when thousands of impoverished Jews from Eastern Europe, Turkey and Syria were immigrating to Cuba.
After the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, nearly all of the Jews fled to the United States and elsewhere. Today, no more than 1,300 Jews live in Cuba, most in Havana.
For many years, the structure housing the Raquel was used as a warehouse and fabric depot. Now, its eclectic architecture and romantic Art Nouveau interiors — all refurbished — have made the Raquel a jewel in the crown of Habaguanex S.A., the state entity charged with fixing up Old Havana’s hotels and restaurants.
The property is located six blocks from Congregacion Adat Israel, Cuba’s oldest synagogue, and boasts the largest stained-glass window on the island.
General manager Jose Manuel Quesada said that since the Raquel’s inauguration in June, it has become popular with Spanish tourists as well as Americans circumventing the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba.
He expects the occupancy rate to reach 80 to 85 percent this winter, thanks to an influx of visitors from France, Germany and Great Britain.
In addition to American Jews, the Raquel clearly hopes to attract tourists from Israel. Though Castro broke off relations with the Jewish State in 1973, tour operators in Tel Aviv estimate that at least 10,000 Israelis have visited Cuba.
Near the Raquel is a kosher butcher shop and a bakery. Some Jewish families still live in the vicinity, and according to Leal, at least seven hotel employees are Jewish.
Eusebio Leal Spengler, director of Habaguanex and Havana’s official historian, said the revival of Jewish culture at the Hotel Raquel is a long and involved process.
“We have built a place of harmony in a Havana neighborhood that respects the best traditions of the Jewish people, members of a community that live in Cuba together with citizens of other beliefs,” he said.
In high season, rooms at the Raquel start at $180 for a double, going up to $282 a night for one of the hotel’s two junior suites. These prices include a welcome cocktail, breakfast, access to a safe, free entrance to all museums and 10 percent off at all Habaguanex-managed restaurants.
The Jewish touch seems to be everywhere in the building, with rooms on the second floor named after biblical matriarchs like Sarah, Hannah, Leah, Ruth and Tziporah. First-floor rooms have names like David and Solomon.
It’s the only hotel in Cuba whose phone system plays the theme song from “Schindler’s List” when callers must be placed on hold.
Four ornate chandeliers patterned after Stars of David hang in the lobby, while contemporary paintings by Cuban Jewish artist Jose Farinis hang on the hotel’s walls.
The lobby bar, meanwhile, is named L’chaim. It’s right next to the Bezalel boutique and gift shop, which sells Judaica, and the Garden of Eden restaurant, where guests can choose a variety of kosher-style items ranging from potato latkes to red beet borscht and vegetable knishes.
For really hungry tourists, the Garden of Eden offers lamb shishlik, sweet-and-sour beef tongue, Hungarian goulash and gefilte fish.
Quesada says the hotel never cooks vegetables together with meat, but Pavel Tenenbaum, a Cuban Jew who used to work at the hotel, says the Raquel does not follow the rules of kashrut.
Time to Eat the Doughnuts
Q: What’s better than a piping hot Krispy Kreme doughnut?
A: A piping hot kosher Krispy Kreme doughnut — and just in time for Chanukah, which has a holiday tradition of eating fried foods like doughnuts.
Ever since the franchise expanded beyond its Southeast roots, Krispy Kreme has been held up as an example of the ultimate doughnut treat. Now observant Jews can finally discover what all the fuss is about, since the Southern California version of the popular pastry received kosher certification this month through Kosher Supervision of America (KSA). The certification includes all varieties, from the original glazed to the chocolate-iced and custard-filled.
"We certify the doughnuts, not the establishments because they are open for Shabbat," said Rabbi Tzemach Rosenfeld, a KSA mashgiach, who noted that the doughnuts and the prepacked beverages are kosher as well.
Roger Glickman, president of Great Circle Family Foods, the Southern California developer of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, said his company had been deluged with requests for kosher certification since Krispy Kreme shops first opened here in 1999. He said the company has always used kosher ingredients, but needed to wait until there was greater demand for the product to invest in the certification process, and now that there are 21 stores and grocery distribution, it is time.
The certification opens up several fundraising options for the Jewish community. Glickman said already he has been contacted by a number of Jewish day schools inquiring about the partnership program that makes doughnuts available to nonprofit and community organizations at a deep discount. The organization then arranges a "Doughnut Day" during which they sell the doughnuts at a substantial markup. The company also has a program using "partnership cards," which are sold to the nonprofit organizations for $5 and are typically resold by the organization for about $10. The bearer of the card can then redeem it for 10 dozen original glazed doughnuts.
Rosenfeld said the response he’s received since the certification has been tremendous.
"There is something unique about a Krispy Kreme," the rabbi said, adding that although he doesn’t indulge in them himself, "The feedback I get from the people is they just melt in your mouth."
It’s not every day a grown woman gets her cheeks pinched by another woman who’s tickled pink to see her eating, but then Yvonne Haller is no ordinary French restaurateur.
She’s one of the handful of honorary Jewish mothers — actually elegantly coifed and no doubt WASPy grande dames — who make the winstubs (wine bars) of Strasbourg so special; even heads of state gather to discuss business at their crowded trestle tables rather than somewhere more private.
Chez Yvonne has hosted European leaders, while members of the rock group, Radiohead, were equally unlikely guests at Le Clou, round the corner. These convivial hostelries and dozens like them provide a disarmingly homely counterpoint to the grave institutions that bring so many suits — politicians, lawyers and lobbyists — to the European city.
Perhaps the haimish ambiance is the result of Jewish influence — the community may have been decimated during the war, but Alsace has a phenomenally strong Jewish heritage reaching far beyond city limits. More than 200 historic sites document a shtetl system to rival Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the region was home to half of France’s Jews. All but a quarter were wiped out by the Nazis, but Strasbourg remains a Jewish haven thanks to an influx of Sephardim from North Africa who have been enthusiastically embraced by the remaining Ashkenazim.
The blood link makes a visit to one of the prettiest parts of France particularly resonant for the Jewish visitor, who will find antique synagogue furnishings of magnificent quality in Strasbourg’s exquisite Musee Alsacien. There are also a host of other museums, synagogues and other testaments to Jewish life across the region.
Strasbourg, which has a host of magnificent museums, houses medieval Jewish tombstones in its Musee de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame; there is also a third-century mikvah that can be visited, the inevitable Rue des Juifs and two restaurants specializing in Jewish Alsatian cuisine. Although the magnificent Gothic synagogue was destroyed by the Germans in 1940, many beautiful shuls (Moorish in Thann, neoclassical in Haguenau, neoromanesque in Struth) still stand in the countryside, notably the 1791 temple in Pfaffenhoffen with its matzah oven and superb painted ark.
Even without the Jewish sites and heritage tours on offer, Alsace would be a delight and Strasbourg its crown jewel. The most decorated city in France, where every wooden surface seems to be exquisitely carved, every piece of cloth embroidered, every wineglass etched and every piece of pottery hand-painted, the riot of ornament somehow comes across as far from sweet, more a celebration of life.
To get an overview, take immediately to the water; bateaux-mouches (river boats) await in front of the Palais Rohan, where a teenage Marie-Antoinette came to be married. You will float through the picturesque ancient quarter of La Petite France into the handsome harbor and upriver to see the breathtaking buildings that are Strasbourg’s modern raison d’etre — the elliptically elegant European Parliament and swirly, swaggering Court of Human Rights designed by Richard Rodgers.
Once off the boat, your first stop in the engrossing Old Town should be the world’s prettiest and most engaging cathedral. Reminiscent of a pink wedding cake on the outside, the interior boasts a magnificent 16th-century astronomical clock whose 12:30 p.m. performance is not to be missed. The clock portal outside the cathedral is remarkable, too, not the least because it is flanked on one side by a piece of ancient synagogue statuary. Around the cathedral lies a warren of streets rich in winstubs and fine shops. The best shop for regional products is the large emporium on the square where you disembark the bateaux-mouches, lying in wait for the discerning tourists with fine linens, painted cookware and the carved iron for which the region is also famous.
Strasbourg is rich in well-priced, comfortable hostelries like the Tulip Inn-Hannong, where elegant rooms range from $60 to $125 per night. In a smart shopping street only a five-minute stroll from the Old Town, it offers a quieter alternative to the Maison Kammerzell, a hotel-restaurant famous for its ornate medieval exterior, and other lodgings close to the cathedral.
Although there is enough in the city to command a dedicated weekend trip, it would be a shame to miss the riches of the surrounding region. Colmar is another handsome town packed with fine museums and Jewish heritage sites. The Musee Bartholdi, dedicated to the creator of the Statue of Liberty, contains a collection of artifacts and works amassed by the Historical and Contemporary Jewish Art Fund, but the town’s most justly famous museum is the Unterlinden, a former Dominican convent with 13th-century cloister, packed with fabulous mediaeval art and a famous altarpiece.
Like Strasbourg, a river runs through it, and it’s delightful to have lunch by the water during summer; head for the Tanners’ District and Little Venice. Although Colmar does have a luxurious riverside hotel, it is more pleasant yet to stay in one of the surrounding villages on Alsace’s delightful Route des Vins.
While picnics are a good reason to summer in Alsace’s rolling hills, December is when the region, famous for its Christmas markets, is at its most atmospheric and entrancing. Strasbourg’s festive lights are simply unforgettable.