Danielle Minson — How You Help
Complex Paradise: A Visit to Jewish Cuba
Update: WCPO.com just published a related story by Evelyn specifically about her mom: Seeing Cuba through my mother’s eyes, 50 years after she fled
A group of 33 women just returned from a trip to Cuba, February 17-22, organized by Felicia Zakem of Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati. I asked Evelyn Fisher of Amberley and Suzi Brant of Indian Hill, trip co-chairs, to share the highlights. Of particular note, Evelyn’s mother, Cila Gold, accompanied them—it was her first time back to Cuba after fleeing over fifty years ago. The travelers ranged from 35 to 83 years old. —Danielle
Interview by Danielle V. Minson, Chief Development Officer, Jewish Federation of Cincinnati
So how did you plan the trip?
Evelyn: We wanted to learn about the culture, the people, and the island, with a Jewish perspective.
Suzi: Evelyn was perfect for this. Because she knew Cuba from her mom—
Can you tell our readers about your family ties to Cuba, Evelyn?
Evelyn: My parents fled Cuba for the United States in 1960, when they were in their mid-twenties. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, but I have always felt like a Cuban Jew. Luckily we have always had strong representation of that in both Puerto Rico and Miami, where my mom lives now. We call ourselves Jewban, Cuban Jews. Some people laugh at the term, but that’s what we say, at least my generation.
What was most personally meaningful along Jewish lines about this trip?
Evelyn: For me, it was when we went to the synagogue, Patronato—that’s where my parents got married. To see where they got married and where everything happened. It was probably the first time I saw my mom get a little emotional about being in Cuba. Also spending the day with my mom visiting where she lived, went to school, and hearing all her memories as we went.
Did your parents leave partly because they were Jewish?
Evelyn: No absolutely not—
Suzi: Cuba has no antisemitism and no racism. It’s amazing. But, for two generations there was no synagogue; there was no religion under Castro. It wasn’t antisemitism; no one could practice their religion. [pauses] We went to services Friday night, and to think you can go to Cuba or anyplace in the world, and attend Friday night services, and you could be at Adath Israel or Wise Temple and—you get goose bumps. Because you’re all Jewish, and there’s this commonality that is so special. And the young people who participated were heart-warming to see. Because they had no religious anything for two generations, and these kids are coming back. We went to dinner there afterwards and it was full and lively and fun. There’s joy.
Evelyn: It was neat to listen to it in Spanish too—and I liked the Spanish accent with the Hebrew.
What was most meaningful about going with a women’s group?
Evelyn: Going to Cuba and experiencing it with my mom, but also being able to share this experience with a wonderful group of women.
Suzi: It was a wonderful group. And if somebody got ill the whole group was worried about them—
Evelyn: —well, Jewish mothers! [both laugh]
Suzi: I would do it again in a heartbeat. It’s very special going with women instead of a group because instead of concentrating on your husband or mate you can concentrate on the group.
Evelyn: The trip itself was more about women getting to know each other and forming a bond, and community sharing, and coming back and hopefully getting more involved because you care about the community and each other.
Is Cuba is a poor, poverty-stricken country, or is it paradise?
Evelyn: Cuba is a complicated place. You learn to be skeptical. A lot of times our guide would say something and my mom would say, “That’s not true, that’s not true”—and you should have seen her face! Well he works for the government so he may have to say what he has to say. Or, take the phrase, “This is Cuba” T.I.C. In other words, things go wrong, or they’ll say it if things take a long time. Our tour guide said it pretty often, a couple of times a day.
Suzi: I feel the people were amazing. I think that Americans would perceive them as unhappy when you see how they live, but they are not unhappy—they make lemonade out of what they have. One day we were walking past what had been a beautiful old house which was now—I think—a music academy, but there were these young girls of various ages in a choir, singing. So we walk in, and they’re putting out chairs for us to sit, and then a man came forward, maybe he was the director—oh what a voice. I just think they have a very normal life, only they don’t have the means that we have. I’ve traveled a lot. I think it was a happier place than any place I’ve ever been. And these people really have nothing, most of them.
Evelyn: I think the most personally meaningful for me about the trip was to see it through [my mom’s] eyes.
Suzi: Seeing things through Cila’s eyes was amazing. It was like going to Poland with a survivor. That was very special, to me, and I think to everyone on the trip.
How was the trip for your mom?
Evelyn: She loved it. She was always gonna love Cuba. She said it was the Paris of the West—
Suzi: Oh my god it had to have been paradise. It must have been gorgeous.
Evelyn: It reminds me a lot of Puerto Rico. The architecture, no, but just—the whole feel. It was paradise, and you get kicked out and paradise gets ruined. You know she was really apprehensive about going and she was really nervous and I was worried she’d be so depressed. But she left there so happy and so excited. To the point that my dad had no desire to go, and now, he’s saying, let’s all go back. And that’s big. I’m happy she got to go back.
All the women who went on the trip are Lions of Judah and, in order to qualify to attend, either increased their 2016 Annual Campaign Gift to the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati by 20%, or documented an endowment to the community. The trip included American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) sites, Jewish cemeteries, a synagogue, a Jewish neighborhood, a meeting with members of the Jewish community, art galleries, a craft market, and museums.
Related story: the fuller, fascinating story of Cila’s journey on this trip, written by Evelyn Fisher. Enjoy!