I quickly came to love the banyan trees in Havana. The banyan is distinctive because it grows on another plant: carried by one type of wasp, it begins life as a fig seed that germinates in the crevice of another tree. Starting at the top, it eventually covers the host with its roots until they settle on the ground like snakes. For me their symbolism was unavoidable because I was in Cuba in search of my roots.
In 1950 when my father was nine he moved from Antwerp in Belgium to Havana and lived there for just over a year. Cuba was a refuge, both from the past and from a feared-for future. In 1943 my father’s parents, both Orthodox Jews, were sent to Nazi concentration camps. Throughout the war a succession of Christian families hid my father. Astonishingly, his mother returned to Belgium alive in 1945 and was reunited with her son. But, as the cold war heated up, many Jews in Europe were scared they could be in danger once again. So my father’s family fled to Cuba, hoping to end up in America where they had relatives.
This is all I really know about his past. On the few occasions I’ve probed him, my father’s brief answers suggested that, out of necessity, he had closed the door on a traumatic childhood. I didn’t know his family, because his mother cut him off when he chose to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish. I lost my extended family and our shared history, as well as the chance of having a faith.
Although my father had a strict religious upbringing, we went to synagogue together for the first time only a year ago. The time suddenly felt right. My father has remained Jewish in spirit but in practice he has found it hard to create a new kind of religious identity, knowing that the Orthodox synagogues of his childhood wouldn’t accept his daughter. Both his faith and heritage dissipated with my birth.
The one place my 78-year-old father does talk about is Cuba. “I had the nicest bedroom I’ve ever had,” he told me once, “with large windows and green shutters covered by bougainvillaea.” The boy who’d spent years hidden in dark, cramped rooms relished days drenched in sunlight, swimming in the ocean. By revisiting the flowers and the sea together, I thought we might find a way to open up his past. So together we escaped wintry London and headed to Havana.
On our first morning in the Cuban capital I noticed the banyan trees growing in the street outside Beth Shalom, Cuba’s oldest surviving synagogue. It’s a far cry from the makeshift houses my father remembers praying in. Built in 1952, two years after he lived there, Beth Shalom is an ambitious piece of post-war modernist architecture. The building’s svelte white curves are in keeping with the pastel-coloured houses that surround it.
Adela Dworin, the smiling, energetic president of this synagogue, is one of the few people here who still dresses like a European Jew, in a cream, high-necked blouse. I asked her if we could go to a service, and that Friday evening we watched a group of 19-year-olds brushing each other’s long hair before the prayers, their tanned midriffs exposed. They suddenly looked serious as they each donned a fringed prayer shawl, familiar to my father from his childhood, and then led the service as we followed along in our prayer books.
The vibrant singing of the young women marked out their Cuban heritage: the same melodious voices we heard singing in salsa bands around town now intoned the ancient prayers. The singing, dancing and ease of touch of these Cuban Jews showed they are a freer generation than the older ones, whose religious identity is bound up in far away, different cultures.
I had felt awkward when we’d been to synagogue together in London six months earlier but in Havana, where Jewishness felt more unexpected to me, it seemed easier to be in this place of worship. The community has learned to embrace those who wish to join. When the synagogue was first built, hundreds of people used to attend each service, according to Dworin, and men and women sat separately. Now everyone prays together: “Sometimes there are only ten people.”
This story is repeated as we visit Havana’s two other synagogues: an Orthodox one in Old Havana and a Sephardic one around the corner from Beth Shalom. People tell us about the energetic little enclaves that used to exist in the suburbs of this tropical city.
During the first half of the 20th century the community flourished: Jews owned factories, worked in textiles and the diamond industry. Then Cuba had 20,000 Jews. Now there are 2,000 at most, half of them in the capital. Most left after Fidel Castro launched the revolution in 1953, banned private businesses and discouraged organised religion.
Those who remained had to adapt to a different reality. Few Jews in Cuba today keep kosher. Meat is far from plentiful – even less of it has been ritually slaughtered; very few people can afford to keep two kitchens to separate milk from meat. “I have to worry about people not having enough to eat, I have to worry about not having enough medicine – surely God doesn’t want me to worry about whether the chicken is kosher,” says Mayra Levy, president of the Sephardic synagogue, when I ask about her eating habits. But Dworin sticks valiantly to a kosher diet, as does the president of the Orthodox synagogue, who learned how to slaughter animals in Israel. Every month he kills 20 cows to sell at his butcher’s shop, the one remaining Jewish shopfront amid the crumbling façades of Old Havana.
At some point during his stay in Havana, my father stopped going to school and instead would go to the beach each morning. My grandmother, who sat on a deckchair while my father swam in the sea, tended to make erratic decisions and considered the social atmosphere s formal education.
At that time there were two beach clubs in Miramar that allowed Jews in, according to Dworin. We spent a hot, sweaty afternoon driving up and down the bay looking for them. One had been taken over by the Cuban army, who refused to let us in. (Amid the frustration, I smiled to think that my father’s closely protected memories were now literally guarded by the military.)
Eventually we stumbled on La Concha, the other club, in a secluded cove, where children were doing backflips on the sand. Soon, my father’s routine of old, swimming each morning, became our new one: when we were not going to services in the various synagogues, we returned to these sparkling waters.
Driving around this bay area, I wondered what my father’s life would have been like if he had stayed here. Dworin told us about an 80-year-old man in Havana who had recently converted because he wanted to be buried in the Jewish cemetery next to his 78-year-old wife.
Since Cuba has no resident rabbis, one came from Argentina for the occasion, together with a mohel to circumcise the elderly man. I imagined my father joining him at the Sephardic synagogue’s senior club he belongs to, taking part in tai chi and bingo sessions with the elders who showed us photographs of their large families and x-rays of their wonky bones.
I may not have inherited my father’s Jewish traditions but he did pass on a love of reading. In Havana, we visited the house of Ernest Hemingway, who spent 20 years in the city. It is strange to think that in 1950 they lived only a few miles apart. As my father, who once entered a Hemingway lookalike contest, now posed for photographs by the back door, I thought of the Hemingway books he gave me when I was growing up. They too are part of our shared history.
In Hemingway’s garden, banyan trees surrounded the pool with dignified shade. As I examined them, I saw the fragility of the tree beneath the roots. I also saw that it was too late for us, my father and me, to create a new heritage. Instead we must make do with who we already are: hesitant Londoners trying out synagogues, reading and swimming together.•