Thursday, August 21, 2008

CNN Reporter Discover His Jewish Roots In Cuba

There are more Cubans in the world than anybody supposes but no "secret Cubans" at least to other Cubans. There is a distinct Cuban idiosyncrasy which is difficult to disguise even if one were inclined to do so, which few Cubans are. Call it a national marker that transcends and synthesizes all superficial differences. It has nothing to do with race or ethnic origin because it is stamped as indelibly on the black Cuban as on the white Cuban, on the Chinese Cuban as on the Jewish Cuban. I always knew that Sammy Davis Jr. was Cuban even when he claimed to be Puerto Rican. The first moment I saw Cameron Díaz, I said "Cuban." We know these celebrities at second hand, but even when seen on film or television, their distinctive cubanidad manages to make itself known to the gens (gente). This idiosyncrasy is so unique that even Cubans raised in Puerto Rico exhibit it, and there, of course, the differences are the least distinct and yet still perceptible to us.

The latest Cuban to "out" himself to an American audience was CNN's David Kastenbaum. He shares his last name with an iconic newsman of FDR's day, but that never threw me off. He was as obviously Cuban to me as Rick Sánchez, the CNN anchor who never made a secret of his Cuban roots. So many Cubans at CNN, I thought, but so little understanding of the plight of the Cuban people on the island and so much unfeigned hostility towards Cuban exiles.

It was on a trip to Cuba to explore "the future of U.S.-Cuban relations and the reforms under Cuban leader Raúl Castro" that Kastenbaum reconnected with "his family history in Cuba." He should have said his Cuban roots, since even a stranger may have a "family history" in any far-off land. I am reminded of the descendants of American slavers who recently visited the Gold Coast of Africa to expiate for the sins of their ancestors. They, too, had a "family history" in Africa though none had "roots" there. Since Kastenbaum's great-grandparents immigrated to Cuba 100 years ago, and his grandmother was born and his grandfather raised there from the age of 3, they are as Cuban as most Cubans. It is good that Kastenbaum agrees: "To me, they were as much Cuban as they were Jewish." But this is not so much a personal concession on his part as it is a fact. "To[him]," yes, but also to everybody else. His grandmother's parents escaped from Tsarist Russia and his grandfather's made it to Cuba just ahead of Hitler. No doubt Morro Castle meant to them what the Statue of Liberty has meant to generations of immigrants to this country. Cuba was their country. When Kastenbaum writes that Cuba "is a place close to [his] heart," he is only attesting to his grandparents love for Cuba, which they imparted to his father and him. Would that he had honored their memory by telling their story and that of all Cuban Jews with a little more candor and honesty.

Kastenbaum reports that "more than 15,000 Jews were living in Cuba in the 1940s and '50s. Today, there are about 1,500. " Again, they weren't just "living in Cuba" like that famous Jewish gangster who resided there for one year and had absolutely nothing to do with our "running" our country nor ever claimed to. Kastenbaum's grandparents were not merely "living in" Cuba" but Cuban Jews, just like the other 30,000 (not 15,000) who called Cuba home before 1959. Nor, for that matter, are there 1500 Cuban Jews left in Cuba today. The figure is closer to 100. Kastenbaum does not explain what happened to Cuba's lost Jews. The story of their involuntary displacement, which involved the theft of their homes, businesses and even synagogues, he does not mention, perhaps because it resembles so closely what happened to many of them in Germany a generation before. It happened, of course, to all Cubans after Castro's takeover, and because Cuba's Jews were also Cuban it happened to them, too.

Unmentioned by Kastenbaum, and, perhaps, unknown to him, is the fact that Castro clearly did not want any Jews in Cuba, not only because he considered them "incubators of capitalism," but because he was himself an anti-Semite and enemy of the Jewish people. It was Castro who sponsored the "Zionism is Racism" Resolution at the United Nations; Castro who sent military advisers to the Syrians during the Yom Kippur War: Castro who has hosted Palestinian terrorist-training camps in Cuba for 35 years; and Castro who gave the Palestinians the former Jewish Community Center in Havana to use as their "embassy" there. Like Hitler's, Castro's hatred of the Jews may be founded on the fact (or suspicion) that he is himself Jewish. His mother's father was a Syrian immigrant descended from a long line of Turkish rabbis. Castro and Raúl were both circumcised at birth, which neither then nor now was practiced in Cuba except among Jews. Bernardo Benes, a Cuban Jew and longtime friend and business associate of Castro, once said to him point blank "Fidel, you are a Jew" and Castro, though taken aback, did not deny it.

Kastenbaum limited the scope of his exploration of Cuba's Jewish past to a series of locales in Old Havana associated with the Jewish presence in, and now absence from, Havana. He visited the building that once housed the synagogue where his grandparents were married; a kosher butcher shop which exists for the benefit of tourists and caters exclusively to them (beef being unavailable to ordinary Cubans) and other points of interest. His sojourn reminds one of nothing so much as the packaged tours of major Jewish attractions in Eastern Europe. Sadly, most are not Jewish anymore but monuments to a life and culture which is irrecoverable.

At Adath Israel, the immured synagogue reopened in the 1990s with an imported rabbi, Kastenbaum met 86-year old Salomon Leyderman, who proudly introduced himself as "Cuba's oldest Jew" and is, I suspect, the only remaining Jew of his generation in Cuba. This last leaf has been featured in every story and documentary about Cuban Jews since the 1990s. He recognized Kastenbaum's grandfather and great-uncle from an old family photograph as tailors and well-respected members of Cuba's Jewish community before the Revolution. Coincidentally, Kastenbaum's great-uncle had even made a gift to Salomon of a new suit for his bar mitzvah. The recollection of this act of charity brought tears to both their eyes.

Kastenbaum, however, does not seem to have inherited his great-uncle's generosity because when the old man complimented his sneakers and expressed the wish to own a pair some day (and wishes for 86-year olds do not have a long shelf life), the CNN reporter, rather than offering to buy him a pair or at least to give him his upon leaving Cuba, gifted the old man instead with a cellphone call to his (Kastenbaum's) father in New York, so that the old man could relate to him the story about the suit that his uncle had presented to him for his bar mitzvah 73 years ago. Kastenbaum didn't even commit to sending the old man a Hanukkah card as he had requested when the prospect of getting a pair of sneakers didn't seem too good. Kastenbaum could have made himself the hero of his own story and had a nice wraparound for the anecdote about the suit ("like great-uncle like great-nephew"). There must be some CNN rule about feeding (or shodding) the natives. Wouldn't want to "compromise them" in any way like the bad old U.S. government does to dissidents by mitigating their suffering.

If Kastenbaum had really wanted to know the history of Cuba's Jews rather than use Cuba's "oldest Jew" as a prop, he should have interviewed the thousands of exiled Jews in Miami, who no doubt also remember his grandfather and great-uncle and are free to discuss other matters, which Salomon Leyderman is not. But, of course, Kastelbaum did not go to Cuba to tell the real story of its vanished Jews but to report on "Raúl Castro's reforms."

Interesting videos and slideshows on "Tracing My Jewish Roots in Cuba;" "Life Under a Different Castro;" "Efforts to Restore Parts of Havana," etc. Take all with copious dashes of salt, as needed:


Anonymous said...

It has to be tough to keep kosher in Cuba.

In a dozen or so trips all there was to eat was pork or shellfish.

My favorite thing to eat there was a chica.

Fulano de Cal said...

man, all mr "cubanroots" could say in spanish was "si"

even to him, cubans are like animals in the zoo. fun to watch, then forget about.

Anonymous said...

the least he could have said was "oye chico"

Ms Calabaza said...

yeah, that's pretty disgraceful... I wouldn't doubt this dude considers Cuba to have always been a third world country.

Of course, us "camagueyanos" could show them a thing or two, huh? :)

Ms Calabaza said...


I can't tell you how long its been since I've been able to tolerate watching CNN. Ever since Lucia Newman was there before she left for that other bastion of free speech Al Jazeera (speaks volumes about her, methinks). Great post MaT, not much is ever mentioned about the Jewbans. I've had the pleasure of meeting many of them and they are just delightful people with a very rich history... something else the beast destroyed.

Vana said...

He discovered only a part of himself, too bad he didn't find his Cubanidad, he would have found a heritage as rich and proud as his Jewish roots.

I'll take the anguish of being Cuban, I love it!

Angel Garzón said...

So what else is new? this kind of behaviour while definitely not limited to the Jews, is very much in keeping with historical Jewish practices, they have been at odds with themselves and with everyone else (Gentiles) since Abram was renamed Abraham by God (according to the Old Testament) their history speaks for itself.

Agustin Farinas said...

MS. Calabaza,
ah, that good old champion of democracy, Lucia Newman. She found out that Cuban elections are the freest and the most orderly, and the most..., well you get the picture. She was disgsuting at CNN and she belongs with that other bastion of freedom, Al-Jazeera. She will fit right in with the rest of the USA haters.