23 August 2008

Cuba: Home to Havana

CNN Radio's New York correspondent Steve Kastenbaum details his trip back to Cuba here, with a story, video and slide show.

In the 1940s-50s, more than 15,000 Jews lived there; today, the community is about 1,500.

(CNN) -- Cuba is more than a thousand miles from my home in New York, but it's a place close to my heart.

I went to Cuba to report on a country that appears to be on the cusp of a new era.

His focus was on US-Cuban relations and reforms under leader Raul Castro, but the most important story turned out to be his family history.

My grandmother, the daughter of Russian immigrants, was born in Havana, and my grandfather came to Cuba when he was just 3 years old. His family left Germany in the 1920s. To me, they were as much Cuban as they were Jewish.

My grandparents left Cuba in the late '40s so that their children would be born in the United States. The last members of my family to leave Cuba did so post-revolution, in the 1960s. I was eager to see what had become of the places they left behind.

In the mid-1990s, Castro lifted religious restrictions and the El Patronato synagogue revived; today it is the Jewish community's center, complete with day camp. He visited old Havana, Habana Viejo, where his great-grandparents settled, visiting the sole kosher butcher and walked by the building that had been home to the synagogue where his grandparents married.

The current home of Adath Israel is a few blocks away. At the front door, Salomon Leyderman introduced himself to me as the oldest Jew in Cuba. He's 86. I took out some old family photos, and Salomon immediately recognized my great-grandfather, Salomon Sher. He shouted out in Spanish, "they were tailors!"

I couldn't believe my ears. This 86-year-old man told me how my great-grandfather was highly regarded in the community, how he belonged to many social organizations and how after the revolution, he made it possible for many Cuban Jews to leave the island and join him in Miami, Florida.

As he looked at a family portrait, Salomon began to cry. He recognized Luis Sher, my grandmother's brother. He said Luis gave him as a gift a suit to wear at his bar mitzvah, the Jewish ceremony marking a boy's transition into manhood. It took place more than 70 years ago, but he recalled the details as if it happened yesterday. Tears were flowing down my cheeks, too.

There is more at the link above, and do see the video and slide shows.

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