A Kosher B&B Comes To Cubaby Judith Fein November 5, 2019
Let’s say you want to celebrate Passover with your family, or your family by choice, and you’re thinking of combining it with travel. Maybe you’re the president of a synagogue, and you’re so exhausted from endless holiday and event preparation that you want to propose a trip to somewhere wonderful where other people take care of all the details. Maybe you’re thinking of a really unusual destination wedding, and you want to accommodate your kosher guests. Or perhaps you don’t keep kosher, but you want to travel to exotic climes and have the certainty that the food is hygienic, and the accommodations are comfortable and offer the modern amenities you are used to. Or maybe you have family in the U.S. and Israel, and you want to meet somewhere and have an adventure at the same time.
Well, maybe it’s time to think Cuba.
“What?” you ask. “I thought Americans weren’t allowed to go to Cuba.”
If this is what you think, you’re not alone. The current administration has put a halt to cruise ships going to Cuba, but you can get a visa and fly to a fabulous world 90 miles from Miami. My husband Paul and I just came back after using a “support Cuban people” visa, and I was whisked through customs, passport control, and boarding. And who arranged it all? A self-described “Jewban,”or Cuban Jew.
Saul Berenthal is a wiry, energetic, bespectacled, larger-than-life septuagenarian that could easily have stepped out of a novel. “I was born in Cuba and came from a middle class family. We had several cars and a chauffeur. My father was in the car parts business. I went to the U.S. in 1960 as a student, a year after the Cuban Revolution,” Saul said.
(The Cuban Revolution, led by Fidel Castro, finally overthrew the dictatorial president Fulgencio Batista in 1958 and led to a program of nationalization and installation of a communist regime.)
“I was 16 years old, and I brought 25 boxes of cigars with me. I sold the cigars to get money, went to school by day, and delivered 300 newspapers every night. I made a deal with a bakery to give them the excess newspapers in exchange for day-old pastries that I sold to other Cubans for their breakfast.” He remained in the U.S. and never went back to Cuba. He married Ceci (short for Cecilia), who lived a block away from him in Havana. And he went on to have a career in technology, and of course do business.
If you google “Saul Berenthal” you’ll see photos of him with former President Obama; he was the first U.S. citizen given the right to open a factory in Havana. “I wanted to help Cuba develop and I wanted to help Cubans improve their agricultural output,” he said, and to this end he wanted to sell tractors to Cuban farmers at very affordable rates. Sounded great, until Saul decided to buy a house in Havana and move back part-time to the city of his birth. And suddenly, once he became a Cuban citizen, technical issues blocked his business efforts.
Was he discouraged? Maybe a little. But he shortly came up with another idea for which he got approval. It had to do with matzo, kosher meat, parva food and the inspection and stamp of approval by an Orthodox rabbi. And voilà: indefatigable Saul just opened Chateau Blanc, the first kosher, luxury B&B (think: hotel) in Havana. It’s artfully designed with contemporary décor and accented with hamsas and menorahs and all the trappings of a welcoming Jewish home. It’s in a quiet neighborhood with easy access by taxi to all the sites. And it’s run by Marta Guada Boán and her son Ernesto; they twist themselves into (kosher) pretzels in order to make guests happy.
When Saul mentioned to Paul and me that he offers tours of Jewish Havana, it took us about three minutes to grab our hats and sunscreen and head out the door with him. In the car, he gave us a little background: there are fewer than 1500 Jews left in Cuba, and Saul’s goal is to help them connect to the larger Jewish world by bringing Jews to Cuba. Can he do it? Once you meet Saul, you’ll know the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Our first stop was at Adath Israel, the only Orthodox synagogue in Cuba. There are no rabbis in the country, so a chazzan named Yaakov Beresniak officiates. His mother Nelsy greeted us, but alas, Beresniak was not present. We were told that the first Orthodox synagogue was founded in in l924, and the laying of the cornerstone of the current synagogue dates back to l956. Saul’s uncle, Mr. Wodonos, was the first president of the new synagogue, and Saul’s was the first Bar Mitzvah celebrated in the new building.
We walked into the small sanctuary and I was surprised to see a mechitzah (which separates the women from the men) made of plexiglass. The beautiful seven-branched menorah and the five silver Torah crowns hint at the wealth of the former community. The books, and the table full of yarmulkes (skullcaps) and tallitot (prayer shawls) indicate that there are still services for local and visiting Jews. I stood still for a moment, thinking of the thousands of Cuban Jews that are now, according to Saul, living in the U.S. I wondered how many of them had once belonged to the shul or had parents and grandparents who did before they left Cuba after the revolution.
“Vamos,” said Saul, rushing us along, because he had a big opening planned for the B&B in two days, and he had a long list of things to do.
He ushered us into the Hotel Raquel, a Jewish-themed, art- deco-like hotel built in l908. We admired the 30-foot-high marble columns, marble floors, and ornate glass ceiling that greeted us as we entered the front door. On the main floor, we peered into the Garden of Eden restaurant, and saw a rock from the mountains of Jerusalem in the lobby; it is with an image of the seven-branched menorah from the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
We rode up the cage elevator to the first floor, where every room has a mezuzah on its doorpost, and bears the name of a Biblical matriarch or patriarch. And Biblical history is reflected in some of the artwork, like a sculpture of Judith holding the severed head of Holofernes, an invading Assyrian general.
Saul really hit his tour-guide-for-the-day stride when we arrived at the Ashkenazi Conservative synagogue, where his own family belonged when he grew up in Havana. Officially called the Patronato de la Communidad Hebrea, it’s an elegant, well-appointed building designed by famed architect Aguiles Capablanca. It has a 200-seat sanctuary and social hall, and Ceci joined us for the visit. “It has the same blue mosaic wall I knew as a kid,” she reminisced.
Saul chimed in with his memories. “In 1951 or 1952, I inaugurated the synagogue library with the first book. It was the Bible.” He proudly pointed to a photo of his father in the lobby of the synagogue.
According to Saul, the synagogue was destroyed during the revolution, when religions were forbidden. “There were birds in here … and dogs … and cats. The Jewish Federation in Miami put up money to restore it from 1999 to 2000.”
Ceci said that after the revolution, her parents told her she was going to the U.S. for two weeks, but they never returned to Cuba. “My father left his sports jacket on the back of his chair at his office, as he always did, so no one suspected he was going to leave. He just disappeared from his work, and from Cuba. Although he counseled against it, my mother took her jewelry along. Some people hid money in their houses before they left, behind loose bricks or in floorboards and rafters. Some have come back and asked permission to enter their old houses. They offer to share some of the wealth with the owners if they are allowed to uncover old money they hid when they were leaving.”
In the main office, we were lucky to meet Fidel Babani, a very knowledgeable historian of the Cuban Jews as well as the #2 Spanish Scrabble champion in the U.S., #4 in Mexico, and #26 in the world.
“Is there any connection between Christopher Columbus and Jews and Cuba?” I asked him.
He told us about Luis de Torres, who came from Murcia, Spain. “He was a multilingual converso [a Jew who was forced to convert to Catholicism or leave Spain in 1492. Many kept up their Jewish practices in secret]. Columbus took him along as a translator. When they came to Cuba, Torres was sent on land here, with Rodrigo de Jerez, another Jew, to find the king or ruler. They found no king, no gold, only natives smoking tobacco and there was smoke. This is described in Columbus’s journal. We say, as a joke, that Jews ‘discovered’ tobacco.”
He also told us about Agustín Morel de Santa Cruz, who was a bishop in Cuba in the l700’s. “He wrote before he died and declared himself a Jew. He didn’t want to be embalmed. He wanted to be buried in the ground, and no one knows where his body is.”
We visited with Adela Dworin, the president of the congregation, who said her family originally came from Pinsk, “where Chaim Weitzman was born.” She came to Cuba as a teenager. She wanted to go to the U.S. but never got a visa. “My father was a peddler, in the shmata business. My mother came from Pinsk, and they met here. I am one of the few kosher Jews in Cuba.”
“How do you keep kosher?” I asked her.
“I buy a live chicken and take it to the shochet [the chazzan of the Orthodox synagogue]. Then I put the chicken in salt and wash it in water. There used to be 15,000 Jews here and we had butchers and bakers. But after the revolution, 90 percent of the Jews decided to leave.” She sighed and then continued.
“For Rosh Hashanah and the dinner afterwards, we have about 100 people. We do two Seders for Passover and about l50 people come. The kosher food comes from Canada. We are supported mostly by the Join, B’nai Brith, the Federation, Mexican and Canadian Jews. The U.S. charge d’affaires is a Jewish lady. She’s in charge of business. She came here for Pesach and Hanukkah.”
On the wall in the lobby, I saw a photo of Adela with Fidel Castro and another with his brother Raul. Fidel Babani said that Fidel Castro claimed he may have been part Jewish. “Castro is a Jewish name,” Fidel explained.
The synagogue has a pharmacy to distribute medicines that are brought to Cuba from abroad. Because of the U.S. blockade of Cuba, Cubans must struggle without access to needed medications. Ceci and Saul and their delightful daughter Cindy not only bring caravans of suitcases filled with kosher food from Florida for the B&B, but they also carry medications and medical supplies.
“We try to help in every way we can,” Ceci explained. “And I also have a project to find people in the U.S. who have family buried in the Ashkenazi Jewish cemetery in Havana and ask them if they want to refurbish their family gravesites for about $50 each. They haven’t come to Cuba to visit the cemetery, but most are in favor of the restoration. “Most are, but some are not,” Ceci said ruefully. “They don’t want to pay anything to restore the tombstones of family members. Or they say they gave some money ten years ago and don’t want to do it again.”
“Why wouldn’t they be interested?” I asked.
Ceci shrugged and said she didn’t know.
The opening of the B&B was one day away, and Saul was constantly fielding calls
about the live music, preparation of gourmet kosher food, coordinating the havdalah ceremony with an Orthodox rabbi from Florida, unveiling original art, and giving directions to guests. I asked if it were possible to visit the Jewish cemetery; Ceci and Cindy said we didn’t have a lot of time, and Saul rushed us all out the door with a buoyant “Vamos!”
We drove to the Guanabacoa area, and a cemetery worker named Menengue, whom Ceci pays to restore tombstones, opened the wrought iron gate. The cemetery dates to 1910, and it is filled with 1200 tombs; 300 of them are the burial sites for children. As we walked through the hallowed ground, Menengue and a co-worker etched letters on partially destroyed headstones and carefully restored faint writing with black paint. They also added cement to cracks and replaced broken white marble.
We stopped at the gravesite of Abe Berenthal, who was Saul’s grandfather and Cindy’s great grandfather. Saul placed a stone for his grandfather and grandmother, Scheindel Berenthal, who was Abe’s second wife.
“The cemetery was like a dump. Peoples’ families were buried here. My family is here. We must restore the gravesites. Without these people, we wouldn’t be here,” Ceci said with passionate conviction. “Our grandson Jeremy came here with his BBYO group. They cleaned the cemetery and painted the wall. With permission from the families in the U.S., Cindy and I went around and took photos so I could show them to the families. And then something startling happened.”
Cindy picked up the story there. She was photographing children’s gravesites and she saw her grandparents’ last name – Lurie. “I froze,” she said. “I had heard that my grandmother had a stillborn baby, but she would never speak about it. It happened in 1940, and my grandfather quietly had the baby buried here. He never told my grandmother or anyone else except for my great aunt. I asked my great aunt and she said yes, this was the stillborn baby’s tomb. I found it on April 11, 2015 and the baby was born dead on April 11, 1940. This was the sister my mother never had. The aunt I never had.” The tombstone said, simply, “Feto de Lurie 4-11-1940.”
We walked by a tomb for Holocaust victims which contains pieces of soap bars made from Jewish fat; white marble tombs for a soldier who died fighting in Korea; a headstone where a visitor had left a baseball cap held down with a stone. “Your work is very, very important,” I said to Ceci and Cindy as we followed them out and the gate shut behind us. There is also a nearby Sephardic cemetery, but it was locked, and we couldn’t enter.
And then it was the evening of the opening. A female string orchestra with conga drums serenaded guests while they filled their plates with kosher ceviche, fish and cheese balls, whole fish, hummus, pastries, and brownies, and freshly baked challah. Fidel Babani was there, along with another Jewish historian, and friends Saul and Ceci had from all over Havana. Guests dined on the outside patio, in the dining room, and in the lobby. Many of the attendees were Gentile, and it was the first time they had ever seen a rabbi, eaten kosher food, or witnessed a havdalah service. They were visibly moved and fascinated.
“Vamos!” I said, in Saul Berenthal fashion. I grabbed guests by the hands and ushered them onto the dance floor. Then I did something I haven’t done in decades; I led them in a hora. They kicked up their feet and snaked through the dining room with big grins on their faces.
Now the B&B is officially open. When we left, Marta said guests were already signing up for future stays. I imagine all the Jewish ancestors in the Ashkenazi and Sephardic cemeteries must be smiling.
For more information about hotel booking and tours:
From the US:
For tours: cindy@p2p-LLC.com
For hotel: cindy@chateau-Cuba.com