Thursday, February 21, 2013

Purim 5773

I am sad to say that once again my bid for the Presidency of the United States of Maryland has gone down in bitter defeat.  I don’t know what I did wrong.  This time I thought for sure that I had it in the bag.  I was so determined to have it in the bag that I acquired as many non-disposable bags from Har Sinai Congregation as humanly possible.  I had more bags than any of the other candidates for crying out loud!
Just imagine these candidates trying to carry their own groceries.  See you can’t.  And it has nothing to do with the fact that no president has ever had to carry their own groceries.  Well perhaps except for Taft, but that is probably because no one else could lift them.
But I digress.  To console myself I felt the need to escape to a Communist country and drown out my sorrows in rum and cigars just like Captain Jack Sparrow.  Who by the way, aside from being a fixture now in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disney, is now going to be my new campaign manager.
I mention this because today I am proud to announce my candidacy for 2016.  Heck, if the Today show can debate possible candidates even before the President is inaugurated, why can’t I?  But of course I am going to have to change my strategy and my platforms if I am to win more than the State of Denial.
I sought out inspiration in our 16th President, who I discovered to my delight, was also a star in Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award nominated movie “Lincoln”.  Previously I just thought Abraham Lincoln was only good at killing vampires. 
While watching “Lincoln” I realized there was a singular characteristic that defined Abraham Lincoln in his pursuit of the 13th Amendment.  Though I admit going in, I thought the 13th Amendment was the one that allowed girls to become Bat Mitzvah, so I was a little surprised when I discovered it was about something else entirely.
Lincoln demonstrated a dogged determination and a willingness to work with anyone in Congress, and he succeeded in this endeavor.  But why was he able to do this when so many others have failed?  I racked my brain until I came to the startling conclusion that the sole reason for his success was … his hat. 
So from now on, I am stating here first that during all campaign speeches, rallies, brunches, afternoon teas, pep talks, and belching contests, I will from now on, wear a stove pipe hat. 
This is a can’t lose proposition.  It is also probably a can’t win proposition, but that is another story.  Personally I think I would look great in such a hat.  Now all I need to do is find a rockin’ haberdashery to suit my needs.  And to borrow a phrase from a competitor, Dave Barry, Rockin’ Haberdashery is also a great name for a band. 
So along with this new look, I’ll be doling out my new policies in the years to come.  I’m sure you can’t wait to hear about my plans.  However, I don’t want to give too much away, as my team is furiously planning my strategy.  And by planning I mean drinking lots of rum and smoking cigars while listening to Rockin’ Haberdashery in Cuba.
But in the meantime, can any of you use any non-disposable bags? I’ve got tons of them.  Chag Purim Sameach Everyone!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Is Valentine's Day Jewish?

Valentine's Day is a day dedicated to a Saint Valentinus, a Roman saint from the third century.  Little is known about him except that he died on February 14th.  February 14th is also known as the Feast of St. Valentine. According to at least one tradition he was caught by Roman authorities helping to marry Christian couples.  These couples were, at that time, persecuted under the rule of Emperor Claudius in Rome.

Valentine was subsequently condemned to death after trying to convert Claudius.  He was beaten with clubs.  He was then stoned.  And when those failed to kill him, he was beheaded near the Flaminian Gate in Rome by the ruling authorities.

Since little is known of Valentinus, there are a number of disputes as to who this person actually may have been along with the date of his death.  Various dates have been given including 269, 270 and 273 C.E.

Aside from being a liturgical celebration in a number of Christian denominations including the Anglican, Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox Church, it is now also a day associated with romantic love.
Chaucer wrote about it, and by the 15th century, Valentine's Day become a celebration we are now familiar with.  It is a celebration of love with cards, candy, and flowers all being favorite means for expressing one's feelings.  Something which many companies including Hallmark have capitalized on.

However like Saint Sylvester, Saint Nicholas, and Saint Patrick, Valentine's Day is tied heavily to Christian tradition.  Therefore it is not really part of the Jewish calendar or of Jewish tradition.  Yet, we do have a traditional day similar to express our love.

Tu B'Av is an observance that arose during the Second Temple Period.  According to the Mishnah, Rabbi Gamliel is quoted as saying, "There were not happier days for the people of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av (Tu B'Av) and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards... What were they saying? 'Young man, consider whom you choose to be your wife.'" (Mishnah Tanaait 4:8)

Tu B'Av has found a reemergence of celebration, especially in Israel with the its founding in 1948.  It is now a popular holiday for singing and dancing in Israel.  It is also an important holiday for the entertainment and beauty industries in Israel just as Valentine's Day is so important for Hallmark back here in the States.

So no it is not exactly equivalent to Valentine's Day, but at least it occurs during bathing suit season as opposed to winter coat season, and at least no one had to be killed for its observance to come to fruition.

So I say, everyday should be a celebration of one's love.  Don't hold back in telling your loved ones you love them.  Don't wait for a special occasion.  And if you didn't already make reservations, just tell your loved one, you're waiting to celebrate Tu B'Av.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Cuba Part II - The Jews of Cuba

The first recorded Jew to set foot on Cuba was Luis de Torres.  Luis converted to avoid the Spanish Expulsion in 1492.  And he was hired by Christopher Columbus to serve as an interpreter.  However the first real settlement of Jews in Cuba began in 1834 when a handful of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews settled in Cuba.

The real growth in the Cuban Jewish population (or Juban as many refer to themselves), began in the early 20th century with many Jews fleeing Eastern Europe.  Unable to find their way into the United States due to immigration quotas, many fled to Latin America.

During the 1920s and 30s, these Jews founded a number of synagogues and communities throughout Cuba.  At its peak there were over 15,000 Jews living in Cuba.  However this all changed with Castro's conquest of Cuba in 1958.  The vast majority of Cuba's Jews fled the island, with many of them, like their compatriots, settling in South Florida.

Today there are an estimated 1500 Jews remaining in Cuba, though we heard numbers as low as 1258.  The majority of these Cuban Jews live in Havanah, though there are still small pockets of Jews living in outlying communities as well.

The main purpose of our trip was to visit with the Jews of Cuba and to bring them much needed supplies and donations from the States.  To this end we spent time with members of the Sephardic Center, the Patronado, and with Jews living in Cienfuegos.

 Our first day visiting the Sephardic Center

Inside the Patronado
The Patronado (the arch predates McDonalds, or so we were told)
Outside the Patronado
We learned a few interesting tidbits along the way.  First off, Cuba has never been a strongly religious country.  Though it was under Catholic rule for centuries, the Inquisition never really followed the Jews living in Cuba.  This was in part because the Cubans were not really all that passionate about being Catholic.  As a result there have been almost no instances of Antisemitism on the Island.  Of course it doesn't hurt that almost no Cubans have an idea of what a Jew is, but that is another story.

Jews also have a special status in Cuban society.  What this means is that until the recent immigration reform in Cuba just a couple of weeks ago, Jews were among the only people who could immigrate off the island by making Aliyah to Israel.  The problem for the Cuban Jewish community is that this means many of their young people are leaving the island seeking out better economic opportunities.

The Cuban Jewish community also now refers to themselves as Conservative, though truth be told, they are a mixture of all the various denominations.  There is an extremely high intermarriage rate, and the only people who can convert to Judaism are those who are married to a Jewish Cuban.  They don't want people taking advantage of the immigration exception.

I'll be writing more about Cuba's Jewish community in subsequent blogs, but needless to say, they were incredibly welcoming and it is amazing to see such a small group so passionate about reviving and keeping alive our people's heritage in such a challenging place.

From the Stone Floor outside the home of a Jewish Family in Cienfuegos

Friday, February 8, 2013

Cuba 2013 Part I

In preparing for my trip to Cuba, I will admit, I was nervous.  I did not know what to expect.  So I created some interesting scenarios in my mind.  I steadied myself as I was prepared for rolling blackouts, limited internet access, and rice and beans for every meal.  I expected to see poverty and suffering at every corner.  And I thought we would encounter a strong police and military presence every where we traveled.

Needless to say, what we encountered along the way was far different from the possibilities I created in my mind.

To be fair, Cuba is a land filled with many contradictions.  It is a third world country.  

And yet, it has universal healthcare, and 97% of the country has electricity.  

It has highways and yet there are almost no cars outside of Havanah.  And the cars in Havanah, aside from those used by diplomats and tourists are both the classic American cars circa 1959-1961 along with the not-so-classic Russian cars.

It is a Communist police state, and yet the One Party does take into account the concerns of its citizens.  

Information is tightly controlled, and internet access is almost non-existent, even in tourist spots.  And yet American television and movies are widely available.  And for those who are inventive enough the can find out the news of the world.

The United States has a Cuba embargo, and yet Americans are loved in Cuba (or at least our dollars are).

There is rationing, and yet those who are enterprising are seeing cracks in the communist system and are able to open small capitalistic enterprises.

Music is everywhere.  It seems like everyone knows how to Salsa.  And there is a burgeoning art movement.  

In later posts I am planning to speak more about the Jewish communities of Cuba as well about our experiences.  Consider this a sampling, a beginning of a conversation of an amazing and confusing country.

(Thanks to Arni for this picture - and yes I am related to the guy standing next to me)