Pictures of old Havana don’t do it justice.
Spectacular but crumbling architecture: Colonial, Moorish and Art Deco facades with laundry hanging from most every window. Ancient American cars, many tricked out with pastel paint jobs and running on Russian and Korean engine parts. Intoxicating rhythms of Afro-Cuban music performed everywhere from high-end restaurants to street fairs.
But after nearly six decades of decay under the Castro regime there are also signs of rejuvenation: a construction crane looming over the skyline; new plaster and roof tiles at the hotel where gangster Al Capone used to stay. Teens and 20-somethings sporting skinny leg jeans and trendy short-at-the-sides/long-on-the top haircuts.
Hopes are high here that the thaw in US-Cuban relations sparked by President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro will lead to an economic boon that keeps those young folks at home.
This sentiment probably applies nationally in Cuba, but was it expressed here by Adela Dworin, president of Havana’s Temple Beth-Shalom and spokeswoman for Cuba’s Jewish community. In the 1950's heyday, Jews numbered more than 15,000 in Cuba. Many were like her, the offspring of Eastern Europeans fleeing the horrors of anti-Semitism and war.
But the 1959 Communist revolution quickly drove out prosperous Jewish business folks. The continuing grinding poverty encourages young people to exercise their option of fleeing to Israel. Cuba now claims fewer than 1,500 Jews in a total population of 11 million.
"We had very, very difficult times," Dworin recalled. "We lack of many, many things. We lack of food, we lack of medicines. And of course we lack of material to fix the houses and all this...I can tell you we lost two generations in this more than 50 years."
A measure of religious freedom granted by Fidel Castro in the early 90's allowed outside groups--lead by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee--to spark a revival of Jewish life. They sent rabbis, kosher food and pharmaceuticals, while financing holiday celebrations and camp programs.
On a recent Sunday morning the air is filled with the chatter of students pouring out of Sunday school at the Patronato, a community center that includes Beth Shalom synagogue. The educational program, headed by director Hella Eskenazi, teaches people of all ages from throughout Cuba about Judaism.
"We have students from four years old until…and also we have two groups of adults," Eskenazi explained. "We have teenagers, we have young people, we have different classrooms."
A recent Sunday morning featured a lecture on Cuban-Israeli relations, which are not good because Cuba favors Palestinians in Middle East conflicts. Dworin said the school tries to give Cubans a strong sense of their Jewish identity.
"Our youngsters know a lot about Judaism and they are so, so proud to be Jewish," Dworin said. "It’s different than in other countries. The parents and the grandparents have to push their children and grandchildren to go the synagogue. Here, our children and grandchildren are pushing their parents and grandparents to come to the synagogue."
Even so, the collapse of the Soviet Union and other socialist sources of aid to Cuba make life here very difficult. Salaries in Cuba average less than $30 per month. Free school, free medical care and food rations help, but not nearly enough.
"It's not a Jewish problem, it's a Cuban problem," Dworin said.
Dworin has no personal quarrel with the Cuban government. In fact, she has hosted both Castro brothers at Hanukkah parties.
She says she posed her invitation to Fidel Castro at a conference in 1998, where she button-holed him during a break. But he didn’t know what Hanukkah was, and his aide was trying to shoo her away.
"I’m not a rabbi," she observed, "so how do you explain the meaning of Hanukkah in two words? In those years, you remember he liked revolution and all this, so I told him Hanukkah is the revolution of the Jews. So, he said 'I will come.'"
Raul Castro, who took over for his ailing brother in 2008, got his Hanukkah invitation several years ago.
"He came. He lit the candles, and he put on a yarmulke, and he was very, very touched when he saw our children, our youngsters, dancing with the Israeli flag and the Cuban flag," Dworin recalled.
Castro asked her how many Jews live in Cuba.
"I told him we are about 1500 Jews in the country and he said," "You are only 1500 Jews in Cuba? You make so much noise!"
Dworin, who said she identifies herself equally as a Cuban and as a Jew, argues that the combination works well.
"It hurts us very much that Cuba and Israel don't have diplomatic relations but that doesn't mean we suffer any kind of anti-Semitism," she explained. "You can see that we don’t have security people outside. I can tell you that this is one of the safest countries for Jews, even for Americans."
Foreign money has been flowing recently into Cuba's tourist trade, thanks in part to reforms backed by Raul that encourage Cubans to start their own businesses and protect investors from government seizure of their assets. Dworin said those reforms are likely the source of the patch-ups underway in Havana's old town.
President Obama's move last December to repair diplomatic ties with Cuba has already made it much easier for Americans to visit the island. And Obama's proposal to lift the trade embargo could open the floodgates. But its prospects in Congress are uncertain.
Joseph Weinberg, a Baltimore businessman who made a philanthropic visit to Cuba five years ago, strongly supports lifting the embargo. He said it has served Cuban leaders as a convenient excuse for failures of their economic system.
"Eventually, I think that is going to lead to a change in the Cuban government and an opening up of the Cuban government, more than this 50-year embargo which has been unsuccessful and just creates the US as a scapegoat for all of Cuba’s problems," Weinberg said.
In fact, history was made during recent municipal elections in Cuba when, for the first time in decades, two dissident candidates got on the ballot.
At a polling place near the synagogue, where turnout was already 50 percent by noon, volunteer Roberto Hernandez showed off the process.
"They come here and they check the list and they receive the paper to vote,” Hernandez explained. “We have two Pioneers checking the people...and this one is my grandson. He cannot be quiet, all the time moving."
He was referring to two little boys sporting kerchiefs of the communist Pioneers who get political training at a tender age in an organization that celebrates revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Each time a paper ballot was dropped in the box, the boys thrust their fists into the air and shouted a salute. Not for a particular candidate, just for the vote.
Let’s see, kids interested in voting and a 50 percent turnout by noon. Maybe Americans have something to learn as well.