The men’s choir at Congregation Beth Sholom recently got the band back together for an epic tour through Havana.
I have been a fan of the Beach Boys for most of my life. One of the things I have always admired about them is that, no matter how long a break they take from touring, whenever they get back together, their melodies and harmonies seamlessly pick up wherever they left off — something I saw firsthand at their 2012 reunion concert at Bethel Woods Concert Hall in New York.
I was reminded of this during a reunion tour of my own. After 11 years of creating joyous Jewish music with the men’s choir at Congregation Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, the group stopped singing regularly when I retired as the synagogue’s chazzan in 2011. But, just like the Beach Boys, we got the band back together for one last gig.
From Jan. 14 to 21, six members of the choir; the choir’s pianist and percussionist; the congregation’s president; and 14 other participants, including myself and my wife, Ellen, went on a musical tour of Havana, Cuba.
The genesis of the trip occurred in March 2013, almost two years after my retirement as chazzan. I had called together the men’s choir members to sing at a special Shabbat evening service honoring one of our tenors, Robert Cohen, for his service as the congregation’s men’s club president and treasurer. At the Oneg Shabbat that followed, Ellen planted the idea that the choir get back together again for its first overseas performances since a 2007 tour of Eastern Europe.
“Let’s bring our music to Cuba,” she said. She had always wanted to visit the country, which has long been off-limits to American travelers as a result of the U.S. embargo. However, there are certain travel exemptions available, one of which is for religious groups.
Once we were given the go-ahead by the congregation, Ellen embarked on the months-long process of researching and writing the itinerary, securing the required State Department visa applications and establishing contacts with the Jewish community in Havana.
After exchanging emails with Adela Dworin, head of the large Patronato Synagogue (coincidentally also known by its Hebrew name of Beth Sholom), and Dr. Mayra Levy, president of the Centro Hebreo Sefardi de Cuba (“The Sephardic Center of Cuba”), we were given five opportunities to sing at the two congregations. We prepared three programs: one each for Shabbat evening and morning services, and a one-hour concert.
After three months of rehearsals, meetings and arranging donations for our gifts, we arrived at the Havana airport, which, like many other parts of Cuba’s infrastructure, hasn’t seen much upgrading in the past few decades, as evidenced by the rusty airstairs rolled across the tarmac for our deplaning.
The primary goal of our trip was to interact as much as possible with Havana’s Jewish community and its institutions. Among those institutions is the Ashkenazic Jewish Cemetery, opened in the first decade of the 20th century and now in a state of significant decay. Despite the efforts of two caretakers, there were many weeds and broken stones strewn along the pathways, and some monuments were skewed to one side. While there, I recited the El Maleh Rahamim memorial prayer at the cemetery’s Holocaust Monument.
Our first musical interactions with the Cuban Jews at the Sephardic Center were overwhelming, especially when we performed a set of Israeli songs that included “Hine Mah Tov,” “Oseh Shalom,” “Hava Nagilah” and “Tzena.” All 70 people present jumped to their feet, singing every word and dancing around us with wild abandon. When we finished this section with “Am Yisrael Chai/The Nation of Israel Lives,” the singing crescendoed as the music united all of us.
We returned to the Sephardic Center for Shabbat morning services, where Shelley Hittinger, Beth Sholom’s president, received an aliyah. I chanted the Haftarah and led the Musaf, the additional service, while accompanied by the men’s choir.
To celebrate the end of Shabbat and the beginning of Saturday night, we sang at the Patronato. The Shabbat evening congregation numbered about 300 worshippers, including six delegations from the United States — there were groups from Houston and Denver, an intergenerational group from the UJA-Federation of New York and a group from the Jewish Museum of New York.
I was impressed by the seven well-trained Cuban teenagers and their youth leader, all of whom took turns leading the service, knew Craig Taubman’s “Hashkiveinu.” Taubman’s popularity as one of the most influential interpreters of Jewish music today is truly global. Our choir sang three prayers, climaxing with the Argentinean prayer, “Adon Olam.”
After dinner, we led community singing and dancing. Later that evening, we presented our concert repertoire, preceded by around 300 Cuban congregants singing Jewish musical legend Debbie Friedman’s well-known version of “Havdalah.”
We were surprised to see so many Jewish children and young adults in Havana. The Hebrew school at the Patronato has 180 students from ages 3 to 18 years, and we learned that many young adults are planning to make aliyah.
In between performances, we toured landmarks like the Square of the Revolution, the Museum of the Revolution and our own hotel, the legendary Hotel Nacional. We also visited art galleries and the home and surrounding neighborhood of Jose Fuster, known as the “Picasso of the Caribbean,” where his unique mosaic tiles seemingly cover every surface.
We dined in both state-owned restaurants and private ventures called paladares. The paladares are family-operated businesses that are one of the most visible examples of the Cuban government’s shift toward allowing private enterprise to take root in the country.
We spent Sunday afternoon at the Estadio Latinoamericano attending a baseball game of the Havana Industriales. The noise and the atmosphere rivaled that of a Phillies home game during a pennant race — Cubans take their baseball very seriously! Easier on the ears was an evening at the Buena Vista Social Club in Old Havana — the source of much of the music and many of the performers from the influential 1990s album and documentary of the same name. We drank mojitos and enjoyed fantastic music presented by 10 senior citizen singers, two dancers and a 10-piece band.
We were all on our feet dancing, clapping and singing along with the infectiously rhythmic music. The night ended with the unofficial Cuban national song, “Guantanamera,” which seemed to be sung at every restaurant and club. The song was so ubiquitous that we included our own version in our concerts.
Our seven days in Havana reaffirmed for us the power and the ability of the Jewish musical experience as a unifying force that transcends language, ideology and geography. This shared heritage makes it possible to establish positive and powerful connections with other Jews, no matter how foreign the setting.
After our Saturday performance at the Patronato, a 21-year-old young woman thanked me for bringing our music to her community. She said, “We never hear good performances of Jewish music. Thank you so much for your gift to us.”
David F. Tilman is the Chazzan Emeritus of Beth Sholom Congregation, conductor of Shir KI of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel and associate professor at the Miller Cantorial School of the Jewish Theological Seminary.