The Second Miracle of the Sierra Maestres

A ragtag gaggle of ill armed revolutionaries swept down out of the mountains and captured the city of Santiago de Cuba. The Batista regime, corrupt and cynical, crumpled and Castro took Havana. That was the First Miracle of the Sierra Maestres.

The Second Miracle begins in 1922 when the Jews of Santiago de Cuba built a small synagogue in which to practice their Sephardic faith. The synagogue dwindled each year during the Batista regime and then during the Sovietization of Cuba and finally dwindled for lack of a minion. The final blow was the death of the last Rabbi about 35 years ago. The few remaining Jews of the Sierra Maestres lost their faith, lost the language, and lost the sounds of the synagogue as with the discliples of the Baal Shem Tov.

It seems that whenever a misfortune threatened the Jews, it ws the custom of the Baal Shem Tov to go to a certain part of the forrest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a prayer, a miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.

After the Baal Shem Tov died, his disciple also required intercession from Heaven and he went into the same place in the forrest and addressed the Lord.

"Lord, I have forgotten how to light the fire but I still remember the prayer and the place in the forrest."

This was enough for the Lord and the miracle was granted.

In the next generation a misfortune threatened and a disciple went again into the forrest with this plea.

"Lord, I do not remember how to light the fire and I no longer know the prayer but I am here at the right place in the forrest. Is it sufficient?"

This to was enough for the Lord and the miracle was granted.

Finally, when after some generations misfortune befell Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, he sat woebegone in his home and addressed the Lord.

"Lord, I cannot light the fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forrest. All I can do is tell the story. Is it sufficient?"

It was sufficient and the miracle was granted.

The Jews of Santiago de Cuba had forgotten the prayers, had forgotten the ceremonies, and knew only that on Yom Kippur they had to be in synagogue. And it was there that I found them.

I was in Key West when a small news item appeared that announced that the synagogue in Santiago de Cuba, empty for 35 years, had been ceded back after a ten year battle led by a Jewess named Rebecca. I smelled a miracle and for no reason that I can clearly define, I needed to be at that synagogue for their first Yom Kippur. It was the somewhere that I had to be.

I sailed into Havana on Erev Yom Kippur and flew the 500 kilometers into the mountains just in time for the first Jewish New Year's service in all of that vast mountainous province in 35 years.

The miracle had begun three years earlier when Rebecca, at no small personal peril, nagged the Castro government to give her back her synagogue. It took three years (and the collapse of the USSR) but in 1995 the building, cleaned and painted, with an active congregation of 90, who knew nothing of their heritage save that they were Jews, was ready to greet the New Year.

I flew in on a Russian Yak, itself an act of faith, and was driven deep into the city, down small tumble down streets, ever narrower, sided with ever more decrepit one story shelters. One could hardly call them houses. After one last turn I was blinded as the bright sunlight of morning bounced off of a gleaming, narrow, two story Deco-ish building painted newly white and touched at its borders by Israeli blue. I entered the small high room, clean and bright for Yom Kippur and was welcomed by 25 of the faithful sitting before a closed Ark.

They knew that here was the somewhere that they must be and here they were, sans Rabbi, sans Hebrew, sans the prayers, the tales, and the sounds of Yom Kippur. They sat quietly waiting out the day, speaking little and awaiting the one moment which was the focus of three yearsŐ activity... the shofar was to be blown by Rebecca at nightfall. Rebecca knew only the Tekeah Godolah. For the little group, secure behind the walls of the synagogue and the walls of Faith. It was enough.

The five millennia since Abraham has been marked by such rebirths a thousand times. Here was one that could become a part of, and, perhaps, join with the Jews of Santiago de Cuba to feel again the special mystery of our race. We talked, the Jews and I, about rebirth. I wanted to know how they felt about the miracle. Did they know that they were the pieces of a small miracle? What did they bring into the synagogue that day, and more importantly, what was their wish to take out with them as the Day ended?

As we spoke, I was refreshed by the quiet and deep sureness of their sense of who they were. Only that they were Jews was enough. The learning of the stories, the language, the theology and even their sense of God, were adventures still to happen to them. They were the purest folk I had ever known, demanding little, giving all, with the absolute conviction that the passage they were embarking upon was correct and ordained.

I spoke individually to each. "What," I asked, "did the rebirth of the synagogue mean to you personally?" Each tried to express how important the event was and finally the real feeling emerged. One woman said that the synagogue helped her to recapture the memory of parents and grandparents long dead. Another spoke of the linkage between generations, "impossible without a synagogue." One man said that he had lost God and only in the synagogue could he find Him. Another yearned that his children speak the language of the Prophets. One man complained that the stories of his race had been submerge in the arrogant politics of Batista and Castro. He asked plaintively, "What is Life without stories?"

But these were only the eddies overlaying a unanimous undercurrent that emerged. For so long these poor Jews, cut off from the sense of international community with other Jews, had felt the erosion of any power to direct their lives and the lives of their children. They were tossed about in the chaos of the rising and falling political winds about them unable, in their singular, scattered, unattached condition, to be involved in what became of them. They had become straws unsheafed.

What gave them the will to fight their Government and achieve the impossible job of rebuilding the synagogue was the unanimous conviction that the synagogue could be the center of a unity that empowered them. The synagogue was the paradigm that gave them back the sense of purpose and direction in their lives. Their synagogue, like the Temples in Jerusalem, structured their lives as the Temples had structured Jewish history. They had rebuilt the Temple. They were complete.

At 6 in the evening, young Jorge mounted the bema, empty till now. He donned a tallus after carefully scanning the inscription on its collar. He opened a prayer book and prepared to read the one prayer that he had learned by rote at a week at the inadequate Jewish Center in Havana.

Suddenly all was transformed as the sweet sounds of ancient prayer, unchanged by ignorance, filled the tiny room and brought the congregation to life. That small reading gave them back the sense of connection with Jews the world over and a sense of continuity with five millennia of Jewish history. And, I confess, a barely suppressed sob from my throat as my own almost forgotten moments of synagogue with my family welled up. I knew, like the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, that I was somewhere.

Then the Tekeah Godolah and the Day was ended.

Just before I left for the airport I asked what it was that the little congregation needed most. They asked for only the two things that surprised me but should not have. They made two intensely Jewsih requests.

The first was, of course, I should have known, for school supplies for the twenty children trying to master Hebrew. For the children and for the learning, as had rung down the alleyways of Jewish history since the beginnings.

The second request, also should have been no surprise, was for a fax machine so that they might reach out and become entangled in the broader society of their People.

Paper and crayons for the children and a fax machine for themselves.... There lies the essential strength of our people.

I promised both so I unashamedly ask for your help. What you throw away, old school supplies, and that inadequate fax machine long since replace, is the stuff of which these few Jews can come to know not only who the are but what they are.

With these gifts they will rebuild their own Temple and perhaps, who knows the vagaries of our History, help us rebuild our own.

Contact: Jorge Rivero Behar
Hatikvah Community Youth President

Home: Las Villas 53 Ampiliacion de Fomento
Santiago de Cuba, CP 90900 Cuba
(53) 226- 23667

Synagogue: Corona 273 e/Habana y Los Maceo
Santiago de Cuba, CP 90100
(53) 226-86180

Grandfather: Leon Behar
1172 E 100th St.
Brooklyn, NY 11236