By Menachem Lubinsky
The most interesting e-mail I recently received about kosher eating came from Cuba. Like most Orthodox Jews, I would not have put “Cuba” and “kosher” together. But Scott Berenthal opened my eyes to the fact that we may all be missing something.
“Recent developments have made kosher news about Dubai all the rage these days, but kosher travel to exotic places is available just south of the U.S. border – in Cuba,” he told me. Really? And who is Scott Berenthal? He and his family are Cuban Jews (“Jewbans,” he says) who run Chateau Blanc, the casa particular in Havana that is Cuba’s only kosher establishment. It’s certified by International Kosher Mehadrin and currently offers a parve menu. Those menu options could expand, though. The owners are working with government officials to secure permission for a full-time shochet.
It isn’t only kosher food that you can find in Havana. The city boasts three operating shuls as well as a community center and a Holocaust exhibit at the Centro Sephardi. Berenthal says that his family’s goal “is to bring visitors to help explore our community and keep it alive and prospering.”
I recall reading about an American Jewish leadership delegation that visited the community center two years ago. That visit led to the Joint Distribution Committee’s Shabbat chicken dinner program, which provides a weekly meal to some four hundred people following Friday night services at the three Havana synagogues. And that’s a big deal – for the few observant Jews who live there, getting kosher chicken or meat is a major problem. The only shochet in Cuba in recent years has been Jacob Berezniak, a butcher who is also the leader of Adath Israel, Old Havana’s Orthodox shul. Berezniak travels forty-five miles to a slaughterhouse, where he performs schechita on more than sixty cows at a time and brings back the front of the animal.
Preparing traditional foods is also a challenge. For example, potatoes are not in season in the winter, necessitating that Chanukah latkes be made with malanga – the root vegetable also known as taro. At Purim time, hamantaschen are made with a guava filling rather than the typical fillings made with poppy seeds, chocolate, or other fruits.
Then there’s Hotel Raquel, a kitschy Jewish-themed hotel that opened in the city’s old Jewish neighborhood in 2003. It offers interesting touches like rooms named for our matriarchs and Star of David chandeliers hanging in the lobby. The hotel’s restaurant is called Jardin del Eden (Garden of Eden) and it serves dishes such as borscht and Israeli salads. Plus, its lobby bar is called Lejaim (L’chaim).
Cuba has many of the features and amenities that kosher travelers seek. Aside from the kosher food at Chateau Blanc and the proximity to shul, visitors to Cuba are treated to great weather, pristine beaches, and comfortable hotels. Concerned about hurricanes? Consider Florida’s popularity as a vacation destination, despite its record with hurricanes. And business owners, think of this: Cuba is close to the American mainland and would be hungry for foreign investments, including kosher restaurants and resorts.
We’ll have to wait and watch to see what develops in Cuba politically in the coming months and beyond. Meanwhile, the island is positioned to turn into a major kosher destination in the years to come. The tiny Jewish Cuban community can only hope and pray!