Viva Cuba! Vibrant Culture Represents the Soul of a Nation

Laura Paull Articles, Arts & Ideas, Featured, Travel, Visual Art, Viva Cuba! — By on September 14, 2012 3:15 pm

Maybe you’ve drunk a nice, cold mojito or two. Perhaps you’ve admired the smooth moves of a Cuban dancer — or fallen into the arms of one.  Despite the political, if not geographical distance that has existed between the United States and Cuba since the 1959 Revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, most Americans have some positive associations with that neighboring island nation.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, more people than ever have first hand experience of Cuba due to a wave of educational travel tours that have, over the past decade and a half, enabled them to legally breach the diplomatic barriers. Some of them have travelled with the JCCSF, which has led 10 humanitarian tours to Cuba since the first one in April 2008; two more are scheduled for November 2012 and February 2013.

So it is not entirely coincidental that the 2012-2013 Arts and Ideas season at the JCCSF includes a constellation of events that showcase Cuban culture. Events that have a Cuba connection are identified in the brochures and on 3200 Stories with the “Viva Cuba” logo.

“Our connection to the Jewish community on the island certainly sparked our interest,” says Arts and Ideas Director Barbara Lane, who travelled to Cuba twice with the JCCSF, in November 2008 and again in May 2010, “but we’re also aware that there is such a wealth of vibrant Cuban culture — music, dance, literature, art, film — and it is  part of our mission for A & I programming to explore that … not to mention the fascinating political history and present political situation on the island.  All of these things merge beautifully in presenting some concentrated programming with Cuba as the subject matter.”

‘Cinco Balcones’ by Victoria Montoro Zamorano

The first Viva Cuba programming element is already on display in the Katz Snyder Gallery, the second floor gallery space of the JCCSF: “La Habana,” an exhibition of 28 images by the Cuban-born photographer Victoria Montoro Zamorano. The large format photographs focus on the exquisite, though deteriorated architecture of old Havana, a visual interest often described in the art world as “the aesthetic of decay.” Other, black and white photographs are beautifully lit, tightly framed portraits of some memorable seniors with gigantic cigars in their mouths. There are several other images that reference the Jewish community in Havana. The free exhibit will be on display through November 17, 2012. All photos in the exhibition are available for purchase and a portion of the proceeds benefit the JCCSF.

On October 4, Kanbar Hall will fill with the charismatic Afro-Cuban sounds of  Ignacio Pineiro and the Septeto Nacional, brought to us by SFJAZZ. Founded in 1927, the musical group is said to have played a central role in the creation of the kind of dance music that drove Havana nightclubs for decades before the Revolution and engendered the style of Latin music we know today as salsa.

A culinary event called “A Taste of Cuba” will precede the 7:30 p.m. concert  (separate ticket) with mojitos – the famous Cuban cocktail made of rum, fresh mint, lime and sugar — and a dinner featuring Cuban cuisine. Tickets to the dinner are $40 and concert tickets are $27 for JCCSF members and $30 for non-members.

If your hunger — for Cuban music, anyway — exceeds that event, you might enroll in a Wednesday night series that actually begins on October 3, the night before the Septeto. “Jazz in Cuba and Beyond”  will run for five weeks at the JCCSF, through October 31, starting at 9 p.m.  Rebeca Mauleon, the incredibly knowledgeable Latin jazz pianist, singer, songwriter and musicologist, will take students on what promises to be a rich and exciting ride through the history of jazz both in and out of Cuba. Given her Bay Area music connections (her husband is a Cuban music producer and she herself is a widely sought after performer)  the lineup of guest artists is sure to be a treat. The series is $75 for members; $100 for non-members. Registration information is at

Writer and anthropologist Ruth Behar

Cuba also has a rich literary tradition which continues to this day. Writer, poet and anthropologist Ruth Behar, who emigated to the US with her Jewish Cuban family when she was 4, returned to the island as an adult and her resultant work explored issues of identity and memory. Cuba also opened her heart to poetry, resulting in a collection of her poems being published there by a group dedicated to small press printing. Behar, who won a MacArthur Genius Award early in her career as an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, is the author of An Island Called Home, about Jewish Cubans. More recently she added filmmaking to her resume after directing a documentary, Adio Kerida, about the search for identity and history among Sephardic Jews with roots in Cuba. Behar’s presentation, “Returning to Cuba,” will take place on Thursday, November 1, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 for members and $15 for non-members. (See an interview with Ruth Behar by JCCSF community correspondent Maria Ramos-Chertok  here.)

Of course, the person most literary Americans associate with Cuba is Ernest Hemingway, the American writer who visited Cuba, drank, fished, lived and wrote there. Lifelong Hemingway aficionado Brad Rosenstein will offer an illustrated lecture, “Hemingway in Cuba,” January 9 at 7 p.m. that will attempt to convey the profound impact of Cuba on Hemingway’s life and work. Prices are $15 for nonmembers, $12 for JCCSF members, and $10 for students.

“Happily this season we’ve been able to bring together a number of these disciplines to give audiences a multifaceted view of the island, whether they choose to travel with us, eat Cuban food, hear the Septeto Nacional playing Cuban jazz, look at the photographs of Victoria Montoro, listen to the writer Ruth Behar tell us about her childhood in Cuba, or to Brad Rosenstein’s  tales of Hemingway in Cuba,” Lane says. “It’s not really a happy accident — more of a concentrated effort on our part —  but the stars aligned to allow us to present this representation of Cuban culture as part of our series this season.”

And speaking of travel, the JCCSF’s November trip to Cuba is already sold out, though there are still a few spots left in the February 28-March 8, 2013 excursion. Barry Finestone is signed up for the February trip, and will be the first JCCSF executive director to travel to Cuba on one of these tours. JCCSF Travel Programs Manager Ariel Goldstein will be leading these trips, as he has since the first one in 2008.

“People wanted to go to the ‘forbidden’ place and also to help the local Jews,” he says. “And once we found a way to get a license, it was sold out in a few days. There has been no fear at all.”

Over the four years that the JCCSF has been facilitating trips to Cuba, it has developed institutional relationships that have allowed for channels of humanitarian assistance, in the spirit of “Litaken et haolam,” repair of the world with justice. Participants each brought an average of a hundred dollars and 15 pounds of allowable medical or food donations, school supplies and other aid. These donations were distributed among all the synagogues in Cuba, a public primary school in Havana and a maternity clinic in Cienfuegos.

In Goldstein’s mind, these trips not only broaden Americans’ understanding of Cuba, but also help the Cuban Jewish community, while forming bonds of friendship and experience with those in the Bay Area. For example, the February Mission to Cuba will take in  the cities of Havana, Guantanamo and Santiago, including a visit to the Santiago synagogue, a Shabbat dinner and a visit to San Juan Hill. Participants will also visit the Jewish community in Guantanamo. For a more detailed itinerary, pricing and other information, contact Ariel Goldstein at 415.276.1506 or email

Watch for further coverage of these events on

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  1. Thank you so much for making Cuba a visible part of the Jewish community center. As a Latina Jew, I feel it is a wonderful testimony to the JCCSF’s value of inclusivity.

  2. The J. explores the La Habana photography exhibit at the Katz Snyder Gallery — part of the Viva Cuba! series — at:

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  1. A Heart Called ‘Home’: An Interview With Cultural Anthropologist Ruth Behar — 3200 Stories