I asked for a vacation. What I got was a taste of Cuban reality.

I didn’t want to go on a Jewish trip to Cuba. I just wanted to go to Cuba. But then things started happening. My wife and I discovered that to travel to Cuba on our own, even via another country (Mexico, in our case), we had to go on a license. We had to, that is, if we didn’t want to lie when we returned — either in the “other countries visited” field on our customs form or to U.S. officials. And although I was 50-50 on the lying thing, Stacey wanted to play it straight.

So just like that, after filling out a U.S. government form, I was a journalist going to Cuba. A Jewish journalist. On a journalist’s license.

Months ahead of the trip, I began trying to track down Jewish leaders on the island. Truth be told, I didn’t really want to spend my first trip to Cuba doing interviews and then writing about the Jews of Cuba (there have already been many of those articles).

But as I started doing research, I started getting into it — the prospect of meeting some Cuban Jews, attending a Shabbat service and dinner at a synagogue and maybe even visiting a Jewish community 170 miles outside of Havana — where there’s actually a Holocaust memorial! Wow!

And then I thought: Why not bring along something special for the people?

That’s when I decided to contact Maurice Kamins, who, in his small San Francisco garage, makes shofars that are works of art as much as they are ritual objects. He graciously agreed to give me not just one but two of his pieces — each a polished, twisting kudu horn about 3 feet long.

Around that same time, my pre-trip research led me to June Safran of the Cuba-America Jewish Mission. Not only did she have tons of great information and contacts, but she was based right here, in Berkeley. June hooked me up with Jewish leaders in Cuba that I e-mailed and arranged to meet. Things were really coming together!

June also asked if we could take a small bag of supplies to the community. Vitamins, allergy medicines and protein powder for the synagogue pharmacy. A few pieces of clothing for charity. Sure! Why not? This whole trip was turning into a Jewish extravaganza.

June told us that the shofars and the 40 pounds of stuff — “small bag”? — wouldn’t be a problem at Cuban customs. Just in case, she gave us a note, on her agency’s stationery, saying that we had humanitarian goods for the Jewish community.

All of this stuff required an extra suitcase and large duffle bag, which we crammed into the overhead bins and lugged on buses and literally dragged through the streets of Playa del Carmen, Mexico, during a two-day stopover. Finally, we made it to Cuba.

The extra luggage apparently raised red flags upon our arrival. We were pulled aside and grilled by a customs agent as to the nature of our visit, and then every inch of the two extra bags was inspected.

A doctor was called in to examine the shofars. He regretfully told me it was “not possible” (about the extent of his English) to bring them into the country, seeing as they were animal products. Nor would I be allowed to reclaim them upon my departure. It seems the plan was to incinerate them.

All of the vitamins, medicines, etc. were seized, as well, for we were not part of a humanitarian or religious mission. The process took nearly three hours, as four people meticulously inspected every little vitamin vial, every piece of clothing and even tore into six foil-wrapped inhalers. In the end, they took it all.

It was quite an initiation into a communist dictatorship. We felt angry, powerless, robbed by a corrupt system. Imagine feeling that way every day of your life.

We did go on to visit several Jewish landmarks and meet with members of the Jewish community. And some expressed their regret over all that had been taken. But for most, their reaction was ho-hum.

What we had faced was no doubt typical Cuban operating procedure — something they had dealt with thousands of times over in various forms. We had had only a small taste, but it was a taste of the real Cuba.

Andy Altman-Ohr
lives in Oakland. Reach him at [email protected]

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.