HAVANA — In a dimly lit basement in the section of the city known as Old Havana, a game of dominoes is going fast and furious. Elderly men hover around the table, betting and bickering in two languages--Spanish and Yiddish. Again and again, Cuban pesos change hands.
"Moishe, Moishe, pay up," insists Abraham Berezniak, the lone middle-aged player and this night's big winner. "Hurry."
They hurry because sunset is six minutes away. Sabbath services will begin then, as they do every Friday night for observant Jews the world over. Although the simple Orthodox synagogue, Adath Israel, is just beyond a glass partition, the walk can take these worshipers a while.
Most of the men who make up Cuba's tiny pocket of Judaism are well into their 70s. Rarely are there enough to make a minyan, the quota of 10 men required for prayer services under Jewish law.
"They are a bunch of characters," says Ernesto Aharon, who, at 24, is one of the congregation's prized acolytes. "They're one of the reasons I started coming around here. But it's also a little sad."
Like the domino players, Cuba's Jewish community has grown old and infirm. On this officially atheist island, about 1,000 Jews remain, down from a pre-revolution high of 15,000. Every synagogue outside Havana is closed.
There is no rabbi to prepare boys for their bar mitzvahs and no cantor to guide Havana's four small congregations in prayer. Occasionally, religious leaders visit from Canada or Mexico, and a few years back the ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher community in New York sent four rabbis for a brief stay.
"The person who knows the most officiates at services," says Dalia Miller, secretary at the Great Synagogue of the Jewish Community, Havana's second main temple. "We feel very Jewish. We do the best we can."
That isn't easy, even for Jews who must by necessity practice a loose blend of religion and culture.
For instance, Jews here had not seen a mohel, who performs the ritual circumcision known as a bris, in more than a decade. Then, last August, a Panamanian mohel who is also a rabbi was invited by a high-ranking Cuban Jew who wanted to perform a mitzvah, or good deed.
A scrapbook kept by Adath Israel documents the reason for his visit: the circumcision of seven Jews, ranging in age from 3 to 26, and the bar mitzvahs of several of them immediately after the surgery. In one photograph, the young men are wearing hospitals gowns, yarmulkes and prayer shawls. No one is smiling, including Aharon, who was among those circumcised.
"It's a tradition and I respect the tradition," says Aharon, a handsome, strapping man whose face reflects his mother's Jewish-Romanian heritage. "For me, it's more cultural than religious. But my children will be Jewish for sure."
Aharon is equally adamant about leaving Cuba. Like his friend, 26-year-old Alberto Baez, Aharon decided to live in Israel shortly after rediscovering his religious roots. Although neither has a single friend or relative there, both have asked the government to emigrate as soon as possible. Their families, who are not observant, don't understand.
"My brothers and sisters think it's a little strange," says Baez, who wears a large Star of David around his neck.
The imminent loss of Baez, who has become a Pied Piper of sorts to Cuba's Jewish youth, is especially disheartening to his elders. One of his recent Sunday outings, a sing-along with Baez on electric keyboard, attracted nearly 70 young Jews. He has helped persuade at least a dozen children to attend Sunday school regularly at the Great Synagogue. Lately, more than 150 Jews have begun turning out for major holidays.
"When I got out of the Army in 1987, I decided to see what Jewish services were about. I don't know why," says Baez, who heads the local chapter of B'nai Brith and publishes a newsletter for youth. "Everybody but me was old. So I decided to do something about it."
The Cuban government gave Baez's recruiting efforts an unexpected boost last year when it began allowing religious Cubans to be members of the Communist Party. Until then, state-ordained atheism was the rule. Anyone aspiring to a good job, Christian or Jew, had to deny his or her faith.
The change in attitude has given Cuba's Jews tempered optimism. Although few expect a huge resurgence, no one any longer fears that the religion will die here. Adele Dworin, who runs the Great Synagogue's cultural center and is a one-woman repository of Jewish lore in Havana, says she has not been so hopeful in years. Although no one has checked out one of her 2,000 Yiddish-language books lately, the children have started reading up on Jewish and Israeli history.
"Five or six years ago, I was very depressed," says the 40ish Dworin, who keeps a meticulous log of every visitor to the temple. "A community exists because it has young people. I would think: What will happen after our old people die? But now I think maybe it will be OK. Of course, it would help if we had a young rabbi, or any rabbi at all."