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'Opening' of Cuba makes a Jewish Scrabble-lover feel more at home

A former bodyguard for Fidel Castro finds that, as restrictions relax, he can publicly embrace his religion and have more access to the game he practically worships.

September 05, 2011|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • Fidel Babani, an active member of Cuba's tiny Jewish community and president of the Cuban Scrabble Assn., sits at a Jewish community center in Havana. The map behind him shows where Jews once lived across the island nation.
Fidel Babani, an active member of Cuba's tiny Jewish community and… (Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Havana — He carries a dictionary under his arm and wears a very large Star of David around his neck. His name is Fidel Babani, but you can call him Senor Scrabble.

Babani, in addition to being an active member of Cuba's tiny Jewish community, is president of the also small, but growing, Cuban Scrabble Assn.

Two very different passions, perhaps, but in his island nation, adherents have followed parallel paths: From both vantage points, Babani has seen slow, sometimes contradictory change.

He speaks ardently about how the competitive play of Scrabble is spreading in Cuba, where for years it was virtually impossible to obtain the U.S.-made game because of Washington's long-standing trade embargo against Cuba. And also ardently about his religious identity, something he never talked about when he worked as a military bodyguard to none other than Fidel Castro.

"Greater opening — here and in the U.S. — will benefit us in every sense," Babani said.

"Opening" refers to the gradual lifting of restrictions, by both Washington and Havana, that is making it a tad easier for Americans to travel to the island and for Cubans living here to engage in economic activity. And "us" is both communities, of Cuban Jews and Cuban Scrabble players.

Before the 1959 revolution, Cuba had a booming Jewish population, estimated to number at least 15,000. Jews had lived in Cuba since the era of the Spanish Inquisition, with a large influx in the early part of the 20th century from Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

The new Communist government's decision to nationalize businesses and seize many properties drove many Cubans, including Jews, into exile; others feared the official atheism of the ruling party's early years.

There was a "migration stampede," Babani said. "There were hardly any Jews left."

By 1989, considered the lowest point, there were fewer than 800 Jews in Cuba. Today, the number is double that. Not very large, but definitely on the rebound, Babani said.

These days, they can more readily make a minyan (the 10 males required to hold a religious service) in Havana's three surviving synagogues, although there are no rabbis living on the island. (The old jest used to be that to make a minyan, a Cuban synagogue had to have eight old Jews, a Torah and God.)

The Jewish community center on Havana's I Street, where Castro's famous Hanukkah visit in 1998 was considered a turning point for Cuban Jews, was abuzz with activity the other day. It is also one of the places where Babani teaches Scrabble, to kids and to elders.

Scrabble players have had their own struggles over the years, albeit not of the same existential nature as the Jewish community, and also are in a period of tentative renaissance. Where the Jews are staging a comeback from near-extinction, the Scrabble players are carving out a presence they never had.

Babani says the game wasn't widely known in Cuba, beyond an intellectual, artistic elite, until the mid-2000s, when a senior government official went visiting abroad and brought back an English-language Scrabble game.

Babani was first exposed to the game at the home of renowned Cuban painter Ernesto Villanueva. In his very first play, he was able to use all seven tiles in a single word: cabrona, the feminine version of a somewhat off-color term roughly translating as "bastard."

"I will never forget that," Babani recalled. "Villanueva said it was beginner's luck." From that moment, he was hooked.

But for years, the game simply was not available. And so, as Cubans do, Babani and his friends improvised, making little letter-pieces out of plastic or wood and fashioning their own game boards. The occasional visitor would bring a new set. The players would cannibalize the sets and make Spanish-language versions, until they eventually obtained those, as well, from friendly donors.

Cuban competitive players soared in number from a dozen a decade ago to more than 100 who are good enough to qualify for the international rankings.

Babani, who is 50, stocky, bald and energetic, retired from the Cuban military in 2007 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. That's when he became a nut for Scrabble. He frequently wears a Scrabble T-shirt, and his business cards show a game board with "Federacion Cubana Scrabble" spelled out with letter tiles.

It was after he retired that Babani finally felt comfortable to publicly profess his religious faith. As a member of Castro's security detail, he thought it best to keep quiet about being a Jew. Castro learned anyway, Babani said, when he paid the 1998 visit to the Jewish community center and people knew Babani.

The Star of David around his neck these days is like a miniature Israeli flag. He attends synagogue services regularly and is a fixture at the community center.

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