jeudi 28 mars 2013

DR JESUS ALVAREZ THE ASTURIAN, THE GENIAL GIANT OF BARACOA, CUBA


DR JESUS ALVAREZ OF BARACOA
A PASSOVER REMEMBRANCE
15 NISSAN 5773
I knew Jesus Alvarez well. A genial giant of a man bearded with a half muted cigar in his hand and drove around Baracoa in a 1964 Black Chevrolet.

How did we become good friends?
Baracoa had become my adopted home and I spent considerable time there, with brief forays out of Cuba connected with my work. We were a large group of friend who met regularly, almost on a daily basis, for conversation, food and drinks. We referred to this period as the Golden Era.
Before the Second World War there might have been some Jewish merchants but their presence is but a memory now. So I always planned to be away during Jewish Holidays so that I can spend it with Jewish friends and family elsewhere in the world. Pesach is the only Jewish holiday I wish to spend with family, recalling the story of the slavery under the Pharaohs and the escape from Egypt 3300 years ago!

Once I happened to be in Baracoa for the first day of Pesach, the only Jew in town, it might have been about 12 years ago. I wanted to be with my brothers in Portland, but here I was in Baracoa, feeling pitiable.on the morning. Pesach was to begin that evening. To prepare a Pesach meal, one needs many ingredients, most of which was not readily available in Baracoa or Cuba for that matter, now as it was then.
I was sitting at home, feeling a little miserable, wondering what I was going to do on this day.

There was a knock on the door. I opened, and a giant of a man was standing outside. My name is Jesus, may I come in?
He explained that he had heard about my presence in Baracoa for a while and wanted to introduce himself to me. A Spaniard, Cuban by adoption, educated as a doctor in Cuba, decided to stay on in Cuba, despite his colleagues migrating elsewhere. An ENT surgeon, who used to work for many years in the local hospital, was forced to retire recently due to Gout and Hypertension.
How are you feeling? He asked as our conversation became a little friendlier.
I am a little sad that I cannot celebrate my favourite Jewish holiday. I explained to him the significance of Pesach and the variety of ingredients needed to make a Seder.
He had a special way of looking at you, especially when he was thinking, slightly cocking his head.
I continued: all these ingredients are difficult to get in Baracoa, especially at such short notice, shank bone; you may as well forget it. Impossible, of course.
He got up, it was little before lunchtime, he said. Let us see what I can do.
At 7 pm, I will reserve a table at the local paladar (restaurant) and you may invite six or seven of your close friends and I will bring my wife and you show us this Jewish celebration, we will be proud to participate!
I was happy beyond words. I got busy looking for my Sephardic hagadah and a collection of hats (mainly African, which can pass for a kippah; mostly from Benin). I got in touch with my closest friends, The Little poet of Baracoa among them.
At the appointed time, Jesus and Walkyria picked me up in their 1964 Black Chevrolet drove up to the Paladar where my friends were waiting. A table had been set. A proud bottle of red wine stood at the head of the table and a variety of vegetables (to be substituted for maror, charosset, parsley) were scattered on the table, along with a boiled egg and a shank bone.
Jesus smiled benevolently at me, and I was grateful.
You couldn't have imagined my exhilaration. Now it was up to me to conduct a Seder.in this town in the eastern end of Cuba, which might have heard these songs in the historic past. (A shopkeeper who left for La Habana in the 1940s may have been a Lebanese Jew, the famous La Rusa, was married to Baruch Manasseh, a Turkish diplomat stationed in St Petersburg, La Rusa’s son showed me documents in which that name was inscribed in Hebrew!)

We put our hats on, wine opened, I dutifully said my prayers. Fortunately I had a package of Matzo, which was placed in the middle of the table.
For the next few hours, we had an untraditional, Cuban Oriental Seder with many questions asked, four glasses of wine imbibed with glee.
At midnight our party repaired to my home to listen to some Cuban music and empty few bottles of Rum.

From that day onwards, I never failed to visit Dr Alvarez at his home in Van Van. On each of my subsequent visits, the first lunch was at his home, creole food, with an ever welcome Cuba Libre.
Over the ensuing years his health deteriorated but our friendship only strengthened. I truly considered Jesus and Walkyria my good friends. I was proud of the fact that Jesus, the Asturian considered me a good friend also.
At Singapore Airport on 11th March 2013, waiting for Air China flight to Beijing, I received a terse email from Baracoa. It said: I am sorry to have to inform you that your good friend Jesus passed away last Saturday. He seemed to have suffered a Myocardial Infarction.

The SATS lounge was busy, but I found enough solitude in my head and in my heart to think and be grateful for the friendship of Dr Jesus Alvarez of Baracoa, it was truly a pleasure to be his friend. My condolences to Walkyria and their sons.