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May 25, 2012

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PAGE 12A Cuba extends welcome HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MAY 25, 2012 f By Bryan Schwartzman Jewish Exponent The leader of Havana's Sep- hardic synagogue is urging American Jews to put aside their fears and visit Cuba. The 1,400-member commu- nity thrives off contact with the wider Jewish world and can use all the help it can get, according to Dr. Mayra Levy, president of the Centro Hebreo Sefardi de Cuba. "We have our Jewish life with Cuban style. We do our services with heart," even though there hasn't been a full-time rabbi on the island since the early 1960s, Levy, a retired physician, said dur- ing an interview last week at the offices of the Jewish Exponent. The 63-year-old mother of two traveled to the United States to take part in a panel discussion on Latin American Jewry at the American Jewish Committee's Global Forum, held earlier this month in Washington, D.C. Levy is spending a month in the country, speaking in different synagogues. She's Dr. Mayra Levy seeking financial assistance for a newly opened senior center serving Havana Jews. Many elderly Jews live on about $15 per month, though health care is free, she said. The community also relies on donations from abroad for religious items such as prayer books, Shabbat candies and matzah. For mostAmericans, travel- ing to Cuba requires taking part on an organized reli- gious or educational mission, though last year President Barack Obama eased many of the restrictions. Roughly 1,100 Jews reside in the city, with about 300 others spread throughout the island. More than 15,000 Jews lived in the country on the eve of Fidel Castro's revolution in the 1950s. At the time, most of them emigrated, settling in Israel and the United States, as well as Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela. By many accounts, Jew- ish life had become virtually dormant until Cuba changed its constitution in 1992, which allowed for greater freedom of worship and for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to begin assisting the Jewish community. This has led to a renais- sance of Jewish life over the past 20 years, but many of the younger, most active community members have moved to Israel, according to William Recant, an assistant executive vice president at the JDC, who has traveled to Cuba roughly 50 times. Aliyah became an option for Cuban Jews shortly after the constitutional change. "Somebody has to stay," said Levy, whose two grown sons both live abroad. "What can I say to a young man who decides to have a better future?" Levy said that she fre- quently has been asked during her trip aboutAlan Gross, the social worker and contrac- tor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who was sentenced to 15 years for bringing prohibited equipment, including satellite phones, into the communist nation, under a controversial democracy building program funded by the U.S. govern- ment. The Cuban government has labeled Gross, who made five visits to the country and had substantial contacts with the Jewish community, as a spy. Several Jewish groups, including the Conference of Presidents of MajorAmerican Jewish Organizations, have called for his release on hu- manitarian grounds. Levy said the community received Gross warmly. "But he broke the Cuban laws," she said, adding that members of the community visit Gross from time to time. She insisted numerous times during the interview that, unlike other Latin American countries, Cuba has no anti-Semitism. She pointed out that there are no fences or guards outside Cuba's five synagogues, three of which are in Havana. JDC's Recant said the government officially states there's no anti-Semitism on the island. While he said he couldn't verify whether there is no anti- Semitism, he commented that racial hatred was far from the biggest problem facing Cuban Jews. They are very poor by American standards but have their basic needs met, he said. One area that the JDC found lacking was access to medica- tion, and the organization managed to set up a pharmacy inside one of the synagogues. When it comes to running Jewish programs, one of the biggest problems is literally getting people there, he said. With so few Cubans owning cars, many individuals need to spend two hours or more on a city bus just to attend an event. Levy said she wants more American Jews to see and experience Jewish life on the island for themselves. While she's not a particularly big fan of the U.S. government or its policies--she blames the 50-year-old embargo for harsh living conditions--Levy said she loves the American people. The U.S. government still prevents Americans and American companies from selling virtually all goods to Cuba, with the exception of medicine and agricultural goods. "We are the forbidden island," she said, adding that maybe it's time for people to rethink that characterization. Bryan Schwartzman is a staff writer for the (Philadel- phia) Jewish Exponent, from which this article is reprinted by permission. The Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando and the Congregation of ReformJuda- ism are planning a mission to Havana, Cuba over Labor Day Weekend (Aug. 30-Sept. 3). For more information, contact Karen Cohen at or407-645- 5933, ext. 228. 6 degrees (no Bacon): Jewish celebrity roundup By Six Degrees (No Bacon) Staff Beastie Boys being sued for copyright violations NEW YORK--Less than two weeks since Adam Yauch passed away, the remaining Beastie Boys Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond are dealing with another blow--a lawsuit. The famous rap group is be- ing sued by the Tufamerica record label for alleged copyright violations stem- ming from samples used in its albums "License to Ill" and "Paul's Boutique," both made in the 1980s. Dunham answers critics of 'Girls' The HBO show "Girls" continues to stir contro- versy. Now some critics are blasting the show for its lack of diversity (the four principal players are white). Show creator Lena Dunham, who has already defended the show's explicit language and scenes, said of the casting, "I am a half Jew, half WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in cast- ing." Polanski to direct movie about Dreyfus Affair Director Roman Polanski says his next film will be a political thriller about the Dreyfus Affair, in which a French-Jewish army officer was wrongfully convicted of treason in 1894. Polanski, a Holocaust survivor who escaped from the Krakow Ghetto, made the 2002 Holocaust movie "The Pianist." He has lived in Europe since fleeing the U.S. in 1978 after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Stern on 'Talent' casting Loud-mouthed radio host Howard Stern showed up at NBC's "Today" show and told Matt Lauer that although he thinks it was a "crazy" idea to put him in a family show like "America's Got Talent," he will be the judge whom ev- erybody loves. Stern ended the interview by sitting on Lauer's lap and giving him a kiss on the cheek. 'Battleship' director slams journo for not serv- ing in IDF Peter Berg, director of the new movie "Battleship," in an interview with "Erev Tov" (the Israeli equivalent of "Entertainment Tonight"), decided to dedicate much of the interview to the crisis between Israel and Iran. Then he abruptly asked the show's interviewer, Jason Danino-Holt, whether he Freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (c) arrives May 15 on the 'Homeland' filming in Jaffa. had served in the Israeli army. When the journalist answered no (Danino-Holt has said he was exempt for medical reasons), Berg re- plied, "What? How did you get out of that? Are you a draft dodger?" and added, "You better join the army," punctuating the sentence with an expletive. Shalit visits 'Homeland' shooting in Israel The production crew of "Homeland" and stars Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin welcomed a special visitor to the set on May 15--Gilad Shalit. The award-winning show is shooting its second season in Israel and caught the attention of the country's :al , Meir Partush/FLASH90/JTA set of the American TV show media. Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was abducted by Hamas and held in captivity for more than five years, said he is a fan of the show and already had watched the entire first season. For more Jewish celebrity news, visit www. 6nobacon. cam, the illegitimate child of JTA. Film to take a look at an 'underrated' mobster By Ran Kaplan New Jersey Jewish News Abner "Longie" Zwillman has been gone for more than 50 years, but the idea of a Jewish gangster with a love for his people and the fledgling State of Israel still manages to hold interest and evoke some grudging credit. Zwillman was born in Newark, N.J., in 1904. Forced to quit school to support his family after his father's death in 1918, he eventually became involved in the numbers racket before graduating to bootlegging during Pro- hibition, importing liquor through Canada, and earning the nickname "the Jewish A1 Capone." Coproducers MichaelWeis- mann and Matthew Miele, for- mer roommates at Syracuse University, have spent the last seven years working on a documentary with the work- ing title "Gentleman Gang- ster: The Longie Zwillman Story," which tells the story of this man of contradictions. Courtesy Michael Weisrnann According to filmmaker Michael Weismann, Longie Zwill- man "had an iron grip on New Jersey.' "He was part of the 'Big Six'--Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Joey Adonis and Frank Costello-- three Jews and three Italians," said Weismann from his home in Phoenix, putting Zwillman in context with his criminal contemporaries. "They were all partners. They divided up the northeast part of the country. Our argument is that Longie was bigger than all these guys because he was into more things," includ- ing bootlegging, gambling, casinos, hotels, and the film industry, among other nefari- ous activities. Weismann suggested that he was even bigger than Capone because, according to the filmmaker's research, Longie was responsible for 40 percent of all the illegal alcohol brought into this country during Prohibition. "If one person has 40 percent, that clearly, easily makes him the biggestbootlegger. He had an iron grip on New Jersey." Over the years, Weismann made periodic trips to the Aid- ekman campus in Whippany, N.J., where his research in the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest yielded photos, recordings, articles, and, per- haps most importantly, local people who knew Zwillman. "You go to one person, who leads to another, who leads to another," said Weismann. "It's a whole Jewish geography. The connectionswerejust amazing. "Most people were open to talking," he said, but one person interviewed in the film is not identified, and only his hands are shown when he is speaking. "Some people were nervous to [talk] because they think something is going to happen to them." The 38-year-old Weismann discerned a generational divide when it came to talk- ing about Zwillman. "For the older generation, the whole gangster thing was kind of shameful. Now, with "The So- pranos" and "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas," my genera- tion thinks it's a cool thing." Under the gangster radar Like many anti-heroes, Zwillman had a certain charis- ma and charm. "He was a hero to the Jewish people in Newark and Irvington, N.J., and the surrounding area because he would form this group of Jew- ish boxers who would throw these stink bombs in the meetings of the Bund"--the German-American pro-Nazi movement--"and wait for them to run outside and be waiting for them with bats, sticks and fists and beat the crap out of them." Zwillman was also a Zionist sympathizer, and helped ship arms to Israel during its fight for independence. He had friends in high places, too, according to Weismann, a former producer at News 12 New Jersey. "He had everyone from the cop on the beat all the way up to the governor in his back pocket. He had [Gov.] Harold Hoffman to his shore house; he had the mayor of Newark over for brunch every weekend. For all his "talents," Zwill- man has gone under the gang- ster radar. There's no mention of him in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," which is based in At- lantic City during Prohibition, nor in "Mobsters," a series on the Biography Channel. "I'm curious to know why that is," said Weismann. "He was huge! He dated Jean Harlow, he helped start Columbia Pictures because he loaned Harry Cohn the money. "It's a fascinating story." Zwillman died under mys- terious circumstances in 1959 at the age of 54. Some say he committed suicide brought on by the stress of a tax evasion trial; others say he was bumped off. "I guess there are some compelling arguments on both sides," Weismann said, although he declines to offer an opinion. "We want to leave it to the audience to decide." Ran Kaplan is features edi- tor at the New Jersey Jewish News, from which this article is reprinted by permission.