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Old Havana lures Jewish tourists with first 'kosher' hotel
CubaNews / November 2003

By Larry Luxner

Care for an authentic Cuban mojito at the “L’chaim” bar? How about Israeli salad, matzo-ball soup and cheese blintzes?

All this and more is now on the menu at the Hotel Raquel — Cuba’s first boutique establishment catering specifically to adventurous Jewish tourists with dollars to spend.

Richly illustrated passages from the Old Testament cover the walls of this small but elegant property, located at San Ignacio and Amargura streets in what was once a thriving Jewish neighborhood in Old Havana.

The 25-room hotel was originally built as a bank in 1908, at a time when impoverished Jews from Eastern Europe, Turkey and Syria were immigrating to Cuba by the thousands. But after the 1959 revolution, nearly all of them fled to the United States and elsewhere; today no more than 1,300 Jews live in Cuba, most of them in Havana.

For many years, the structure housing the Raquel had been used as a fabric depot. Now, its eclectic architecture and romantic Art Nouveau interiors — all refurbished — have made the Raquel a jewel in the crown of Habaguanex, the state entity charged with fixing up Old Havana’s hotels and restaurants.

The property is located six blocks from Congregación Adat Israel, Cuba’s oldest synagogue, and also happens to boast the largest stained-glass window on the island.

General Manager José Manuel Quesada said that in the four months since the Raquel’s inauguration in June, the hotel has become popular with Spanish tourists as well as Amer-icans circumventing the travel ban to Cuba.

He expects the occupancy rate to reach 80-85% this winter, thanks to an influx of visitors from France, Germany and Great Britain.

In addition to American Jews, the Raquel clearly hopes to attract tourists from Israel.

Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler, director of Habaguanex and Havana’s official historian, said the revival of Jewish culture at the Hotel Raquel is a long and involved process.

“We have built a place of harmony in a Havana neighborhood that respects the best traditions of the Jewish people, members of a community that live in Cuba together with citizens of other beliefs,” he said.

In high season, rooms at the Raquel start at $180 for a double, going up to $282 a night for one of the hotel’s two junior suites. These prices include a welcome cocktail, breakfast, access to a safe, free entrance to all museums, and 10% off at all Habaguanex restaurants.

Five of the hotel’s 40 employees are Jewish, and the place makes Jews feel especially welcome with second-floor rooms named after Biblical matriarchs like Sarah, Hannah, Leah, Ruth and Sephora (first-floor rooms have names such as David and Solomon). And the Raquel is likely the only hotel in Cuba whose phone system plays the theme from “Schind-ler’s List” when placing callers on hold.

Four ornate chandeliers patterned after Stars of David hang in the lobby, while the lobby bar is named L’chaim (“to life” in Hebrew). It’s right next to the Bezalel gift shop, which sells Judaica items, and the Garden of Eden restaurant — where guests can choose kosher-style items ranging from potato latkes ($1.50) to red beet borscht and vegetable knishes ($2.50 each).

For really hungry tourists, the Garden of Eden offers lamb shashlik ($9.00), Hungarian goulash ($10.50) and gefilte fish ($12.00).

Although the Hotel Raquel keeps meat and dairy dishes separate and serves no pork pro-ducts whatsoever, it’s not 100% kosher. That would mean importing already certified food items — a very expensive proposition — and complying with a series of complex rules for meal preparation and food storage.

Hotel spokeswoman Karen Morales told CubaNews that “under present conditions, we can’t meet those requirements, but we hope to eventually create the mechanisms necessary to have a fully kosher menu.”

Stanley Cohen, international chairman of the B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project, was among several foreign dignitaries present at the hotel’s inauguration dinner in June.

“It’s not so Jewish that if you walked into it you’d think you were walking into a synagogue,” says Cohen, who lives in Pittsburgh, “but it does have the flavor of Judaism.”

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