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Amid travelers’ feelings of unity, Pittsburgh killings brought jarring echoes from the past

I found out about Pittsburgh from a wordless text from an old and dear friend, containing three smiling faces blowing kisses and three hearts.

photo of article author
Rena Kraut
I found out about Pittsburgh from a wordless text from an old and dear friend, containing three smiling faces blowing kisses and three hearts. We don’t often text and I couldn’t understand why she was sending this particular message. Late that night I found out why, standing in a Wi-Fi park in Trinidad de Cuba as a local band played on the steps of the plaza. The area was full of tourists and Cubans grabbing what bandwidth we could, the light from our phones glowing softly on skin of every imaginable color as the local dogs, either too content or too tired to bark, draped themselves over the cobblestone steps. The group I had taken to Cuba through my organization, the Cuban American Youth Orchestra, had gone back to the house, so I was alone with the news of the synagogue massacre.

The outside world always feels like an unwelcome intrusion when I’m in Cuba, and this time significantly more so. I clicked off the Wi-Fi button quickly without reading any details. The next day, Sunday, was our last day together as a group and I didn’t see the point of bringing bad news to fellow travelers. Instead, we spent the day reviewing the events of the weeklong arts delegation with fondness, wonder, and introspection.

A grateful feeling of connection

Back in Havana for our farewell dinner, each of us shared high points over mojitos. The common theme: the grateful feeling of connection between humans, united by love of art, music, food, and friendship. In modest homes across three cities, Cuban musicians and artists brought us into their lives with graciousness and pride, gave us the opportunity to listen and learn, and saw us off with a nos vemos (we’ll see you) and a besito (little kiss) on the cheek.

In a fractured world, small acts of generosity are the glue that keeps us from falling apart. Over the course of the week, besos were given and received on cheeks black, white, brown, and everything in between. For our Minnesota-based group, everyday life simply did not allow for the possibility of brushing up against the other. In Cuba, where Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean collide, it’s impossible to even label who the other is.

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Joy drowned out

As we wrapped up a discussion of race relations and growing violence in our own country to which we were about to return, I heard myself tell the table that 11 Jews were shot at services in Pittsburgh. Almost all over 60, I said, crying as I remembered all the wrinkled Jewish cheeks kissed at family gatherings from Israel to Chicago.

The traditional greeting of Shabbat Shalom that ends a Shabbat service is punctuated in my memory by the sound of the kisses that inevitably follow, as family and friends turn from one to the other to offer a cheek. A simple, joyous moment before you go about your day, now drowned out by other echoes from the past growing louder in our ears.

Rena Kraut is a classical clarinetist and the executive director of the Cuban American Youth Orchestra.