This past winter my family and I visited Cuba, home to a tiny but fascinating Jewish community, which University of Michigan scholar and Cuban exile Ruth Behar dates to 1834, when a handful of Ashkenazic Jews from Europe and Sephardic Jews from nearby Dutch Caribbean colonies began to settle on the island.
This small influx was followed by three major waves of Jewish immigration. The first was a group of American Jews who arrived seeking economic opportunities after the Cuban war of independence from Spain in 1898; the second consisted of Sephardic Jews who fled Turkey in 1904 (and in later years) in response to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; and the final – and largest number – came from Europe (predominantly Poland) in the 1920’s and 1930’s to escape murderous pogroms, economic strife, and rising anti-Semitism, which culminated with Hitler’s reign of terror.
The last group hoped Cuba would be a steppingstone to the United States; in fact, many sardonically referred to it as “Hotel Cuba.” But when the U.S. government slammed the doors shut to immigration in 1924, Cuba unwittingly became their home. Today, the number of Jews is estimated at 1,000-1,500, down considerably from its peak of 15,000-20,000 just prior to the 1959 Communist revolution, led by Fidel Castro and aided by the former Soviet Union. Afterwards, 95 percent of Jews emigrated, largely to Miami, in response to the nationalization of various businesses, which were the economic lifeblood of the community.
Despite its small size and the benign, if not hostile, attitude toward religion during the height of Castro’s Communist rule (religious activity was seen as counterrevolutionary), one of the most amazing developments that has occurred since the mid 1990’s, has been the rebirth of Jewish life, especially in Havana, where the bulk of Jews live. This was made possible by the downfall of the Soviet Union and the removal of its financial assistance, leaving Cuba in dire economic straits, which, in turn, led Castro to open up Cuba’s society and to seek foreign currency (read: tourism) even from America, in spite of the U.S. trade embargo. A major manifestation of the Jewish reawakening is the renewed activity of the city’s restored synagogues.
Like the old Jewish joke, there are three active shuls: the Adath Israel, Orthodox; and the Patronato and the Centro Hebreo Sephardi, both of which are affiliated with the Conservative movement. Remarkably, the Adath Israel has a daily morning and afternoon minyan, while the Patranato and Centro Hebreo Sephardi have regular Friday night and Shabbat services. Besides worship-related activities, the Patronato doubles as a community center, where among other critical things, it runs a much-needed pharmacy and even sponsors an ongoing Birthright Israel group. Indeed, the day we visited we saw members busy at work in the Patronato’s library, as well as peeked at the synagogue’s extensive video collection.
This renaissance of Jewish life is not just limited to Havana; stunningly, it also has taken place in small provinces throughout the country. For example, in her enlightening book, An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba, Behar movingly tells the story of David Tacher Romano, a Jewish activist, who helped build a Holocaust memorial in the Jewish cemetery of Santa Clara, a city where ironically Che Guevara’s remains are buried. She also tells the story of several older Jews who, from these outlying areas, have undergone circumcisions to reclaim their Jewish past.
Much of the Jewish revival in Cuba has been fostered and funded by the Joint Distribution Committee, a beneficiary of Chicago’s JUF, along with assistance from other international Jewish organizations, including B’nai B’rith, Canadian Jewish Congress, Hadassah, ORT, as well as from individual donations from Jews throughout the world.
According to Maritza Corrales, a Cuban historian who met with us, what is unique about the Jewish Cuban experience compared with other Diaspora communities is that it largely has been free of discrimination. She explains that historically Cuban society has been stratified by color and class, but not by religion. This has meant that Jews have not visibly stood out as they have had in other countries. Given the long history of anti-Semitism in much of the rest of the world, this observation is truly hard to believe, although Corrales insists, “life for Jews in Cuba [has] always [been] nice.”
Nevertheless, Jewish emigration from Cuba goes on unabated, with about 100 Jews, mostly younger-aged, leaving per year. Much of this exodus is to Israel, where they see greater economic opportunities and a better quality of life. This does not seem to bode well for the future of Cuban Jewry, but some think that improved U.S.-Cuban relations will stimulate greater Jewish immigration, enabling the community to continue to flourish.
Beyond Jewish life, Cuba is an exotic, exuberant and friendly place, with great potential, just on the verge of taking off. But one can’t help get a touch of melancholy seeing the country’s low standard of living and the pervasive economic underdevelopment. Indeed, compared to the United States and most Western countries, it seems frozen in the 1940’s or 1950’s. Further, after just a week there, one quickly recognizes the striking contradictions in Cuban society: older homes with magnificent architecture and new ones with little or no aesthetic value; great wealth and extreme poverty; beautiful tourist resorts and inadequate and dilapidated housing; currency for locals and another for foreigners; latest model tourist buses and overcrowded and run-down city ones; an open, tolerant and relaxed atmosphere and limited economic and political freedom; and so on.
With the potential of continued easing of U.S.-Cuban ties, it is not hard to imagine an outburst of economic activity and further steps toward greater political openness. Yet it’s too early to predict what is going to happen. A lot is going to depend on future leadership both in America and Cuba. But one hopes that further relaxation of tensions will lead to the betterment of conditions for both Jews and all Cubans.