The Island Within an Island: Cuba’s Jewish History
“To Be Cuban and to be Jewish is to be twice survivors.”
—Maritza Corrales, The Chosen Island
My visit to Cuba in March of 2017 led to a remarkable personal discovery that went against everything I read before the trip. Today, the Jews of Cuba, once called a remnant of the 15,000-strong community, demonstrate a phenomenon of rebirth and reinvention. The tiny community of 1,000 on the island of 11 million people is robust, has a strong sense of identity—and is very different from the Jewish community before the 1959 revolution.
The contemporary Cuban Jewish narrative depicts a fascinating trajectory. First, a descent from vibrancy and prosperity to near oblivion after the mass exodus of the 1960s and years of imposed atheism. Then, a recent sudden ascent to becoming a “Celebrity of Tropical Diaspora,” arguably the most visited and photographed of the world’s Jewish communities. The Cuban Jewish story reflects not a single community but rather a mosaic of several, varied greatly in their languages and cultures, and which was built by five distinctly different waves of Crypto-Jewish and Jewish immigrants.
Cuba has been a welcoming refuge for the Jews since 1492, when conversos sought a safe haven from the Spanish Inquisition. There is no documented evidence proving the arrival of the first Crypto-Jews to Cuba. However, supposedly the first European settler in Cuba was the converso Luis de Torres, born Yosef ben Levy Ha-Ivri. An explorer and translator, he sailed with Columbus on the Santa Maria, and is credited with being the first person of Jewish descent settling on the island. Moreover, de Torres is often proclaimed the first Jew to set foot in the Americas! The Luis de Torres Synagogue in Freeport Bahamas was named after him. Many conversos settled in Cuba following de Torres, but little is known about them and their Jewish ancestry. The West Indies’ Inquisition records contain lists of suspected Judaizers. One of those maranos, Hernando de Castro, built the first sugar mill near Santiago and is considered the pioneer of the sugar industry on the island. The Inquisition records also show details of several trials and executions of Cuban Judaizers, such as the 1613 burning of a rich landowner Francisco Gomez de Leon. The Holy Office in the Spanish colonies was abolished only in the early years of the 19th century, and until the end of the Spanish-American War of 1898, only Catholic religious services were allowed. What the Cuban settlers of Jewish descent wanted was to blend with the Spaniards and “disappear” into Cuba.
And they did.
The Most Famous Crypto-Jew of Cuba Was…
…Fidel Castro himself, who admitted on a few occasions that his own ancestors were of Jewish descent. Patrick Symmes, in his remarkable study of Cuba, The Boys from Dolores (2008), quoted Castro’s classmates who remembered young Fidel stating that—though many young people in the 1930s were fascinated with Hitler, Franco or Mussolini—he could never do so because those leaders were anti-Semitic. And, as Fidel explained, he could not be “against the Jews” since he, Fidel, was one himself: He descended through his grandmothers from the Jews of Spanish Galicia and Canary Islands.
The 20th-Century Jewish Story Prior to Castro’s Revolution
Our first stop in Cuba was Santiago, the city that brings history pilgrims to the very roots of Cuban and Jewish history. Columbus landed in 1492 about 200 kilometers to the east of what is today Santiago, which became one of the first Spanish settlements on the island. In July 1898, Theodore Roosevelt’s cavalry attacked the San Juan Hill and captured the city, ending Spanish domination in Cuba and brining final victory in both Spanish-American War and the Cuban War for Independence. The American Jews began arriving shortly after. They were the first “real” Jews to settle on the island as part of the much larger and fast-growing American expat community. Attracted by the opportunities of investment and the promise of wealth, they saw themselves as first and foremost Americans, and they sought to replicate their American environment in Cuba. In 1904, they founded the first synagogue in Havana, a reformed Union Hebrew Congregation, and in 1906 they acquired a plot for a Jewish cemetery. These two events are often considered the official beginning of the Cuban Jewish community, an English-speaking Cuban-American Jewish community to be precise. An American island within the island of Cuba came into being. And American Jews created their own comfortable corner within it.
Sephardic Jews arrived next, mostly refugees from Turkey. Speaking Ladino, they did not have the same language or cultural barriers as did the other Jewish immigrant groups, and so they had an easier time acclimating to their new home. The largest group settled in Havana. In 1914, the Sephardi established their own communal organization Chevet Ahim to provide Orthodox religious services to the entire Sephardic community of Cuba. They built their own secure corner within the “Jewish island” of Cuba, firmly rooted in strict traditions and religion.
Escaping the escalation of rabid anti-Semitism and violent pogroms in Russia and Poland, Ashkenazi Jews began to arrive in Cuba in the beginning of the 20th century through the late 1920s. The locals called them “Polacos” (Poles) even though many were not from Poland. Unlike Sephardim, the Ashkenazim saw their time on the island as only a brief stopover before entering the United States. They called Cuba the Akhsanie Kuba (“Hotel Cuba” in Yiddish). In 1924, when U.S. immigration laws stiffened, the Cuban loophole was closed. The Jewish Cuban “hotel” had to become a home.
Nationalism and the tragic story of St. Luis
With the economic decline of the late 1920s came a nationalist revival focused on returning to the Cubans their rights over their own country. Anti-Semitism came naturally along. Instigated by the Cuban nationalists in cooperation with the Nazi German Embassy in Havana, hostility toward Jewish immigrants from Europe fueled both anti-Semitism and xenophobia. These attitudes played a significant role in the infamous tragic case of the transatlantic liner St. Luis, when this ship with its 937 passengers on board, most refugees from the Third Reich, was not allowed to disembark in Havana and forced to return to Europe.
Escaping the Holocaust
The fifth and last wave of Jewish immigrants to Cuba brought European refugees and survivors of the camps prior to, during and after World War II. In spite of the anti-Semitic attitudes and tightening of the immigration laws in Cuba, more than 10,000 Jewish refugees managed to slip into the country between 1933 and 1944. After the war, less than 15 percent of them remained in Cuba.
Community of communities
Cuban Jewry remained divided into three large sectors: Americans, other Ashkenazi Jews (mostly of Eastern European descent) and Sephardim. Each community kept on as a separate entity in their secure corner of a larger “Jewish island” within the island of Cuba; each comfortable with its own cemeteries and services, needs and desires, attitudes and expectations.
Cuba took them all with tolerance and acceptance, for the most part. The actions of various Cuban dictators, like the infamous Batista, did not affect Jewish communities: Most Cuban Jews stayed away from the dangerous politics in their home-island. They were well off and content, and they wanted their tiny secure “islands” to last for eternity. But Castro’s revolution of 1959 had entirely destroyed their world, and it seemed forever.
Revolution and the ‘Triumph”
Castro reinvented the history and the calendar. The year of 1959 became the Year of the Revolution and years that followed were called the Epoch of Triumph. For the Jews of Cuba, these events fueled a true exodus, and by the early 1960s, the Jewish community of Cuba ceased to exist. In the words of Ruth Behar, a renowned anthropologist from the University of Michigan and a Cuban Jew whose family fled to the U.S., “the dissolution of the community was swift like a lit candle snuffed by the wind” (An Island Called Home, 2007). Castro’s policies were never anti-Semitic; rather it was his socialistic destruction of the middle class that included many Jews who chose to flee. Out of nearly 15,000 Jews, less than 1,000 stayed. The new Constitution stated that any religion was illegal as a manifestation of counter-revolutionary attitudes and actions. Most synagogues and Jewish schools were closed or abandoned. The totalitarian state came into being, and the Jews had to—once again—assimilate and adopt. They were not Jews anymore, but Cuban citizens and comrades. Like other Cubans, they had to get used to poverty and rations, revolutionary atheism and fear of political persecution. They also faced with ferocious anti-Israeli attitudes and rhetoric after Castro broke up with Israel in 1973.
However, the island’s Jewish story defies rationalization. How would one explain the fact that the remaining Jews were singled out to be the “chosen people” for a rare luxury? During our conversation with the vice president of the Beth Shalom Synagogue in Havana, we learned about…
The Kosher Butcher Shop
Protected by a 1962 personal letter from Fidel Castro, this tiny shop survived through the years of government actions to extinguish any religious observances. The store is located in the heart of the former Jewish neighborhood on Calle Cuba, around the corner from the only Orthodox synagogue in Havana: Adath Israel. We learned that the shop never stopped supplying kosher beef to the Jews of Havana.
Our guide told us that beef is a precious rarity and is allotted to schoolchildren only as part of their free lunch. Cows are considered the property of the state. To slaughter a cow without special permission is a federal crime. The government decides not only where and how people live and work but also what and how much food they consume. The libreta, or a ration book, allows each person to receive every month six pounds of rice, two liters of oil and 20 ounces of grains. When meat is available to libreta holders (or now, to those who have dollars), it is pork. Why was Fidel sympathetic to the Jewish dietary law? Was it because he wanted to demonstrate good will to the few Jews that remained? Or was it because of his acknowledged Jewish ancestry?
Miracle of Rebirth: The 21st-Century Story
The Special Period
The Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, sending the Cuban economy into a tailspin. Fidel’s “triumph” transitioned into what he labeled the Special Period in the Time of Peace. In reality, that was a deep economic crisis defined by a near-total breakdown of the transportation and agriculture. One of our Cuban guides shared that her baby boy died during the Special Period, possibly from starvation: Milk disappeared. Other guides explained to us that the traffic was light because gasoline and diesel fuel were hard to find and very expensive. Since 1959, Cubans learned what the Jews had known for 2,000 years: what it takes to stay afloat. Life went on and everyone in Cuba, including the Jews, had to adapt to survive.
Christmas is back
In 1992, Castro created a miracle: To turn the economy from dependency on the Soviets to dependency on tourism, especially American tourism, he used magic words amending the Constitution. Cuba became a “secular” as opposed to the former “atheist” state. Then, the “enemies of the people” who immigrated after 1959 became the “community in the exterior.” A new law permitted even the Communist Party members to participate in religious observances. Going to a synagogue or church was not punished with severe repercussions anymore. Cuban people got their Christmas back, and Cuban Jews could again become Jews.
Entering Jewish Cuba
The first Cuban synagogue we visited was in Santiago. Founded by the Sephardim in 1924, it was closed after the revolution, and reopened again in 1996 to service its community of around 90. The sanctuary was locked, but the communal hall was nicely kept, and seeing the photos of former congregants on the wall was a strange, bittersweet experience. The Cuban Jews are alive and well—just not in Cuba. Havana, however, presented us with an entirely different story.
Our entry into Jewish Havana began in a rather unusual place: a Jewish hotel! The last occupant of that beautiful Art Nouveau building was the office of the Food Industry, and then in 1970s, it fell into disrepair. But with the government placing stakes on growing tourism, especially that of U.S. Jewish groups, it was reborn as a beautifully restored hotel now named after the matriarch from the Bible: Raquel. The building’s interior resembles an art museum: Jewish symbols interwoven seamlessly and tastefully with the exquisite Art Nouveau elements. Every room is named after a heroine of the Bible, and the restaurant serves gefilte fish and blintzes.
To meet the Cuban Jews of today, we left Old Havana and headed to Vedado, a formally upscale neighborhood to visit the beautiful Beth Shalom synagogue. Built in the early 1950s by the rich Jews of Cuba or “patrons” (the second name for the synagogue is “Patronato”), Beth Shalom was restored to its formal grandeur in the early 1990s by the American Joint Distribution Committee and Miami Jewish Federation. The complex takes up almost an entire block.
Learning About the Jews of Today
We met with the vice president of Patronato, David Prinstein, who showed us around the synagogue and shared some of the synagogue’s—and his family’s—history. His grandfather arrived from Poland; his parents became founding members of the Cuban Communist Party, passionate revolutionaries. When religion was considered a crime, David told us, the majority of Jews, like other Cubans, separated themselves from religion. Many were born into mixed marriages and often married non-Jews. David’s second wife Marlen is not Jewish by birth. But even then, Jewish life was kept afloat by surviving family memories and by older people coming to their dilapidated synagogues. Three synagogues survived in Havana after the revolution: Adas Israel (an Orthodox congregation), Centro Sephardico and the largest in Havana: Patronato (a conservative congregation).
An assimilated Jew, David returned to his roots in the 1990s, through study and participation in the synagogue’s life, eventually rising to become its leader. His family practically lives in Patronato. All his children had bar and bat mitzvahs there and are very involved in the synagogue’s life. Marlen, who converted to Judaism, often leads Shabbat services on Saturday. She also teaches Hebrew at Sunday school. For most of around 800 members, Patronato is a second home. The Jewish community has become a place to go, to study, to pray, to celebrate, to eat and to get medicine. Beth Shalom is supported by the American Joint Committee (“the Joint”) and receives numerous donations, including medical supplies, from various groups.
There is no rabbi in Cuba, but the Joint supports regular visits of the rabbi from Chile. Rabbis also come often from Miami and New York. David estimates that there are 1,200 Jews in Cuba today, most living in Havana. Jewishness is defined differently in Cuba: With supposedly only 20-25 full-blooded Jews in the country (born from two Jewish parents), the rest are those who have some Jewish ancestry or, like Marlen Prinstein, become Jews by choice. Most came from a minimal knowledge of Judaism, but all are committed to intense study and building a vibrant Jewish life.
We returned to the lobby and looked at the photographs of Fidel Castro at Beth Shalom. There are numerous photographs of the Cuban leader, who visited the Patronato after Adela Dworin, then vice president of the Jewish community, invited him. “Why you never visited our synagogue?” she once asked during a meeting with the government officials. “You never asked me,” joked Fidel. So in 1998, Castro communicated to the world his support of the religious revival by attending the Beth Shalom during what he called a “revolutionary holiday” of Hanukkah and lighting a menorah.
We also visited Centro Hebreo Sefaradi, which has a small exhibit dedicated to the Holocaust. Centro Hebreo is the only remaining institution preserving the legacy of Cuban Sephardim. Their old synagogue, Chevet Ahim, has been closed for years and is in ruins. The third synagogue of Havana is the small Orthodox shul Adath Israel, which maintains the only mikveh in Cuba and supervises the kosher butcher shop. Neither Centro Hebreo nor Adath Israel receive the same attention from the touring Jewish groups, but both are thriving nevertheless.
While a growing number of Jewish families, especially young people, make aliyah to Israel, the overall size of the community stays somewhat the same: More and more people stop by the synagogue office to find out what steps they need to take to become Jews by choice or to talk about their Jewish ancestry. Are they attracted by a promise of a nice meal a few times a week in a country of empty stores, access to medicine when even an aspirin is a rarity and access to computers in a city without abundant internet connections? Perhaps. But mostly what brings people to Beth Shalom is an idea of belonging to something bigger than oneself: a robust community, which is more secular than religious, with a proud sense of identity and strong leaders.
By the first decade of the 21st century, the Jewish community of Cuba was not only reborn but had completely reinvented itself. The Jews of Cuba, the tiniest of the tiny minorities on that island, have become what they had never been: a unified entity. They also unintentionally turned into a key attraction in Havana for numerous Jewish tours; there is hardly a synagogue or a Jewish federation in the U.S. that does not organize Jewish heritage-themed travel to Cuba on an almost annual basis.
The Jews of Cuba, having survived the Inquisition and Castro’s revolution, are now a powerful community—not in numbers, but in spirit.