History - Geschichte
Brief History of Jews in Cuba
information is taken from a review by Anthony P. Maingot
Florida International University of the book Tropical Diaspora by Robert
proportional terms, Cuba offered refugee or migrant status to more Jews than any
other Latin American country; more, in fact, than was offered by the United
States. In addition, despite occasional periods of hostility by certain sectors
of the Cuban elite, these Jews were afforded a good reception. Robert Levine
offers three reasons for this unusual circumstance. First, Cuba had an open
economy with a "worldly" elite, long accustomed to dealing with
strangers. This explains the relative absence of the class-based ethnocentrism
and anti-semitism often found among Latin American elites. To be sure, prejudice
and discrimination existed but, according to the author, tended to be of the
"petty" rather than the institutional sort.
Second, because the Jews settled all over Cuba rather than concentrating in one city (much less one neighborhood), their presence never engendered the "ghetto" syndrome so common in other countries.
accomodation was facilitated by the fact that Jewish migration occurred in
widely spaced historical sequences, each with different settlement patterns. The
two earliest groups were very successful economically and incorporated
themselves smoothly into Cuban society. First came the Spanish and Portuguese
Sephardim, who arrived either with the conquering Spaniards or from the island
of Curacao, the center of Sephardim culture in the Caribbean. Although not
mentioned by the author, Cuba's most powerful "sugar baron," Julio
Lobo, was a descendant of this group. This group is not to be confused with
later Sephardim migrants from North Africa and the Otoman Empire. Religiously
orthodox, poorly educated and non-Spanish speaking, these Jews were always
disdainfully referred to as "Turcos." The second earliest migration
was that of American Jews. They arrived with the United States occupation troops
and held important technical and commercial positions from the start.
some way, therefore, attitudes had been mellowed for later migrations. These
tended to be Ashkenazim (generally referred to as "Polacos") and while
they were not as easily incorporated as the earlier migrants, it is evident that
things could have been much worse.
who arrived in the 1920s and early 1930s included a good number of Marxists, who
played a key role in the founding of Cuba's Communist party. In the 1930s,
especially around the years of the Spanish Civil War, these Jews became targets
of a small but influential sector of the elite that had Falangist leanings.
These elites also opposed the entry of the next wave of Jews, the refugees from
Nazism. Desperate to enter the United States they settled for Cuba as a
safehaven but tended to see the islands as an "immigration hotel" (p.
285). The unintended consequence was that their aloofness minimized possible
confrontations with local anti-Semites. It is to this group that the author
gives the bulk of his attention, and it is their often-tragic story which
provides him with his most dramatic material.
book provides a powerful sense of hemispheric history repeating itself: refugees
attempting to reach the United States by any means including expensive smugglers,
the United States attempting to get alternate settlements for them in small
Caribbean countries, and corrupt local officials and politicians enriching
themselves from this sordid game of avoidance and callousness. As such, this
book is about more than just a Jewish diaspora; it is about the many diasporas
which have made the Caribbean Basin what it is.
JUDAISM IN CUBA 1959-1999: A PERSONAL ACCOUNT
by Dr. Moisés Asís *
years ago I reached the conclusion that Judaism is a singular paradigm of social
consciousness and collective unconscious (1). Only this definition has permitted
me to understand the survival of the Jewish people in human history.
Castro's Revolution came to power in 1959, a huge majority of Cubans did hope
that this political movement would bring a better future to Cuba. Under promises
of democracy, social justice, and individual freedom, most Cubans - including
most of those who are now in exile in Miami and elsewhere - gave support to that
dream and hope.
it was a paradox that Jews, who historically have been involved in all social
reforms and revolutions because it is a part of our religion to look forward a
world of justice and peace, took a different approach: 94% of those 15,000 Cuban
Jews left the country in the first years, to the United States, to Israel, to
Venezuela, to Panama, to Costa Rica, to anywhere. The history of the Jewish
community of Cuba in these 40 years is the history of that 6% of a successful
and proud community: it is the history of those who stayed and their children.
1959, I was six years old, and my parents were until this day faithful believers
in that Revolution. But my personal account will help you to understand the life
of those Jews who decided to stay in Cuba and to have a Jewish life over there,
lamrot hakol (despite everything).
to leave, why to stay
Jewish community of Cuba was a young one since 1898, when some of the 3,500
American-Jewish soldiers taking part in the Spanish-Cuban-American War came to
live in Cuba and established the first cemetery and temple. After that, during
the first fifty years of this century, thousands of Jews from Turkey, Poland,
Russia, Latvia, and elsewhere came to Cuba, mainly with the hope of jumping to
the United States. But the result was that many stayed in Cuba and felt very
happy to share their fate with the Cubans. In 1959, the Jews in Cuba almost had
reached their climax of economic and social development.
answer to why 94% of Jews in Cuba left, is in the words of Max Nordau: "We
are so old that in our history everything has happened and nothing new can occur."
explains why Jews did not believe in the beautiful speech on democracy and
social justice brought by Revolution leaders. Jews were professionals and
business people and had recently learned the lessons of totalitarian regimes in
Europe. There is a Jewish saying: "When things don't get better, don't
worry: they may get worse."
Cuba, the remaining Jews, 6% of the total, were those more assimilated, and
those who had a belief in the Revolution. Also, many were old people who had no
strengths to begin a new life abroad.
my childhood, I had the memories of Passover celebration at my grandparents, the
taste of matzoth, the curiosity for Hebrew language, the non-consumption of pork
or lard in my home, and the brith milah or circumcision.
was an incident that changed my life. One day I was doing forced labor in the
Lenin Park, south Havana, and also there were volunteers working there. One of
those volunteers, a very proud Communist, said to other people in commenting on
the newspaper Granma's news on Israel: "The worst Hitler did, it was not to
eliminate all the Jews". I said nothing. But I was over there serving a
minimum of one year of political prison; it was the year 1970 and I was 17 years
old. After that, as soon as I was free, I wanted to live a Jewish life with my
Jews of Cuba could survive, despite their isolation for forty years, their
dramatic depletion in number, the absence of rabbis, cantors (chazannim) and
professional teachers, the poverty of the community and its institutions, their
assimilation, and the restrictions (until 1991) on religious practice in Cuba.
only source for a demographic study of Jews in Cuba has been the Passover census:
the registry of people buying once a year matzoth and other Passover products.
These products have been donated all these years by the community of Canada and
since 1985 also by communities of Mexico, Panama, and other countries.
1989, according to my research (3,4), the community was composed of 892 people,
or 305 families. Of these people, 635 people were Jews born from a Jewish mother
(70%) or from a Jewish father (30%).
a total of 194 couples, only in 14 were both partners Jewish, which shows a 93%
of exogamy. In respect to education, 22% of adult Jews had a university degree.
synagogues in Havana and one in Santiago de Cuba continued to be places of
worship for Jews, as well as a school and other institutions.
the 1970s one of the synagogues (Santiago de Cuba's), the school and the Zionist
Union of Cuba were closed for the Jews (the former was reopened in 1996), and
another synagogue - the United Hebrew Congregation - was empty and abandoned in
the 1980s. Jewish life continued, however, and religious services were never
interrupted. The eldest members of the community led the religious life for all
these years, although always there was the fear of extinction because the high
rate of assimilation and the lack of a religious education at home for the
realized the fact that children of Communists and "non-Jewish Jews",
like myself, were showing interest in their roots. Two things then came to my
mind: (1) Hanson's law in sociology, "The third generation remembers what
the second tries to forget", and (2) the story of Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai,
who in the year 70 CE, when the Jews and the Second Temple were being destroyed
by the Romans, understood that only education could preserve Judaism for next
generations. He then created his famous school in Yavneh which permitted the
survival of Judaism until this date.
Cuban version of Yavneh was the opening of "Tikkun Olam" Hebrew Sunday
School in Havana, in the early 1980's. Tikkun olam means in Hebrew "healing,
amendment, repair, transformation of the world" and it is our wish
expressed in prayers and in Yom Kippur: to repair or mend a world of justice and
peace. At the beginning I was the principal and only teacher for a group of
twelve children and a few adults. With time, the school grew and we had more
teachers and tens of students in different levels of learning. The purpose of
the school was to teach Jewish identity and values, to seed the love for their
religion and history through the learning of Hebrew language, liturgy, songs,
dance, history, Israel, and comparative religion.
am very proud that some of those students who even did not know the meaning of
being a Jew, have continued their studies in rabbinical seminaries in Argentina
and the United States, and others have made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) or
continued to teach other people in Cuba.
lessons were accompanied by discussion lectures and video films.
the same time we kept all our religious life and traditions, as well as social
organizations like B'nai B'rith, Bikur Holim, and young men's and women's
organizations. Beginning in the 1980s, thanks to personal contacts, we had
contacts and cooperation with the Ecumenical Council of Cuba, the Catholic
Church and other Protestant churches.
never were anti-Semitic people, and Jews received in Cuba the same treatment as
other immigrants. A nation that persecutes Jews cannot last long. Also the
Revolution was very respectful toward Jews as a community, although its attitude
in respect to religion and Zionism and Israel greatly affected the Jewish
community. As a religious people, we had exactly the same discrimination and
problems to access jobs and universities as Christians and other religious
people in Cuba. As Jews, there was always the suspicion over us because of our
feelings towards Israel and other Jews in the world. All this generated some
kind of discrimination, but there was no anti-Semitism.
fact, Castro's Revolution had an ambiguous relation with the Jews:
For one side, it permitted freedom of culture, even the import of food donations
for Passover and New Year, and the domestic purchase of other products, as well
as the distribution of kosher meat to the Jews instead of any other meat or
poultry by the ration card. The Cuban criminal code protects against national,
religious or racial hate.
the other side, Cuba was training for years thousands of Palestinian terrorists,
even those of Abu Nidal and George Habasch; it published a lot of anti-Zionist,
anti-Israeli propaganda showing Jewish literature and art and even the Holocaust
as Zionist propaganda. Cubans could never read books by Anna Frank, Isaac
Bashevis Singer, or Eli Wiesel, or Agnon or Malamud, for example. Cuba was the
worst enemy of Israel at the United Nations, and took the initiative of
embargoes, sanctions and isolation against Israel, even the infamous resolution
"Zionism equals Racism," so unfair and noxious for Israel and the
Jewish people worldwide. I attended the session of the General Assembly of
United Nations in late December 1991, which unanimously canceled the infamous
resolution "Zionism equals Racism", and I will always remember the
nonsensical arguments by the Cuban delegate justifying his anti-Zionist vote.
Jews shared the same fate as Christians in being discriminated against in jobs
and universities. In the late sixties some were sent to the UMAP (Unidades
Militares de Ayuda a la Producción), forced labor camps for young political
dissenters, religious people, gays, and exit applicants. All Jewish activists
were closely under surveillance all the time. And also those "non-Jewish
Jews" who reached positions in the Army bodies, Communist Party,
bureaucratic structures of power and professional relevance had to work twice as
hard and to show much more loyalty to reach and keep their status.
in the nineties
1991, the Communist Party of Cuba changed its policy of opposition to religion
and opened its doors to believers of any religions. In practical terms this
meant that thousands of Communists began to attend churches and synagogues. And
maybe a few religious Communists were accepted as members in the Party. This
change of policy, and the disastrous economic situation in Cuba after the
disappearance of Soviet Union - main supplier of financial and economic aid to
Cuba -, brought many "non-Jewish Jews" to the community. The fall of
Berlin Wall was for Cuba the failure of ideology and the beginning of hard times
of hunger and despair.
has now its worst rates of malnutrition, suicide, poverty, unemployment,
diseases, prostitution, and uncertainty of the last fifty years.
those who are coming to the Jewish community are welcome, no matter who they
were or how much they cursed their Jewish roots. In Hebrew, teshuvah means
"return" and it is the word for repentance. And it is never too late
for teshuvah, to come back to the right way.
1992, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee began to give a special
attention to Cuban Jews: rabbis and specialists are regularly sent to help the
community to organize, to improve the education, to perform conversions,
circumcisions, and weddings, as well to supply the spiritual and physical needs
of the community.
organizations and communities have increased their support by donating school
supplies, medicines, religious books and articles, food, clothing, etc. A large
amount of money has been donated for the building of a synagogue in Camagüey
city and to repair the other synagogues in Havana. In 1996, the synagogue of
Santiago de Cuba was returned to the community and reopened. The women's
organization was created, as well as a Haddassah chapter - started and run by
Cuban Jewish doctors - for distributing the medicines to the sick.
1992, many Cuban Jews have expressed their desire to live in Israel, and over
two hundred people have made aliyah to Israel since then in small groups of
families. Others have emigrated in the 1990s to Europe, the United States, and
other countries in Latin America.
life continues in Cuba, even when the community replaces itself with newcomers,
and young people emigrate and older ones pass away.
future of Judaism in Cuba
Jerushalmi (Berakoth 9.1) says: "As long as a man breathes he should not
worst times for the Cuban Jews are behind. The community could survive times of
isolation and religious restrictions, and the loss of 94% of its population.
Assimilation had its effect, as well as the anti-Israel policy by Cuba.
always will have a Jewish community. When Cubans reach their democratic goals,
many Jews from other countries will want to come to Cuba for business
opportunities and to live there.
present community will lose some members by family reunification with those
living now in the United States and Israel, and most Cuban Jews will not return
from these countries. But many Jews from Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Canada,
Europe, and Canadian and American Jews will find it very attractive to invest
there or to practice their professions in the country.
will be the next community in Cuba and they will find synagogues where Jews of
different generations worshiped every day and every shabbat for forty years
under the most difficult conditions.
history is a history of martyrdom and learning", as historian Heinrich
Graetz said, but it is also a history of faith and hope.
and B.Sc. Information/Library Sciences of University of Havana, Ph.D. Honoris
Causa in Experimental Hypnosis and M.D. in Alternative Medicine of the Open
International University for Complementary Medicines. He was a student at the
Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, thanks to a Joint
Distribution Committee fellowship. Author of 14 books and over a hundred
articles on scientific and social subjects, including Judaism. For about 25
years he was an activist in the Jewish community of Cuba, was the vice-president
of B'nai B'rith Maimonides, and was the founder, principal and teacher of the
"Tikkun Olam" Hebrew Sunday School in Havana. In Cuba he was a
researcher and therapist. In late 1993 he immigrated to the United States. At
present he works as a professional at the Florida Department of Children and
Families, in Miami, and is a member of Temple Judea in Coral Gables.
For information on reference material e-mail Dr. Asis at firstname.lastname@example.org
Annual South Florida Symposium on Cuba
and Power: Religion in Contemporary Cuba"
L. Knight Center.
The Jews of Cuba
by Dr. Jose Miller Fredman
President of El Patronato in Havana,
and leader of the total Jewish community of Cuba.
Cuban Jewish community has a web page to link and to find more information. It
1492, when Christopher Columbus arrived on Cuba, during his initial voyage to
the New World, the first Jew came came with him, the converted Luis de Torres.
the XIX Century, the Jews took part in the war of independence. One of them was
the Hungarian-American, Louis Schlesinger, who participated in Narciso Lopez's
disembarkation in Cardenas City in 1850. Also remarkable is the financial
support the Jewish Community of Key West gave to Jose Marti, who unified the
independence movement from the exile in the United States. Among the supporters
were the brothers Edward and Joseph Steinberg.
the late XIX Century, after the end of the Spanish-Cuban-American war, and in
the period of the first United States occupation, there was a strengthening of
the Jewish Community. New immigrants came from the USA, Turkey and Morocco:
Askenazies and Sephardies. In addition, there were other immigrants from Eastern
Europe , who came due to World War I and the harsh post war era. Most of them
came from Russia, Poland and Lithuania.
Herzl's Zionist thoughts were the main inspiration of the Cuban Yshuv. The most
outstanding Cuban-Russian Jewish Zionist was David Bliss (1870-1942). He founded
the Zionist Organization and the `Centro Israelita de Cuba'.
1918, Bliss requested the support of the Cuban government for the Balfour
Declaration. His efforts paid off: his request was accepted.
Bliss's death he was proclaimed "The Grandfather of the Cuban Jewish
Community (Yshuv)" and there were three days of mourning in the Yshuv in
thanks to Bliss's efforts, not only did the different Jewish groups who settled
in Cuba become more attached, but also, the first Jewish cemetery was built and
the the Reform movement, United Hebrew Congregation, was founded. Its members'
relationship with Jews from New York contributed to the effort to settle new
immigrants. All these factors enabled a permanency and a strengthening of the
Cuban Jewish Community.
the 1920s on, there was an increase of new European immigrants. Some of them
came to establish a permanent settlement in Cuba. Others came as a way to go to
the United States.
fact, from that moment on, schools and synagogues were built and different
organizations were founded. The cultural life emerged and was supported by
newsletters, magazines and other publications, such as: "Aurora",
"Vida Habanera", "La Palabra Israelita" and the like.
there were no relevant expressions of anti-Semitism in Cuba, Jews were not
welcome in many social clubs and other public places. This did not hinder the
development of a parallel, but separate, social life with all the amenities of
Saint Louis transatlantic steamer incident was not so much a case of Cuban
anti-Semitism as a desire of the Cuban government to please the U.S., which was
worried that some of the refugees might be Nazi spies in disguise.
1945, the Jewish population was about 25,000. But,after World War II, many of
the members of the community went to the United States or returned to Europe.
1947, there was a turning point in the Cuban government. On one hand, it voted
against the division of Palestine which would allow Israel to be constituted as
an independent state. On the other hand, Cuba was one of the first countries to
recognize Israel. As a consequence of it, diplomatic relationships were soon
the end of the 1940s and in the 1950s, the Cuban Jewish Community underwent an
epoch of economic prosperity. Over that time, there were 12,000 Cuban Jews. Most
of them lived in Havana. There were synagogues in many cities throughout the
country, Jewish schools, youth organizations, women's organizations and other
kinds of community groups such as B'nai B'rith.
the end of the 1950s, the new synagogues, which had just been opened in the new
part of Havana, faced the reforms initiated by the revolutionary government.
the beginning of the 1960s a large emigration of weathy Jews took place, mainly
to the United States.
the end of the 1980s community life was very poor for Cuban Jews. There were
three synagogues in Havana with very few activities, and religious services with
hardly a `minyan'. Nothing was going on in other provinces.
Jews who continued participating in the communitarian life were few and quite
old. It was a depressing situation with a very uncertain future.
we knew we had young people who remained unknown and inactive and we were sure
that in the depth of their souls a little spark remained alive. The only thing
we had to do was reach out to them and to revive that flame. It was then that we
turned to the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) to ensure the continuity of the
Cuban Jewish Community for years to come. From that moment on there was a
renewal of the Cuban Jewish life. Now we receive help from Jews in many
countries in both North and South America. We are grateful for all the aid from
our friends, particularly in the U.S. from where it is so hard to make the
journey to visit us.
are proud of our Jewish relious and cultural growth and now we can say with
pride "Am Israel BeCuba Jai !"
This material has been written by Dr. Jose Miller Fredman
Beth Israel......Berkeley, CA
.............. Contact CBI/Feedback