A brief history of Judaism in Cuba
Only six decades ago, Cuba was home to a large and thriving Jewish population. Shabbat was celebrated by many Jewish households and services were well attended at any of the five synagogues in Havana. Many Cuban Jews owned businesses or were prominent intellectuals. There were frequent Jewish weddings under the chuppah, as well as bar mitzvahs and circumcisions. There was a kosher restaurant in the center of Havana (Moishe Pipik). The Jewish community formed a well established and affluent part of Cuban society. In the absence of antisemitism they were free to practice their religion and build solid lives for their families.
While it remains unclear when exactly the first Jews settled in Cuba, it is documented that at least three Jewish men came to Cuba after the massive expulsion from Spain in 1492, when 200.000 Jews were forced to leave. All three were Marranos, or forced Jewish converts to Catholicism.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Jews immigrated to Cuba from Brazil, where they had been persecuted under Portuguese control. New Jewish immigrants established trade in Cuba and many of them assimilated into Cuban society.
In the late 1800’s, Jews from the Dutch Antilles settled in Cuba, supporting Jose Martí, who liberated Cuba from Spanish colonial rule in 1898. U.S.-owned plantations and businesses attracted many American Ashkenazi Jews and in 1906, 11 American Jews founded Cuba’s first synagogue, the United Hebrew Congregation. This is considered the official beginning of the Cuban Jewish community.
Cuban Jews were involved in all aspects of Cuban society and economy, from the tobacco industry to the sugar cane business. A large number of Jews immigrated to Cuba from 1910 until 1920: Sephardic Jews from Turkey following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire as well as Ashkenazi Jews from eastern Europe and Russia. There was a clear divide between the Ashkenazi Jews, whose main language was Yiddish, and the Sephardic Jews from Turkey, Morocco and Algeria, who often conversed in Ladino – a language derived from medieval Spanish. Both groups generally stuck to their own kind and intermarriages were discouraged.
In the 1930s, new Jewish immigrants came from Europe as a result of Nazi and fascist persecution. During World War II, Jewish refugees from Antwerp introduced the diamond-polishing industry: by 1944 they had established 24 plants employing 1,000 workers. After the war ended, most of them went back to Belgium.
In 1952 the Jewish population of the island was estimated at about 12,000, with 75 percent concentrated in Havana. Fulgencio Batista, in power after a military coup, was ruling with an iron fist. The country was rife with corruption, the mafia was heavily invested in casinos and prostitution and Havana became a playground for the wealthy and the American jet set.
The Cuban Revolution put an abrupt end to this in January 1959. The political changes caused a massive exodus of business owners and wealthy Cubans, many Jews among them. Over 90% of the Jewish Cubans left the island for the USA, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Religious worship became heavily restricted. A handful of orthodox Jews would still come together at Adath Israel in Old Havana. Even though several Jewish intellectuals had chosen to stay in support of the Revolution, by the early 1980’s Jewish culture and religion had all but vanished.
Dr. Jose Miller, the leader of the ailing Jewish community in Cuba throughout the eighties and nineties until his passing in 2006, has been instrumental in reviving the Jewish traditions. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Fidel Castro opened the doors again for religious practice. Dr. Miller took active measures to bring funds and spiritual guidance from abroad. His plea to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was met with huge support: to this day, the practicing Jews in Cuba all echo the same sentiment that without the support of El Joint, there would have been no Jewish life left on the island.
The current president of the Jewish Federation in Cuba is Adela Dworin, who worked side by side with Dr. Miller since the early eighties. It is remarkable that after so many years of decline, the Jewish traditions have once again become part of the complex tapestry that characterizes Cuban society. Three of the five synagogues in Havana, neglected and in disarray for many decades, are now being used for services and education; many families have embraced the celebration of Shabbat at their temple of choice.
Cuba does not have its own rabbi, but several rabbis from Latin America and the USA have developed strong ties with the Jewish community and visit the island regularly. In 1992, the Joint Distribution Committee appointed Argentine-born rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler as the chief rabbi. He has visited Cuba over 170 times, providing guidance and leading services not only in Havana, but also in the smaller congregations spread over the island. His kindness and charisma have been a source of comfort and inspiration to the small but significant Jewish community of Cuba.
Historic photographs courtesy Centro Hebreo Sefaradi, Havana.