Jews in Cuba
Today, Havana’s Jewish community (La Comunidad Hebrea, www.chcuba.org) is thought to number only about 1,300, about 5 percent of its prerevolutionary size, when it supported five synagogues and a college.
The first Jew in Cuba, Luis de Torres, arrived with Columbus in 1492 as the explorer’s translator. He was followed in the 16th century by Jews escaping persecution at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. Later, Ashkenazic Jews from Florida founded the United Hebrew Congregation in 1906, and Turkish Jews flocking to avoid World War I concentrated in Southern Habana Vieja, many starting out in Cuba selling ties and cloth.
Other Jews emigrating from Eastern Europe passed through Cuba en route to the United States in significant numbers until the United States slammed its doors in 1924, after which they settled in Cuba. They were relatively poor compared to the earlier Jewish immigrants and were disparagingly called polacos.
Sephardic Jews came later and were profoundly religious. They formed social clubs, opened their own schools, and married their own. By contrast, many Ashkenazic men married Cuban (Catholic) women and eventually were assimilated into Cuban society, says author Robert M. Levine. The Ashkenazim were fired with socialist ideals and were prominent in the founding of both the labor and Cuban Communist movements.
Cuba seems to have been relatively free of anti-Semitism (Batista was a friend to Jews fleeing Nazi Europe). Levine, however, records how during the late 1930s the U.S. government bowed to isolationist, labor, and anti-Semitic pressures at home and convinced the Cuban government to turn back European Jews. This sordid chapter in U.S. history is reflected in the tragic story of the SS St. Louis and its 937 passengers trying to escape Nazi Germany in 1939. The ship languished in Havana harbor for a week while U.S. and Cuban officials deliberated on letting passengers disembark; tragically, entry was refused, and the passengers were sent back to Europe and their fate.
By the 1950s, about 20,000 Jews lived in Havana, concentrated around Calle Belén and Calle Acosta, which bustled with kosher bakeries, cafés, and clothes stores. Jews knew the lessons of Nazi Germany and the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe and so, following the Revolution, became part of the Cuban diaspora. About 95 percent of them fled, although a few joined the Castro government; two became early cabinet members. Some 500 Cuban Jews were secretly allowed to emigrate to Israel beginning in 1994.
Although the Castro government discouraged Jews from practicing their faith, Jewish religious schools were the only parochial schools allowed to remain open after the Revolution and the government even provided school buses. The government has always made matzo available and even authorized a kosher butcher shop on Calle Acosta to supply meat for observant Jews. And Jews are the only Cubans permitted to buy beef, a nod to restrictions on pork. The Jewish community also has its own cemetery, in Guanabacoa, dating from 1910. However, the community has no rabbi and marriages and circumcisions must often wait for foreign religious officials passing through Havana.
Still, a renaissance in the Jewish faith is occurring. In 1994, the first bar mitzvah in over 12 years took place and the first formal bris in over five years. A Hebrew Sunday School even teaches Hebrew and Yiddish.
Jewish Heritage Sites
The Cuban government proposes to reconstruct Habana Vieja Jewish quarter, having made a start by rehabilitating the Sinagoga Adath Israel (Picota #52, esq. Acosta, tel. 07/861-3495, daily 8 a.m.–noon and 5–8 p.m.), which sports a new wooden altar carved with scenes from Jerusalem and historic [node:60564 link Havana. Services are Monday–Friday 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., Saturday at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., and Sunday at 9 a.m.
Chevet Achim (Inquisidor, e/ Luz y Santa Clara, tel. 07/832-6623) was built in 1914 and is the oldest synagogue in Cuba. The building is owned and maintained by the Centro Sefardi, but is not used for ritual or community purposes. It can be viewed by appointment.
In Vedado, the Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba (Calle I #241, e/ 13 y 15, tel. 07/832-8953, Mon.–Sat. 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m.), or Patronato, works to preserve Cuba’s Hebrew traditions and contains an active community center and a large library on Judaica. Services at the adjacent Bet Shalon Sinagogo are Friday at 7:30 p.m. (May–Sept.) or 6 p.m. (Oct.–Apr.) and Saturday at 10 a.m. (year-round). Nearby, the run-down Centro Sefardí (Calle 17 #462, esq. E, tel. 07/832-6623) is a Conservative Jewish synagogue completed in 1960.
Guanabacoa, on the east side of Havana harbor, has two Jewish cemeteries. The Cementerio de la Comunidad Religiosa Ebrea Adath Israel (Av. de la Independencia Este, e/ Obelisco y Puente, tel. 07/97-6644, Mon.–Fri. 8–11 a.m. and 2–5 p.m.), also known as the United Hebrew Congregation Cemetery, is for Ashkenazim. It dates from 1912 and is entered by an ocher-colored Spanish-colonial frontispiece with a Star of David. A Holocaust memorial immediately to the left of the gate stands in memory of the millions who lost their lives to the Nazis: “Buried in this place are several cakes of soap made from Hebrew human fat, a fraction of the six million victims of Nazi savagery in the 20th century. May their remains rest in peace.”
Behind the Ashkenazic cemetery is the Cementerio de la Unión Hebrea Chevet Ahim (Calle G, e/ 5ta y Final, tel. 07/97-5866, daily 7 a.m.– 5 p.m.), for Sephardic Jews. It too has a memorial to the Holocaust victims; turn north off Avenida de la Independencia Este at Avenida de los Mártires (4ta) to reach it.
Jewish Aid Organizations
The following organizations send humanitarian aid to Cuba and/or offer organized trips: the Cuban Jewish Relief Project (1831 Murray Ave. #208, Pittsburgh, PA 15217, tel. 412/521-2390, www.cubanjewishrelief.org), the Cuba–America Jewish Mission (1442A Walnut St. #224, Berkeley, CA 94709, www.thecajm.org), and Jewish Solidarity (100 Beacom Blvd., Miami, FL 33135, tel. 305/642-1600, http://jewishcuba.org/solidarity).
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition