Jews of Cuba
David Simmons, Hampstead Synagogue Member
The first recorded Jew in Cuba is generally reported to be Luis de Torres in 1492 who arrived there with Columbus. He did not survive the indigenous Indians for long. However, between the 1500s and 1800s the Spanish got the better of the indigenous Indians (now extinct) and Jewish people settled in Cuba. The Inquisition did for Cuban Jews what the indigenous Indians did for Luis de Torres. The appeal of Cuba to Jewish people was minimal and only 500 Jewish people lived there in 1898.
The Spanish-American war of 1898 was a turning point for the Jewish community in Cuba. America won. Cuba, arguably a satellite of the US, became an independent state with America formally keeping control of Guantanamo Bay to control local shipping – which it still does. Jews were freer to go to Cuba. There were about 1,000 Jewish people in Cuba by 1904 when the reform United Hebrew Congregation (now no longer) was formed.
After the 1914 – 1918 Great War, thousands of Turkish Sephardim came to Cuba fleeing an uncertain situation in Turkey. In the 1930s and 40s thousands of European Ashkenazi Jews came to Cuba to flee Nazi persecution. During this period the St Louis with 990 Jews on board was denied entry into Cuba, the ship and its passengers had to return to Europe. This was a regrettable but unusual incident as Cuba has typically been a welcoming place for Jewish people.
By 1935 there were about 25,000 Jewish people in Cuba. Many made their way to the US, their intended destination. By 1952 about 15,000 Jewish people were living in Cuba.
On 8 Jan 1959 Fidel Castro marched into Havana, Batista was overthrown; Meir Lansky had left the day before. Private enterprise stopped, though the kosher shop continued as one of the only private enterprises at the time. Religious freedom was limited, but Jews were not persecuted and Jewish classes continued in the Albert Einstein School sponsored by Government. The Yiddish radio programme continued even though all other foreign language programmes were cancelled. There were no barriers to Jews leaving Cuba for Israel – as Castro regarded this as Jewish people returning to their motherland and not leaving Cuba.
Though there was no persecution, it was difficult for the Jewish community to flourish in this period no rabbi, chazan or mohel, and intermarriage was close to 100%. By 1990 the Jewish population was down to around 600, most had left shortly after the 1959 revolution – to US, Mexico, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Panama and Israel. In 1990, the Soviet Union fell and Russia could no longer support Cuba. Therefore from this time Cuba had to change. Religious freedom increased and tourism started to develop, and Cuban Jewish life started to rebuild.
Castro appeared to have a “soft spot” for the Jews. Castro’s daughter is reported to have claimed that Castro’s grandfather was a Jew from Istanbul. However, Castro claimed that Jews took names like Castro when they pretended to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. It is rumoured that he did not eat pork; no mean feat on an Island that survives on a diet of chicken, pork, beans, rice and rum.
Today Cuba’s Jewish community is about 1,500 strong but only 300 to 400 may be halachically Jewish. The rest have married into the faith by conversion not recognised by the
Orthodox and had children they consider Jewish. There are three shuls in Cuba today, all in Havana. Adath Israel (Orthodox Sephardi,
founded 1925), Shalom Synagogue, also known as Patronato (Askenazi,
built in 1953), and the Sefardi Centre (the former Sefardi Synagogue built in 1956). In days of old there were shuls in many Cuban cities, now outside Havana there is just the occasional minyan in Santiago de-Cuba in the far east of the island.
The ‘Adath Israel’ is the only orthodox shul and provides a shechita service though most kosher food comes from Canada and Panama. The ‘Shalom’ has regular Friday community dinners and the Sefardi Centre houses the permanent Cuban Jewish history exhibition and is used as a base for Jewish activities and the occasional service.
Music and dance dominates Cuban culture and its Jewish community. Orly Solomon was born in Naharya (on Israel’s Mediterranean coast north of Haifa) to a Rumanian father and a Tunisian mother. She is a French national, lives in Cuba and regards herself as a Cuban. She fell in love with a fellow Cuban and they have a daughter born in France.
Jewish visitors should keep an eye out for the Hotel Raquel (aka Rachel) located in an area of Old Havana that was pre 1959 a thriving Jewish district and not far from Adath Israel shul.
Private enterprise is barely allowed in Cuba, though this is changing, and the US trade embargo introduced shortly after the Cuban revolution remains in force. Consequently Cuban Jews, like most Cubans, are poor. The Jewish community relies on support from communities in Argentina, Canada, Panama and US missions which are allowed by the American government.
Officially Israel supports the US trade embargo and Israel and Cuba do not have formal diplomatic relations. However Cubans see a solidarity with Israel – both having hostile neighbours.