Before Castro took over in 1959, the country was ruled by Fulgencio Batista. Batista was President of Cuba from 1940 to 1944 and again from 1952 to his ousting by Castro in 1959. Batista had close connections with the American Mob, represented in Cuba by one Meyer Lansky. During Batista's presidencies, American companies expanded their holdings in land and properties. Among these American companies was the United Fruits, which had a virtual monopoly in the cultivation of sugar cane and the operation of sugar mills in Cuba. The United Fruits operated with almost complete impunity exploiting the cheap labor available to them. The growing discontent of the Cuban people created an environment of opposition to Batista which operated underground to avoid repression by the government. Several groups opposed Batista, but their action was uncoordinated and their ideology highly diversified; among these groups was the “26 de Julio” movement led by Fidel Castro; a movement with no particular ideological leanings at that time. Castro was imprisoned for his participation in the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953. After being released in 1957, he was exiled to Mexico, where he was going to meet an Argentinean, Ernesto Guevara de la Cerna – best known as “Che” Guevara. Castro, with his brother Raul and “Che”, organized the revolutionary forces which were going to land in the Sierra Maestra in 1957 an eventually oust Batista in 1959. That is when our story starts.
Before Castro took power, 15,000 Jews called Cuba home. The lack of Anti Semitism in Cuba coupled with the education these Jews gave them access to the higher levels of Cuban society. The community was definitely Middle Class and upperly mobile. They boasted four synagogues in Havana and others in Camaguey, Santiago de Cuba, Santa Clara, Yaguajay and Guantanamo. Cuban Jews were Sephardi as well as Ashkenazy; most of them engaged in commercial and industrial activities, integrated with the Cuban middle class and in close economic dealings with foreign companies; Jewish communal life was thriving.
Within a year and a half after Castro's successful revolution, more than 90% of Cuban Jews left the country. Some for Israel, some for Mexico, some for other Latin American countries, but the majority for Florida. While those leaving for Israel were seen by Castro as “repatriados” (returned to their homeland), the rest were perceived as traitors, as were the non Jewish Cubans who left about the same time. The Jews who stayed behind were for the most part young students committed to the Revolution. After Castro implemented an Agrarian Reform which divested United Fruits of its holdings in Cuba, Guevara promoted the expropriation of all privately-owned businesses. The Casinos and Hotels so frequented by American visitors in the past were nationalized and gambling was made illegal. At the same time. The United States imposed an embargo on Cuba in protest for the expropriation of American businesses; this will eventually throw Castro into the embracing Communism and the Soviet Union.
The impact of all these economic, demographic and political changes on the Jewish community cannot be overstated. Overnight, Jewish institutions lost most of their leaders and supporters, and most of those remaining were not active in the Jewish community. On the other hand, when Castro expropriated private enterprise he excepted only one store: the Kosher butcher in Havana. In a country where pork is the preferred meat, Castro rationalized the exception on the basis that Jews had to have access to meat they could eat.
Move forward almost 40 years. Only a handful of Jews continued participating in communal life during those years, and many more threw their lot with the “New Cuba”, rising in the ranks of the Communist Party and government. Among those who remained active in the Jewish community was Jose Miller, who led the community from 1981 to his death a few years ago. His energy and dedication revitalized Jewish communal life and initiated a revival of Jewish identity in Cuba. The community we found was heir to his efforts, but almost 40 years of neglect left their mark on Jewish identity and literacy.
Today in Cuba only two Cuban Jews can read Hebrew directly; most make do with transliteration. Most Jews do not keep kosher, have no knowledge of Yiddish or Djudezmo (Ladino) nor the rich heritage attached to those languages. The resurgence of Jewish life in Cuba is a slow process of reclaiming Jewish identity. They are rebuilding their community as they are rebuilding their own Jewish identities against incredible odds in an environment of strong anti-Israel (not Anti Semitic) feelings. Yet a number of their youngsters have gone on Taglit (Birthright), and while some stayed in Cuba after coming back, most eventually made Aliyah – adding more question marks to the future of the community in Cuba. But Cuban Jews persist.
Today, in Havana, the community has three functioning congregations: the Patronato, the Centro Sefaradi, and Adas Yisrael. There are other Jewish communities in Camaguey, Santa Clara and Guantanamo. But all these groups are but a shadow of what they were before the revolution. With the help of the JDC (with funding of the Federation system), they have a Jewish school named after Albert Einstein and they are visited a few times a year by an Argentinean Conservative Rabbi working in Chile who officiates weddings and Bar Mitzvas and even conversions.
In the face of great adversity, Cuban Jews preserved their identity and today their Jewish communal life is flourishing...I was humbled by their dedication and determination; by their openness and their love for their Jewish heritage. You will hear more about this remarkable community in my Director's column on the April issue of The Voice. Que vivan los Judios!