Jews in Cuba

Ciro Bianchi Ross. The first Jews arrived in Cuba with Christopher Columbus. Around 160 Jews traveled to this side of the world with the Admiral; they had already been converted to Catholicism or they hid their origin to escape the Inquisition.

However, they found it very hard to put down roots throughout this continent, since once the children of those who were burnt under the Inquisition were allowed to come, they were forbidden from taking public posts.

Their social mobility was obstructed and the “clean blood” records did not work at all.

Jews migration was permitted in 1881 by Madrid’s Government and this was the starting point to talk about a real Jewish Community in Cuba, although freedom of worship was not accepted.

There were some Jews among Marti’s closest collaborators, while the contribution by the Key West Jewish Community to the Independence War was valuable with some its members playing outstanding roles in it.

By 1906, there were around one thousand Jews living in Cuba. They founded a synagogue in Havana and a cemetery in locality of Guanabacoa. About four thousand Sephardic Jews from Morocco and Turkey arrived from 1910 to 1917. By 1919, there were two thousand Ashkenazim Jews who came from Poland, Russia, and Latvia. This figure would be doubled by 1924.

Sephardic Jews looked for suburbs and rural areas. They were hawkers and they brought in credits into their commercial practice

Meanwhile, the Ashkenazim Jews dedicated to trade and small industries in Havana, especially during and after World War II. There were about 25 thousand Jews in Cuba by 1945.

Two newspapers, one in Yiddish and the other in Spanish, were published for this community which was developing an active cultural and social life, both in the capital city and in other provinces.

At the end of the war, many of them returned to Europe or settled down in Canada and in The United States.

Some names are remembered from those years, such as Erich Kleiber, a brilliant musician who directed the Philharmonic Orchestra; Ludwig Chajovitz, who founded and developed the University Theater; and Sandú Darié, a remarkable painter and sculptor who never abandoned Cuba.

From 1960 on that community went into a crisis when the nationalization process of stores and industries caused the migration of many of its members, mainly merchants and professionals. Which sources would they feed from?

The Hebrew Council called upon all people of Jewish descent. There were very few couples of direct Jew descent and from 1965 couples were mixed because a the Jews were not usually able to marry someone who shared his/her same beliefs.

The Council should be tactful and flexible, putting aside all excessive religious passion. Luckily, it had adopted the conservative rite, which is more modern and best adapted to current reality than the orthodox rite.

As part of that rite, which is based on ancient traditions, the mother is the person who gives legitimacy to their descendants. Now they wanted all the families, mixed or not, to feel themselves Jews.

Women cannot be part of the traditional rite because they cannot mix with male believers; however, the conservative rite gives women total access to the ceremony.

There is no rabbi usually living and officiating in Cuba; that is why women are in charge of officiating.

The Jewish world is not a single one or fully monolithic, says Jaime Sarusky, a Cuban writer of Jewish descent.

In Cuba, the Jewish face the dramatic choice of splitting apart or trying to reencounter and achieve a link no matter how weak it would be.

Sarusky concludes: “It is impossible to foresee what the Cuban Hebrew Community will be like by 2025 or 2050. But if it is still alive and active, it will surely have its own features, those that will show two traditions in a properly Caribbean entity: the Hebrew and the Cuban.

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