Before the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the country was home to 20,000 Jews with Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities scattered across the island. But the vast majority of Cuban Jews fled in the wake of the revolution, settling primarily in Miami just 90 miles to the north. Now at most 1,500 Jews remain in Cuba. But after massive emigration and decades of repression, today’s Cuban Jewish population is energized, as it fights to re-find its identity and shape its destiny. This is the story of how the majority of Jubanos, or Jews of Cuba, were forced into exile to become Jewbans; and of how those who remained in Cuba are now trying to recreate a vibrant Jubano community.
Religion was banned when Fidel Castro took power in Cuba. The banning of religion traditionally falls under the category of bad for the Jews. At the same time, as part of his socialist revolution, Castro also nationalized businesses and property. This too affected Cuban Jews, a large number of whom were business owners. As such, Jubanos were among the first to suffer as a result of the revolution. After their companies were nationalized, many Cuban Jews fled the island, primarily for Florida—in particular Miami—where they became known as Jewbans and, generally, found success. But they never forgot their roots on a Caribbean island just south of Miami where life was good for the Jews, at least until it wasn’t.
No one is quite sure when the first Jews arrived on Cuban shores—although there have probably been Jews there since the 16th century—but American Jews established the island’s first synagogue, a Reform temple, in 1906. For the first five decades of the 20th century Jews were active in Cuban society, culture and commerce. While Jewish traders were engaged in various business activities, they were especially involved in the nation’s sugar cane business. In the 1910s and 1920s, the small number of American Ashkenazi Jews in Cuba were joined by many more immigrant coreligionists, the majority coming from either Eastern Europe or from Turkey.
The Ashkenazi Jews who arrived in the 1920s and early 1930s were almost always referred to as “Polacos” even if they didn’t come from Poland. Among them were a number of Marxists who helped to found the Communist Party in Cuba, the irony being, of course, that it was the socialist revolution that almost totally destroyed the Cuban Jewish community. Meanwhile the “Turcos” or Jews from Turkey were usually more Orthodox and poorly educated. By 1920, there were more than 20,000 Jews in Cuba and synagogues were popping up in provincial towns as well as Havana. Indeed because Jews did not concentrate in the capital but settled all over the island, the diffuse community was generally well received in Cuba and did not develop as a ghettoized population as was the case elsewhere. This also meant that in small communities, Jewish identity could become diluted.
The Jews of Havana built the capital’s grandest synagogue in 1953, but just 6 years later the revolution precipitated the community’s mass exodus. At first, however, the Jubanos believed they were just fleeing to Miami to wait things out; they were convinced that the United States would not allow a Communist regime so close to the States. Many of the first Cuban Jews to arrive in Miami were connected to the old dictatorship before Castro, but as the new dictator nationalized businesses, thousands of Cuban Jews, along with many more thousands of non-Jewish Cubans, left in the 1960s.
The United States and Cuba broke off diplomatic relations in 1961, which was also the year of the mass exodus of Jews form Cuba. After the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, many Cuban Jews—especially those who had already left Eastern Europe and Russia for Cuba—understood that the writing was on the wall. About two-thirds of the community left and today, according to an estimate by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, there are about 2,500 Cuban Jewish families in and around Miami.
But as the majority of Jubanos left to become Jewbans and built new lives for themselves, in time the lot of Jews who remained in Cuba would improve. After the Soviet Union crumbled, in 1992 Cuba changed its constitution and permitted the free practice of religion. The Jewish community in Cuba was quick to respond, as were others. Rabbis from abroad hurried to the island to teach the Jews who remained how to remain Jewish—a not inconsiderable task as religion had been banned for almost two generations. In fact, there has not been a Cuban rabbi or mohel (ritual circumciser) on the island since the revolution, and today there is just one kosher butcher.
However key Jubanos are determined to rebuild their community. In the 1990s, the president of the Cuban Jewish community Dr. Jose Miller reached out to the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) for help in reenergizing Jewish spiritual life in Cuba. The JDC responded by sending emissaries to the island to teach the Jubanos how to eat, pray and live like Jews. For the many small (increasingly tiny) Jewish communities throughout the island eager to incorporate Jewish customs, traditions and ritual into their lives often lack knowledge of Judaism.
In the town of Camaguey, almost 400 miles from Havana, there is a small community of about 50 Jews. The town has had a Jewish cemetery since 1924, when there was a sizeable Jewish community and “a lot of the commerce belonged to Jews here,” according to David Pernas the head of the Camaguey Jewish community. There were once as many as 1,000 Jews in the area, although the vast majority has left and now Pernas’s main objective is working to ensure that the cemetery is maintained.
Today there are three synagogues in Havana and the 1,500 or so Jews in Cuba are made up of about 400 families in Havana and 140 families scattered throughout the rest of the island. Given that there are so few Jubanos, there is a very high rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. The community has taken a pragmatic approach to its demographic situation and welcomes conversions and interfaith marriages. This means that some Cuban Jews who immigrated to the US—Jubanos who became Jewbans—suspect that a number of Cubans claim Jewish ancestry in order to profit from help from Jews abroad. “There are really only 600 or 800 Jews in the whole country,” said Dr. Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. “The rest have converted to Judaism so that they can get matzo and kosher meat.”
Since religious outreach started in the 1990s, many Cuban Jewish children on the island now know more about their heritage than do their parents. Even the old President began to learn about Judaism after the constitutional change. “I know a little bit about Jewish history [but] what could move me more than a struggle of a people to preserve its traditions, its religion, and its culture,” Fidel Castro told the Cuban Jewish community at a synagogue in Havana in December 1998. “In 2000 some years, you [the Jews] have preserved your culture, identity, religion and tradition. I’m trying to remember if any other culture has accomplished this.”
Today, at Havana’s three synagogues, its Jewish Community Center, known as El Patronato, and at the Sephardic Hebrew Center of Cuba, Jews in Cuba are trying to remember their culture. They are studying their religion and reviving Jewish life on the island. As the small community rebuilds, it appears that the future of Cuban Jews will not just be as Jewbans, as once appeared the case, but once again as Jubanos, too.