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The Jewish community in Cuba: past and present

The Jewish community in Cuba: past and present

A number of Jews took part in the wars for Cuban independence and others collaborated with José Martí in the United States. During the American intervention of 1898, a number of Jews (almost all of Rumanian descent) arrived in Cuba attracted by the new possibilities opening up with the recently won independence from Spain. Just two years after the birth of the Republic in 1904, the United Hebrew Congregation was inaugurated and in 1906 they acquired a cemetery in the outskirts of Guanabacoa (Independencia and Avenida de los Mártires). The community at that time numbered around one hundred families, including the prominent family of the businessman Steinhart, founder of the Cuban Tramways and Electrical Company.

Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Turkey and the Middle East, suffering from the asphyxiating economic situation, arrived in Cuba in the first decades of the twentieth century and established the Chevet Ahim community organization. In the 1920s, the Ashkenazi immigration from Eastern Europe began to arrive bringing mostly poverty-stricken Poles, Russians, Czechs and Hungarians, among others. It seems that their ultimate goal was to go on to the United States but the toughening of US immigration policy forced them to lay down roots in Cuban soil, which welcomed them into an open and hospitable society. This European wave of immigrants received the nickname of “polacos.” Cubans tended to call all Jews Poles regardless of their actual geographic provenance. By 1925, there were roughly 8,000 Jews on the Island (about 5,200 Ashkenazi, more than 2,500 Sephardic Jews and 100 Americans). Anti-Semitic persecutions of the 1940s in Europe also contributed to Jewish emigration. Refugees from Belgium introduced the diamond industry into Cuba; at its height there were 24 factories with approximately 1,000 workers.

Many centers and institutions were created in the early 1920s: the Orthodox Jewish Adath Israel (1925), the Jewish Leftist Union (1926), the women’s organization Forein Farein (1926), the Zionist Union of Cuba (1929), Knesset Israel (1929) Wiso (1942), etc. In 1953, the Jewish Community House Trust was established and its large community center was built, an excellent design by architect Aquiles Capablanca, who combinrd the Cuban Modernist Movement with Jewish spirituality becoming one of the jewels of modern Havana architecture. In 1959, the Sephardic Jewish Center of Cuba was founded.

In 1952, the total Jewish population reached around 15,000 with approximately 75% of them living in Havana and the rest in the other provinces except Pinar del Rio. By this time the poverty which had accompanied many of the new-arrivals was far behind, transformed into family prosperity with some considerable fortunes and a highly respected professional sector. Ideas of work-ethic and intelligence identified the Jewish community among other Cubans. In relatively a few short years, the Jewish community had transformed from peddlers (it was said they had introduced credit sales to Cuba) to prosperous businessmen and entrepreneurs. Their descendants were doctors, architects and lawyers and they left the so-called Jewish or “Polaco” Quarter in La Habana Vieja to set up homes in El Vedado or Miramar as a symbol of their newly-acquired social status.

With the abolishment of private business and schools after 1959, more than 90% of the Cuban Jewish community, mainly businessmen and professionals, emigrated. Most went to the US and others left for other parts of Latin America, Europe and even to Israel. This sudden exodus caused a marked decline in the activities of the Jewish organizations, to the extent that the Jewish Trust was forced to rent space in their splendid building to theater groups while the Sephardic Center entered into similar agreements with musical institutions.

Nevertheless, the Jewish community was reorganized and rebuilt. Today, there is a sustained increase in numbers of young practicing Jews due to the flexibility of accepting not just those born to Jewish mothers as tradition dictates, but also those who are Jewish on the paternal side and even converts with no family histories. Of the 1,500 Jews in Cuba today, only about 100 have both parents who are Jewish. Increases in Jewish weddings, numbers of young people learning Hebrew and studying Jewish history, activities in the community library housing more than 13,000 volumes on Jewish philosophy and history including texts written in Yiddish all point to the revitalization of a community whose heritage is part of the “ajiaco” [‘stew’ or melting pot] that is Cuban nationality.

Principal Jewish Institutions Present Today in Cuba: Comunidad Religiosa Hebrea Adath Israel de Cuba (Acosta y Picota, La Habana Vieja)
Centro Hebreo Sefaradí de Cuba (17 y E, El Vedado)
Unión Hebrea Chevet Ahim (Inquisidor 407, La Habana Vieja)
Patronato de la Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba (13 e I, El Vedado)
Sinagoga Tiferet Israel (Camagüey)
Sinagoga Hakitva (Santiago de Cuba)
Cemeteries of Guanabacoa, Santa Clara, Camajuaní, Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba

September 2014 This article formed part of the September 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.

What’s On Havana What’s On La Habana What’s On La Havane September, 2014
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