Our trip to Cuba was sponsored by the United Jewish Communities as an outreach to the Jewish community there. We visited three congregations in Havana and a small community in Santa Clara, about a four hour ride from Havana.
There are about 1500 Jews in Cuba. Before the Revolution there were closer to 15,000. Many left when the getting was good between 1959 and 1965. Because of Castro’s compression of incomes many professionals departed until the brain drain caused such a problem that Castro called a halt to emigration. Many more Jews were assimilated into the ultimate of western egalitarian societies.
The first Jews probably landed in Cuba during the initial European explorations. Some moved to Cuba during our colonial phase to manage sugar cane fields and other enterprises. But the majority of the Jews ended up in Cuba leaving Europe and Russia before World War II.
There were restrictions on Jews coming into the United States, and the British kept immigration to Palestine very low to appease Arab terrorists in their mandate. Havana became an immigrant hotel for those hoping to get to America later. Havana, before the revolution, was a spectacular city, the Paris of the Caribbean. Only Buenos Aires compared. It was nice enough to stay.
The underbelly of Cuba before Castro was that while industrious it was also corrupt and many of the poor in the countryside were terribly neglected for the lucrative franchises in Havana. Organized crime was welcomed as were large corporations as long as they stuffed the dictator’s coffers. You may recall the scenes in the Godfather II as Michael Corleone struggled with his indecision to invest in Havana with fellow gangster Hyman Rothstein (the character was modeled after Meyer Lansky, a Polish born Jew). Corleone left just ahead of the advancing coup with his money intact. The overthrown dictator Batista, escaped with all the cash he could carry, one estimate was $300 million, and lived the rest of his life off the coast of Spain
But liberation is far from synonymous with liberty and Cuba merely exchanged one dictator for another, even if it was one with a drastically different social and political view.
We saw no signs of anti-Semitism and this was emphasized by several community leaders including one who spoke of Castro’s visit to their congregation with pride. During the rise of the Cuban Utopian Revolution the Communist Party frowned on all religion, and it was hard to rise far if in the party if you openly expressed your faith of any sort. But the Cuban revolution lasted initially only because of the Russian largess and support in search of a base so close to their number one enemy.
During the early 1990’s, Russia pulled their financial support from the Cubans and it caused tremendous hardship on the island. Maybe coincidentally (maybe not) Castro and the party at that time relaxed their stance on religious affiliation and even created a ministry of religious affairs. Perhaps since he could not give them prosperity, he elected to give them religion, the “opiate of the masses”. Religious observance started a rebirth.
With help from the American Jews and others, the Jews in Cuba starting searching for those who had Jewish connections and synagogues started to attract observers. We went to small Jewish cemeteries in Havana and Santa Clara and they both had Holocaust memorials which were small (like a monument) but beautiful and shown with a great sense of pride. The cemeteries were being repaired and were carefully manicured.
An Israeli entrepreneur has partnered with the government to develop orange groves, and it furnishes much of the orange juice served on the island, for tourists like us and a few others than can afford it.
The Jews in Cuba face the same problems as anyone else on the large island. The Communist utopia turned the Paris of the Caribbean to a third world country. Average income is $15 a month, but the state provides health care, education, housing and transportation for free to everyone. The magnificent buildings are commonly in terrible decay, except for public buildings like government offices and museums.
Cuba is a common tourist spot for Canadians and Europeans and sports beaches on the north part of the island. It seems foreign to us because of the embargo, yet it is only 90 miles away. They do not have a free press and there are few news outlets, but there are art galleries- Castro is a big supporter of the arts and art school is also free. I can only assume that most of their knowledge of Americans and world affairs comes from interaction with the tourists and government propaganda.
Yet what strikes any Jew visiting a synagogue in a foreign country is the nearly identical Hebrew prayers and even the melodies to chant them. It’s the same in Mexico, Australia, China, Europe, Africa and … Cuba as it is in Israel. There have been changes but the services would likely be recognizable with prayers in Israel over a thousand years ago. Conversations are peppered with Yiddish expressions that could be heard in any Jewish family gathering.
The Roman enforced Diaspora scattered Jews all over the world to squelch repeated attempts at revolution against the Roman Empire. It is an historical oddity that for 2,000 years the Diaspora would so still define the homeland that Moses led them to after he came down from Mt. Sinai and….
… started a revolution.