JUDAISM IN CUBA 1959-1999:


Dr. Moisés Asís *


Many years ago I reached the conclusion that Judaism is a singular paradigm of social consciousness and collective unconscious (1). Only this definition has permitted me to understand the survival of the Jewish people in human history.

When Castro's Revolution came to power in 1959, a huge majority of Cubans did hope that this political movement would bring a better future to Cuba. Under promises of democracy, social justice, and individual freedom, most Cubans - including most of those who are now in exile in Miami and elsewhere - gave support to that dream and hope.

But it was a paradox that Jews, who historically have been involved in all social reforms and revolutions because it is a part of our religion to look forward a world of justice and peace, took a different approach: 94% of those 15,000 Cuban Jews left the country in the first years, to the United States, to Israel, to Venezuela, to Panama, to Costa Rica, to anywhere. The history of the Jewish community of Cuba in these 40 years is the history of that 6% of a successful and proud community: it is the history of those who stayed and their children.

In 1959, I was six years old, and my parents were until this day faithful believers in that Revolution. But my personal account will help you to understand the life of those Jews who decided to stay in Cuba and to have a Jewish life over there, lamrot hakol (despite everything).

Why to leave, why to stay

The Jewish community of Cuba was a young one since 1898, when some of the 3,500 American-Jewish soldiers taking part in the Spanish-Cuban-American War came to live in Cuba and established the first cemetery and temple. After that, during the first fifty years of this century, thousands of Jews from Turkey, Poland, Russia, Latvia, and elsewhere came to Cuba, mainly with the hope of jumping to the United States. But the result was that many stayed in Cuba and felt very happy to share their fate with the Cubans. In 1959, the Jews in Cuba almost had reached their climax of economic and social development.

The answer to why 94% of Jews in Cuba left, is in the words of Max Nordau: "We are so old that in our history everything has happened and nothing new can occur." (2)

This explains why Jews did not believe in the beautiful speech on democracy and social justice brought by Revolution leaders. Jews were professionals and business people and had recently learned the lessons of totalitarian regimes in Europe. There is a Jewish saying: "When things don't get better, don't worry: they may get worse."

In Cuba, the remaining Jews, 6% of the total, were those more assimilated, and those who had a belief in the Revolution. Also, many were old people who had no strengths to begin a new life abroad.

From my childhood, I had the memories of Passover celebration at my grandparents, the taste of matzoth, the curiosity for Hebrew language, the non-consumption of pork or lard in my home, and the brith milah or circumcision.

There was an incident that changed my life. One day I was doing forced labor in the Lenin Park, south Havana, and also there were volunteers working there. One of those volunteers, a very proud Communist, said to other people in commenting on the newspaper Granma's news on Israel: "The worst Hitler did, it was not to eliminate all the Jews". I said nothing. But I was over there serving a minimum of one year of political prison; it was the year 1970 and I was 17 years old. After that, as soon as I was free, I wanted to live a Jewish life with my community.

The community

The Jews of Cuba could survive, despite their isolation for forty years, their dramatic depletion in number, the absence of rabbis, cantors (chazannim) and professional teachers, the poverty of the community and its institutions, their assimilation, and the restrictions (until 1991) on religious practice in Cuba.

The only source for a demographic study of Jews in Cuba has been the Passover census: the registry of people buying once a year matzoth and other Passover products. These products have been donated all these years by the community of Canada and since 1985 also by communities of Mexico, Panama, and other countries.

In 1989, according to my research (3,4), the community was composed of 892 people, or 305 families. Of these people, 635 people were Jews born from a Jewish mother (70%) or from a Jewish father (30%).

Of a total of 194 couples, only in 14 were both partners Jewish, which shows a 93% of exogamy. In respect to education, 22% of adult Jews had a university degree.

Five synagogues in Havana and one in Santiago de Cuba continued to be places of worship for Jews, as well as a school and other institutions. In the 1970s one of the synagogues (Santiago de Cuba's), the school and the Zionist Union of Cuba were closed for the Jews (the former was reopened in 1996), and another synagogue - the United Hebrew Congregation - was empty and abandoned in the 1980s. Jewish life continued, however, and religious services were never interrupted. The eldest members of the community led the religious life for all these years, although always there was the fear of extinction because the high rate of assimilation and the lack of a religious education at home for the younger generations.

I realized the fact that children of Communists and "non-Jewish Jews", like myself, were showing interest in their roots. Two things then came to my mind: (1) Hanson's law in sociology, "The third generation remembers what the second tries to forget", and (2) the story of Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai, who in the year 70 CE, when the Jews and the Second Temple were being destroyed by the Romans, understood that only education could preserve Judaism for next generations. He then created his famous school in Yavneh which permitted the survival of Judaism until this date.

The Cuban version of Yavneh was the opening of "Tikkun Olam" Hebrew Sunday School in Havana, in the early 1980's. Tikkun olam means in Hebrew "healing, amendment, repair, transformation of the world" and it is our wish expressed in prayers and in Yom Kippur: to repair or mend a world of justice and peace. At the beginning I was the principal and only teacher for a group of twelve children and a few adults. With time, the school grew and we had more teachers and tens of students in different levels of learning. The purpose of the school was to teach Jewish identity and values, to seed the love for their religion and history through the learning of Hebrew language, liturgy, songs, dance, history, Israel, and comparative religion.

I am very proud that some of those students who even did not know the meaning of being a Jew, have continued their studies in rabbinical seminaries in Argentina and the United States, and others have made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) or continued to teach other people in Cuba. The lessons were accompanied by discussion lectures and video films.

At the same time we kept all our religious life and traditions, as well as social organizations like B'nai B'rith, Bikur Holim, and young men's and women's organizations. Beginning in the 1980s, thanks to personal contacts, we had contacts and cooperation with the Ecumenical Council of Cuba, the Catholic Church and other Protestant churches.

Politics and religion

Cubans never were anti-Semitic people, and Jews received in Cuba the same treatment as other immigrants. A nation that persecutes Jews cannot last long. Also the Revolution was very respectful toward Jews as a community, although its attitude in respect to religion and Zionism and Israel greatly affected the Jewish community. As a religious people, we had exactly the same discrimination and problems to access jobs and universities as Christians and other religious people in Cuba. As Jews, there was always the suspicion over us because of our feelings towards Israel and other Jews in the world. All this generated some kind of discrimination, but there was no anti-Semitism.

In fact, Castro's Revolution had an ambiguous relation with the Jews:

- For one side, it permitted freedom of culture, even the import of food donations for Passover and New Year, and the domestic purchase of other products, as well as the distribution of kosher meat to the Jews instead of any other meat or poultry by the ration card. The Cuban criminal code protects against national, religious or racial hate.

-On the other side, Cuba was training for years thousands of Palestinian terrorists, even those of Abu Nidal and George Habasch; it published a lot of anti-Zionist, anti-Israeli propaganda showing Jewish literature and art and even the Holocaust as Zionist propaganda. Cubans could never read books by Anna Frank, Isaac Bashevis Singer, or Eli Wiesel, or Agnon or Malamud, for example. Cuba was the worst enemy of Israel at the United Nations, and took the initiative of embargoes, sanctions and isolation against Israel, even the infamous resolution "Zionism equals Racism," so unfair and noxious for Israel and the Jewish people worldwide. I attended the session of the General Assembly of United Nations in late December 1991, which unanimously canceled the infamous resolution "Zionism equals Racism", and I will always remember the nonsensical arguments by the Cuban delegate justifying his anti-Zionist vote.

Finally, Jews shared the same fate as Christians in being discriminated against in jobs and universities. In the late sixties some were sent to the UMAP (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción), forced labor camps for young political dissenters, religious people, gays, and exit applicants. All Jewish activists were closely under surveillance all the time. And also those "non-Jewish Jews" who reached positions in the Army bodies, Communist Party, bureaucratic structures of power and professional relevance had to work twice as hard and to show much more loyalty to reach and keep their status.

Life in the nineties

In 1991, the Communist Party of Cuba changed its policy of opposition to religion and opened its doors to believers of any religions. In practical terms this meant that thousands of Communists began to attend churches and synagogues. And maybe a few religious Communists were accepted as members in the Party. This change of policy, and the disastrous economic situation in Cuba after the disappearance of Soviet Union - main supplier of financial and economic aid to Cuba -, brought many "non-Jewish Jews" to the community. The fall of Berlin Wall was for Cuba the failure of ideology and the beginning of hard times of hunger and despair.

Cuba has now its worst rates of malnutrition, suicide, poverty, unemployment, diseases, prostitution, and uncertainty of the last fifty years.

All those who are coming to the Jewish community are welcome, no matter who they were or how much they cursed their Jewish roots. In Hebrew, teshuvah means "return" and it is the word for repentance. And it is never too late for teshuvah, to come back to the right way.

Since 1992, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee began to give a special attention to Cuban Jews: rabbis and specialists are regularly sent to help the community to organize, to improve the education, to perform conversions, circumcisions, and weddings, as well to supply the spiritual and physical needs of the community.

Other organizations and communities have increased their support by donating school supplies, medicines, religious books and articles, food, clothing, etc. A large amount of money has been donated for the building of a synagogue in Camagüey city and to repair the other synagogues in Havana. In 1996, the synagogue of Santiago de Cuba was returned to the community and reopened. The women's organization was created, as well as a Haddassah chapter - started and run by Cuban Jewish doctors - for distributing the medicines to the sick.

Since 1992, many Cuban Jews have expressed their desire to live in Israel, and over two hundred people have made aliyah to Israel since then in small groups of families. Others have emigrated in the 1990s to Europe, the United States, and other countries in Latin America.

Jewish life continues in Cuba, even when the community replaces itself with newcomers, and young people emigrate and older ones pass away.

The future of Judaism in Cuba

Talmud Jerushalmi (Berakoth 9.1) says: "As long as a man breathes he should not lose hope."

The worst times for the Cuban Jews are behind. The community could survive times of isolation and religious restrictions, and the loss of 94% of its population. Assimilation had its effect, as well as the anti-Israel policy by Cuba.

Cuba always will have a Jewish community. When Cubans reach their democratic goals, many Jews from other countries will want to come to Cuba for business opportunities and to live there.

The present community will lose some members by family reunification with those living now in the United States and Israel, and most Cuban Jews will not return from these countries. But many Jews from Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Canada, Europe, and Canadian and American Jews will find it very attractive to invest there or to practice their professions in the country.

They will be the next community in Cuba and they will find synagogues where Jews of different generations worshiped every day and every shabbat for forty years under the most difficult conditions.

"Jewish history is a history of martyrdom and learning", as historian Heinrich Graetz said, but it is also a history of faith and hope.

*D.J. and B.Sc. Information/Library Sciences of University of Havana, Ph.D. Honoris Causa in Experimental Hypnosis and M.D. in Alternative Medicine of the Open International University for Complementary Medicines. He was a student at the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, thanks to a Joint Distribution Committee fellowship. Author of 14 books and over a hundred articles on scientific and social subjects, including Judaism. For about 25 years he was an activist in the Jewish community of Cuba, was the vice-president of B'nai B'rith Maimonides, and was the founder, principal and teacher of the "Tikkun Olam" Hebrew Sunday School in Havana. In Cuba he was a researcher and therapist. In late 1993 he immigrated to the United States. At present he works as a professional at the Florida Department of Children and Families, in Miami, and is a member of Temple Judea in Coral Gables.

For information on reference material e-mail Dr. Asis at asismoises@worldnet.att.net

Presented at the
Third Annual South Florida Symposium on Cuba
"Faith and Power: Religion in Contemporary Cuba"
September 12-13, 1998
University of Miami
James L. Knight Center.