JUDAISM IN CUBA
A PERSONAL ACCOUNT
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
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
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 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
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
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
"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.