Israel Maya, former president of the Sephardic Jewish Center of Canarsie, Brooklyn, recently gave a fascinating personal account of Jewish life in Cuba at Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park.
Maya’s story about growing up in a large extended family was riveting, as was his relaying of the history of Jews and Jewish life in Cuba, including the synagogues, businesses and schools built by the Jews and their integration into Cuban society. Interspersed with newsreel footage from the early part of the 20th century, video interviews and documentary excerpts, the presentation painted a colorful portrait of Cuba’s current and former Jewish communities.
Jews arrived on the island of Cuba as far back as the 15th century, sailing on Columbus’ ships as Marranos who were forced to convert to Christianity to avoid death in Spain. Maya noted that Hispanic surnames ending in ‘ez’ are indicative of the person having Jewish roots. Larger groups of Jews began arriving on the island shortly after 1900, when 5,700 Jews came from Turkey and Syria. They established the first synagogue in Cuba in 1904, followed by cemeteries and a burial society. By the 1920s there were 25,000 Jews, most from Europe, on the island, which is only about the size of Pennsylvania.
Many of the original “Jewbans” (Jewish Cubans) were from Spain and Portugal; their knowledge of Spanish facilitated their adjustment to their new lands. Many became peddlers and storekeepers. Prior to 1959, at the height of Jewish life in Cuba, the community thrived; there were five synagogues and six Jewish day schools in Havana. The Jewish community adopted the local foods and some customs, such as the quinceañera (the Hispanic tradition of celebrating a young girl’s coming of age at her 15th birthday).
As the Nazi Party rose to power in Europe, Jews from other European countries made their way to Cuba. The country had entered a period of economic hardship following World War I, and the Nazis spread rumors that the Jews were there to take jobs away from the current Cuban citizens. This destroyed the formerly peaceful integration of Jews into Cuban society and led to the infamous story of the St. Louis that left the port of Hamburg in 1939 and was refused docking in Havana, Cuba—ultimately returning the Jewish passengers to Europe, where most died at the hands of the Nazis.
Post World War II, 6,000 Jews arrived from Belgium, and all was peaceful until the Cuban revolution in 1959. As businesses (most Jewish-owned) were being nationalized, the Jewish community realized that life would become more difficult and they made plans to leave Cuba, heading to Miami, Mexico, South America, Israel and Jamaica.
Knowing that leaving Cuba was not acceptable to governmental authorities, the Jews coached their children to say they were only going “on vacation” or “to see their grandparents,” and were looking forward to coming back to Cuba. Families left with only a few suitcases of clothes and left behind homes, jewelry and bank accounts.
Maya’s family was in the jewelry business, and his uncle developed an ingenious way of getting some of their money out of the country. He glued finely ground diamonds to the back of postage stamps and then affixed them to letters he wrote to relatives in Israel, encouraging them to begin the hobby of stamp collecting. The recipients quickly understood that there was more to the stamp than a pretty picture.
Other than the socialist takeover of their businesses and economic difficulties, Jewish life in communist Cuba was allowed to continue. There was a time when Adela Dworin, president of the Jewish community center, found herself standing next to Fidel Castro at an event. She asked him why he had never visited the Jewish community center. Castro’s reply: “Because nobody asked me to come.” Dworin immediately invited him to a Chanukah party scheduled for the following week. Everyone was surprised when he actually came and, even more surprising, spoke to the group about Judaism.
Today, the Jewish population in Cuba numbers only about 1,500. The “tropical Diaspora” still maintains several large synagogues, community centers and cemeteries, with the largest Jewish population centered in Havana. The community centers function as social gathering places, and also as medical clinics and pharmacies, grocery stores, meat markets, and vocational and academic schools. Maya emphasized that there remains a vibrant Jewish community in Cuba, despite its smaller numbers.
By Deborah Melman