The Jewish Palate: The Jews of Puerto Rico

The mouthwatering flavors that make up the cuisine of the largest Jewish community in the Caribbean are numerous, chef Dennis Wasko finds.

Puerto Rico landscape 311 (photo credit: Wiki Commons)
Puerto Rico landscape 311
(photo credit: Wiki Commons)
Jewish history in Puerto Rico can be traced back to the 15th century and the Second Voyage of Christopher Columbus. Though it would take hundreds of years for a Jewish community to be established in Puerto Rico, many Jews settled on the island hoping to flee from the scrutiny of the Spanish Inquisition.
Puerto Rico has the largest and most diverse Jewish community in the Caribbean.  The island’s 3,000 Jewish inhabitants are mainly the descendants of Jewish refugees who fled from German occupied Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s and from Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1950’s.
According to historians, the first Jews to arrive in Puerto Rico were Conversos, also known as Anusim. These were Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism by the Spanish Inquisition, but who still practiced Judaism secretly. Many of these Anusim, seeking to flee from the Inquisition, joined the expeditionary crews sailing for the New World. They hoped that there would be safety in distance, but unfortunately once Spain established colonies in the New World, the inquisition followed. The Anusim were forced to settle the island’s remote, mountainous interior and flee from the cities and power centers. As a result of this isolation and lack of community, the Jews eventually intermarried with Catholics and fully assimilated into Puerto Rican society. 
By the 19th century, Spain’s influence in the region was dwindling and it lost most of its colonial possessions. It did, however, manage to hold on to Puerto Rico and Cuba.  Though it was still illegal for Jews to practice Judaism and own land in Puerto Rico, some Jews continued to settle there. Many of them were instrumental in Puerto Rico’s early, though ill-fated, independence movement. 
Life for Puerto Rico’s Jews improved after Spain ceded the island to the United States after the Spanish-American War ended in 1898.  During the war, many Jewish American servicemen gathered with local Puerto Rican Jews at the Old Telegraph Building in Ponce to hold religious services. Few of these American Jews chose to stay in Puerto Rico after the war ended.
Large numbers of Jewish immigrants began to arrive in Puerto Rico in the 1930’s as refugees fleeing from Nazi occupied Europe. The majority settled in San Juan, where in 1942 they established the first Jewish Community Center of Puerto Rico. The 1940’s brought new legislation and reforms which allowed for economic recovery and industrialization. As a result, many more Jewish immigrants settled in the southern region of the island, especially in the city of Ponce.
In 1952, Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth of the United States. That same year, a handful of American Jews established the first Synagogue on the island. The success of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution in 1959 sent almost 15,000 Cuban Jews into exile. Most settled in Miami, Florida, but many settled in Puerto Rico. 
Today, Puerto Rico is home to the largest and wealthiest Jewish Community in the Caribbean.  Puerto Rico is the only Caribbean island in which the Orthodox, Masorti (Conservative), and Reform movements are represented. On October 31, 2005 the Puerto Rican Senate approved SR 1480, recognizing the contributions which the Jewish community has made to the Puerto Rican way of life, and the friendship which exists between the People of Puerto Rico and the State of Israel.
Puerto Rican cuisine is a mouthwatering blend of Latin and Caribbean flavors. With influences from Europe, Africa, the Native Taino People, and the United States, the cooking is rich and complex. Plantains, cilantro, potatoes, chilies, and tropical fruits combine to make one of the world’s great cuisines. The Jews adopted the ingredients and cooking techniques of the general population while tempering their recipes with the Laws of Kashrut. The following recipe for Fish with Mojo Isleno is simple but very traditional. It’s a great way to become acquainted with the Jewish community of Puerto Rico.
Fish with Mojo IslenoServes 4 - 6
¼ cup Extra virgin olive oil 1 medium onion, chopped 1 bell pepper, chopped4 – 6 garlic cloves, minced 2 cups peeled, seeded, and diced tomatoes2 tablespoons red wine vinegar ¼ cup green olives, pitted 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed2 bay leaves 2 pounds firm white fish fillets, such as snapperKosher salt and pepper to taste
1. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and peppers and sauté until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic and sauté for another 1 to 2 minutes.
2. Stir in the tomatoes, vinegar, olives, capers, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes until slightly reduced, season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. Arrange the fish filets in a baking dish; pour the sauce over the fish.
4. Place fish in a preheated 400 degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes or until fish is cooked through.
5.    Serve with rice.