Florida's 'Jewbans' vote Republican

However, changing cultural identity brings a new political bent.

flordia primary 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
flordia primary 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
As the polls opened for the Florida primary Tuesday morning, Jimmy Resnick still hadn't decided who he would vote for, but it would no doubt be a Republican. That's how he's always voted, as had his father, whom he labeled "an oxymoron - a Jewish Republican." Indeed, the vast majority of American Jews vote Democratic. That was likely to keep many here at home Tuesday, since the Democratic National Committee stripped the state of its delegates to this summer's national nominating convention. But Resnick is part of one of the few Jewish constituencies that has historically voted Republican: the "Jewbans," or Jews from Cuba, most of whom have settled in the greater Miami area. Registered Republicans like Resnick were choosing between Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who were locked in a tie for the lead, according to the early returns as this paper went to press, as well as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani has been popular with another group of relocated Jews here - New York retirees - but he was trailing badly, and a less-than-stellar finish in Florida, where he's campaigned more than other candidates, would appear to jeopardize his candidacy. Resnick had good things to say about many of the Republican candidates, but was more concerned about his party coalescing around one man to lead a strong, focused fight while the three Democratic contenders battled it out. "The Republican party has always had strength with Cubans," Resnick said of his party allegiance, citing its position in favor of America's embargo on the Castro regime and support for the community's many business owners, such as himself. Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuba and Cuban American Studies, estimated that 70 percent of Cuban Jews were Republicans - a mirror opposite of the party breakdown for the larger Jewish community. In addition to the Cuban-centric issues, he described the community as very Zionist and approving of the GOP approach to Israel. "For Cuban reasons and for Israeli reasons, they support the Republican party," he said. But Resnick has noticed that where once he would have been joined by many of his peers in voting Republican, that's not so any more. He recalled that at a recent dinner event with Cuban Jews, whenever he tried to talk politics, his wife dissuaded him - it turned out that they were outnumbered at their table by 10 Democrats. "I see that things are turning a little bit, since all the Cubans used to be Republicans," he said. Political disposition is only one of the shifting aspects of the Cuban Jewish community, which finds its very existence at issue. As the Jews who escaped Castro's revolution to reach America age and pass away, the next generation has come to identify more with the broader American community. "We don't want to cease to be who we are," said Marcos Kerbel, who came to America from Cuba in 1961. "We have our own rhythm." He meant it literally - a testament to the vitality of Cuban music - but also referred to the unique mixed Jewish-Cuban tradition. "It's hard to maintain your waistline when you're Jewish and Cuban - you get it from both sides," he quipped. Traces of that heritage are still found at the community's Ashkenazi Synagogue, where congregants are told to be seated in Spanish, Latin names such as Pedro and Jacobo grace the memorial wall, and three flags frame the bima: American, Israeli and Cuban. "We have an attachment to Cuba," Segio Grobler, who once served as president of the Cuban Hebrew Congregation's Temple Bnei Shmuel, explained. Yet even with a nice turnout last Saturday of about 40 people, the problem of continuity was evident: Most of those in attendance had gray hair. Like many, Grobler's grown children don't live in the area. Resnick is unusual in that his children have stayed nearby. But he sees their assimilation as a positive sign, a sign of their success both professionally and communally. "It's a great thing that we integrated," he said. "It allows us to be part of the larger Jewish community. I wouldn't want us to be isolated." Like many immigrant communities, part of their solidarity was born from the adversity of being refugees who suffered discrimination in their new country. The Cuban Jews, many of whom were the children of Europeans who had wanted to reach America near the turn of the 20th century but were unable to get visas and headed instead to the island nation off the coast of Florida, fled to the United States as Fidel Castro's Communist regime came to power. They ended up in America with little money or other resources. They found themselves, like other Cubans, treated coldly by the many Jewish landlords and business owners who had already established themselves in Florida. Suchlicki himself had a problem finding an apartment until he came up with the idea of carrying around a copy of the Jewish Forward newspaper with him to realtors. "We would put a Forward under our arms, and they would say, 'Yiddishe boys!?'" and allow them to see the apartments they were showing, he recounted. Still, Grobler recalled, it was hardly a warm welcome. The Cuban Jews decided to set up their own social club in the 1960s because they felt alienated from the American Jewish scene. "The American Jews didn't play dominoes. They looked at us as Latin, as different," he said. That club turned into the Cuban Hebrew Congregation. It is now housed in a large, beautiful building - a sign of the community's prosperity and presence. Now the established ones, they find themselves confronted with how to handle letting others in. "That Cuban flag, perhaps, for many years was a barrier to American Jews joining us," Grobler said. "As long as we call ourselves the Cuban Hebrew Congregation there will be people - more wrong than right - who won't think of joining us. So we're thinking of becoming Temple Bnei Shmuel with a small asterisk." He continued, "Being Cuban, no one is joining us, and people are leaving us. So until when should we hold the Cuban heart - if we hold it too long, we will disappear." But Kerbel, the current Temple Beth Shmuel president, is concerned about going too far. "You have to adapt with the times, but if you really change so you disappear, you're betraying your heritage," he said. Yet he acknowledges that many of the next generation don't have the same ties and cultural connection to Cuba that his peers do, a group whose elementary school class is still in touch with one another. His children and those of his friends didn't even attend the same schools. The community's bonds - political and other - are fraying. Suchlicki said that is partly because, unlike other Cuban immigrants, the Jewbans didn't maintain a strong connection to the country of their birth. "Once they came to know the country [America], because of the transplanted experience, they identified with the new country," he said. "They don't see Cuba as the homeland or want to go back to Cuba." Political allegiances are changing as well, as are the sense of issues shared with the larger Cuban population. Immigration, for instance, has been a major topic for most Floridian Cubans. "That's not an issue that resonates in the Cuban Jewish community," Suchlicki said. "The Cuban Jewish community has mostly moved on."