Caribbean rebirth

As political instability shakes the island, Cuba's Jewish community marks 100 years. Our reporter recently spoke with the former president of Havana's community.

carrib jew 88 (photo credit: )
carrib jew 88
(photo credit: )
With trade significantly inhibited by the United States' embargo against Cuba and with the collapse of the country's Soviet sponsor in the late 1980s, the Communist Caribbean island nation of 11 million people has one of the most broken economies in the world. Streets are in severe disrepair and polluted by diesel-spewing American automobiles from the 1950s. Public phones usually don't work and local calls are extremely expensive. Basic medications like aspirin are scarce and unaffordable. Curious to see how Cuba's Jews were faring against this bleak economic backdrop, I paid a visit to the Havana Jewish community center, also known as the Patronato, which serves as the umbrella group for all of Cuba's 1,200 Jews, of which 900 live in Havana. The Patronato is housed in a two-story building flanked by a giant arc with a Magen David above the doorways. There, I met the late Dr. Jose Miller, an octogenarian who served as president of Havana's Jewish community after 1981, until his recent death. In his modest office, Miller sat behind a desk with a phone that looked a few decades old and an ancient computer with no Internet connection (the Cuban dictatorship generally allows only hotels and foreign companies to have Internet access). On his desk were stacks of letters, files and other documents that suggested an overworked man with a Herculean mission: preserving, managing and representing Cuba's Jewish community. The wall behind him was decked with Jewish symbols and photos of his family and of his meetings with various world leaders such as Shimon Peres and Fidel Castro. According to Miller's count of last December, there are 536 Jewish families in Cuba (about 400 of which are in Havana). He explained that his definition of "Jewish" includes anyone whose household is headed by a Jew. By this definition, the Cuban Jewish population includes "about 500 very assimilated Jews and about 500 converts" of varying ages, he said. "But we encourage conversion only if there is at least a spouse or some family member who is Jewish." But Miller claimed the Cuban Jewish community is actually growing again, after falling from about 20,000 before the Communist revolution to about 500 in the years after the revolution. "The reality forced us to compromise and be more liberal in our definition of a Jew," he pointed out. "Otherwise, with 50 congregants I still can't get a minyan, because this one isn't circumcised, and this one's mother isn't Jewish. And a lot of the people know little or nothing about the prayers or the religion. So we have to be flexible. And we have to reach out to people." ACCORDING TO popular lore, the first person of Jewish origin to land in Cuba is believed to have been Luis de Torres, who arrived with Christopher Colombus in 1492, as the explorer's translator. During the 16th century many Jews and Marranos (Jews forced to convert to Catholicism) continued coming to Cuba, seeking refuge from the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition. Later, Jews from Mediterranean countries, including many from Turkey, flocked to Cuba to avoid World War I. Around the turn of the century, a large wave of Ashkenazi Jews immigrated from Florida, founding the United Hebrew Congregation in 1906. Thus, the Cuban Jewish community is an amalgamation of Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and North American Jews. At its peak, there were some 20,000 Jews living on the island. But when Castro seized power, about 90 percent of Cuba's Jews left and, by the 1990s, the small minority was on the brink of disappearing completely. Nevertheless, the community has managed to survive many challenges, and this year is proudly celebrating a century of Jewish life and culture since its last major influx of 1906 - a veritable milestone in Communist Cuba. Born to a Polish mother and a Lithuanian father in 1925, Miller was passionate about Jewish survival. "You have to fight for the right of Jews to survive," he declared. One of the explanations for the lack of Jewish knowledge among Cubans, he said, relates simply to the long tenure of Communism and the massive Jewish exile that it occasioned: "Someone who was only eight years old in 1959 [when the Communist revolution happened] is 46 years old today." Thus, the last few generations of Jews grew up in a greatly diminished community, and the effect has been cumulative and hard to overcome. "Many people were simply never raised with any Jewish identity or education," he added. Yet Dr. Miller held no grudges against Cuba. On the contrary, he proclaimed: "I am proud of three things: my family, being Cuban and being Jewish." His father was 23 and his mother just 19 when Cuba received them with open arms. "There has never been any anti-Semitism here," he continued. "And the government here never interfered with our right to practice our religion." But because of the many economic and other difficulties brought about by the revolution, his parents left Cuba in 1969, and his son emigrated to Israel in 1995. Only Dr. Miller's wife, a convert to Judaism who works in the Patronato, remained with him in Cuba. "Ninety percent of Cubans stayed, 90% of Cuban Jews left. If you asked me 20 years ago, I'd have predicted the end of our community," Dr. Miller confessed. "But here we are. Another story of Jewish survival against the odds." THE CUBAN Jewish community gets most of its financial support from the Joint Distribution Committee and B'nai B'rith. The money goes to maintain the buildings, pay the salaries of seven full-time employees and fund the weekly kiddush, Shabbat dinner and Saturday lunch, which are usually attended by about 75 congregants. In the main social hall, I met Jaime Sarusky, a prominent septuagenarian in the community and renowned journalist and novelist who won Cuba's prestigious National Literary Award in 2004. I visited the community library, which houses a respectable collection of Jewish history, prayer and theology books, as well as assorted artistic works of Judaica, maps and histories of Israel and a large closet of donated medicines and drugs. (see box) There, I met Pavel Tanenbaum, the 29-year-old in charge of the Cuban Jewish youth group. Though born to a non-Jewish mother, Pavel began to explore Judaism while attending the University of Havana and eventually elected to undergo a voluntary program of study and a brit mila, to "complete the covenant," as he explained. Last May, Pavel also traveled to Israel for the first time on a birthright trip, and felt very connected to the place and its people. He pointed out that many Jewish Cubans have emigrated to Israel for a better and easier life there. Yet, despite the vastly superior economic conditions and Jewish cultural life that Israel has to offer, Pavel is torn between making aliya and staying in Cuba to ensure that there is a Jewish community there for exiled Cuban Jews to return to, if and when things improve because of a new regime. Miller recently passed away, but the dedication of leaders like Tanenbaum, who remain committed to sustaining this small community, suggests that the heritage of Cuba's Jews will indeed survive.