Island Jewish life

In a country that appears at a stand-still, the small Jewish community in Cuba is documented by an Israel-based photography team.

A STREET in Havana is reflected in a collection of water (photo credit: BENNY LEVIN PHOTOGRAPHY)
A STREET in Havana is reflected in a collection of water
In this global village of ours it is becoming increasingly rare to discover some cultural entity that is not hooked up to the rest of the world in a neat, technologically facilitated manner. The Jdocu team encountered such a group when it made a fascinating foray to Cuba to document the Jewish community on the island around a year and a half ago.
The results of the team’s three-week sojourn can be seen at the highly colorful and eye-opening The Island within an Island – A Look at the Jews of Cuba, 2012, exhibition currently on display at Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv. The show, which was facilitated by the JDC, features shots taken by the 10-person Jdocu group: veteran journalist Eliezer Yaari, Eli Atias, Benny Levin, Atalia Katz, Naftali (Tali) Idan, Amir Halevy, Yitzhak Goren, Yossi Beinart, Shai Beilis and Nir Dagan.
For the Jdocu team it is not just a matter of going to some relatively far-flung Jewish community and documenting some of their way of life to bring it to the attention of the world at large. There is a highly practical component to their self-financed efforts. As the Jdocu web site notes: “The first exhibition – In Search of Human Grace [of Jews in the republic of Georgia) held at Beit Hatfutsot in November 2011] was a huge success artistically, and created a substantial amount of money which was sent to Georgia to assist the JDC Hessed institutes in Georgia, where the entire exhibition was created.”
By all accounts the Jews of Cuba could also do with a helping hand, although Yaari points out that, by and large, they are slightly better off than their non-Jewish compatriots.
“Cuba is a sad place,” he observes. “When I go to a new place I look for construction cranes, to see if there is some kind of development activity going on. You don’t see any cranes in Cuba, and the highways are like Yom Kippur here.”
According to Yaari the Jewish community in Cuba began to sprout around the beginning of the 20th century.
“As the Ottoman Empire collapsed a significant number of Jews became refugees – mainly from countries like Syria, Turkey, Egypt and Greece – and Sephardi Jews found their way to Cuba.”
There were also Ashkenazim who fled to the Caribbean island as anti-Semitism began to spread across Europe. Many of the latter intended to make their stay in Cuba temporary with the United States as their ultimate destination, but US immigration restrictions were tightened in the early 1920s and the European Jews became permanent residents of Cuba. The first Ashkenazi community center was established in Havana in 1925.
“Two Jewish communities were formed in Cuba who set up all the requisite institutions,” Yaari explains. “There were synagogues, schools, kosher food facilities, social welfare. It was amazing how they became so organized.”
A Jewish man wraps teffilin at the Central Synagogue in Havana.A Jewish man wraps teffilin at the Central Synagogue in Havana.
The ranks of the Ashkenazi community swelled appreciably as increasing numbers of Jews fled from Nazi- occupied Europe.
“Tens of thousands of Jews went to Cuba, because they couldn’t get into the United States,” Yaari continues, adding that the Cuban authorities of the time had no problems with the mass influx of Jews to the island.
“There was no European style anti-Semitism there, and we are not talking about the evil Spanish regime. The Jews were welcomed, and they acquired property and integrated in the economy.”
The good times ended abruptly when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 as part of the Communist revolution.
“The Jews fled in vast numbers, almost overnight,” says Yaari. “Their property was nationalized anyway, and there was little reason to stay. Most went to the States and a few came to Israel.”
It appears that the Cuban Jewish community lives something of a dual existence. They are, on the one hand, very much an integral part of the country and the national identity, but they also have their institutions and keenly observe the religious holidays and other important dates in the Jewish and Israeli cultural calendar. It is this which spawned the title of the exhibition.
“The Jews there live in their own sort of island in Cuba,” explains Idan. “The situation there is unique for Jews. There is nowhere else in the Communist world where a community enjoyed freedom of religion.”
According to Idan, other Cubans wouldn’t mind being part of the Jewish setup.
“The non-Jews there would love to get chicken for Friday night dinner, and the community receives a lot of donations,” he notes.
Meanwhile, Katz was impressed with the outside support for the community.
“I was very moved by all the work the JDC does there,” she says. “In Israel we are not aware of the work the JDC does, including in Cuba. The Jews there know they have that helping hand. That is a wonderful thing.”
The entrance to the Jewish cemetery in Havana.The entrance to the Jewish cemetery in Havana.
Even so, Cuban Jews are part of the fabric of the culture and society on the island.
“They are completely Cuban,” says Idan. “They are Cuban and Jewish at the same time.”
“They don’t just come for the chicken dinner on Friday nights,” adds Katz. “They come for the community, for the feeling of togetherness.”
Jewish Cuban children attend regular schools, and benefit from Jewish-Hebrew Sunday school facilities, and the members of the community also have access to medication that is not available to non-Jewish Cubans.
“There are no medical drugs in Cuba,” Katz explains, “but people from all over the world send drugs to the Jews in Cuba.”
“The hospitals in Cuba are fine,” proffers Idan. “The problem is there is nowhere to get drugs outside the hospitals. The Jewish community has its own pharmacy.”
In such circumstances one might expect a certain amount of jealousy among the non-Jews of Cuba, which could even fuel anti-Semitism. It seems that, thankfully, this is not the case. “They actually appreciate the Jews there,” notes Yaari, “and they appreciate the way the Jews adhere to their traditions and religion. The Cubans are lovely people.”
Idan says that the Jdocu team’s visit to Cuba differed from its other documentation trips, to Georgia, Ethiopia and the Baltic states.
“It is a happy community. In the other places we visited we encountered dying communities.”
He notes that the Cuban community has enjoyed a resurgence since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
“The Jews couldn’t practice religion openly during the Communist era, but now they enjoy a full Jewish life.”
It seems that assimilation is not too much of a problem either.
“You get mixed marriages, but the non-Jewish partners also take part in religious ceremonies and traditional events,” continues Idan. “I don’t want to say that they only come for the chicken dinners, but they are willing members of the community.”
Cuba, as we know from the music of the likes of the Buena Vista Social Club, is a country of rich colors and happy rhythms, and those sentiments also come through strongly in the exhibition.
For more information about The Island within an Island – A Look at the Jews of Cuba, 2012 exhibition:
(03) 745-7808 and