Cuban Jewish Heritage

Cubanidad (Cuban identity)

Cuban Jewish HeritageWhen I think of Cuba, the largest island of the Caribbean sea, a lot of ideas come to mind.  I can picture a repressive communist regime run for decades with an iron fist by the dictator Fidel Castro,  the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Marxist revolutionaries like Che Guevara.  I can also imagine the Havana cigars, endless tropical Caribbean beaches with exotic drinks and pulsating music. The idea of a “Cuban Jewish Heritage” for some reason didn’t fit into that complex scene.

Nevertheless, since Jews have been found nearly everywhere, so why not?  Here’s what I found:

Cuban Jewish HeritageJewish Cubans, Cuban Jews, or Cubans of Jewish heritage, have lived in the nation of Cuba for centuries. Some Cubans trace Jewish ancestry to Marranos (converts to Christianity) who came as colonists, though few of these practice Judaism today. More than 24,000 Jews lived in Cuba in 1924, and more immigrated to the country in the 1930s. But during and after the 1959 communist revolution, 94% of the Jews left for the United States and other countries. In 2007 an estimated 1,500 known Jewish Cubans remained in the country, overwhelmingly located in Havana. Several hundred have since emigrated to Israel.

Source: History of the Jews in Cuba – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Ok, so there are 1500 Jews today in Cuba and every Jew counts. How about “Jewish Tourism”?

Jewish Tourism

Unites States citizens are traveling to Cuba both legally and illegally, and we are now getting reports of persons who have traveled to Cuba illegally being contacted and fined by the United States government, sometimes two years after the trip. If you have information related to this please contact us.Travel to Cuba by United States citizens is either illegal or not illegal, depending on how you get there. It is illegal for a United States citizen to spend money in Cuba unless he or she goes with an approved group such as the Cuba-America Jewish Mission, B’nai B’rith’s Cuban Jewish Relief Project, the Cuban Jewish Connection, or Jewish Solidarity. We encourage legal travel to Cuba, and discourage illegal travel.

Source: The Jews of Cuba – Travel information

My assumption is that the 94% of Cuban Jews who left for the States during Castro’s regime are the driving force behind all these support initiatives, but it seems that regular American Jews also have a fascination with Jewish Cuba.

I often coincided with American Jews on Mitzvah trips to help the Jews of Cuba, a people they found endlessly fascinating. A Cuban Jew myself, I had never thought of Cuban Jews as exotic creatures. But American Jews found the idea of tropical Jews magical. Whether it was memories of Jews dancing mambo in the Catskills, knowledge of Meyer Lansky’s role in Cuba’s corruption, guilt at the U.S. embargo, a desire for rum, cigars, and joy not found on Shoah trips, sorrow at the thought of Jewish life vanishing in a place so close to home, a need for a worthwhile Mitzvah destination, or all of the above, American Jews felt passionate about the Jews in Cuba.

Source: What Now For The Jews Of Cuba? | The Jewish Week

Although American Jews might feel they’re doing all they can for their Cuban brethren, it seems that their feeling aren’t completely reciprocated by the Cuban Jews:

“We live in a bubble – we only know what the state-sponsored media wants us to know,” says Dr. Mayra Levy, a professor of pharmacology at Havana’s University of Medical Sciences and the president of Havana’s Sephardic synagogue, the largest of Cuba’s three Jewish congregations.

When asked what her main message from the Cuban community to the global gathering of Jewish emissaries was, Levy said: “I want them to know that we exist.”

“It’s not just money that we need. We want to be connected to the Jewish world and Israel, to meet face-to-face with Jews who visit us to share their knowledge and make us feel a part of the global community.” Levy added that there is great local interest in returning to Jewish roots, evidenced by the 167 Jewish children enrolled in Sunday school.

Cuban Jews feel “ignored” by those who managed to flee the communist nation and now live predominantly in South Florida, she said. “We receive a lot of attention from groups like the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jewish Cuba Connection, and B’nai Brith, but are disappointed that those who share our heritage and to whom we can relate the most are not involved.”

Source: Shalom from Havana | The Times of Israel

You want to go to Havana and support the Cuban Jewish Heritage too? Here are a few interesting organized trips:

Members of the Museum of Jewish Heritage are invited to join a special mission to Cuba and enjoy an opportunity to experience this fascinating country with a focus on its varied and diverse Jewish community. Led by Dr. Aryeh Maidenbaum, who has been organizing and leading trips to Cuba for more than a dozen years, our group will be traveling to Cuba under the auspices of an approved Treasury Department license. This unique program will include presentations by experts on Jewish Cuba, meetings with local scholars and leaders of the Jewish community on the island, and an opportunity to experience the wonderfully diverse music, spirit, and culture of this exotic island.

Source: Jewish Heritage Travel Trip to Cuba

Or this one:

Authentic Cuba Travel would love to introduce the Jewish Heritage Cuba Tour that will take place from December 26, 2015 to January 2, 2016. Designed as an educational and cultural tour to Cuba for North American Jewish travelers, this 8 day trip is aimed at helping rural and urban Jewish communities in Cuba and North America to connect and to forge lifetime connections.

Source: Authentic Cuba Travel provides legal US Cuba travel for US Jewish Organizations, Groups & Individuals.

Kosher Cuba

The only thing you’ll need to worry about is Kosher food. Just because these are Jewish heritage trips doesn’t mean they actually serve Kosher food. You’ll have to come well prepared.

Can I get kosher food in Cuba? (Let’s deal with the most important question first.) No. You can travel kosher-style or bring canned foods. If kosher-style, always check to make sure the beans are cooked vegetarian style. Be careful about soups and all other side dishes since Cubans like to use pork in just about everything.

Source: The Jews of Cuba

Cuban Jewish HeritageJust to be sure about the lack of Kosher food, I contacted “Authentic Cuba Travel” and here’s their official answer:

Dear David,
Greetings from Authentic Cuba Travel and thank you for contacting us.
Unfortunately Kosher food is not available from Cuba. It is definitely possible to attend Shabbat services at one of Havana’s synagogues.
Best regards,
Yane Marquez
Authentic Cuba Travel

Buenos diás !!

and Shabbat Shalom!