Keeping the faith: Cuban Jews

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Mon Apr 9 08:33:08 MDT 2001

[ bounced from unsubbed "Walter Lippmann" <walterlx at> ]

Keeping the faith: Cuban Jews, though dwindling, observe religious
practices in relative freedom

Havana bureau, Chicago Tribune

April 5, 2001

HAVANA -- Cuba's first Jew, Luis de Torres, arrived on the island in
1492, as Christopher Columbus' translator.

Centuries later, Jewish pirates prowled the blue Caribbean waters off
Cuba. In 1898, thousands of U.S. Jews volunteered for the
Spanish-American War effort, many opting to stay in Havana after the
war. Even several of the founders of Cuba's Communist Party were

"We've had Jews in Cuba since the beginning," said Maritza Corrales, a
historian in Cuba's Ministry of Culture.

For all their long history, though, Cuba's Jews are struggling today
to keep their once-flourishing community alive. Heavy emigration,
cultural isolation, aging and long years under officially atheist
Marxist rule have taken a toll on the island's synagogues and its

Cash-strapped Cuba no longer has even one rabbi. "It's very expensive
to pay one since the community has to provide a house, a car, a
salary," Corrales said. Marriages and circumcisions must wait until
foreign church officials come to visit.

Cuba's remaining Jewish leaders are searching for creative ways to
revitalize the community, from re-establishing a tourist-drawing
Jewish sector in Old Havana to converting non-Jewish spouses. But the
path ahead is a difficult one.

At the island's last kosher butcher shop, open every Tuesday in Old
Havana, almost all the men and women thronged outside the iron gate,
with its Star of David, are in their 60s.

"The community's getting weaker," says Aaron Espinosa, 65, lined up
with his string bag and cardboard-covered government ration book to
buy a few ounces of hamburger or beef ribs.  "I'm afraid if it goes on
like it is now, we'll disappear."

Cuba once boasted one of the larger per capita Jewish populations in
Latin America. During the first half of the 20th Century, Jews from
Turkey flocked to the island to avoid World War I, followed by other
emigres from Poland, Russia, Hungary and the Balkans. Most had been
turned down for U.S.  visas and chose Cuba as a landing spot in hope
of moving on to the United States.

By World War II, more than 20,000 Jews lived in Cuba, and Acosta
Street in Old Havana--still widely known as the capital's "Jewish
Street" -- was alive with kosher bakeries and cafes and Jewish-owned
clothing stores.

The difference between then and now "is the difference between day and
night," says Espinosa, as he strolls the narrow, quiet streets of the
faded Jewish quarter. Apart from the butcher shop and a nearby
synagogue, there is little sign of Acosta Street's former occupants.

The downward spiral in Jewish population began in the years following
World War II, as Jews who had fled Europe for Cuba gradually made
their way to the United States, reducing Cuba's Jewish population to
about 12,000.

The population crash came in the years after the 1959 Cuban
Revolution. Jews, like other Cubans, had their businesses seized by
the new socialist government and 95 percent of them fled, mainly to
the United States and Israel.

"Jews were professionals and business people who had recently learned
the lessons of totalitarian regimes in Europe," writes Moises Asis, a
prominent Jewish historian and former teacher in Cuba, who left for
the United States in 1993.

Today not more than 1,500 Jews live in Cuba, two-thirds of them in
Havana, and the population struggles to match each death or emigration
with a birth or conversion.

Samuel Zagovalov, 53, the community butcher, has seen one of his sons
immigrate to Spain, and another, more recently, to Israel. Within the
past five to six years, Jewish leaders say, about 600 mostly young
Cuban Jews have made their way to Israel, under an immigration
agreement negotiated quietly between the two nations.

"The youth we have almost all go to Israel, so what we have left is
the old people," Zagovalov says. "But the community is still alive."

For a nation that considers Israel an enemy, Cuba's government has
afforded the island's Jews a large measure of respect and tolerance.

Jews are the only Cubans who can buy beef in government-run peso
stores, a nod to religious restrictions on pork, the island's staple

Synagogues were never shut down, even during the long years when
Cuba's socialist leaders discouraged religious practice.  Cuban Jews
uniformly say they have encountered no anti-Semitism.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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