Published Thursday, November
16, 2000, in the Miami
Exiled twice -- authors
reveal Cuban Jews' dual sense of alienation
By Fabiola Santiago
Café con leche . . . with a toasted bagel -- that's how
Betty Heisler-Samuels describes her Cuban-Jewish
lifestyle in South Florida.
"The Cuban Jews are very different from American Jews,''
says Heisler-Samuels, author of The
Last Minyan in Havana (amazon.com)
(Chutzpah, $14.95), one of two books about Cuban-Jewish
identity to be featured this weekend at the Miami Book Fair
International. "We will never be the same because we come
from a background of different experiences. The fact that
we were allowed to come into Cuba, that we were welcomed
and we got to enjoy that country, left an imprint that we
will carry with us forever.''
Cuban Jews are part of a larger, national community of
Latin American Jews living a second exile -- and forging
a dual cultural identity in the United States as Hispanics
and as Jews.
Strict U.S. immigration policies established in the 1920s
forced thousands of Jewish refugees to settle in Latin America
and the Caribbean. The thriving Cuban-American Jewish community
-- with its own synagogues, cultural clubs and social institutions
in Miami Beach -- sprung from the mass exodus of most of
the 15,000 Jews in the island who fled after the Communist
regime confiscated their businesses.
In 1960s South Florida, the Cuban Jews were not readily
welcomed by the American Jewish community, says Caroline
Bettinger-López, author of Cuban-Jewish
Journeys: Searching for Identity, Home, and History in Miami
of Tennessee Press, $40), a vast ethnographic study.
Except for notable exceptions like Temple Menorah, which
offered the refugees free membership and services, "the
Jewish community reacted with coldness and indifference
to them,'' Bettinger-López says.
"When Cuban Jews first came to Miami, they came as exiles
like all Cuban refugees. It was a political identity --
exile from communism. They turned that into a religious
identity very quickly, based on their community model in
Cuba, and especially in Havana, where there was a strong
Jewish community,'' Bettinger-López said.
The model: While they interacted with Cuban society, they
had a vibrant community of their own in the island. When
Cuban Jews realized their stay in the United States was
not temporary, they began to build a similar community.
"They wanted to forge bonds with the Jewish community and
went over to Miami Beach,'' Bettinger-López said.
But the local Jewish community snubbed them for several
reasons, she said: "There was a general perception that
Cuban exiles were wealthy and not in need of help,'' despite
the fact that most refugees came penniless and with few
belongings. And there was "the myth'' that the refugees
were being taken care of by the U.S. government through
the Cuban refugee program.
But most significantly, Bettinger-López says, "there was
a large anti-Cuban mentality, especially from the Ashkenazi,
the Jews of Eastern European roots.''
The Sephardic, of Mediterranean and Spanish roots, had
"more of a cultural connection with Latino culture. It's
an arguable point, but they were expelled from Spain and
maintained a similar culture to the Cuban culture,'' she
That initial relationship, or lack of it, often influences
how Cuban-American Jewish relations play out today.
Bettinger-López points to the 1996 installation ceremony
of the first Cuban president of the Jewish Federation of
Greater Miami as an example of worlds at odds.
It was a night of jubilation and pride. The room was packed
with Cuban Jews who broke into thunderous applause and cheers
as Isaac Zelcer, an Ashkenazi Cuban Jew, became the first
Latino to hold the position. He had been nominated by an
organization dominated by American Jews to a position traditionally
held by a member of the city's established American Jewish
community -- and many saw it as "a true integration of Latino
and American Jews.''
But as soon as Zelcer ended his speech, and more applause
died down, the room began to empty even while the rest of
the program was still going on. Some of the Cuban Jews had
rushed off to end their celebration at Versailles Restaurant
on the outskirts of Little Havana, the quintessential Cuban
"The night was both a powerful symbol of how Cuban Jews
have become part of the larger U.S. Jewish community and
of the still insular nature of their community, which is
often criticized as only caring about their own,'' Bettinger-López
said. "It did look on the face of it to be very rude, but
I did understand what they were doing. It illustrated the
point that Cuban Jews are inward-focused, and in many respects
this is largely based on history. They were forced to become
inwardly focused when they tried to integrate with the Miami
Jewish community and they were slapped in the face.''
Bettinger-López, who grew up Jewish in Pinecrest unaware
of the Cuban Jewish community (the López is her Irish-Puerto
Rican husband's surname), embarked on the research project
as part of her anthropology course work at the University
of Michigan, where one of her professors was Ruth Behar,
a respected Cuban-Jewish anthropologist.
In a foreword she wrote for Cuban Journeys, Behar says
Bettinger-López brings "fresh eyes, caring eyes, and critical
eyes to realities that are close to home and yet foreign.''
Among the many Cuban Jews Bettinger-López interviewed was
Heisler-Samuels, whose fictionalized family story mirrors
the stories of many Cuban Jews.
The Last Minyan, a self-published autobiographical novel,
chronicles the life of a Jewish immigrant who leaves Poland
before World War II for a better life in Havana. As in the
story of Heisler-Samuels' father, Haim Tuchman's life unravels
against the backdrop of 1940s and '50s Havana, where Hollywood
stars frolicked and the glamorous store El Encanto lived
up to its name with the latest fashions from Paris and Milan.
"Jews who came to Cuba like my parents did in the late
1930s were caught between two major world events -- the
rise of Nazism in Europe, which they were escaping, and
later on, after they had already established themselves
in their new country, the onset of communism,'' Heisler-Samuels
says. "These were people who left Europe in their 20s, found
a haven in Cuba, and after living out their lives, became
immigrants for the second time in their 50s.''
For some like Heisler-Samuels, the permanence of exile
in the United States hasn't kept the Jewish-Latino identity
from further evolving.
"I have four generations in my family and each one was
born in a different country,'' Heisler-Samuels says. "My
parents were born in Europe. I was born in Cuba. My daughter
and son were born in the United States, and my grandchildren
were born in Colombia. Talk about the wandering Jew.''
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald
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