Cuba News (from CUBANET)

Miami Herald

Published Thursday, November 16, 2000, in the Miami Herald

Exiled twice -- authors reveal Cuban Jews' dual sense of alienation

in Spanish

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 ( (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 ( (University 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 says.

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 hangout.

"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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