Although many American Jews are unaware of it, the waves of
immigration that brought their ancestors to America early in
this century sent thousands of Jews southward to Cuba. Some
continued to the United States, but those who stayed created
a Jewish community that thrived for decades.
Now "Havana Nagila: The Jews of Cuba" recaptures that
lost history. The exhaustively researched video documentary
will make its world theatrical premiere at the Jewish Film Festival.
"Havana Nagila" is a significant accomplishment, although
occasionally its approach is more academic than entertaining.
Producer Evan Garelle and writer-director Laura Paull, New York
natives who now reside in Modesto, compress a remarkably wide
range of subjects into a mere hour.
The documentary shared first prize in the second annual Jewish
Video Competition sponsored by the Judah L. Magnes Museum, and
was shown with other winners last month at the Pacific Film
Packed with factual information and first-person interviews,
the video tells the story of the Jews who stayed in Cuba. Some
stayed by choice, others because they were locked out of the
United States in the 1920s and 1930s by State Department quotas.
Historians, teachers and working people tell viewers that
the Cuban people had no ingrained tradition of anti-Semitism.
Jews were warmly welcomed into Cuban society.
In the late '20s and early '30s, the Machado government persecuted
Communists and Jews and promoted anti-Semitism. The Cuban people,
however, didn't seem to embrace anti-Jewish sentiment with the
same enthusiasm as residents of many other countries at the
In fact, on a per-capita basis, Cuba accepted more Jewish
refugees from Nazi Europe than several larger nations.
After World War II, Jews gradually established themselves
in all areas of Cuban life. The golden age for Jews in Cuba
was Batista's second stint as president from 1952-59.
The Jews who prospered under Batista had much to lose when
Castro came to power and converted the economy to state-run
socialism. According to one source quoted in "Havana Nagila,"
94 percent of Cuba's Jews left the country.
Those who chose to remain, however, embraced Castro's leadership
and share his philosophy of nation-building to this day.
"The task of the Jew," one Castro supporter asserts, "is not
only to figure out how to live well but to contribute to peace
and justice wherever in the world he may live."
Along those lines, "Havana Nagila" offers a fascinating reminder
that the pragmatic idealism of Castro's socialism is not so
different from the ideology that led to Israel's kibbutz system.
In words that wouldn't have sounded out of place in the Galilee
in 1951, one likable young Cuban explains, "I respect the opinions
of the Orthodox Jews and those who believe in faith. But as
long as there is important work to be done, you won't find me
at the synagogue."
"Havana Nagila" notes that Israel lent its agricultural expertise
to Cuba in the early years of Castro's reign. That phase of
cooperation ended in 1973, when Cuba broke off diplomatic relations.
Geopolitics is at the heart of any discussion of Cuba, especially
in light of the ongoing U.S. embargo of the island. One of the
video's most fascinating passages charts the difficulty of getting
Passover supplies for a seder. And those rituals and traditions,
important to Jews everywhere, are perhaps even more important
in Cuba's tiny 1,600-member Jewish community.