Video spotlights Cuba's surviving Jewish community


Bulletin Correspondent

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 Archive.

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 time.

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.