"Counting Shadows:
a Broader Look at Cuban Jewish History"

Robert M. Levine, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida

Only in the last decade or so have serious studies of Cuba's Jews appeared. Traditional scholarship on Cuba overlooked the subject, and when the studies started to appear, they were almost always written by persons of Jewish background. Also appearing were a half-dozen documentary films made by foreign Jews visiting Cuba for brief periods of time to record the last surviving members of the remnant community. The long-promised study of Cuban Jewry from the inside, based on a lifetime of community activity by Sender Kaplan, never appeared, the chance taken away by his illness and death a few years ago. There have been no studies published in Cuba, although a good deal of material pertinent to the institutional history of Cuban Jewry sits in Cuban archives, and there is considerable material available to scholars outside of Cuba as well, especially in South Florida, Washington, D.C., and New York.

The first generation of studies, as might be expected, was limited in scope. Like most studies of immigrant and minority groups, they tended to examine their subject by itself, rarely looking at it in the broader national context. The focus of these studies was invariably institutional, based on definitions by Jewish organizations of who was and who was not a Jew. The studies were further influenced by the tendency among Cuban-Jewish leaders to speak in terms of a single Jewish community. Historical research shows, however, that this was never the case, because Jewish groups remained separated into groups on the basis of their ethnic origins and language. When Jews first came in numbers to Cuba in the early nineteenth century, Jews in Cuba, depending upon which group they were in, spoke many different languages (English, Yiddish, Spanish, Hungarian, Ladino, and later German). They also differed in custom (Sephardic versus Ashkenazic versus Middle European versus American), according to their religious affiliation or non-affiliation (ranging from orthodoxy to rejection), their politics (socialists and communists versus the majority stance, which was apolitical and accomodationist), their attitudes about Zionism, their residence (urban versus small town and rural) and, after 1959, their support or non-support of Castro's Revolution.

I argue that scholarly studies would benefit from moving to the next level of complexity. We need to recognize the rich spectrum that taken together represented the Jewish presence in Cuba, and we need to deal with it dispassionately. We should be neither celebratory nor judgmental and disparaging. The questions to be examined are fascinating, but they need not be daunting to researchers with open minds.


Well into the nineteenth century, Jews were barred from entering the former lands of the Spanish empire legally, just as they had been excluded from Czarist Russia until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Even after juridical barriers were lifted and pioneer Jewish immigrants began to settle in Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Latin America, the question remained to what extent Jews would be granted legitimate status in the eyes of the majority.1 This was all the more difficult because Latin American societies never accepted religious pluralism, and because the Jews who came to the region tended to be persons fleeing repression or hardship, not westernized Jews seeking to assimilate.

In the United States and Canada, most Jews and other immigrants gradually became absorbed into the primary groups of the host society, receiving the same political rights as native-born citizens and, within a few decades, earning acceptance into most if not all sectors of society. This was much less true for the rest of the hemisphere, a circumstance to some degree accepted both by the creole elites and by the Jewish immigrant communities. Cuba differed from most other Latin American places because the island's indigenous culture had been eradicated; its culture became shaped by foreigners, whether Spaniards or non-Spanish immigrants. None of this took place before 1900, when fewer than 1,000 Europeans who were not Spanish nationals lived on the island. By 1907 this number would jump to 1,811, joined by 6,000 Americans. Twelve years later, in 1917, there would be 5,619 Europeans (and 31,442 Americans); by 1931, 10,000 non-Spanish Europeans and 121,000 citizens of the United States or other hemispheric republics.2

With the influx into Cuba first of Sephardic Jews from the shores of the Mediterranean, then Jews from the United States who came during and after the U.S. invasion, and finally Ashkenazic Jews fleeing poverty and the dislocations caused by World War I, Cuba's Jewish colony grew to nearly 5,000 by 1923. The community, however, remained in constant flux: thousands entered Cuba each year but thousands left for the United States. For most of the newcomers, especially the Ashkenazic Jews whose language was very different from Spanish and who were bewildered by the heat and the social conventions of the tropical island, life in the first decades was harsh. Many made their living by peddling or by toiling twelve hours a day in clothing workshops run by fellow immigrants. The Great Depression wiped out some improvements that had been made in the late 1920s, but within a decade the community had stabilized and some of the immigrants had risen in economic status. Others, however, remained poor until well after the Second World War.

As the war approached, Jewish leaders worked out a de facto arrangement whereby they would have access to the president when needed. Such access proved to be limited in influence in the case of pleas to permit refugees to embark during and after the tragic S.S. St. Louis episode in 1939, but the Jewish colony remained internally divided over what to do about the refugee problem. Assistance was provided overwhelmingly by foreign Jewish relief organizations; Cuban Jews, in most cases hard-pressed to meet their own economic needs, did little to assist the refugees.

Tensions rose in the mid-1930s with the influx of Nazi and Falangist anti-semitic propaganda and its dissemination in the press and on the radio, but war's end ushered in a golden era for Cuban Jews. Depression-era poverty for most Jews gave way to economic prosperity and greater social acceptance. Symbolically, Ashkenazic Jews invited some Sephardic leaders to join with them in the planning for the Patronato, an expensive and handsome Jewish Center inaugurated in the waning days of the Batista dictatorship.

Castro's revolution swiftly undercut that progress because Cuba's Jews for the most part had become successful property owners, and therefore were among the targets of nationalization and expropriation. The Jews, most of whom had come from Europe, perceived very clearly the telling signs in Castro's rhetoric foreshadowing trouble. As a result, it was not difficult to opt for flight. Most of Cuba's Jews ended up in South Florida and other parts of the U.S. and in Puerto Rico. Fate played a trick on the Jews who had made Cuba their tropical home. With the exception of the Central European Jewish refugees, almost all of whom who managed to enter the United States after temporary transit in Cuba for a year or less, the Jews who were the most successful in accommodating to Cuban life and who had prospered within it were the very same persons who found themselves obliged to leave after the Cuban Revolution. The stories of those who remained under the institutional umbrella of the Jewish community are well known; less so are the experiences of the thousands of Jews mostly from Eastern Europe who used Cuba as a stepping-stone to the United States before 1924 and then left for the mainland, or the hundreds and possibly thousands who found ways to enter as permanent residents of the United States after Congress imposed restrictive quotas in 1924, by marrying American citizens or otherwise finding loopholes in the immigration system. These individuals for practical necessity remained silent, and their stories may never be known.

Finally, we understand less about those persons born to Jewish parents who did not choose to depart Castro's sovietized Cuba.3 The dwindling colony of elderly practicing Jews is known about, of course, in part through the efforts of foreign Jewish welfare agencies to assist them and in part because the Castro government earmarked them for compassionate treatment. We know less about those assimilated and secular individuals who stopped considering themselves Jews, or who converted to other religions, or who dropped away, because maintaining religious affiliation under the dictatorship brought job discrimination, surveillance, and in some cases imprisonment.

When the immigrants arrived in the early years of the twentieth century there was no host community to greet them. Just as elsewhere in the region, the few Jews who had come to Cuba earlier had been almost entirely absorbed by their host societies; even though the early twentieth century witnessed several waves of Jewish arrivals, the numbers were overshadowed by other migrant populations, especially from the various regions of Spain but also from Jamaica, the Arab Middle East, China, and elsewhere. Jews totalled slightly more than one percent of the national population only in Argentina and Uruguay; in Cuba and the rest of Latin America, where a total of a quarter million Jews immigrated from the Old World, the Jewish population still never approached one percent of the whole. Furthermore, outmigration of Jews from Cuba as well from Latin America in general always exceeded outmigration from the United States or Western Europe, and more Jews from Latin America (although not Cuba) resettled in the State of Israel than from any other part of the Diaspora.4

From the scholarly point of view, serious work on Cuban Jewish history remains in its infancy. There is no detailed overall study of Jews in Cuba; nor do we agree upon the boundaries and parameters of that population. Even the word "community"--as in "Jewish community"--is fraught with inaccuracy. Close study reveals that at least until the late 1950s, persons of Jewish origin in Cuba in most cases remained identified with inclusive groups: Sephardics, Ashkenazics, "American" Jews, German-speaking refugees from Nazism, and even smaller subdivisions within those categories. Before the end of the war, Cuban Jewry was even more fractious--people saw themselves as Belgian-Polish Jews, or Polish Jews, or Moroccan Jews, or English-language speaking American Jews, or Alsatian Jews, or Turkish Jews. By the time the distinctions began to blur with intermarriage, Fidel Castro's and his revolutionaries were already carrying out maneuvers in the mountains. Nor did Cuba's Jews form a "community" after the Revolution, because the large majority of those who identified themselves as Jews assimilated or departed, leaving small pockets of mostly elderly men and women who still thought of themselves as Sephardim or Ashkenazim and who really did not mingle.

In 1989, only 685 persons in Cuba publicly claimed to be Jews, and of these only 445, or 70 percent, were born to Jewish mothers. In the early 1990s, even some of these men and women departed, coming to the United States or to Israel. But clearly other individuals of Jewish background remained on the island, having personally opted for assimilation. These former Jews merit study as well, especially in the light of the historical truth that sometimes regimes come to power that reject assimilation retroactively.

An even more knotty problem is the question of who should be counted as a Jew in the first place. Two tendencies coexisted, in some ways contradictory. The first was the practice of Jewish religious and fraternal organizations to include as Jews only those who remained affiliated, passing over, therefore, the thousands of individuals who had been born Jewish but who had drifted away in secularism or who had married into Roman Catholic families and were therefore written off as Jews. The second inclination, found, not only in Cuba, has been the tendency to stretch the truth and to exaggerate. There are dozens of studies that argue that Columbus's crew members, and even Columbus himself, were secret Jews. For the twentieth century, figures exaggerate the numbers of Jews in Cuba, making the "community" seem more numerous than it probably was. Ironically, because the two tendencies tended to balance one another, the figures for the number of Jews in Cuba on the eve of the 1959 Revolution were likely accurate, although they omitted thousands of persons who had been born Jewish, or half-Jewish, but who had abandoned (or been stripped) of their Jewish communal identity.

Another problem in trying to pinpoint the exact number of Jews in Cuba was that during the 1920s and 1930s, many persons of Jewish origin secretly and illegally departed Cuba for Mexico or Puerto Rico or directly for the United States. These individuals, mostly men who had been turned away from the United States by the quota system imposed in 1924, learned through the grapevine that it was possible to get a visa to Mexico and then cross the border into the United States, or to claim relatives in the United States and therefore be permitted to enter the United States even if the relationship was contrived. Some men married American women through intermediaries via mail order as another way to enter the "Golden Medina." I estimate that as many as one-third of the Jews who came to Cuba from Europe between 1924 and the Second World War snuck into the United States in this manner. Since their actions were illegal, they naturally would not have been picked up by the standard ways of counting Jewish persons who came and went.

The Task:

Studying any ethnic or religious group is always a difficult undertaking. Community leaders seem to feel obliged to wave flags and emphasize the brightest spots in the community, to boost the community's image. Elderly and poor people, when interviewed, have no reason to exaggerate; the stories of their hard lives tell the truth as they experienced it. Between the groups at the top and at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, fall most people, jockeying to improve their lives, wrestling with the ups and downs of family life. In Cuba, this was complemented by the need to learn how the system worked. Most Jews in Cuba, more in cities than in the countryside, rarely experienced any more direct anti-Semitism than, say, their counterparts in the United States or Canada during the 1930s and 1940s. But Cuban society was more closed to them, and they had to learn what avenues were blocked to them (government jobs, banking, heavy industry, the legal profession, journalism) and which were permitted (manufacturing and retailing, souvenir shops, and, by the 1950s, pharmacy, dentistry, and architecture).

The story of Cuba's Jews needs to be told on many levels. Modern Israelis seem to be able to do this well, perhaps better than the rest of us. Consider the 1998 novel, The One Facing Us, by Ronit Matalon.5 The story of a young journalist named Zuza who seeks to probe her family's complicated past, the novel seems to mock the attempts by well-meaning Jews to romanticize the diaspora experienced by their parents and grandparents. Zuza's seeks to simplify and to romanticize, refusing to construct a "colorful," "dramatic, and "deceptively simple" story of the Jewish past, but Matalon, the author, does not permit her to get away with this.6

We must fill in the shadows. We must ask questions that we have not asked because they did not occur to us because of the way we have relied on only one of several possible definitions of who fits within the boundaries of the Jewish population and who does not. We also need to identify the strategies employed by many foreigners in Cuba either to accommodate to the system or to fight it. I know of a family whose Hungarian-speaking father came to Cuba from Transylvania in 1936 at the age of 17; he and his wife devoted their energies to improving their lot. Unable to leave permanently after the war, the family's mother travelled to the United States during her pregnancy so that her child would be born in the United States and have the advantage of American citizenship. As it turned out, Fidel Castro solved the family's problem for it when he nationalized the father's clothing factory in 1961; after a sojourn in Venezuela, like so many others they were admitted as refugees to the United States, the country that for decades had refused to accept them as emigres.

Many areas merit further research. How did the Jewish economic universe within Cuba function? How did networking function? What was the dynamic of Jews working for Jews? Were Cuban Jews able to obtain loans from banks or did they have to continue borrowing informally from within the Jewish colony? How did Jewish Cubans interact with their neighbors? What happened when a Jew married a Catholic, or when he or she ended his communal affiliations? Were they still considered Jews by Cubans who would use the excuse to persist in labeling them outsiders? What was it about Cuban society that permitted the children of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother to be raised as Catholics and therefore take their place as insiders in Cuban life? What factors influenced the ways Cuban Jews in South Florida and in other places of refuge related to the Cuban émigré movement, dominated by right-wing politics and unrelenting militancy? How did they behave? Were the old divisions maintained or did they melt with the passing of time. Did the Jewish Cubans assimilate to a greater or a lesser degree than their Catholic compatriots? Did young people in the Cuban-Jewish-American population stay within their group, or did they marry non-Jews to the degree that their American-born Jews did, a figure hovering around fifty percent?7

People frequently invent myths about themselves and about the stories of their lives and then not only come to believe them but to embellish them with imagined memory. This is a complex process, mixing fact with wishful thinking. Elderly Jews in Cuba often spoke fondly of their black servants, saying that so and so was "part of the family," an intimation of kinship not borne out in most cases by social and economic reality although in Cuba individual families often related closely to servants and sometimes provided assistance to their children for schooling or medical care. It is natural and even healthy, of course, to remember good things and not to dwell on misfortune. Many Jewish Cubans wax nostalgic about the good old days, remembering with pride the community's activities during the 1930s and especially after World War II. Communal organizations and charities thrived, and Jews felt prosperous and secure. Some remember how friendly Cuban officials were, even the police, as long as they accommodated to the live-and-let-live Cuban system.

Ruth Behar has observed that the most exciting thinking in her discipline of anthropology is currently taking place on the border between subjective and objective knowledge. Scholars must step gingerly when addressing issues of vulnerability, and frailty, and economic exploitation. Behar has shown that the investigator herself becomes a "vulnerable observer," drawn into an emotional relationship with her sources, and hard pressed to step back and maintain the effort to be unemotional and scientific.8

To move beyond the limitations of most of the writing on Jews in 20th-century Cuba, we need to probe the subject in greater precision and depth. It is urgent that new oral histories along the lines of those conducted by Margalit Bejarano be conducted.9

This must be done sooner, not later, because of the advanced age of many potential interview subjects. Scholars must get beneath the surface. What were the internal dynamics of Jewish life? To what extent and in what manner did the leaders of the Jewish colony interact with their counterparts in the Cuban elite? How much money was invested in Cuba and how much was transferred abroad, especially to the United States. What was the relationship of the Cuban Jewish colony to the establishment and maintenance of the State of Israel? What role did Jews play in communist groups and labor unions before and after 1959? What was the Cuban Jewish contribution to science and culture? What plans were made to facilitate emigration in the first days of the Revolution when stories about Raul Castro's anti-semitism and Fidel Castro's warnings about expropriation of private property began to spread? What happened after 1959 to the thousands of persons born Jewish but who had personally abandoned that status who stayed behind in Cuba? What have been the nature of relations between the Cuban Jews who went abroad and those who stayed at home? What lessons does the history of Jews in Cuba provide about assimilation, acculturation, ethnic and religious survival, accommodation, resistance, and so many other themes underlying life in Cuban society?


1. Haim Avni, "Jews in Latin America: The Contemporary Jewish Dimension," AMILAT, Judaica Latino-americana: Estudios Histórico-Sociales. Jerusalem: Editorial Universitaria Magnes and Hebrew University, 1988, pp. 9-10.

2. Censo de Población: Cuba, Tabla 28, "Ciudadania de los Extranjeros en la población total de Cuba: 1899 a 1953," Havana., 1953, p. 80, courtesy of Omar J. Cuan.

3. The phrase is Judith Laikin Elkin's ("Is There a 'Jewish Interest' in Latin American Politics?" Patterns of Prejudice, 24:2-4 (1990), 61.

4. Gilbert W. Merkx, "Jewish Studies as a Subject of Latin American Studies," in The Jewish Presence in Latin America. Judith Laiken Elkin and Gilbert W. Merkx, eds. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1987, pp. 5, 7.

5. Translated by Marsha Weinstein (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1998).

6. Elizabeth Gleick, review of The One Facing Us, New York Times Book Review, August 9, 1998, 9. One step in the right direction was the publication of the difficult story of the Altalena, a ship carrying eight young Cuban-Jewish volunteers along with dozens more from the U.S. and Great Britain to Palestine to fight for the independence of the State of Israel. Because of a dispute between Menachim Begin's Irgun and David Ben Gurion's Haganah, Ben Gurion ordered the ship fired upon to prevent it from entering Tel Aviv harbor. One of the Cuban Jews, a medical student from the University of Havana named David Levy, was killed. The story is important because it offers a sad but important antidote to the tendency to write history in black and white, obscuring the nuances that in this case existed to the point that some Jews killed other Jews during the Zionist struggle for Israel, something rarely admitted in history books.

7. The only serious study of the Cuban emigree community is by Maria Cristina Garcia, Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959-1994 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). This book, too, raises more questions than it answers.

8. Ruth Behar, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 21, 1997, B8. See her book, The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks your Heart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), and Bridges to Cuba (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan press, 1995).

9. See Margalit Bejarano, La comunidad hebrea de Cuba: la memoria y la historia (Jerusalem: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1996).

10. I thank Lic. Moisés Asís for his suggestions about these questions and other points made in this essay.