Jews of Cuba

The Jews of Cuba “struggled to survive after the revolution,” says Mayra Levy, the president of Havana’s Hebrew Sephardic Center. About 95 percent of Cuba’s Jews — some 15,000 people — left the island in 1959, following Fidel Castro’s revolution against dictator Fulgencio Batista. The Jewish exodus was fueled by Castro’s attacks on capitalism, in which Jews, mostly merchants and businessmen, were visibly entrenched.

The original Jews arrived on the Caribbean island in the 15th century. They were conversos: individuals who converted to Roman Catholicism in their flight from the Spanish Inquisition.

The first Jew to set foot on the island was Luis de Torres (born Yosef ben Levy Ha-Ivri). An explorer and translator, Torres is said to have sailed with Italian explorer Christopher Columbus on his iconic Santa Maria ship, arriving in Cuba on November 2, 1492.

In his wake came more Jews in three major streams of immigration that account for the present-day population: First were American Jews, who settled in Cuba after the Spanish-American War of 1898. In the early 20th century, Sephardim arrived from Turkey, escaping the Balkan Wars. Leon, whose family was among those who left Ottoman Turkey for Cuba in 1910, explains that Sephardic Jews’ assimilation was easier because they spoke Ladino (a Judaeo-Spanish language deriving from Old Spanish).

Last to arrive, beginning in the 1920s, were Eastern European Jews. Many of them were trying to escape the Nazis and hoped to be admitted to the United States.

For the most part, most modern Jews in Cuba are the offspring of intermarriage couples. However, most strongly identify as Jews, with many active in religious and cultural life.

Read more >

Meet the Jews of Havana: The Small but Thriving Cuban Community You Didn’t Know Existed,

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