HAVANA — Some 1,200 people living in the capital of Cuba identify as Jewish. Much like the city itself, this small but tight-knit community is characterized by many contrasts: Rich in spirit, it is bereft of basic services like quality health care and household goods.
A walk through the city feels like a journey back in time. The roads are filled with vintage American cars that speed by magnificent colonial buildings, situated in dilapidated neighborhoods. But while Havana may appear caught in a time warp, its Jewish community is experiencing an awakening after a long and uncertain period.
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.
Levy explains that in the years following the regime change, the community lacked leadership. Eventually it started to take shape again. “Small as we are, we grew and are today vibrant, maintaining our traditions and activities,” she says.
One community member whose family remained in Cuba is Fidel Babani Leon. Born in 1959 and named after the revolution’s famous leader, Leon became a bodyguard for Castro. An expert on Cuba’s Jewish history, he takes Haaretz on a tour of its former and current Jewish landmarks.
During a drive to the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town, Leon explains that 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.
Leon says 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. According to Leon, they rarely experience anti-Semitism. “Jews were very lucky to find in Cuba a welcoming place to live,” he says.
Despite banning religion on the island and aligning with the Soviet Union against Israel, Castro allowed the practice of Judaism. He claimed to be a descent of conversos himself, which may have influenced his policy. Eventually, in 1992, he allowed the community to rebuild its religious institutions following the relaxation of restrictions.
Israeli folk dancing and Jewish hotels
Leon takes us to the Patronato, the focus of Jewish life in Havana. It is a modern and spacious building, with a facade dominated by a large white arch. Located in the upscale Veldado neighborhood, the Patronato houses Havana’s main synagogue and Jewish community center, where religious services and holiday events take place. It is also home to a Sunday school where 60 children learn, and offers cultural programs such as Israeli folk dancing — a popular attraction for the young.
“I started coming when I was 10 years old, mainly because of the Israeli folk dancing,” says Suzanna Santana Sadi, 17, who leads the Jewish youth movement in Cuba. “It’s amazing how it draws us together, and with Jews all over the world.”
Leon takes us through Old Havana to the historic Jewish Quarter, located close to the city’s port. Once teeming with Jewish-owned shops, kosher restaurants, synagogues and Jewish schools, it was a popular destination for cruise ships that would dock nearby.
The neighborhood is run-down today, with few establishments still operating. The former kosher bakery La Flor de Berlin is now a government-owned store, meagerly stocked with bread and other baked goods that are provided with ration cards. Next to it stands the Adath Israel Synagogue, the only Orthodox synagogue that remained after the revolution. There is also a Holocaust memorial — a large six-branch candalabra sculpture, surrounded by an iron gate.
The neighborhood is home to two other buildings that draw the attention of Jewish travelers. One is the former Hotel Luz, where Jewish immigrants stayed when they arrived on the island until they could find permanent housing. The other is a newish hotel called Raquel, in a renovated Art Nouveau building. It was once a government office and was converted into a hotel with the purpose of attracting a Jewish clientele.
The interior is decorated with Jewish symbols, the restaurant serves Jewish food and a Judaica shop operates on the premises, where each of the 25 rooms is named after an ancient Jewish hero. Hotel Raquel has been off-limits to American citizens since 2017 because the United States placed it on its list of restricted properties tied to the Cuban government.
The U.S. embargo against Cuba, tightened since President Donald Trump assumed office, has impacted the island’s Jewry as much as the general Cuban population. Poverty, lack of basic commodities and rationing prevail. However, there is a steady influx of Jewish tourism. North American visitors are attracted by the proximity of the island, as well as its old-fashioned and exotic character. Many U.S. Jews travel to the island on the “people to people” exemption that allows for religious and educational trips. They often bring religious objects, medicine and humanitarian support that has helped sustain the community. However, the Trump administration is also looking to tighten that particular loophole.
Havana’s Jews receive support from the nonprofit American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and other American and Canadian Jewish organizations that provide medications, kosher and other foods, assistance to the elderly and the well-attended Shabbat dinner at the Patronato that is free for all members of the community. Because there is no full-time clergy, the JDC arranges visits of rabbis who arrive — usually from Chile or Argentina — to conduct holiday services and life-cycle events. On a typical Shabbat, it is the youth who lead services.
So what does the future hold for Cuba’s Jews? Mayra Levy says she is concerned about the community’s prospects. “We have a very fragile equilibrium,” she says. Leon, however, is much more optimistic. “There will always be Jews here,” he states. “The flame of Judaism in Cuba will never go out.”