The Island Within an Island: Cuba’s Jewish History
by Irene Shaland, December 20, 2017, in Jewish World
To be Cuban and to be Jewish is to be twice survivors.
—Maritza Corrales, The Chosen Island
My visit to Cuba in March of 2017 led to a remarkable personal discovery that went against everything I read before the trip. Today, the Jews of Cuba, once called a remnant of the 15,000-strong community, demonstrate a phenomenon of rebirth and reinvention. The tiny community of 1,000 on the island of 11 million people is robust, has a strong sense of identity—and is very different from the Jewish community before the 1959 revolution.
The contemporary Cuban Jewish narrative depicts a fascinating trajectory. First, a descent from vibrancy and prosperity to near oblivion after the mass exodus of the 1960s and years of imposed atheism. Then, a recent sudden ascent to becoming a “Celebrity of Tropical Diaspora,” arguably the most visited and photographed of the world’s Jewish communities. The Cuban Jewish story reflects not a single community but rather a mosaic of several, varied greatly in their languages and cultures, and which was built by five distinctly different waves of Crypto-Jewish and Jewish immigrants.
Cuba has been a welcoming refuge for the Jews since 1492, when conversos sought a safe haven from the Spanish Inquisition. There is no documented evidence proving the arrival of the first Crypto-Jews to Cuba. However, supposedly the first European settler in Cuba was the converso Luis de Torres, born Yosef ben Levy Ha-Ivri. An explorer and translator, he sailed with Columbus on the Santa Maria, and is credited with being the first person of Jewish descent settling on the island. Moreover, de Torres is often proclaimed the first Jew to set foot in the Americas! The Luis de Torres Synagogue in Freeport Bahamas was named after him. Many conversos settled in Cuba following de Torres, but little is known about them and their Jewish ancestry. The West Indies’ Inquisition records contain lists of suspected Judaizers. One of those maranos, Hernando de Castro, built the first sugar mill near Santiago and is considered the pioneer of the sugar industry on the island. The Inquisition records also show details of several trials and executions of Cuban Judaizers, such as the 1613 burning of a rich landowner Francisco Gomez de Leon. The Holy Office in the Spanish colonies was abolished only in the early years of the 19th century, and until the end of the Spanish-American War of 1898, only Catholic religious services were allowed. What the Cuban settlers of Jewish descent wanted was to blend with the Spaniards and “disappear” into Cuba.
And they did.