Hablamos de los UJC: the Unique Jewish Cuban

Contribute by: dr. Nazareno Galiè Ph.D. Adjunct Political Economy, Sapienza University of Rome, Istituto Dante Alighieri, Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Today there are just over 1,500 Jews on the island, while in what was called the Golden Age of the Jews in Cuba (1906-1958) it is believed that there were more than 15,000 in Havana alone. Many others in the other territories of the island. The migration of Jews to Cuba had several phases. The first took place immediately after colonization and involved convert Jews who had remained with different nuances related to their ancient religion. It is difficult to define these groups, among which we can trace marranos, crypto-Jews and full converts who maintained elements of ancient Jewish spirituality. Already the study of Rabbi M. Kayserling, Christopher Columbus (New York, 1904) gives ample space to the participation of Jews in the discovery of the Americas. It was a Jew the first European to set foot in Cuba, mistakenly exchanged by Columbus because of his greatness in relation to the islands he had previously visited with the island of Cipango of which Marco Polo had spoken. Luis de Torres, a convert who acted as an interpreter because Columbus was convinced that he would meet Jewish merchants in the Indies and therefore thought it necessary to have someone who understood Arabic and Hebrew. He was sent with two other men in advance and had the first meeting with the indigenous peoples. He was the first to report the use of tobacco among these peoples and died in 1493 in the fort of Navidad along with 39 men remained, on Columbus’ order, to garrison the island. They were the first Europeans to be killed by the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The encounter between de Torres and the Indigenous was an ephemeral episode, which nevertheless drew the attention of the positivist historiography of the nineteenth century, which was very attentive to the anecdote. Yet, the Jewish presence, as we have seen, was far from ephemeral in Cuba.  For example, already in 1508, the bishop of Havana signaled the arrival of many new Jews on the island, drawing the attention of the colonial authorities. On the one hand, it favored migration for reasons internal to the Kingdom of Spain, but on the other it worried about it, fearing the birth of a strong network of Jews in Cuba. Therefore, inquisitorial jurisdiction was also established in Cuba in 1511. Although inquisitorial officers were soon established permanently on the island, he was based in Cartagena de Indias.  It was a constant presence until 1821, when it was definitively suppressed.

However, the Conversos Jews who settled with the Spanish ships Cuba were likely to exploit, together with new possibilities of economic employment, also less pressure from the Catholic authorities.

These Jews still had to develop those skills of simulation and dissimulation as the marranos did in Europe, but in a completely new context as the new world. However, the Jews were fully involved in the colonial life and participated mainly in the economic life of Spanish Cuba. It should always be borne in mind that in the first centuries of colonization the Jews had to live in hiding practically until the Inquisition operated, although its activity became considerably smaller in the eighteenth century. Both for Italy and for Spain these strategies have been extensively studied, while only recently the historiography on the persecution of Jews by the Inquisition in the new world has grown considerably. In any case, whether they were converts, Judaizing and crypto-Jews, these people, as they acted in a network of co-religionists both individually, eclectically mixed Jewish and Catholic practices.

If some Jewish Jews were tried and persecuted, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, many of them managed to find a modus vivendi with the majority of the population until in the nineteenth they could come out in the open formalizing some Jewish communities, including the more conspicuous one in Havana. Two more phases of Jewish migration took place in the 20th century, when Sephardic Jews arrived in Cuba at the turn of the century from the decaying Ottoman Empire. After the Second World War, Ashkenazi Jews fleeing Europe arrived, with the aim of travelling to the United States. Their presence, as we have seen, was very short as from 1959 they began to leave the island en masse. The United States also welcomed many of them for reasons related to the Cold War and anti-communism. Currently, the Jewish community, although greatly reduced, maintains a strong attachment to its traditions and, according to trends common to other diasporas, has strengthened its identity. However, the Jews in Cuba not only adhered to the cultural and philosophical currents of the nineteenth century but also participated in the War of Independence that lasted, with various vicissitudes, until the beginning of the twentieth century, including the Spanish-American War (1898). Some of them died for Independence and other Jews even participated in the Castro revolution and even gained government roles, such as Enrique Oltusky Ozacki, who was minister of communication in the first government led by Fidel Castro. Later, he held other positions. In 1997 he was still minister of fisheries and went on a state visit to Israel. As is well known, relations between the Communist regime and Israel were always very tense, both for the support given to the Palestinian cause by Fidel Castro and for the Cuban interventionism in Angola, which also greatly annoyed South Africa, which has always been an ally of Israel.  The subject of Jews in Cuba is certainly peculiar. Here the memory of Jewish culture has survived by hybridizing into a very peculiar reality, that of the New World to Hispanic colonization without prejudice to the fact that, as in other regions of Europe, religion and Catholic culture were predominant. Certainly, the Jewish contribution to the construction of modern Cuba was fundamental because many of them opened themselves before and more easily than others to the cultural and philosophical movements of modernity and fought for the Independence of the island discovered, in the eyes of Europeans, on a hot day in late October 1492.


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