Havana is a city rich in history, culture, tradition, and coffee. There is a thriving community of Jewish life, whose roots go all the way back to the days of Christopher Columbus. Havana is home to one of the oldest practicing Jewish communities in the Caribbean, a proud community with a story unlike any other.
The Roots of Jewish Havana
The story of La Comunidad Hebrea begins with the expedition of Christopher Columbus in 1492. As the local lore goes, when Columbus set sail from the coast of Spain there was one Jew amongst his crew. Luis de Torres was a marrano, a forced convert to Christianity. He was chosen by Columbus to act as his official translator. Luis de Torres was Cuba’s first official Jewish resident.
During the 16th century more Jews arrived from Spain, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. During the next few centuries Jews continued to arrive from other nations to escape persecution. In the 17th century, there was a large wave of Brazilian Jews, followed by Eastern European Jews in the 1920s who were attempting to immigrate to the US from Cuba. However during the 1920s, it was significantly harder forJews to complete the journey given the United States’ strict immigration policies. As a result, most of them stayed in Cuba. The last wave of immigration came from Western Europe, however, these Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were not allowed entry in Havana. Their boat was turned away, all aboard were sent back to certain death.
The community that remained in Cuba prospered economically and by the 1950s, there were several buildings erected to commemorate the community’s success. Jews worked as bankers, shop keepers, artisans etc. Most worked within the Jewish community.
The Cuban Revolution: Changing Jewish Life Forever
Unfortunately, this short period of happiness was not to last. By 1959, revolution had come to the island of Cuba. Over 90% of private businesses became nationalized, and with it went the wealth of the community. Most Cuban Jews immigrated to the United States or Israel leaving only 5% of the original population. Those who stayed behind were either too poor to leave or linked to the revolutionary efforts. In fact, there were three Jews in the original communist party of Cuba, the most prominent name being Fabio Grobart. He was highly influenced by Marxist writings and provided Castro a guide to the literature that started Communism.
The Few but Strong: Jewish Havana Today
Today there remains only 1,000 Jews living in Havana. Still there lives a distinct Jewish cultural and religious life. It is very possible to be a religious Jew in Havana. The original Jewish quarter still features kosher hotels and butchers. There is also a distinct representation of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities.
Havana Viejo: The Historic Home of Jewish Cuban Culture
While there was no walled or distinguished Jewish quarter in Havana as in Western Europe, Jewish life was still allocated in specific streets and areas. Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is where you will be able to find synagogues, kosher food, accomodation options, and a wide range of museums.
Religion, Culture, and a Kosher Hotel
One of the oldest and also the only Orthodox synagogue in Havana is Adath Israel. The origin story of this congregation begins with Eastern European Jewry. When World War II had ended and Jews were finally granted sanctuary in other countries they found themselves left without familiar houses of worship. The only other European synagogue in Havana at the time serviced anglophone, wealthy, Western European Jews. Ben Zion Sofer, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania started hosting minyans out of his own apartment on Calle Paola. Over time the congregation grew and finally in 1956 a cornerstone worth $100,000 was laid in Old Havana. Today the synagogue remains the only Orthodox congregation on the island and has never missed one service.
Just down the road from Adath Israel is the Sephardic Center and Synagogue. This is the last remaining historic and religious legacy of Havana’s Sephardi community. Construction for the Center began in 1956 and was finally completed in 2007. The main sanctuary holds over 700 people, and also includes a Holocaust memorial monument. Currently there are around 30 registered families with the synagogue.
If you are looking for kosher travel accommodations, at the end of your day rest your head at Le Chateau Blanc Kosher Hotel. This privately owned bed and breakfast offers upscale rooms, kosher certified meals, and a friendly staff. It is one of the best hotels in Havana and is sure to fit all your travel needs.
The Story of Jewish Havana Told By Ruth Behar
It is no surprise with all this rich Jewish history and culture that some of Judaism’s most well respected academic minds hail from this Caribbean community. One prime example is the ever brilliant Ruth Behar. Behar is a cultural anthropologist whose work focuses heavily on the Jewish community of Cuba as well as her family’s own history. In 1988 she was the first Latino woman to receive a MacArthur Grant, and teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
See the Legacy of Jewish Havana Today
The Jewish community of Cuba continues to thrive and stays connected to the greater Jewish world. While you are there we recommend booking a personal guide. This way you do not have to miss any of the fascinating history of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Western hemisphere.