Of matzo balls and arroz con pollo

How the dots of Cuban Jewish history
finally came together for me in San Miguel
In 1998, more than thirty-six years after leaving Cuba, the newspaper I worked for sent me to cover the historic visit of Pope John Paul II to the island. It would be a trip filled with revelations, a return to a place that to me looked and felt cozily familiar but also alien, even scary. I recognized the stately palm trees of my childhood but found them battered by almost forty years of Communist ideology and privation.

The first revelation was reconnecting with relatives with whom I’d lost touch, or others I didn’t know even existed such as the Afro-Cuban branch of my family tree. The details of how the Laniers became a biracial corporation didn’t come clear until a few years ago while talking with white relatives in Miami. But that’s another story. 
The second revelation came from another Cuban I’d communicated with before my trip and whose last name was Levy (or Levi), which to my ears sounded more Jewish than Cuban. 

Chevet Ahim is the oldest synagogue in Cuba, founded in 1914

He told me there had been a small Jewish community and even a synagogue near the main square in Santa Clara, my somnolent hometown deep inside the island. Unfortunately, after returning to Chicago I lost track of Levy and his story. 
Growing up in New York I had many Jewish friends—including Al Linsky, an unforgettably kind gentleman who sponsored my parents so they could come from Spain to the U.S.—but it had never occurred to me there would have been a Jewish community in Cuba.

Two weeks ago, and almost twenty years later after meeting Levy, I met Ruth Behar, a Jewish Cuban-American anthropologist visiting San Miguel who during a lecture at the Jewish Cultural and Community Center filled in the missing details about the long presence of Jews in Cuba that indeed dates back to Columbus’ arrival.

The only hint about the presence of Jews in Santa Clara, which I didn’t grasp as a child, was hearing my dad, who owned a printing shop and stationery store, occasionally mention polacos, with whom he had some business dealings.

Congregation Beth Shalom in Havana founded in 1953.

The polacos, Spanish for Polish, provided me with the missing link—the Jews Levy had talked about and Behar mentions in her book “An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba.” The polacos were Santa Clara’s Jews.

The first Jew to set foot in Cuba may have been Luis de Torres, a translator Columbus brought along who knew four languages, none of them of any use in communicating with the indigenous Cubans.

Or was it Columbus himself, as some researchers claim? It’s not far-fetched: The year of Columbus’ departure from Spain coincided with the reconquest of Spain by the Roman Catholic crown and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims who refused to convert to Catholicism. So, many Jews converted or pretended to and emigrated from Spain.
The original trickle of Jewish migration to Cuba gradually increased and diversified. Turkish Jews fled the tottering Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, and were later joined by European Jews fleeing persecution, many from Poland—including, I’m sure, some of the polacos in Santa Clara. Many European Jews moved to Cuba as a second-best option because restrictive immigration laws would not allow them to come to the U.S.

Behar estimates that at its height, the Jewish community in Cuban numbered around fifteen thousand.

Though most of the Jews settled in Havana, a substantial number went on to other places in Cuba, including Santa Clara, where a synagogue was established in 1929 in the city center, not far from my dad’s business. 

In one of the moving sections of her book, Behar profiles one David Tacher Romano, for whom restoring Jewish presence in Santa Clara has become a mission. She calls him the Moses of Santa Clara. 

He has restored Santa Clara’s Jewish cemetery, which I’d never heard of, and with the help of a Jewish Cuban-American woman living in Atlanta, even built a Holocaust memorial containing stones brought from the Warsaw ghetto. Tacher also planted a pine tree using sand he brought from the Negev along with water from the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. 

Tacher’s story, as told by Behar, connected the dots, sketchy in my mind, of the story of the polacos in Santa Clara.

David Tacher Romano, a Jew who led the reconstruction of the Jewish cemetery in
Santa Clara, and the installation of a Holocaust Memorial, the only one in Cuba. 

Behar and her family departed as part of the first Cuban exodus during the 1960s and she didn’t return until 1979. Her visits since then have become almost compulsive as she has sought to trace the Jewish story in Cuba through the triple perspective of an anthropologist, a Cuban and a Jew.

In fact, listening to her emotive presentation rekindled my interest in revisiting Cuba for a third time, a project I keep putting off even though Stew is ready to return at a moment’s notice. The eastern- and western-most provinces which I’ve never visited would be on the itinerary, as well as the beautiful port city of Cienfuegos where I still have some maternal relatives, and now Santa Clara’s Jewish cemetery and Holocaust memorial.

Several years ago I ran across news that the Spanish government had released a list of purportedly Jewish last names helpfully compiled by the Spanish Inquisition. “Quinonez” was on the list, which would be a close-enough spelling of my maternal last name “Quiñones”.

I emailed my cousin in Cienfuegos, whose name is also Alfredo, to ask if he knew of any Jewish roots or connections in our family or Jewish presence in that city. He’d never heard of any.


4 thoughts on “Of matzo balls and arroz con pollo

  1. I didn't know much about Havana, but my hometown definitely was interesting, almost frozen in time. Not better, not much worse. Just sitting there. People were very friendly and compared to other poverty-stricken places I've been to, ie. Haiti, Honduras and Guatemala, they looked relatively well fed and healthy. Just waiting now to see how that whole thing is going to play out.al


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