Women Lead Cuban Jews

Before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, there were 15,000 Jews in Cuba. They were mostly of Eastern European descent and had come to Cuba to circumvent the restrictions which kept them out of the United States. Today there are 1200 Jews left in Cuba. Many live in small cities where they are tightly bound by collective memories of a tradition that was once an integral part of their families. Many are trying to reclaim their Jewish heritage, recalling their past and teaching it to their children.

Photographer Sharon Gurman Socol of Miami traveled to Cuba last year. In Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey she found communities united by the leadership of women, many with only one Jewish parent, usually their father. Socol was often told that “if people waited to marry a Jew, they would never be married.” So family after intermarried family taps into its memory to provide some continuity of culture and history for themselves and their community.

Irene’s father came from Poland after he lost his first wife and three children in the Holocaust. He was 23 years older than her mother, who came to Cuba from Turkey. Clara was born in Cuba of parents who came from Turkey and spoke Ladino and Hebrew in their home. Irene, a doctor, along with Clara, monitors the Jewish community’s medical needs.

She is the president of the Santiago de Cuba Jewish Community and hopes to revive the community “for the children.” They celebrate in Rebecca’s home on the first night of Chanukah and on Passover, Purim, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rebecca’s father was once the leader of the community and as a child she actually lived in the synagogue. Now they don’t keep Shabbat because “in Cuba you have to work on Saturdays.”

The only source of light in Raquel’s home is the lantern on the floor. Raquella, the daughter of a Jewish father and a Cuban Catholic mother, is the president of the Camaguey Jewish community. She wears a Chai and a Magen David around her neck.