An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba

An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba

An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba

An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba


"Yiddish-speaking Jews thought Cuba was supposed to be a mere layover on the journey to the United States when they arrived in the island country in the 1920s. They even called it "Hotel Cuba." But then the years passed, and the many Jews who came there from Turkey, Poland, and war-torn Europe stayed in Cuba. The beloved island ceased to be a hotel, and Cuba eventually became "home." But after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the majority of the Jews opposed his communist regime and left in a mass exodus. Though they remade their lives in the United States, they mourned the loss of the Jewish community they had built on the island. As a child of five, Ruth Behar was caught up in the Jewish exodus from Cuba. Growing up in the United States, she wondered about the Jews who stayed behind. Who were they and why had they stayed? What traces were left of the Jewish presence, of the cemeteries, synagogues, and Torahs? Who was taking care of this legacy? What Jewish memories had managed to survive the years of revolutionary atheism?" "An Island Called Home is the story of Behar's journey back to the island to find answers to these questions. Unlike the exotic image projected by the American media, Behar uncovers a side of Cuban Jews that is poignant and personal. Her moving vignettes of the individuals she meets are coupled with the sensitive photographs of Havana-based photographer Humberto Mayol, who traveled with her. Together, Behar's poetic and compassionate prose and Mayol's shadowy and riveting photographs create an unforgettable portrait of a community that many have seen though few have understood. This book is the first to show both the vitality and the heartbreak that lie behind the project of keeping alive the flame of Jewish memory in Cuba."


The most photographed kosher butcher shop in the world has to be the kosher butcher shop around the corner from the Adath Israel synagogue on Calle Cuba, between Acosta and Jesus María. Foreign observers are continually amazed to learn the shop is open for business in Castro’s Cuba.

Rationed kosher beef has been provided in the shop to registered members of the Jewish community since the earliest years of the Revolution. Such generosity toward the Jews is based on a curious cultural interpretation. in Cuba, the most common form of meat is pork, and since Jews are forbidden by their religion to eat pork, this deprivation needs to be compensated by allowing them a ration of beef. and that ration of beef makes the Jews uniquely privileged. While the Revolution brought health and education to the masses, it turned beef into a luxury food. Beef has been in short supply for decades, which is why Cubans who can remember the old days will often fantasize about eating a big plate of pounded palomilla steak and onions (always a favorite at Miami Cuban restaurants). Cattle are so tightly controlled that it is a federal crime to slaughter a cow without official permission. You hear Cubans joking frequently about how killing a cow will land you in jail for a longer sentence than killing your mother!

Samuel Zagavalov Montero, son of a Russian immigrant, has been working in the shop since 1980.I ask him to explain how the meat is distributed to members of the Jewish community.

“We give three-quarters of a pound of meat per person three or four times . . .

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