Growing up in rural Michigan, I knew very little about Cuba. And I never gave any real thought to there being a Jewish population on the island. I knew no one Cuban and honestly, did not know anyone who was Jewish. Things changed when I moved to South Florida, an area that is home to many Cubans, many Jews, and Cuban Jews, or as they are called, Jewbans. Jews helped shape Miami, and the Jewbans have been particularly influential and, as a whole, are a very successful demographic. Most of the Jewbans came to Cuba from Eastern Europe, where they were fleeing persecution. More than four years ago I began dating a Jewban, to whom I am now married. I have learned a lot from his family. Sadly, in fall 2021, his father passed away from a combination of blood cancer and COVID-19. As the family gathered to mourn and share stories, my husband noted that it might be interesting for someone to write about his family. I responded, “I write some things.” Hence I began plotting a proposal to study his family and write a book while on sabbatical. I was granted sabbatical for Spring semester, 2023. I have started my research, which will include 30-40 interviews with family and other connections as well as a review of archival material. Here, I describe one of the themes that has emerged in the data to date: resilience.
My husband’s family all left Eastern Europe, all but one from Poland and another from White Siberia (now Belarus), starting in the 1920s. They were leaving due to fascism and religious intolerance and had intended to end up in the U.S. Cuba was merely a stopping point, they thought. The U.S subsequently passed the Immigration Act of 1924 that severely limited the number of Jews allowed into the country, thus his family and many others ended up staying in Cuba. By that year, there were an estimated 24,000 Jews in Cuba. More Jews fled Europe and landed in Cuba, with perhaps 25,000 Jews on the island.
This was a dramatic change of life, obviously. The weather was very different, as Eastern Europe was cold for many months of the year and Cuba being a hot, tropical island. While there were some Jews already in Cuba, most of the island practiced Catholicism. Food was dramatically different than what was typically eaten by Jews living in the shtetl’s. According to my new family, learning a new language was the most difficult part, as none of them knew even a word in Spanish, the language spoken by most Cubans. They spoke Yiddish and Hebrew. Yet, starting with nothing, the family started successful businesses, including rope, lumber, and jewelry.
Things all changed again as Fidel Castro came to power. At first, some Jews supported the revolution, as Fulgencio Bautista’s administration was deeply corrupt, and Castro did not initially explain that he was promoting a communist agenda. But in 1959, atheism was declared the national language, making it difficult for Jews to practice their religion. Then came the nationalization of industry and the seizing of land and businesses, prompting many Jews to flee Cuba. Most went to the U.S, with a sizeable group ending up in Miami. Again, a new climate, new foods, new language and new employment.
My in-laws landed first in Kansas, as an uncle lived there. They struggled to learn English but did so and ended up very proficient. They worked in whatever jobs they could, despite my father-in-law having a degree in Engineering. They were startled to find overt racism in the U.S, as Cuba’s constitution guarantees equality and thus racism, while it exists, is not public. Plus, in Cuba, the Jewish community largely stayed together, attending Yeshiva and for the most part, marrying within. A few years after my in-laws came, their parents also came to the U.S. and everyone located in New York City. My mother-in-law’s father was a jeweler and swallowed a diamond so that he would have something when he got here. The families worked together to start a jewelry business in Manhattan, and it grew to become very successful, with several storefronts run by members of the family. Their work ethic and resilience had paid off once again.
My husband and his siblings were born in New York and were raised in large part by their grandmothers, as their parents worked long hours at the businesses. The family all decided to move to Miami after my father-in-law’s dad was held up in a third robbery attempt. They re-started their business in South Florida and did very well, having several stores in downtown Miami. They passed along to their children, and then to their grandchildren, the pursuit of education, the need to work hard, and the ability to endure hardship and still be successful.
There is far more to tell of this fascinating journey. I am excited to learn more, and deeply admire the Jewbans and especially my husband’s family for their resilience and their warm and loving personalities.
David’s paternal grandfather had to change his name from Ycko Szczygiel to Isaac Schiegel after moving to Cuba. His paternal grandmother was Nachama but changed her name to Consuelo in Cuba.
Issac and Consuelo Schiegel.