This rare pamphlet, Martí y Las Discriminaciones Raciales (Martí and Racial Discrimination), produced in 1953, celebrates Jose Martí’s (1853-1895) racial tolerance and ethnic inclusion as part of a wider celebration of Cuba’s national hero 100 years after his birth.
It was acquired from a book dealer not long after its publication in the mid-1950s, only a few years after the University of Florida (UF) appointed Irene Zimmerman to build the Latin American collection from scratch. UF began collecting Caribbean materials from an early period, but as a result of the Farmington Plan, a national cooperative acquisitions program devised after WWII, the university was appointed the collector of record for the Caribbean. This collecting focus would later provide the impetus for the UF Libraries to establish the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC), a cooperative of 38 partners from within the Caribbean and circumCaribbean, enabling online access to research materials held in archives, libraries and private collections across this region.
Thanks to Emily Madden, the Price Library’s Senior Technical Assistant, who identified the Martí pamphlet for inclusion in the exhibition A Celebration of Jewish Life and Culture around the World, it was transferred permanently for housing within the Judaica Collection. Written by a leading Jewish Cuban figure and published by a Jewish organization, it expresses admiration for Jose Martí and recasts his message of tolerance and inclusion for a new audience and age. Although its provenance places it firmly within the Jewish sphere, what this Spanish-language pamphlet really aimed to do was to speak out to the wider Cuban community: to establish a firm Jewish connection to Martí and the land of Cuba, and to inculcate a notion of tolerance towards Jewish Cubans, i.e Cubans who happen to be Jews rather than Jews who happen to be living in Cuba.
Jewish Cubans constituted a minority group of mixed origins. The first to settle on the island permanently were a small group of American Jews who had given financial and military support to Martí’s fight for Cuban independence in 1898. By 1904, the community had grown to 300 families and they had established the first reform synagogue in Cuba. Over 5,000 Orthodox Sephardi Jews arrived during the years leading up to WWI, following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and Cuba’s first Orthodox synagogue was founded in 1914.
The United States tightened its immigration laws in the 1920s and Ashkenazi Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern European countries found themselves seeking temporary refuge in Cuba. During the 1920s, the Jewish population exceeded 20,000. When the worldwide depression hit in 1929, the Jewish community began to feel a corresponding rise in anti-Semitism, and in the 1930s, Nazi agents helped stir up anti-Jewish feeling in Cuba. Nevertheless, around 3,000 Jewish refugees were permitted to enter Cuba between 1938 and 1939 and, in spite of the tragic affair of the St. Louis ship, which was turned away from Cuba’s shores and its refugees returned to Nazi Europe, most Jews living in Cuba felt relatively secure.
In the postwar era, Cuba’s Jewish community grew in numbers and expressed open confidence in their new national identity. New Jewish institutions were founded, including a sumptuous new cultural center, the Patronato Hebreo, in the Havana suburb of Vedado, as well as numerous Jewish social clubs and medical facilities. The community increased its publishing output and established its own Spanish-language monthly magazine, Israelia in addition to the long-standing Yiddish/Spanish periodical Havaner Lebn.
The editor of our pamphlet, Abraham Marcus Matterin, a Lithuanian immigrant to Cuba in the 1920s, was a prominent member of the Cuban Jewish community. He authored and edited many books which attempted to align Jewish and Cuban culture, including our pamphlet, a book called The Jews and the Cuban Flag, and a translation into Spanish of the works of the great Hebrew poet, Judah HaLevi. Matterin also developed a community library, and he maintained a “museum of Jewish life in Cuba” in his home, which included documents on Jewish contributions to Cuban independence.
In the 1950s, during the highpoint of Jewish life in Cuba, Matterin led a group of young Jewish intellectuals to form a cultural association in Havana. Together they sought to promote the complexity of their Cuban-Jewish identity through artistic and cultural activities and outreach. One of their publications, a rare copy of which is owned by the Price Library, is a Yiddish poem, Miṭn ponim tsu der zun (De Cara al Sol or Facing the Sun) by Abraham Vainstein. The poem reveals a profound sense of attachment to Martí and the religious, ethnic and racial tolerance for which he stood. The use of an old European Jewish language to celebrate Cuban history reveals much about the attempts of Vainstein, and the other members of the cultural association, to assert the legitimacy of preserving a mixed cultural and ethnic identity. This is particularly apparent in the poem’s final verse which states “I am loving you from my roots because you yourself also loved the exiled Jewish people.” Vainstein’s poem was also issued as part of a collection of works edited by Matterin, entitled Martí Visto por Hebreos (Martí as Seen by the Jews) one year after the publication of our 1953 pamphlet.
Thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge grant awarded to the Libraries in 2014, the Latin American and Caribbean Collection, the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History and the Price Library of Judaica are working together in an effort to broaden access to humanities resources relating to the Jewish experience in Florida, Latin America and the Caribbean. As part of this initiative we were able to digitize Abraham Matterin’s small pamphlet, and we are proud that this piece, which in itself represents a plea for mutual engagement, tolerance and respect, has now become a milestone item for the University of Florida Digital Collections as its 10 millionth scanned page .
“Abraham Marcus Matterin is Dead at 67,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, May 13, 1983(http://www.jta.org/1983/05/13/archive/abraham-marcus-matterin-dead-at-67).
Ruth Behar, An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba, Rutgers University Press, 2007.
Margalit Bejarano, The Jewish Community of Cuba, Magnes Press, Israel, 2015.
Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, Cuban-Jewish Journeys: Searching for Identity, Home and History in Miami, University of Tennessee Press, 2000.
Maritza Corrales, The Chosen Island: Jews in Cuba, Salsedo Press, 2005.