Fidel And The ‘Jewbans’


Editor’s Note: As the 1,500 Jews in Cuba ponder an uncertain future without Fidel Castro, who died last Friday, and what might happen to the diplomatic opening launched by President Obama, we take a look back to the days of the Cold War as experienced in the sunny tropics.

Cuban Jews were among the hundreds of thousands who fled Castro’s revolution and landed in Miami Beach, where they rubbed shoulders with other immigrants — aging Holocaust survivors who fled the cold of the Northeast to warmer climes in South Florida. Thane Rosenbaum’s novel, “How Sweet It Is!” (newly out in paperback from Mandel Vilar) — a funny and poignant work, set in the summer of 1972 and with iconic Miami figures such as Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro making cameos — captures the cultural moment when Miami was the center of American life as it hosted both national political conventions. In this excerpt, Castro, the Cuban revolutionary, appears as a one-time pitching prospect masquerading as a Little League umpire.

The excerpt reveals the tangled relationship between the “Jewbans,” as the Cuban Jews were called, and the host city they would ultimately transform.

The Cuban community had arrived in South Florida with their own exotic immigration tale, not quite as wretched and murderous as the Jewish diaspora, but possessing many of the same elements of survival that will forever mark the twentieth century as the defining era of displaced personhood. Cubans had only recently made their way from Havana and resettled in Miami, and owing to the special circumstances of the Cold War, they instantly became full-fledged Floridians and honorary Americans, welcomed aboard with all the entitlements of natives. Mexicans never had it as good. Haitians, forget it.

The Bay of Pigs calamity and the Cuban Missile Crisis left America with a craziness about Fidel Castro. With Senator McCarthy’s witch trials finally over, demonization moved offshore. Now a godless communist became the anti-Christ. Communism was considered too close for comfort; the fear of the bomb raised the temperature on the Cold War and made every day seem like doomsday. At times, ground zero of the Red Scare found itself not in Berlin but in Miami Beach, where from behind the seawall of an Iron Curtain a whole new wave of Americans were getting used to a life of capitalism on crack. There were no Checkpoint Charlies, just the open vastness of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, crossable by inner tubes and makeshift rafts, and survivable so long as the sharks and jellyfish didn’t have an appetite for freedom fighters from Castro’s prisons.

Fidel Castro died on Friday at the age of 90 years old. Getty Images

With its sun-splashed exterior, no wonder Miami accidentally ended up as a regional pawn in the strategic alliances of the Cold War. It was already a breeding ground for spooks, and home to shady characters. Our man in Havana was easily dispatched to Miami. Yet, Miami Beach was such a curious place to find oneself in the middle of a global conflict. … Just a hundred miles south was Cuba, with Fidel Castro, the Soviet Union’s man in Havana — easily the most hated man in Miami. He once had his own missiles pointed directly at Miami and other American cities. Yet the city that was in the center of nuclear Armageddon was bizarrely oblivious to its danger, far more concerned with jai alai and dog racing than with the end of days.

. . . .

And to make matters more complicated, not all of these Cuban refugees were of the same stock. On Miami Beach there was a special category of Cubans: curious cousins of the northeastern transplants and Holocaust survivors that had settled earlier and presently occupied the middle class of Miami Beach. In 1972, Jews, having escaped tyranny from the right and the left, ended up in Miami’s indiscriminate middle. Castro’s rejects and Hitler’s survivors united in Miami Beach like a parade of the persecuted, sharing notes on tribal anxieties, and trading recipes for kreplach and empanadas. Survival, however, was the special sauce.

They called themselves Jewbans — Jewish Cubans — but in every meaningful way that a people can be pegged as dead ringers for themselves, judged by the manner of their dress, the cadences of their speech, the siesta inspired way in which they broke up the day, they were creatures of the Caribbean. The Jewbans had little in common with the “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse” of the Lower East Side, even though they, too, had once been rooted to the shtetl and the Pale. Salsa was now in their feet. Yucca smothered in garlic sauce was baking in their ovens, but the savory smells emanating from their kitchens equally recalled the borsht soup and stuffed cabbage of yesteryear.

. . . .

By 1972 the exiled Cubans of Miami came to accept, albeit begrudgingly, that Fidel Castro wasn’t going to be deposed anytime soon. Their beloved Cuba, and their relatives, would remain close but untouchable, in a pariah state headed by a third-world rock star who lambasted the United States on every occasion in which he commandeered a podium. Protected by the Soviet Union and endlessly provoking his northern neighbor, Fidel Castro confidently awaited the day when the rising proletariat would add the United States to the list of Soviet satellites. It was inevitable, after all, a dialectical necessity, historical forces making real the teachings of Marx and Engels — even in the tropics.

Meanwhile, the Cubans of Miami seethed, and cursed the day when John Kennedy refused to send in the Air Force to support the Cuban insurgents during the Bay of Pigs. Retaking the island now, after so many years of Castro’s oppressive rule, seemed impossible. Fidel had established his authority and gotten used to the job. There were still Cubans, of course, who vowed to unseat Castro and reclaim Cuba. But they were mostly crackpots, their heads filled with arroz con pollo and not common sense. They fantasized about sugar plantations and Havana as a haven for sweet Cuban dreams. But they were fanatics who refused to accept the facts on the ground, unwilling to assimilate and learn the language. Miami, now, and perhaps forever, was home. These exiles would give birth to a generation of Cuban Americans.

. . . .

The umpire stood like a Goliath beside Adam. A green giant and a puny pitcher wearing yellow, they were one communist color away from being a traffic light. The umpire tossed his Cohiba on the rubber of the mound and stamped out the blinking embers of its flame. In a halting but soaring English he said, “Listen, niño, I was a pitcher, too. Many years ago … before I …”
“Before you became an umpire?” Adam asked.
“Si, before that.”
“Were you any good?”
“Si, of course, I was very good, could have pitched in your Major Leagues. The New York Giants gave me a $5,000 contract.”
“To play football?” Adam wondered, oblivious to the configuration of baseball boroughs that existed in the days before the Mets.
“No, baseball,” the umpire clarified, not exactly sure why the boy so easily confused baseball with el futbol Americano. “I had a good arm, a fastball like a missile. I can still throw, but as a professional pitcher, I stopped.”
“What happened?” Adam asked, looking up at the umpire, whose face and bushy beard were obscured in the backlit sun.
“I went to school to become a lawyer,” the umpire replied, “then I fought revolutions in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Colombia. I went to prison, and then started a revolution in my own country.”
“That’s weird,” Adam surmised. “After all that, here you are, an umpire in North Shore Park.” Adam didn’t want to sound rude, but how else could the umpire have heard it? After such a career marked by so many adventures, why was he now grounded in Miami, not presiding over a nation but officiating a Little League game?

. . . .

The umpire momentarily laughed, then glanced at the bleachers, eyeing the crowd, gladdened by their confusion. There was a jocular warmth in his expression, and a nostalgia for what his country might have become had the forces of history not changed the face of the Caribbean. He stood atop the mound and cut a figure as imposing as the Sierra Maestra. Despite all the distance he had traveled — incognito, smuggled in like Cuban contraband — he realized that here was his home team, too. These were his people, even though they cursed his name each day. They were blinded by all that American bling-bling, the pursuit of happiness, the getting ahead and the leaving behind. They were mesmerized by all that American money. Which Cuban community was brainwashed more — the ones on mainland Miami, or on the island of Cuba itself? n

Reprinted with permission from Mandel Vilar Press.