14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, January 8, 2020 — Monday, January 6, the first day of classes after the brief end of year vacation, was the deadline of the ultimatum given by the District Attorney’s office of Nuevitas, in Camaguey province, for two Jewish students to agree to take off the kippah to be allowed to go to school, a requirement in line with the rules, according to the school.
The school rule relies on a 2015 resolution from the Ministry of Education that “prohibits the use of garments, adornments, accessories, and other elements not in accordance with the school uniform” but does not specify that the prohibition extends to religious symbols.
In fact many students wear crucifixes, medals with Catholic saints, and bracelets from the Yoruba religion. The head provincial education inspector in Camaguey told Olainis Tejeda, the child’s father, that “those were violations that were being committed against the school rules, but were being rectified little by little,” when he asked about the different treatment.
Tejeda has spent three years trying to make school authorities understand that his children have the right to wear this religious symbol whose use, in the case of the older son, has also been the cause of bullying from other children, without proper measures having been taken to stop it.
After a long process of complaints and appeals the “solution” was reached when the municipal District Attorney’s office warned that if the parents persisted in their intention they could commit the crime of “acts contrary to the normal development of the child” anticipated in article 315 of the Penal Code.
This article obliges parents not to neglect the support and education of their children and in its third section specifies that whoever leads a minor to “miss school, reject the educational work inherent in the national education system” can be penalized with prison from “three months to a year or a fine of one hundred to three hundred shares* or both.”
Tejeda said that the children’s maternal grandmother has also been threatened and that in the final days of the last year a State Security agent warned her that when the children’s parents were imprisoned she would have to take care of them. The official said that if she insisted that her grandchildren wear those symbols, she would also go to prison.
Tejeda argues that he is not refusing for his sons to attend the school, but rather demanding the right for them to wear their religious symbols there. “The school is the one preventing them from entering if they don’t take off the kippah,” he explained to 14ymedio.
At the end of December Liusdán missed the opportunity to take the test for Artistic Education because he was denied entry. “On top of that, they counted that day and all the others that he wasn’t able to enter as unjustified absences,” says the father.
There is no permanent rabbi in Cuba so there is no Jewish community, strictly speaking, only associations. This religion lacks an interlocutor recognized by authorities, just as nobody has the power to “officially register” belonging to Judaism.
In the 50s the Jewish population on the Island was around 15,000 people, the majority of whom lived in the capital. After 1959, 90% emigrated, mainly to the United States. Currently the number of Jews living in Cuba is approximately 1,500.
Among the main Jewish institutions currently present on the Island are the Adath Israel Hebrew Religious Community of Cuba, the Sephardic Hebrew Center of Cuba, the Chevet Ahim Hebrew Union, and the Home Board of the Hebrew Community of Cuba. Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba have synagogues.
Olainis Tejeda explains that his grandfather, of Galician origin, whom he only knew by references, was his main influence to practice this religion. “My aunts would tell me that he would recite in a language that no one understand. Later I found out that they were fragments of the Torah recited in Hebrew.”
When John Paul II made public the processes of the Holy Inquisition he was able to read about the subject “out of pure intellectual curiosity” when he saw his surname could be of Jewish origin and he continued investigating. He thus confirmed himself in that faith, identifying himself with the Bnei Anusim branch, who are the descendants of those Spaniards whom the Inquisition forced to convert to Christianity in the 15th century.
“I’ve heard that when a Jew enters a place where he can wear a kippah, he knows that he is in a safe place, if he has to take it off then that place isn’t safe for a Jew,” says Tejeda, who adds: “Sometimes I have the impression of feeling the same as our ancestors, with the difference that this time they are trying to convert us to atheism.”
*Translator’s note: The Cuban penal code defines fines in terms of “shares” with the value of a share identified in a separate section. In this way, all fines can be changed simply by changing the value of a share, without editing the entire code.
Translated by: Sheilagh Herrera
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