The holiest holidays of the Jewish faith — Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah — are a time of repenting for one’s sins at the start of the New Year on the Jewish calendar. Coincidentally, they often occur during Hispanic Heritage Month in September or October. While you might not think that Hispanic Heritage has much to do with the Jewish New Year, Jewish communities are quite alive in Latin America. Here’s how theses Jewish communities in six countries in Latin America ring in the New Year.
First arriving in the early 1900s from America and then from Europe during the Holocaust, the Jewish community grew to about 20,000 by 1953 when the largest synagogue in Havana was built. It dwindled to around 1,500 by the time the revolution started in 1959 since Fidel Castro banned religion and nationalized Cuban businesses, driving the many Jewish business owners off the island. For this reason, the Jewish community in Cuba has a divergent history—with those in Miami becoming known as “Jewbans” and those remaining in Cuba the “Jubanos.”
The small number of Jubanos are slowly making a comeback — when freedom of religion was allowed again in Cuba in 1992, there was a resurgence of the Jewish community on the island. They continue to thrive, and still make every effort to bring together their people in homes and synagogues for holidays. Havana is home to a proud Sephardic Center showcasing the history of Cuban Jews. You might be surprised to know that actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler of the Sopranos is Jewish — her Cuban mother converted to Judaism after marrying her Greek/Romanian Jewish father.
Jewish immigration to Mexico traces back to the days of the Inquisition in Spain. At a time when Judaism was banned in Spain, Spanish Jews fled the Iberian Peninsula and became conquistadores in the New World so that they could freely practice their religion. Once Mexico became independent from Spain, the country maintained the separation of church and state to continue serving as a haven for Jewish immigrants.
Today, Mexico’s Jewish community of around 50,000 maintains strong culinary traditions from both the Old and New World. Bunuelos, capirotadas, and pan de semita are all said to have Jewish ties. Jewish-Mexican chef Pati Jinich proudly reflects her Jewish heritage in her Mexican dishes—adding jalapeños, potatoes, and mushrooms to the staple matzo ball soup as she gets ready to ring in the New Year. Although she didn’t have strong ties to the Jewish community while growing up in Mexico City, her close knit family traditions in the kitchen with her Polish and Austrian-Czech Jewish grandparents are the key ingredients in her Mexican fusion recipes.
South America’s largest country is also home to one of the largest populations of Jews in Latin America — around 120,000. Their migration stems from a long history of persecutions in Europe — dating back to Portugal’s Inquisition in the 1600s. Even one of Brazil’s first settlers from Portugal, Gaspar da Gama, was Jewish.
The Jewish community remains strong today and has gone through a resurgence in recent years. In 2008, the first machzor (New Year’s prayer book for Rosh Hashanah) was published to allow Brazilian Jews to fully understand and appreciate the significance of this holy holiday. As the repentance period during Rosh Hashanah concludes to usher in the New Year’s celebrations for Yom Kippur, the Brazilian president is known to participate in the blessings with the top rabbis in the community.
With strong historical ties and flows of immigration from Europe, Argentina has the sixth largest Jewish population worldwide and the largest Jewish population in Latin America. Numbering around 250,000, Argentina is surprisingly home to the only Kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel — a unique representation of just how strong a presence the Jewish community has in this country. Immigration to Latin America peaked after the Holocaust in the 1940s, and Juan Perón was the first South American leader to acknowledge Israel’s existence as a state in 1949.
Despite suffering devastating terrorist attacks in the 1990s, the Jewish community in Israel remains strong today. In Buenos Aires, the Once/Abasto neighborhood is teeming with Jewish life and culture. The Recoleta neighborhood is home to an impressive synagogue, as are Rosario, Cordoba, and Santa Fe. The Chabad Center of Buenos Aires organizes candle lighting events and gatherings to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur each year. Cecilia Roth, the famous Argentine actress, has Sephardic roots on both her mother and father’s side.
While Jews represent a very small part of the population at less than 3,000, small communities are still thriving. The town of Iquitos on the banks of the Amazon has a thriving Jewish community, and people come together to celebrate in their homes for the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
While the Jewish community here is shrinking and now only numbers around 15,000, Santiago de Chile still remains the home of a proud Little Israel. In Santiago’s Barnechea neighborhood, you’ll find the Estadio Israelita Maccabi—a community center focused on sports, the Chabad House where Jews join together to celebrate the high holidays, as well as Bomba Israel — a Jewish run firehouse.