Jews off the beaten track expand horizons on Web

Cuba was in the news earlier this year, thanks to the sad wrangle over an appealing 6-year-old refugee who was turned into an international political football.

And Jews are starting to pay more attention to that country's vastly diminished Jewish population. A new Web site offers some intriguing glimpses of this tiny community, but not enough information to be really satisfying.

The Jews of Cuba home page opens with a brief description of a community that is a small remnant — about 10 percent — of a once-thriving segment of the Cuban population. It offers a somewhat upbeat assessment of attempts to revive Jewish life there, with the help of Jewish organizations around the world.

The site consists mostly of articles of varying quality.

There is an interesting piece titled "The Aftermath of the Elian Gonzalez Affair: A Jewish Perspective," an article by Dana Evan Kaplan reprinted with permission of the American Jewish Congress. The thrust is that two prominent leaders of Cuba's Jewish community said that Elian belongs with his father. Their speeches, Kaplan writes, "suggest that Cuba could provide a more wholesome and less violent atmosphere for his upbringing."

There's also a piece on the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's efforts to provide assistance to Jews who want to renew synagogue life, another on separated Jewish families.

Michael Mandel, an American cantor who fled Cuba as a child, writes movingly about his first return visit several years ago.

Mandel provides a little of the historical background missing in the rest of the site: Before Castro came to power, there were some 20,000 Jews in the island nation. They were descendants of Turkish Jews who came to Cuba several hundred years earlier, as well as Eastern European Jews who arrived in the 1920s and 1930s.

A "culture" section provides links documenting Cuban culture in general, and Cuban Jewish culture in particular. Included here: an essay on comparisons between American Jews and the Cuban exile community that many Jews may not find particularly flattering.

There is also an outstanding bibliography of books and articles on Latin American Jews. Many of the entries are in Spanish.

Inexplicably, another section offers the music and words to "Hava Negillah." Bar mitzvah bands in Havana, take note.

The site is interesting, but ultimately frustrating, promising far more than it delivers. And the organization leaves something to be desired; there's a slapped-together quality that adds to the irritation factor.

Still, the Cuban Jewish heritage is a rich one, and this site provides a few snapshots that will be intriguing to many visitors.

Check it out at

"Jamie's Favorite Jewish Sites" is another site that links Jews who are out of the mainstream to the larger Jewish world. The quirky little home page produced by a housewife and mother in Macon, Ga., seeks to impose a measure of order on Jewish cyberspace.

These days, Jewish organizations are spending big money to create useful sites on the World Wide Web, but often individuals with a passion for Judaism and Jewish life do a better job. Jamie is a case in point.

Like the big Internet portals such as Netscape's Netcenter and Yahoo, Jamie selects a wide range of interesting sites and categorizes them for easy browsing. The site is attractive and efficiently laid out. And her personal musings, scattered throughout the links, are a folksy touch that makes the Internet seem a little less anonymous.

Jamie, whose full name is Jamie Hicks Tiernan, starts with a brief commentary about what it's like being an observant Jew in the South. Then, the links, laid out in neat categories, are each topped by a pretty graphic. While this isn't the biggest collection of Jewish links available on the Web, it's one of the best designed — and one of the most balanced.

In the section on "community movements," she includes links to everything from the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation to Chabad in Cyberspace and the Orthodox Union. There are lots of links for traditional Jewish learning, but also an impressive collection of links for gay, lesbian and bisexual Jews.

The Jewish women section is one of the most extensive, with links to suit almost every taste. The page ends with links to Jamie's family album –a homespun touch for a home page that combines usefulness with a comfortable, cozy feel that may make the vast Internet seem a little less intimidating.

Check it out at

James D. Besser is a Washington-based correspondent who has been writing about Jewish Web sites since the early 1990s. His columns alternate with those of Mark Mietkiewicz. Besser can be reached at [email protected]