Ruth Behar: How Did A Yiddish Opera Wind Up In Cuba Of All Places?

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A report by Ruth Behar for Forward.

You may have heard that the Yiddish-Cuban opera “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” made its way to Havana in early March. Despite issues with a finicky old sound system, the premiere was a huge success and the opera has received extensive coverage in the Cuban press.

It may seem like a miracle that this opera, based on a work written by a Jewish writer, made it to Cuba and was performed by La Opera de la Calle, which has no ties to the Jewish community.

But there’s a story behind the miracle. The story of how the opera got to the island is one of building bridges between Cubans and Cuban Americans. I know the story, because I was the matchmaker. I made the shidduch, uniting the Cubans and the Americans, so that “Hatuey: Memory Of Fire” could find a home in Havana, the city of my birth.

I’m what they call a “Juban”— Jewish, Cuban and American. I’m Ashkenazi on my mother’s side and Sephardic on my father’s. I left Cuba with my family after the revolution and came to live in New York when I was 5 years old. Most child immigrants never look back. A few, including me, are like Lot’s wife, forever looking back.

I have been traveling back and forth to Cuba since the early 1990s. Baba, my beloved Yiddish-speaking grandmother who lived to be 92 and would wave goodbye to me in Miami before every trip, used to say, “What did you lose in Cuba?” She was afraid for me. Cuban Americans who sought to build bridges to Cuba were subject to harsh criticism. The Jewish Cuban banker Bernardo Benes needed to wear a bulletproof vest in Miami for years after he negotiated the release of political prisoners with Fidel Castro in the late 1970s. As a Cuban-American you used to tiptoe to Cuba; you didn’t announce you were going.

I couldn’t explain my obsession to Baba. I felt a pull toward the island, a desire to reclaim the homeland we’d lost. The Jews who arrived in 1920s and ’30s Cuba escaped anti-Semitism and economic hardship, created a tropical oasis. There were Yiddish day schools, Yiddish newspapers and Yiddish theaters, kosher restaurants and bakeries. The Sephardim had schools and associations and a radio station that played tunes in Ladino.

As an anthropologist, I carry a passport that never expires, that beckons me to travel to exotic places. And so I’ve made it my profession to study the Jews of Cuba. It’s a tiny community of about 1,000 people, but this is a kabbalistic number, since exact numbers are hard to find. Many are making aliyah to Israel or heading on to Miami. But a vibrant core of Jews remains. They have become an object of curiosity and a source of admiration to American Jews, who see them as a brave remnant, keeping the flame of Judaism alive in a country that is charting an uncertain path between post-socialism and pre-capitalism. Busloads of Americans arrive daily to catch a glimpse of these exotic Jews.

There are three synagogues in Havana, but most visitors go to the Beth Shalom Synagogue, known as the Patronato Synagogue. It is run by Adela Dworin, who is fluent in English and Yiddish. In recent years, the Patronato has turned into a hopping cultural and intellectual crossroads. On any given day you might catch a New York filmmaker premiering new work, hear a Miami cantor sing, meet a group of American senators, bump into the owner of the Giants or even see Madonna.

Observing how the Jewish synagogue of my childhood has become a popular destination, I started to wonder whether some outreach to the local Cuban public was needed. It seemed to me that non-Jewish Cubans might want to learn about the Jewish presence on the island. The film “Schindler’s List” has played on Cuban television, but most Cubans know little about the Jews in their midst. In turn, among American Jews, many have heard the tragic story of Cuba turning away the St. Louis in 1939, filled with Jews who perished in the camps. But, in fact, Cuba has been a longtime refuge for the Jews.

I felt it was time to honor the tolerance with which Cubans have welcomed Jewish immigrants to the island. Even in the heyday of revolutionary atheism, there was a consciousness of Jewish dietary needs, and the Jewish butcher shop was allowed to operate in Havana, as it continues to do to this day.

In conversation with an American friend who lives in Cuba, I hatched the idea of organizing a celebration of Jewish culture. There was seed money to get things going. My friend had a younger cousin who wanted to donate his bar mitzvah money toward a project related to the arts in Havana.

In mid-March 2016, on the eve of President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, I attended a comparative literature conference at Harvard University and found myself on a panel about Caribbean/Jewish literary intersections with Rachel Rubinstein, who teaches American literature and Jewish studies at Hampshire College. She wrote a paper about “languages and homelands in Cuban-Yiddish poetry of the 1930s.” She spoke about the 1931 epic poem “Hatuey” by Asher Penn (in Cuba he is known as Oscar Pinis). The poem, written in Yiddish, was translated into Spanish in 1935 and distributed in literary circles in Cuba. Penn was an active Yiddishist, co-founding the Yiddish-Spanish newspaper Havaner Lebn in 1932, and immigrating that year to New York, where he became the city editor of the Forverts.

“Hatuey” is a work of intersecting cultures, written in Yiddish but not about the Jews. Its subject is an indigenous Taino leader who resisted the Spanish conquest, choosing to be burned at the stake rather than convert to Catholicism. It’s easy to imagine why a young Jewish author, who together with his family fled the pogroms in the Ukraine to find refuge in Cuba in 1924, felt empathy for “Hatuey.” Penn knew that the figure of this indigenous leader had been both idealized and tarnished. In the 19th century, when Cuba struggled for its independence from Spain, “Hatuey” was hailed as a revolutionary icon in Cuban drama and poetry. But by the 1920s, Hatuey had become the brand name of a premium beer brewed in Santiago de Cuba. After Castro came to power, the Bacardi family, the owners of Hatuey beer, took the beer brand with them to the United States.

 At the Harvard panel, Rubinstein ended her presentation by saying that the poem “Hatuey” was being turned into a Yiddish-Cuban opera. The dream was to present the opera in Cuba.
My ears perked up. If I could make that opera happen in Cuba, it would be a way of finally giving an answer to Baba, who’d wanted to know what I’d lost in Cuba. Maybe what I’d lost is the Yiddish that she and others of her generation had once spoken so naturally in Havana, when they’d arrived off the boats from Europe, removed woolen garments and made a life for themselves in the tropics.
Rubinstein put me in touch with Michael Posnick, the son-in-law of Penn. I met him in Havana in May. I again felt a calling to the project. Bringing the opera to Cuba, where Penn had written his Yiddish poem of empathy for the indigenous people of the island, would be an act of remembrance, showing how deeply the Jews had identified with the independence struggles of the island.

On our return to the United States, Posnick set up a conference call with the “Hatuey” team, later to be known as the Hatueyeros. I spoke with Elise Thoron, who is the author of the libretto for the opera and who created crisscrossing historical moments that move between the era of the Spanish conquest and the Machado dictatorship of the 1930s, with Penn (in a fictional imagining) busily composing his poem in a cabaret. And I spoke with Frank London, klezmer trumpeter and longtime salsa musician, who dreamed of staging a Yiddish-Cuban opera in Cuba. No one had any clue how to bring the opera to Cuba. Did I have any ideas?

I’d heard great things about Ulises Aquino, director of La Opera de la Calle. Aquino, a baritone and Cuba’s most renowned opera singer, is the son of Rafael Aquino (also a baritone), who was a soloist in the Cuban National Opera and taught his son to sing. Opera was derided after the revolution as a bourgeois form, but it had staged a comeback thanks to the efforts of Ulises. He’d worked incredibly hard to create his street opera company 10 years ago. It was briefly shut down by the government, but the company was on its feet again and putting on lush and extravagant performances.

I sent a long email to Aquino in early June. I told him about the Jews of Cuba, Penn’s poem and the dream of bringing “Hatuey: Memory Of Fire” to Cuba.

He replied immediately. The project was of interest to him. And the Ministry of Culture in Cuba was supportive of the idea.

There were emails back and forth, but music and scanned pages couldn’t be accessed via the slow and patchy internet in Cuba. I asked Ulises if he wanted to come to New York and meet the “Hatuey” team. He had one of the five-year visas the U.S. government now gives to Cubans who are not potential immigrants. He could travel easily.

When Ulises arrived in New York in early August, there was that feeling that we fellow Cubans sometimes get with each other — that we’ve known each other forever. He was strong, compact, determined, looked you in the eye and would tolerate no bullshit.

Thoron opened her home in SoHo for our meeting. By then the “Hatuey” team had grown to include Diane Wondisford, who runs the Music–Theatre Group, in New York, and would be a producer of the opera. Around a long wooden table we discussed every aspect of the project, from the fabric needed for the costumes to how the opera would incorporate Yiddish by having the actor playing Oscar Pinis (Asher Penn) sing in the language. The rest of the opera would be in Spanish. We shook hands, and “Hatuey: Memory Of Fire” began its journey home to Cuba.

In December I took the actor Rasec Peña, who plays the role of the Jewish poet in the opera, on a visit to the Patronato. I showed him the sanctuary and the Torahs brought by the Jewish immigrants, and then to the library to see the original Spanish edition of “Hatuey.”

Afterward I introduced him to Ida Gutstadt, whose father was a survivor of Auschwitz. Gutstadt is among the handful of people in Cuba who speak Yiddish, and she agreed to coach Peña. With the passion and dedication that only Cubans can summon, and under the strict discipline of Aquino, in six months La Opera de la Calle had the opera ready to premiere in Havana. “With a m0dest budget, we did it,” Aquino told me proudly. “It could never have happened in New York.” Then he said: “I want to tell you that you can always count on me for any project, especially anything to do with the Jews. I think I’ve come to know you all a bit.”

Opening night, March 3, was sold out. Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the U.S. ambassador, was there. Dworin attended, accompanied by several members of the Jewish community. She told me she loved the performance.

The mostly Cuban audience knew nothing of Yiddish and little about the Jews. Yet they rocked to the Yiddish songs. And everyone adored La Opera de la Calle’s rip-roaring rendition of Irving Berlin’s 1920 classic “I’ll See You in Cuba.”

At a moment when Cuba is on every American’s radar, the words to Berlin’s song could not have been more relevant:

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