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YIDDISH IN CUBA:A LOVE STORY by Rosa Perelmuter University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill IT was a warm summer evening in Durham, North Carolina, but I was shivering as we approached the door of a lovely home where a gathering of Yiddish speakers was congregated. A colleague who heard that I had studied Yiddish in Cuba had invited me to the Yiddish Kreis (‘circle’) to which she belonged. I had accepted without hesitation but now, as I crossed the threshold and was greeted by the hostess in fluent Yiddish, I sensed that I had somehow taken a wrong turn. I had not spoken Yiddish since I was a school girl in my native Cuba, where I attended a bilingual (Spanish-Yiddish) school, but that had been decades ago. What was I thinking? I tried to answer the smiling face whose words I comprehended – I thought I could answer – but I couldn’t remember what to say beyond “gut ovent” (good evening). Where had all that Yiddish gone? All those years of study (ten years, to be exact), half a day in Yiddish, half in Spanish, at the Colegio Hebreo Autónomo del Centro Israelita de Cuba – how could I have forgotten all that I learned there? Well, as it turned out, I hadn’t forgotten everything. After a while, with some gentle prodding by the other members of the Kreis, some reading, and some patient use of the dictionary, I discovered that I was still semi-fluent and that I remembered more than I initially thought. I also discovered, to my amusement, and thanks to my new friends, that I spoke Yiddish with a Cuban accent. Who knew? I don’t know why that should have come as a surprise to me, but it did. After all, I speak English with an accent, but while my Spanish accent in English is relatively minimal (I think), in my spoken Yiddish the sounds of Spanish are apparently much more pronounced. And this brings me to the topic of my essay, Yiddish and Spanish, Yiddish in Cuba. I want to take you on a brief historical trip to the island of my birth, to the languages of my 133 youth, and then end with a trip up north, to Amherst, Massachusetts, and its National Yiddish Book Center, the new depository of many of the Yiddish books of Cuba. Havana’s famous “Parque Central” was the unlikely gathering place for many of Cuba’s Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the early 1920s. They gathered there daily and held debates, lectures, literary tertulias. More often than not, they would speak in Russian but, as the immigrant population changed almost daily, Yiddish started taking over as the language of choice for Eastern European Jews. The group became known as the Yidishe Kulturgrupe, and they even organized an amateur dramatic group under the direction of A. Wallenstein that staged several performances of four Yiddish plays (Kahn 33). This troupe was succeeded by another headed by Elias Geltman, the Dramatishe Sekzie of the Yiddisher Kultur Tsenter, and during 1924-25 it performed seven Yiddish plays. The immigrants turned to the Tsenter for Spanish and English classes since most, if not all, were planning an eventual move to the United States. In addition, the Tsenter provided more opportunities for gatherings , lectures, and debates. In March 1925 the Yiddisher Kultur Tsenter changed its name – now in Spanish – to the Centro Hebreo. The Centro’s membership included many left-wing sympathizers and thus eventually the more radical members of the group (i.e., the communists) formed a new organization, the Kultur Farain-Unión Cultural Hebrea. This group was joined by the Centro Hebreo’s Dramatishe Sektzie, and their “Dramatisher Kreis in Havana” produced seventeen Yiddish plays during the winter of 1925-26. As Jeffrey Kahn explains, “Even the Farain’s most bitter political opponents considered the artistic standard of the Dramatisher Kreis the highest in Cuba” (36). The Centro Hebreo soon gave way to the Centro Israelita, which opened its doors on September 1, 1925. Jay Levinson notes that “By 1925 there were between 7,500 and 8,000 Jews in Cuba. About 2,700 were Sephardim, and...


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pp. 133-140
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