- Jesús: A Yiddish Tale from Cuba
Many Latin American republics—most notably, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay—fostered a significant Yiddish-language literature and press, starting with the arrival of eastern European Jews in the 1880s and continuing through the first half of the twentieth century. (Yiddish, spoken by the Jews of eastern Europe and their descendants, is a Germanic language written with Hebrew letters and enriched with Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic, and Romance vocabularies.) In the last decade, interest in Jewish identity in Latin America has grown, as evidenced by such works as Naomi Lindstrom’s Jewish Issues in Argentine Literature and the anthology Tropical Synagogues, compiled by Ilan Stavans. And let us not forget the ongoing research on Jewish themes in Borges.
However, few have looked into the Yiddish literature and press of Latin America as a source of information on Jews and Jewish identity there. Of course, the problem is largely traceable to the fact that few scholars of Latin America, even Jewish scholars, know any Yiddish, besides a few words picked up from their families or during their studies in the New York area. This essay, which considers a story by the Yiddish writer Pinkhes Berniker, who for a time resided in Cuba, is a modest contribution to the filling of that lacuna.
Jews were never numerous on that island; at most, there were 16,500 there during World War II, when several thousand took refuge in Cuba. They managed to do so despite the terrible destiny of the Saint Louis, a ship filled with German Jews, whom Cuban authorities turned away, influenced as they were by Nazi propaganda, popular xenophobia (perhaps more than anti-Semitism), and German diplomatic pressure. That incident notwithstanding, it is generally considered that Jews fared well in Cuba. If the overwhelming majority of the 1959 population of ten to twelve thousand have left since the revolution, it is not because of anti-Semitism but because their livelihoods, like those of many Cubans, were imperiled by Communism.
Cinematographers have a fondness for filming the last Jews of anywhere; witness, for example, the Frenchman Frédéric Brenner’s marvelous film on “the last marranos” of Portugal. A recent film, Havana Nagila, made by an American team, documents the situation of the thousand or so Jews remaining in Cuba. This portrayal squares with other sources: the Jews of Cuba are no worse off than most Cubans; indeed, their situation is better insofar as they, like Cubans with relatives in the United States, receive help from interested parties [End Page 134] there. American Jewish organizations send them matzo at Passover, kosher meats, and other religious and humanitarian supplies.
In the 1920s, too, Jews in Cuba looked toward the States. The Spanish Jews who had been in Cuba during the days of the Inquisition had long since melded with the general population. Some American Jews had settled in Cuba in the late nineteenth century, especially after the Spanish-American War, and had established a synagogue and a cemetery in Havana. The Sephardim of the Mediterranean basin and the Ashkenazim of eastern Europe who arrived in Cuba in the 1920s, among them the Yiddish writer Pinkhes Berniker, generally saw the island as a stopping point on the way to the United States, which at the end of the 1910s had curtailed its open immigration policies.
Berniker was born in 1908 in Lubtsh, in White Russia, now called Belarus. A rabbi’s son, he studied at yeshives—Talmudic academies—in two smaller towns and in Vilna (now generally referred to as Vilnius), a Polish city at that time. In Vilna he also attended a Hebrew gymnasium and took pedagogical courses. Berniker’s education was similar to that of many eastern European Jews of that generation, caught between the traditional religion and modernizing tendencies. His older brother, Khayim, who also had studied at a pedagogical institute, emigrated to Cuba in 1924. A year later, while employed at a Jewish school, Khayim started Dos fraye vort, the first Yiddish newspaper in Cuba. The first issue of Dos fraye vort, with a print run of ten copies, was produced on a typewriter...