'As a child, I always heard about the glorious paradise that was Cuba'

Yiddish was mom and dad’s language of love in WWII Cuba

Daughter’s half-hour short ‘It Happened in Havana’ opens door to learning more about Cuban Jewish history

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Isabel and Reuben (Ruby) Schiller in Cuba in the early 1940s (Courtesy)
Isabel and Reuben (Ruby) Schiller in Cuba in the early 1940s (Courtesy)

Judy Schiller did what many people do — or wish they had done — when their parents get to a certain age. She sat her elderly mother and father down and interviewed them about their lives, making sure to create a record of their personal and family histories for future generations.

In some cases, histories like these are written down. In others, they are made as audio recordings. Taking a more visual approach, Schiller, a photographer and film editor in New York, decided to film her parents, Reuben (Ruby) and Isabel in their Forest Hills, Queens apartment in 2005. She ended up with hours and hours of her parents’ stories and recollections, fortunately all filmed before they fell ill. Ruby had a massive stroke a month later and lost much of his ability to speak. He died four years later at the age of 93, and then Isabel passed away in 2011 at 90.

It is also fortunate that Schiller, 58, saw in this footage more than a mere oral history to be passed down to younger members of her extended family. Inspired by Martin Scorsese’s 1974 documentary “Italianamerican,” in which the famous director interviewed his parents Catherine and Charles about their lives as immigrants, Schiller set out to turn her home movies into a half-hour short with a more universal appeal.

You need not have known the likeable Ruby and Isabel Schiller to be enchanted by “It Happened in Havana: A Yiddish Love Story,” which has been screened at a handful of film festivals and is currently available for viewing on PBS’s Channel Thirteen.

Refusing to give up on this labor of love, Schiller took eight and a half years to make “It Happened in Havana,” whose title is a reference to her parents’ initial meeting in Cuba during World War II.

Coming to Cuba

While Ruby’s stories about growing up in New York in the 1920s and 1930s are interesting (he remembers living in Lower Manhattan in a cold water railroad flat with his parents, four siblings and no electricity), Isabel’s life in Cuba is far more intriguing.

In the film, Isabel recounts how her family left Kovel (then in Poland, now in Ukraine) in 1930 for Cuba, thinking it would serve as a way station on their way to the United States. Her parents had obtained immigration visas for the United States for the family back in the mid-1920s, but they gave them to a widowed relative in more dire straits. By 1930, the US was restricting immigration, so Isabel’s parents decided to head to Cuba, which was relatively easy to get into.

“You didn’t need a visa for Cuba. You just needed someone to take you off the boat. My grandfather had met a Jewish businessman from Cuba while he was back in Poland on business, and he was the one who agreed to meet them. His name was Mr. Stone and he was in the thread business,” Schiller told The Times of Israel.

Isabel Schiller (center) as a teenager with her parents in Cuba. (Courtesy)
Isabel Schiller (center) as a teenager with her parents in Cuba. (Courtesy)

Until well into the 19th century, Jews were banned from entering Cuba, which was part of the Spanish Empire. After Spain lost control of Cuba in the Spanish American War of 1898, Jews started arriving to the Island. At first, it was mainly Sephardi Jews fleeing the decaying Ottoman Empire, as well as some American Jews. But beginning in the 1920s significant numbers of Ashkenazi Jews fleeing anti-Semitism and economic hardship in Eastern Europe started coming. By 1945, there were approximately 25,000 Jews in Cuba.

After World War II, a portion of the Jewish population left, but many stayed and continued to build a prosperous community. Some went into the professions, served in government or opened small businesses, with a majority associated with the fabric and apparel industries. Jews felt welcome and anti-Semitism was not an issue.

Isabel Schiller (second from right) with friends in Santo Domingo, Cuba 1939. (Courtesy)
Isabel Schiller (second from right) with friends in Santo Domingo, Cuba 1939. (Courtesy)


Growing up ‘Juban’

In “It Happened in Havana,” the camera pans over wonderful photos from Isabel’s years growing up in Cuba, but she doesn’t say all that much about what life was like for her Jewish family there.

She recalls how the heat, humidity and presence of very dark-skinned people were new experiences for her.

“That’s where I first saw a real black, black man, you know. He was so black,” Isabel says.

She also mentions that hers was the only Jewish family in Santo Domingo, a small town in Santa Clara province, far from the larger Havana Jewish community. Despite being the only Jews in town, Isabel recalls being warmly accepted and integrating easily into the local community. Indeed, the photos show her smiling and having fun with friends, neighbors and classmates, enjoying the seaside or the tropical countryside.

Isabel Schiller (center) and friends enjoy summer in Cuba, late 1930's-early 1940's. (Courtesy)
Isabel Schiller (center) and friends enjoy summer in Cuba, late 1930s-early 1940s. (Courtesy)

“My mom was blond and had blue eyes. As you can see from the photos, she was popular and glamorous,” Schiller noted.

‘My mom was blond and had blue eyes. As you can see from the photos, she was popular and glamorous’

Before you know it, this part of the film is over and the story moves on to when Isabel met Ruby in Havana in 1942. Ruby, who worked for Isabel’s cousin in New York, had decided to extend a vacation in Florida with a jaunt over to Cuba. They fell for one another quickly while communicating in Yiddish: Ruby didn’t know Spanish and Isabel couldn’t speak English.

The narrative moves forward in time and takes the couple to New York, where they married toward the end of WWII and settled down. The film’s plot line never returns to Cuba, leaving us wanting to know more about what it was like for Isabel to grow up there as a Jewish girl.

Of course, it became impossible after the Castro-led Cuban Revolution for them to physically return to the island nation. But the film doesn’t even return in memory to the place, other than for a mention of periodic economic and political turmoil prior to and during the Batista regime, and the fact that Isabel missed the warmth and openness of the Cuban lifestyle.

Isabel Schiller and friends in their high school uniforms in Santo Domingo, Cuba, late 1930's-early 1940's. (Courtesy)
Isabel Schiller and friends in their high school uniforms in Santo Domingo, Cuba, late 1930’s-early 1940’s. (Courtesy)

“First of all, I found it very cold. Then I found that the people were very cold,” she says about her first impressions of New York.

“I asked my sister [who had already been living there for some time], ‘Why are all the doors closed here?’ Because in Cuba like everything was more open. So she said, ‘Well here, everybody minds their own business.'”

‘I grew up with rice and beans as my comfort food’

It turns out that Isabel actually had a lot more to say about Jewish life in Cuba — both in the interviews and over the years as Schiller was growing up — but none of it made it into the film.

“Mom remained very much Cuban. She listened to and sang along to Spanish music in the house, and while she cooked Ashkenazi food for my dad, she also cooked Cuban food. I grew up with rice and beans as my comfort food,” the filmmaker recalled.

“As a child, I always heard about the glorious paradise that was Cuba. I saw pictures and home movies of this fabulous place, where my mother told me they lived well (with a maid, cook and nanny) and there was no anti-Semitism — though she said there was racism,” she added.

Actually, it wasn’t always so great as Isabel was growing up in Cuba. Because of political upheaval and regime change, her high school was closed for four years. She graduated only at age 21, shortly before she met her future husband.

Reuben (Ruby) and Isabel Schiller in Cuba, 1942. (Courtesy)
Reuben (Ruby) and Isabel Schiller in Cuba, 1942. (Courtesy)

“She told me about how they had to keep their blackout curtains closed over the windows of the apartment they kept in Havana, which was above one of the family’s fabric stores. Otherwise they would shoot into the apartment,” Schiller said.

With no nearby synagogue, Judaism was home-based for Isabel and her family during their years as the only Jewish family in Santo Domingo.

“I know that the family kept kosher in Cuba. They got kosher meat from Havana. And they lit Shabbat candles,” Schiller said.

After the revolution most left, some stayed

Almost all of Isabel’s family had left Cuba for the US before the revolution. A first cousin, married to an American, was the last to leave, getting out on the final plane out of Havana in 1961.

However, following the Communist revolution of 1959, 90 percent of the island nation’s Jewish population left, leaving behind synagogues forbidden for use under the atheist regime. Most went to the US, and in particular Miami, where they established a close-knit expat community (alongside non-Jewish Cubans who had also fled the revolution).

Today, there are only about 1,500 Jews left in Cuba, mainly in Havana. The community began rebuilding itself in the early 1990s with the help of the Joint Distribution Committee, whose financial assistance was critical during this period of hunger and uncertainty as Soviet subsidies ended. American Jews started assisting, as well — especially those who saw the situation first hand when they traveled to Cuba on mitzvah missions.

Today a devoted group of leaders are not only keeping Judaism alive, but also trying to grow the community. The recent thaw in relations between the US and Cuba could prove to be key.

“Their biggest challenge is that they train talented Jewish youth as leaders only to see them leave for more prosperous horizons. If economic prospects improve, young Jews might be motivated to stay rather than make aliyah to Israel or dream of Miami,” wrote Ruth Behar, an expert on Cuban Jewry, in The Jewish Week.

Cuba of myth and legend

Although Cuba was an amazing, mythical place in Schiller’s mind as she was growing up, she has so far not been moved to visit it.

“I don’t think I could handle seeing the poverty. It’s such a poor country. I couldn’t stop crying when I saw ‘Buena Vista Social Club,‘” she said, the 1999 film about forgotten legendary Cuban musicians.

That movie affected her in the way that she learned films should affect viewers.

“I learned in a filmmaking class that people go to a film to either laugh, cry or learn something new,” Schiller said.

Indeed, whatever your emotional response to “It Happened in Havana,” it will at the very least pique your interest in the history of the Jews of Cuba.

Isabel Schiller (seventh from right) and friends in Cuba. (Courtesy)
Isabel Schiller (seventh from right) and friends in Cuba. (Courtesy)
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