Monday, May 29, 2006

Cuban Jews reunite, relive decades past

Posted on Mon, May. 29, 2006

Cuban Jews reunite, relive decades past
Knight Ridder Newspapers

MIAMI - "Is this me?" Betty Faigenblat asked her friend Vivian,
squinting at a 44-year-old photograph hanging in a corner of the Jewish
Museum of Florida.

"This is me," Vivian Mechaber-Cascales said with delight, ignoring her.

More people crowded around the photograph. The two women giggled and
squeezed out of the crowd.

The photograph was shot in 1955 at El Plantel del Centro Israelita de
Cuba, a Hebrew day school in Havana. It now hangs at the Jewish museum
in South Beach in a small section dedicated to the Jews of Cuba. Most of
the museum's guests glance at it briefly, if at all.

Earlier this month, a group of giddy visitors examined the features on
every face, comparing their 60-year-old companions to a third-grade
class portrait.

"That's me, the most handsome of them all; how could you miss me?" said
Manny Fainstein, a tall man with gray hair and a gap between his teeth.

A museum guide wandered over, curious. She stood next to a tall, paunchy
man with wild dark eyebrows and thick white hair. He seemed distracted;
his hazel eyes glazed over and were lost decades in the past.

"I'm the one in the top row, three from the right," he told the guide.

The round face, large ears, impish smile, all started to look familiar.
The docent smiled at Joseph Roisman, 59, who stared ahead at the photograph.

Roisman and his classmates graduated from Centro Israelita in 1958. They
were the last class to graduate before Cuban leader Fidel Castro came to
power and most of the Jews on the island fled. On a recent Saturday, 28
members of the 46 students in their class gathered in Miami to celebrate
turning 60. Two of their classmates have died. Others live in Israel.
Some are observant Jews who won't travel on the Sabbath, and some
couldn't be located.

The reunion kicked off with a three-hour religious service at Temple
Beth Shmuel, the Cuban Hebrew Congregation on South Beach, followed by
brunch and a visit to the museum. Packed side by side in the pews, the
former classmates giggled and whispered throughout services, passing
photos of their grandchildren around and joking about el cuarto oscuro,
the fictional dark room their teachers used to threaten them with. Many
hadn't seen each other since they were in Cuba.

Though they've spent about 50 years in exile, the class of 1958 has
stayed in touch over the years. They've maintained Cuban Jewish
traditions even as the Jewish population in Havana has languished,
shrinking from about 15,000 before the revolution to fewer than 1,000
today. Most fled Havana ahead of their parents, scattering across the
United States, Latin America and Israel. The day school, founded in
1925, was closed in 1962 because hardly any students remained.

The students left without saying goodbye to their friends, fearing they
would be detained if word got out.

"It seemed like every day there was one less kid in school," said
Richard Novigrod, who gave his geometry notebook to a struggling
classmate when he left for Miami in 1961.

Roisman, now vice president of a luxury clothing line for men, fled to
Israel, also in 1961. He lived in a boarding school and was drafted into
the Israeli army.

Marcos Kerbel, a professor of international finance at Florida
International University, arrived in the United States as part of
Operation Pedro Pan and lived with a Jewish foster family in Los Angeles.

Teresa Treibich Ben-Hain went to live in Brooklyn. When she got there,
she met up with Elias Roberto Ben-Hain, her boyfriend from Havana who
also attended Centro Israelita. His parents wanted to move the family to
Israel. He refused, saying he would stay with Teresa. His parents gave
in, and Elias and Teresa have been married 40 years.

Most of the men had gone gray, and several were balding, except for Mark
Faigenblat. He credits his wife - fellow classmate Betty - with keeping
him young. The women were various shades of dyed blond and brown.

"The men look so old," one of them whispered.

At the luncheon, many were eager to learn details of their classmates'
escapes from Cuba.

"You went in a boat?" Rebecca Roth Glinsky, a gregarious blonde and the
valedictorian, asked Moises Golobovich, a self-described troublemaker
known to his classmates as Golo. "I thought that was a joke."

"It was a luxury three-day cruise," he replied.

Golobovich was the last to leave Havana. He fled in January 1980 in an
18-foot motorboat with five other men.

"I missed them a lot when they left," he said of his classmates. "I was
there by myself with no peers, nothing."

For the first few years following the revolution, classmates wrote him
letters and sent him photographs. Some told him not to worry, reassuring
him that Castro's government wouldn't last but a few weeks, then they
would all be back for high school. As the years passed, the letters
stopped coming.

Golobovich went to college in Havana and made new friends. But his old
friendships never died. When Golobovich arrived in Miami by boat, after
running out of fuel and water and spending three days at sea, two of his
classmates heard about it on the news and threw a welcome party for him
at a restaurant in Little Havana.

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