The Arty Semite

A Yiddish Opera for Cuba’s ‘First National Hero’

By Ezra Glinter and Itzik Gottesman

  • Print
  • Share Share

A Monument to Hatuey in Baracoa, Cuba. Photo by Michal Zalewski.

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

In 1931, Yiddish poet, journalist and editor Ascher Penn published “Hatuey,” a 126-page epic poem about a Taíno chieftain who fought against the Spanish invasion of Cuba at the beginning of the 16th century, and who was eventually burned at the stake in 1512.

Born in 1912 in Ukraine, Penn immigrated with his parents to Cuba in 1924 following a pogrom in his native shtetl of Gaysin. In “Hatuey,” Penn drew on the experience of the pogrom to describe the massacre of Taíno natives by the Spanish, and expressed his admiration for Taíno history and culture.

Now, composer and Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London is working on an opera based on Penn’s poem, incorporating both Yiddish and Cuban music. At a May 5 symposium on Yiddish opera at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University, London discussed the project together with Yale University English professor Alan Trachtenberg; Penn’s daughter, Eileen Posnick, and her husband, dramaturge and visiting artist Michael Posnick, who organized the symposium.

“I’ve been keeping my ears out for the proper text on which to base a Yiddish opera for years,” London said in a follow-up telephone interview. “Also, my background before Jewish music is in Latin music, so this is very close to my heart.”

London first heard about Penn’s text at a memorial service for Jonathan Wolken, a founder of the Pilobolus Dance Troupe, while talking with Michael and Eileen Posnick. When they mentioned Penn’s poem, London said, “my jaw dropped.”

While some people might question the wisdom of producing an opera in a language few opera-goers speak, London pointed out that listeners rarely understand opera librettos, regardless of the language they’re in. Rather, London said, “opera deals with the sound of words — the actual sound of language. So it’s a perfect contemporary medium to celebrate Yiddish while also moving it forward.”

In addition to adapting Penn’s poem into a libretto — a complicated process involving several rounds of translation — London plans to include a frame narrative about Penn himself, which will be performed in Spanish.

Like many Yiddish writers of his generation, Penn was a polymath, studying architecture at the University of Havana and serving as the editor of the first Cuban Yiddish newspaper, Havana Lebn (Havana Life), which he founded in 1932. In 1935 he immigrated to the U.S., where he became a writer and the city editor of the Forverts.

During the Second World War Penn drew on his architectural training to serve as a draughtsman in the U.S. Navy, an experience he later described in his 1946 poetry collection, “A Shipbuilder’s Songs.” In 1958 he published his magnum opus, “Yiddishkayt in America,” a substantial volume describing Jewish life in the 1950s. Penn died in 1979.

As Trachtenberg noted at the Yale symposium, Penn’s “Hatuey” was an unusual project, but not without precedent. One inspiration was the Yiddish poet Yehoash’s 1910 translation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” which Trachtenberg discusses in his book, “Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880-1930.”

Penn’s daughter, Eileen Posnick, recounted her father’s childhood experience surviving a pogrom, and seeing his girlfriend raped and murdered by Cossacks. That traumatic event clearly contributed to “Hatuey,” particularly one graphic chapter in which Spanish soldiers torture the Taíno natives. Indeed, the poem reverberates with sympathy for the Taíno, whose plight Penn understood only too well.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yiddish Music, Yiddish, Yehoash, Yale University, The Klezmatics, Taino, Poetry, Polobolus Dance Troupe, Opera, Music, Jonathan Wolken, Michael Posnick, Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Havana Lebn, Hatuey, Frank London, Forverts, Eileen Posnick, Cuba, Ascher Penn, Alan Trachtenberg

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?








You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:













We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.