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Love, Forged in Cuba

The film ‘It Happened in Havana’ tells the story of a Jewish couple’s courtship in Cuba during the start of World War II

Rose Kaplan
April 12, 2016

Where does your mind travel when you think of the phrase, “Yiddish love story?” Manhattan’s Lower East Side? A shtetl in Europe? Maybe somewhere in Montreal? Or what about Havana, Cuba?

It Happened in Havana: A Yiddish Love Story, a short documentary airing on Thursday on THIRTEEN, New York’s public television station, tells the story of a Jewish couple’s courtship in Cuba—Yiddish was their common tongue, their language of romance—during the start of WWII, followed by more than six decades of marriage.

He didn’t speak Spanish. She didn’t speak English. After 61 years of marriage he was still on his honeymoon.

In Forest Hills, Queens, a couple sits on their living room couch as the husband and wife each recount how they met in Cuba during the start of WWII.

In her cinematic debut, filmmaker Judy Schiller takes the viewer on two journeys: her mother’s, from Poland to Cuba, where she and her family were the only Jews in their town; and her father’s beginning on New York’s Lower East Side, where the street was the playground.

“With Cuba so much in the news, the film is a timely one,” Schiller, who made the film as a tribute to her parents, told “It’s a personal story about my parents and the story of how they fell in love. It is equal parts romantic tale and history lesson.”

Schiller, a photographer-turned-filmmaker, completed It Happened in Havana in 2013. Since then, the film has screened at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, the Bucharest Jewish Film Festival, and eslewhere. It had its New York debut last spring, at Dixon Place; this week’s screening on THIRTEEN will be its television premiere.

Schiller’s parents’ story is part of a rich legacy of Jews in Cuba. For more from our archives, try Michal Strutin’s “Seeking the Jews of Cuba” about American Jewish tourism to Cuba; Joan Nathan’s Cuban-Jewish fusion recipe for guava mandelbrot; and Miriam B. Abrahams’s affecting personal history about her Cuban uncle.

It Happened in Havana airs this Thursday, April 14, at 10:30 p.m., and again next Tuesday, April 19, at 4:30 a.m.

Rose Kaplan is an intern at Tablet.