BY ALEXANDRA ALTER | 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.