The Schmooze

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

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.

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

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