When 2 Emory Students Sang for Castro

When 2 Emory Students Sang for Castro

By Rabbi David Geffen

The death of former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro on Friday, Nov. 25, brought this reminiscence from former Atlantan Rabbi David Geffen, now living in Jerusalem.

In 1959, Ivan Millender and I were invited to be on the traveling squad of the Emory Glee Club for the spring tour.

Ivan is an outstanding musician and has a beautiful voice; I spent four years in the Emory Glee Club, always hoping I would improve.

We were to be roommates for the tour. The arrangements for performances in March 1959 were made in the fall of 1958. The itinerary headed south, hitting Waycross, then Jacksonville, St. Petersburg, Miami and finally Cuba.

Cartoon by Rayma Suprani, CagleCartoons.com
Cartoon by Rayma Suprani, CagleCartoons.com

Between the arrangements and the tour, Castro defeated Fulgencio Batista’s army and took over Cuba in January 1959. The question the Emory leadership had to answer: Should the Glee Club go to Cuba?

Discussions were held with Cuban Embassy officials, and Emory was assured there would be no problems for the singers to travel safely to and from Cuba.

Too many other incidents happened on the trip to discuss, but I want to focus on our concert in the main auditorium of the University of Havana on a Friday night.

In the afternoon, since we were already in Havana, Ivan and I went to eat at Maishe Pipick, a kosher restaurant of many years’ duration. A Jewish cabdriver took us there, and we enjoyed a wonderful kosher meal, the first of our entire tour.

We returned to our hotel, and the Glee Club members walked to the auditorium. It was evident that there had been battles in Havana. Buildings remained damaged. The streets were covered with bullet casings. Amputees were on the street begging.

The Emory Glee Club’s program included traditional choral pieces by the great masters and a few modern songs. The second part of the concert was devoted to African-American spirituals, for which we were noted. We sang one or two encores, and we closed with “In the Heart of Dear Old Dixie,” the Emory anthem.

The auditorium was dark for the entire concert — only a small light for our director. We sang by heart.

An Emory administrator who traveled with us was in the back of the auditorium, watching the performance. As he stood there, a man in military fatigues, an army hat, a pistol on his side and a scraggly black beard walked in. He was smoking a cigar when he entered, which he snuffed out.

Our Emory escort immediately recognized Fidel Castro.

Not a word was exchanged. Castro stayed for half the concert, then he slipped out. When we heard about the visitor, we all excitedly said that Castro knew the Emory Glee Club was singing, and he wanted to hear us.

We were only the second American group to visit Havana after the revolution. Ivan and I were truly proud we had sung for Castro.

read more: