Route to Jewish life in States not always the same story

My family, like those of most of my Jewish friends, can trace their roots from Eastern Europe and Russia. The story of our lives have been captured again and again in movies and literature: Our grandparents, facing religious persecution and the fear of pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, fled to Der Goldene Medina, the Golden Country—America. Most landed at Ellis Island and started their lives and the lives of their children in New York City’s lower East Side. But other friends have shared stories that represent a more circuitous route. One such person is Hilda Gallant, whose own history starts not on Hester Street but in Havana.

Hilda’s parents, Simon Kiman and Golda Szejerman, were both born in Poland. When they were small children, their families immigrated to Cuba in 1925 and 1929, respectively. Growing up in the same Jewish neighborhood in Havana, the two eventually fell in love and married in 1950. Hilda (nee Gilda) was born eleven months later. By 1957, the Kimans were a family of five with the birth of two more daughters, Rose and Julie. 

Despite political tensions and the 1952 coup that resulted in the subsequent dictatorship under Fulgencio Batista, the Kimans lived a happy, comfortable life. Simon and his brother owned and managed a successful small variety store, while Golda was a full-time homemaker. Although they continued to speak Yiddish within their home, they also learned Spanish, the language of their adopted country. Hilda and Rose attended a Jewish parochial school, where they were taught secular subjects, including Spanish, in the morning. After a break for lunch, the traditional main meal, they returned in the afternoon for Hebrew lessons and Judaic studies.

In 1959, Cuba’s political world was upended. Open corruption and oppression under Batista’s rule led to his ousting by the 26th of July Movement, and Fidel Castro soon assumed leadership. Under his communist rule, all businesses were nationalized. Private ownership was forbidden, and Simon and his brother lost their store and their livelihood. As conditions in all areas, including education, deteriorated, the family made a decision to leave Cuba. Unable to get visas to emigrate to America, Simon and Golda applied and were accepted into Israel. A few months later, Hilda’s maternal aunt, uncle and grandmother also emigrated to Israel and lived across the hall from the Kiman’s. Simon’s family eventually immigrated to the States and settled in Philadelphia.

Out from under Castro’s iron thumb, Simon and Golda still found life in “The Promised Land” very difficult. Simon, who had no formal education or training, worked a job an orange packaging factory. Golda supplemented his salary by learning the diamond cutting trade. Struggling with Hebrew, they continued to mostly speak Spanish and Yiddish with other immigrants of similar background.Hilda and her sisters adjusted well to life in Israel as children.

When Hilda was approaching her 16th birthday, Simon and Golda yearned to be with their family in the States. They sent her to Philadelphia to live with her father’s sister and husband and her paternal grandmother. She shared a room with her cousin Henry in a tiny home. Although she received much love, she missed her parents and sisters very much. 

Although she found math and science courses relatively easy, Hilda found courses that required English proficiency a struggle. Fortunately several wonderful teachers took her under their wing and provided extra help before and after school. “Henry also helped by introducing me to American TV,” said Hilda. “It turned out to be a great tool in learning a new language.”

Rose soon followed, and in 1968, just before Hilda’s high school graduation, her parents, youngest sister and grandmother finally obtained visas to enter the US. The family was finally reunited. Hilda’s parents purchased a small food/variety store and then a clothing store, and the entire family found happiness in the very large and tight-knit Cuban Jewish presence in Philadelphia.

After high school, Hilda’s aunt insisted that she continue her education. “You are in America,” she told Hilda. “Women don’t rush off to get married and have babies after high-school. You need to go to college.”

Hilda enrolled at Gratz College in the Judaic studies program. She worked full time during the day as a bookkeeper to help support her family and took classes at night and on Sunday. Because of her time in Israel, Hilda spoke fluent Hebrew and became friends with many of her Israeli classmate, along with a part-time native Philadelphian.

Stuart Gallant had grown up in the “City of Brotherly Love,” the only child of first-generation Americans and the grandson of Eastern European/Russian refugees. Along with his public school education, Stuart attended the usual 3-days-a-week Hebrew school through his bar mitzvah. The rabbi of their Conservative synagogue of which his parents were co-founders enticed Stuart and some other boys to engage in additional learning including Torah reading and leading services. Raising the stakes, the rabbi then insisted that his students attend Shabbat services weekly “Until my high school graduation, I became a fixture at the shul,” Stuart said. “I read Torah on Saturday morning, taught Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvah students, lead junior congregation and, in my senior year, served as president of the local chapter of United Synagogue Youth”.

After he graduated high school, Stuart enrolled in Drexel University for a degree in electrical engineering. Struggling to balance his new classes and the slew of Jewish holidays that fell on during his first weeks on campus, Stuart had to cut back on his attendance at services. His “school vs. shul” decision resulted in falling out with the rabbi. He stopped going to services, even avoiding driving near his synagogue. 

Despite his estrangement from formal religion, Stuart enrolled in Gratz College part-time to further his Jewish education. During one of his classes, he noticed the lovely young woman who spoke fluent Hebrew. Intrigued by what he thought was her Israeli background, Stuart asked her out. On their first date, however, Hilda called her parents to alert them that she might be late coming home due to bad weather. “She certainly wasn’t speaking Hebrew,” said Stuart. It was only after that phone call that he learned about Hilda’s Cuban-Jewish background. As a matter of fact, throughout their courtship and their marriage, Stu could not converse with Hilda’s grandmother since he never learned fluent Spanish—or Yiddish. 

After completing his masters at Drexel, Stuart began a career in biomedical engineering that took him and Hilda to Minneapolis, Baltimore, and eventually to California. Hilda initially stayed home to raise their two sons, Joshua and Avi. She eventually used her strong accounting skills in several jobs, including Stuart’s own medical device start-up company.

The “school vs. shul” decision long behind him, Stuart, along with Hilda, became actively involved in their synagogues through their lives. Stuart served on synagogue boards, Hilda called on her background in Judaic Studies to teach in a Jewish-nursery school. 

For Hilda, the journey that started in Cuba has recently brought her only 400 miles from her birthplace (although she would never visit!). This past year, Hilda and Stuart moved to Florida to be closer to their children and grandchildren, who live on the East Coast. Now that pandemic restrictions have eased that look forward to in-person meetings with their new neighbors as well as fellow members of their new shul, Congregation Shalom Aleichem, who have only been recently faces and voices on the Zoom services. Wherever they go, Hilda and Stuart’s rich background and warm presence will be a blessing. 

First published in (Capital Region) Jewish World May 27, 2021

Photo of Stuart and Hilda Gallant’s engagement printed with their permission.

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