For Nieves Olemberg, her life really did embody the theme from Barbra Streisand’s movie, Yentl.
Much like that movie’s tale of Eastern European immigrants, adapted from the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, Olemberg’s parents immigrated, too — in this case, from Russia to Cuba before World War II.
Olemberg, who died at 79 on Oct. 30 of complications from a car accident, was born in the small Cuban town of Placetas on Nov. 1, 1934. Just before her 26th birthday she, along with her husband, Isaac, and their first two children, fled Fidel Castro’s regime for a life in Miami.
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“She was a very confident woman who handled adversity well,” her son Roberto said. “She didn’t make any bones about it. She did what she had to do. Very common immigrant story. My father started his business, did a lot of traveling, and she raised the kids while he was gone.”
By 1964, four years after settling in Miami, the Olembergs co-founded the Olem Shoe Corporation, a wholesale shoe company still headquartered on Northwest 21st Street in Miami, with showrooms also in New York and Los Angeles. At first, Olemberg used her background in accounting from the University of Havana to handle invoices for the company, while also answering the phones and unloading shoe cartons.
While travel between Cuba and Miami was still an option, Isaac and Nieves married at the former Dilido Hotel on Miami Beach in September 1955. The couple decided it would be less of a financial burden on her widowed mother, Berta, to simply marry and honeymoon in Miami rather than have a big wedding in Cuba, their daughter Lisette Goldstein said. The couple had met at the Casino Deportivo in Havana. Isaac had said he was drawn to her when he noticed her “beautiful legs.”
Soon, he’d see they carried a sharp mind and can-do demeanor. As Olem Shoe grew, Olemberg became its chief operating officer and credit manager, a position she held for 24 years.
Olemberg officially retired in 1986 but remained as active as ever. She was a founding member of the Inter-American chapter of Hadassah and served as its president for a quarter century. In 2011, the Olembergs were honored by Miami Jewish Health Systems and the Latin Auxiliary of Douglas Gardens with a Lifetime Achievement Award for their philanthropic work. Olemberg supported Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, and, with her husband, the Holocaust Memorial, the Jewish Museum of Florida and the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“Nothing was impossible,” Goldstein said. “Everything was easy, always a ‘Yes.’”
One more school chum for dinner? No problem.
Five more over to the house for Rosh Hashana? Babi, the Cuban-Jewish form of the Yiddish bubbe for grandmother, a term of endearment in the Olemberg home, would simply put a little more water in the soup.
Olemberg loved music so she studied guitar with a teacher turned family friend. Her daughter laughs when she thinks about those lessons, which went on for three decades.
“They had this ritual every week they had a class. I think Mother played the same five songs for the last 35 years because they’d start to talk and have coffee and get distracted,” Goldstein said.
Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez’s standard, Bésame mucho, and a handful of Cuban classics were Olemberg’s favorites to sing. Dinner at Babi’s house every Friday night was a “kosher version of Cuban food,” her son, Roberto, remembers: brisket. ropa vieja. chicken and white rice. matzo ball soup. kasha.
Friends said Olemberg had chispa, a spark.
“This is definitely what embodied my mother. There was always room at the table. Nothing was ever a problem. There was always plenty. ‘This will be fine.’ That is a lesson I will try now to commit myself to. I think that will be my legacy to my mother,” Goldstein said.
Olemberg is survived by her husband Isaac, children Roberto, Lily, Janine and Lisette, seven grandchildren, her sister Margarita Burstein and brother Miguel Cristal. Services were held. Donations in Olemberg’s honor can be made to the Inter-American Chapter of Hadassah, 20355 NE 34th Ct., Apt 2326, Aventura, Florida, 33180, or Temple Menorah in Miami Beach.
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