Arturo Vaughan recently moved back to Nicaragua after fleeing the country in 1979. Photo by Liza Shurik.
|By Melanie Marquez
A dinner party at Arturo Vaughan’s home in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot last October was a special event not just because of the festivity, but because it was taking place in Nicaragua. After years of exile, Nicaragua’s Jewish population is coming home.
About 25 people attended the party at the Vaughan home. The men wore “kippot,” traditional skullcaps, and kosher wine was available to wash down the hummus, bread and vegetables laid out on the tables as appetizers.
The Vaughan home is in the Carazo department of Nicaragua, a country that suffered political upheaval in 1979 when the leftist Sandinistas overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. Many Nicaraguans fled the country. This included nearly the entire Jewish population of Nicaragua, bringing the number of Jewish people in the country down from about 150 to perhaps no more than a handful.
Once the Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990, expatriates began moving back, and slowly, events like the one at the Vaughan home show Nicaragua’s Jewish population is part of the return.
Guests came from all over the country and even beyond Nicaragua. Eduardo Translateur, originally from Colombia and educated in Israel, moved to Nicaragua from Costa Rica in April 2004 for his job as an agriculturalist. He came to the Vaughan home to be a part of the gradual revival of the Jewish community.
“The Jewish community here is in the first steps of forming and not very well organized. We are trying to get ourselves organized and I am trying to help in the process,” Translateur said. “I am not very religious, I am not Orthodox, but with the little bit I know of Judaism I believe I am contributing my grain of sand.”
The current Jewish population includes about 50 people, according to Max Najman, the incoming president of the Nicaraguan Jewish community. They represent a tiny sliver of the Nicaraguan population of about 5.4 million people, 85 percent of whom are Catholic. He attended the Sukkot dinner with his wife.
“I know all of the Jews in Nicaragua, even those that have passed away,” Najman said. “If we go to the cemetery, I can tell you who each person was, what they did for a living and who their relatives were.”
Born in Managua 77 years ago, Najman was one of the Jews who fled the country at the advent of the revolution. He said his role as the honorary consul for Israel in Nicaragua at the time put his life in danger.
“They [the Sandinistas] threatened to kill me because Israel had helped the Somoza government by selling arms to them. I as consul had nothing to do with that, but I was mixed up with it because they thought I had helped bring the arms,” Najman said.
He, his wife and his four sons left Nicaragua and went to live in the United States. He came back in 1990.
“I was dying to return,” Najman said. “Here we have a factory that was confiscated during the era of the Sandinistas and we returned and reclaimed it.”
The Najmans often host Sabbath dinners at their home in Managua on Friday nights, a principal community event. For major holidays like Yom Kippur, Passover and Rosh Hashanah some Jews in Nicaragua travel to Honduras, Costa Rica or Miami where larger, more established communities exist, with their synagogues.
Nicaragua’s only synagogue was burned and confiscated during the revolution. It exists today as a funeral home. The absence of a rabbi and even a Torah leaves the Jews of Nicaragua on their own to form a sense of community.
“You have to make do,” said Arturo Vaughan. “You have to create a Jewish life for yourselves.”
Vaughan, one of the Jews who fled in 1979, moved back to Nicaragua with his wife and two sons four years ago. They left a stable and large Jewish community in Kansas City. He runs a poultry business that has been in his family for four generations.
“We realized that our children had grown up in an entirely Jewish environment in Kansas City. They went to Jewish day schools, we kept a kosher home, all our friends were Jewish and they really had never lived in a third-world country,” Vaughan said. “We thought it was important for our children to come back and experience and live in a third-world country.”
The Vaughans do not keep a kosher home in Nicaragua and they often will have Sabbath dinner on their own instead of going to the Najman home, an hour’s drive away.
“We are accustomed to doing our own Sabbath experience at home,” Vaughan said. “We go to the Najmans’ more to be part of a community than to satisfy our own personal religious whims.”
Two sukkas, small closet-sized huts made of wood and plants, had been built in Nicaragua for the holiday of Sukkot, one at the Najman home and one at the Vaughan home. The eight-day holiday commemorates the ancient exodus of the Jews from Egypt and their years spent living in the wilderness. Just before dinner all the guests washed their hands three times and then silently crowded into the hut.
After reciting prayers in Hebrew, everyone broke bread and dipped it in honey. A major part of the Nicaraguan Jewish community stood in this small hut honoring their religion, their heritage and the freedom to do such a thing in a country they were once forced to leave. The holiday celebration at the Vaughans’ that night honored more than the ancient survival of the Jews it represented the resuscitation of a Jewish community in Nicaragua.