MANAGUA, Nicaragua, Aug. 12 (JTA) — About two dozen people have gathered at the home of plastics maker Max Najman for Sabbath dinner, a rather mundane occurrence in most places but a remarkable breakthrough here.
After Nicaragua's entire Jewish population fled the country in the early 1980s, the friendly and casual meetings that take place at the Najman house every Friday night represent a renaissance of Judaism.
Following years of revolution and civil war, the return of some Jewish practices to Nicaragua is yet another sign of the country's emergence from the shadow of the 1979 Sandinista revolution, the only successful guerrilla triumph in the Americas aside from Fidel Castro's in Cuba.
But Nicaraguan Judaism still has a long way to go before it can approximate even its modest, pre-revolution heyday.
"On a scale of one to 10, I'd say we are at number two" on the comeback scale, said Kurt Preiss, president of the Nicaraguan Jewish Association. "There is a long way to go."
Arturo Vaughan, a local Jewish leader who serves as Israel's honorary consul here, says there are about 15 Jewish families -- totaling perhaps 60 people -- in Nicaragua today. In the late 1970's, before the revolution, 32 families lived here.
However, the current numbers are enough of a blip to have drawn two students from a Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva in New York for a Sabbath dinner in mid-July.
Perhaps the best inspiration the community has is the Najman family, which manages to live a kosher and Sabbath-observant lifestyle in a country whose only certified kosher product is its world-renowned Flor de Cana aged rum.
With encouragement from the Chabad Lubavitch shul established a dozen years ago in neighboring Costa Rica -- which the Najmans belong to -- the family says it's not too hard to be observant.
But Managua isn't built for keeping the Sabbath: With its unrelenting heat and spread-out urban design -- it covers almost 120 square miles -- the city is inhospitable for pedestrians.
Every other month, Jimmi Najman takes a delivery truck from the family factory to Costa Rica and loads it with kosher beef and poultry, products that Costa Rica exports to the United States and Israel.
"It's not so tough keeping kosher," Max Najman laughs. "We have a big freezer."
The challenges facing the community are immense. It no longer has a synagogue: The pre-revolution one burned in 1978, later was seized by the Sandinista regime and converted into a school, and now is a funeral home.
While the families that make up the community today agree that a synagogue would be a welcome addition -- they reportedly have received pledges for donations to build one -- there's no consensus on where to build it.
The nearest Jewish family to the Najmans, for example, lives a half-hour drive away. Preiss, the president of the Jewish Association, lives in the colonial city of Grenada, 90 minutes away and home to a small Jewish cemetery. Other families live in Esteli, a town in the north a short hop from the Honduran border.
The Sandinista era took more than the community's synagogue; it also stole the community's identity. Since most of the community was linked, either politically or through business ties, to the Somoza dictatorship that ran the country like a family farm for some 50 years, Jews were among the first targets of property confiscation under the Sandinistas.
That practice sent many Nicaraguan Jews into exile. Most went to Miami, though some wound up in Honduras and Costa Rica. Only when the Sandinistas were ousted in 1990 elections did Nicaraguan Jews began to return, but the community's Torah remains in Costa Rica.
Israel had supported and armed the Somoza dictatorship until its final days, so one of the Sandinistas' first diplomatic moves was to sever ties with Israel and recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Today, Managua still hosts Libyan and Palestinian embassies, though Israel and Nicaragua have resumed diplomatic relations.
Former Interior Minister Tomas Borge, the lone surviving founder of the Sandinistas and still one of the opposition party's most influential leaders, keeps a snapshot on his office wall of himself with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
But he says the Sandinistas now "recognize the State of Israel's right to exist," even if they "deplore" its policies toward the Palestinians.
During his tenure, Borge's ministry issued Nicaraguan passports to an unknown number of PLO members.
Many families have not returned from exile, so the community relies on foreigners who have taken up residence here to fill out its ranks. Nicaraguans were a minority at one recent Shabbat dinner, where guests also included several visiting Israeli agricultural advisors, a Colombian family that recently had moved here and a couple ending their tour of duty with the local United States Embassy.
Those at the dinner displayed a range of Jewish knowledge: The Najmans and several others were able to keep pace with the yeshiva students, while others struggled with the phonetic spellings of the prayers.
But what they lacked in knowledge they made up for in enthusiasm, and many scoured the books on Judaism and Jewish practices that the yeshiva students brought.
That enthusiasm extends to their pocketbooks, as well: For important holidays, many Nicaraguan Jews travel as far as Miami or Costa Rica for services.
Because of the community members' history and geographic range, there are a variety of theological currents.
Before the revolution, services and prayers were conducted in what best could be described as Orthodox style. But now, Nicaraguan Jews run the gamut from the Najman's affiliation with Chabad-Lubavitch to others who are relatively non-practicing.
Preiss calls the group a theological "fruit salad."
Elena Pataky, who spent a period of exile in Miami and maintains close contact with her rabbi there, welcomes any attempt to return tradition and teaching to the country. But her 20-year-old daughter -- used to the Nicaraguan practice of greeting each other with hearty handshakes, bear hugs or kisses on the cheeks -- was annoyed that the yeshiva students avoided physical contact with her.
There also are several families -- including that of Managua's Sandinista mayor, Herty Lewites -- who have Jewish ancestry but identify as Christians and never have sought ties with local Jews.
While the presence of future rabbis was a novelty for the Nicaraguan Jews, members of the community are finding that they themselves are a mild novelty for Nicaraguans.
Najman jokes that when people see his yarmulke they sometimes mistake him for a priest and ask for blessings.
But a bit of humorous confusion is a much smaller price for Nicaraguan Jews compared to exile.
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