The Miracle of Return and Its Widening Circle

image: Sue and Solomon Dueñas in front of their bakery, founded in 1988 (Photo courtesy of Kimberly Dueñas)

Sue and Solomon Dueñas in front of their bakery, founded in 1988.
(Photo courtesy of Kimberly Dueñas)

How can it be that 500 years after the Spanish Inquisition, there are individuals who, though raised Christian, carry within them some deep-seated historic memory of a Jewish past and a heritage from which they were forcibly separated. Solomon Dueñas of Orange County, California is one of these individuals. The miraculous story of his return to Judaism is presented below by his daughter Kimberly, whose own commitment to her Jewish roots continues the miracle. Like a pebble thrown into a pool of water…creating ever widening circles, Kimberly and her father hope to assist a community of returnees and Jews by choice in Armenia, El Salvador on their journey of return. One might say that one miracle has begot another. JM

My father Solomon Dueñas was raised in a religious Catholic family in El Salvador. But in spite of the priest’s best efforts, he felt no connection to the church or to its ritual. Sitting in Mass and attending a confessional did not resonate with him. His passion, he says, was for the Bible and for the Jewish people described in its pages.

At 7, my father asked his mother, Margarita Dueñas, why he felt such compassion for the Jews. My grand-mother explained to him that his feelings had a long history. That was the day my father learned that he had Jewish blood and that it was the spirit of his ancient heritage that was rising within him. Centuries ago, she told him, the family had lived in Spain in a flourishing Jewish community, but with the advent of the Inquisition, the family had fled. Convert, be put to death, or flee… those were the choices, she explained. The family chose to emigrate and hopefully to survive.

Eventually, the Dueñas family found refuge in El Salvador where they tried to maintain their Jewish faith. However, as the region became increasingly Catholic and less tolerant of religious differences, the family grew fearful they would be forced to flee again. Thus began the process of assimilation that culminated in their adoption of most, if not all, Catholic rituals and beliefs. Nevertheless, the family always remained cognizant of their Jewish roots, and surprisingly, some Jewish customs did survive.

My father’s great grandmother, for example, always lit candles on Friday night. My grandmother did the same. Although she was unaware of its spiritual significance, she wanted to follow the family custom that had been handed down through the generations. Other family members, like my father’s great uncle never worked in the fields on Saturday. When my father asked his mother why, she said that it was part of my uncle’s traditional beliefs.

image: The Dueñas , from left to right:  Solomon, Samantha, 25, Sue, Danella, 28, and Kimberely, 22

The Dueñas , from left to right: Solomon, Samantha, 25, Sue, Danella, 28, and Kimberely, 22

As he grew older, my father’s interest in his Jewish roots deepened and he continued to feel a personal connection to the Jewish people. But although my grandmother was supportive and shared with him all she knew, many questions remained unanswered. Even with his limited knowledge of Juda-ism, my father decided that someday he would return to the faith of his ancestors.

The opportunity came when El Salvador was shaken with political and social turmoil in the late 1960’s-early ‘70’s. The uncertainty and danger of those years provided my father with the incentive to leave home and to pursue a future in the United States. On arrival, he worked tirelessly to learn English, attend an American college and embark on a career as a baker. At the same time, he took classes at a Conservative Synagogue where he studied Hebrew and eventually fulfilled his dream of converting to Judaism.

My parents met at a community Passover seder in 1981. My mother, Sue Weinberg, a descendent of Russian and Polish Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century, grew up in Los Angeles working with her father at his produce market. Worlds away, my father worked on his family’s farm in rural El Salvador. While their childhoods differed considerably, their spir-itual identities and Jewish sensibilities were the same.

My parents’ love for Judaism always filled our home. But I particularly cherish the joy that we all share on Friday night when my family welcomes the Sabbath. My mother lights the candles, calls the light of Shabbat into our home and recites the bracha (prayer). My sister Samantha raises a full glass of wine and blesses the fruit of the vine. And my father, the baker, proudly raises a fresh challah (traditional bread for the Sabbath). We all place our hands on the challah as he recites Ha’Motzi (blessing over the bread). But before he does so, my father closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and lets the blessing fall from his lips. He is excited as he says “ amen” with a huge smile on his face and tears a huge piece from the challah , dips it into his wine and takes a long, meditative bite.

image: Kimberly, center front, visits the Jewish community of Armenia, El Salvador

Kimberly, center front, visits the Jewish community of Armenia, El Salvador

I have always been involved in Jewish activities and youth groups, so it was natural for me to participate in a ten-month, gap-year program for post-high school students in Israel. During my time there, I interacted with Jews from all over the world and learned the unique religious customs they brought with them. My experiences sparked my own questions about my Sephardic roots. What were my family’s Sephardic traditions? How many members of my family left Spain? Was anyone left behind? When did the family convert to Catholicism? What Jewish traditions did they maintain? Were there many other Jewish families in El Salvador? How is it that my father is the only one out of all his siblings to embrace his Jewish roots? I felt as if half of my story was missing and I was eager to learn more.

Last spring, toward the end of my junior year at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, one of my father’s customers brought him an article from KulanuNews. My father was very excited when he saw the title: “El Salvador Jewish Community Emerges From Centuries of Isolation and Assimilation” by Rabbi Aaron Rehberg. As we read the article together about the small Jewish community in Armenia, El Salvador, I felt perhaps some of my questions would be answered. According to the article, many of the families in the community were descended from Spanish/Portuguese Jews who had fled the Inquisition and wanted to return to Judaism. I had such an urge to meet these people and to hear their stories. Coincidentally, I had planned a trip to El Salvador in June and hoped I could meet them then.

I contacted Rabbi Rehberg who shared with me how Kulanu has supported his work in Armenia, helping the community deepen its knowledge of Judaism and Jewish religious observance. Rabbi Rehberg put me in contact with members of the community and I arranged to visit them during my time in El Salvador.

The three weeks I spent in my father’s homeland were transformative. I stayed with my Tia (aunt) Nina at her home in the town of San Juan Opico, a municipality of La Libertad, where most of my father’s family resides. I was able to fully integrate into their world and I began to appreciate things that I had taken for granted on previous trips: the tropical, succulent fruit; the wild, verdant trees surrounding the towns, and the contagious warmth and affection of the people. I formed strong relationships with my family and learned their way of life. My Tia introduced me to our old family tradition of farming and even taught me how to make cheese. I explored the country with my cous-ins from the warm, tranquil beaches to the mountainous volcanoes. I met so many relatives who were eager to meet me, and I was equally eager to get to know them. I gained a greater understanding of the world my father came from and I also came to understand certain aspects of myself. I believe it is crucial for your personal development to understand your roots, because after all, it is where your story began. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to spend so much time with my relatives, especially my 94-year-old grandfather, who died soon after I returned home.

image: Jewish children from the community of Armenia, El Salvador (Photo by Kimberly Dueñas)

Jewish children from the community of Armenia, El Salvador.
(Photo by Kimberly Dueñas)

During my visit, I saw how central the Catholic faith is to the society of El Salvador, to the people of Opico and to my family. My aunt Tia prays daily and family members are active in the church. My family knows about my Abuela’s (grandmother’s) Jewish heritage and they are supportive of my father’s decision to return to Judaism, even if is not the path they choose to follow themselves. They feel very connected to Catholicsm and it is an important part of their lives. At the same time, they admire my father’s devotion to Judaism and our family’s religious commitments.

It was the day after my 22nd birthday when I journeyed to Armenia with my cousin Aby. In the town square, I met Mikhael Alvarado and Orlando (an English speaker) who greeted us and told us to follow them to the “synagoga”. They drove a blue pickup truck with us following closely behind. As we drove down the busy, narrow streets, I caught sight of a man with his tzittzit (fringes religious men wear) swirling in the wind. It was clear that Judaism was alive in this place.

At the synagogue, 30 people of all ages were awaiting our arrival. When we reached the synagogue, five little girls ran to greet me with wide-open arms shouting “Shalom !” (hello). During our visit, community members shared stories with me about their community and I told them about my community back home. They were very interested to learn about my family’s background and my time in Israel, my experiences at the university and teaching religious school. They described their evening services, the weekly Hebrew school for children, the Shabbat meals and holiday celebrations they share and, of course, Torah study.

On a tour of their synagogue and communal area, I saw their kosher kitchen, dining and baking areas and a corn mill. In the synagogue, a beautiful Torah sat in a place of honor. The children uncovered the Torah to show me the unusual art work around the case. There are some improvements the community would like to make in the synagogue including a study area for the children. The next day we returned for a bar mitzvah fiesta! We offered congratulations to the bar mitzvah boy in Hebrew and in Spanish, ate a delicious chicken meal, told jokes around the table and played piñata (a suspended decorated animal figure full of toys and candy that is broken open by children during celebratory events) the Salvadorian way.

image: Armenia resident studying in the makeshift community library (Photo by Kimberly Dueñas)

Armenia resident studying in the makeshift community library
Photo by Kimberly Dueñas

On a personal level, my interaction with community members added to my Jewish story. My upbringing had consisted of mostly Ashkenazi religious traditions while the Salvadorian customs were cultural. So, for the first time in my life, my two worlds merged; my cultures no longer existed separately. Even the small details like saying “ Baruch Hashem” (Blessed be G-d) in the middle of a Spanish sentence to emphasize a point resonated with me.

In Armenia I realized that no matter where you go in the world, you can feel at home in the local Jewish com -munity. And it is this feeling that has prompted me to maintain a connection to the community, and hopefully, to take an active role in their future development.

Upon my return to AJU for my senior year, I have made continuing involvement with the community a priority. I am working on two projects: a sociological research project about the community and a fundraising project for their Beit Midrash (synagogue). I also plan to return to El Salvador in December (after my finals!) and work with Rabbi Rehberg on implementing education programs for the men and women of Armenia.

As for the fundraising project, I want to reach out to synagogues and organizations in Los Angeles to tell them about the Jewish Salvadorian story. I am hoping to raise funds for the upcoming Beit Midrash program as well as to gather educational materials from local synagogues and schools. Their support would benefit the community’s development.

My father is also eager to be of service. He would love to meet the community and teach them baking skills and business management techniques to improve their economic situation. That’s the widening circle of our family miracle…our helping other descendants to reclaim their heritage.

As I celebrated the high holidays this year with my family and friends in California, I thought about the remarkable community in Armenia. Though we are hours away from each other, we are celebrating our Jewish heritage and culture simultaneously. In meeting this community, I have learned that culture and faith can transcend even in the darkest days of history.