Interview with Jean Paul Joseph (May 30, 1981)

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Interview with Jean Paul Joseph (May 30, 1981)
Series Title:
History of the Jewish Community in El Salvador
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Jewish Community History
Jews -- History -- Florida


This text has been transcribed from an audio or video oral history. Digitization was funded by a gift from Caleb J. and Michele B. Grimes.

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Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Department of History, University of Florida
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This interview is part of the 'Jewish Community History' collection of interviews held by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program of the Department of History at the University of Florida
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INTERVIEWEE: Jean Paul Joseph


May 30, 1981

F: My name is Lea Freund. We are interviewing Mr. Jean Paul Joseph
from the community of El Salvador, who now lives in New York.
We are interviewing him in Miami, Florida and today is May 30,
1981. Jean Paul, when and where were you born?

J: I was born in San Salvador, September 14, 1950.

F: Your parents, Jean Paul, where were they from?

J: My parents were both from Alsace-Lorraine, France. My father was
born in a small town, Sutademeine, my mother was born in Metz.

F: Why did your father go to El Salvador and when?

J: He went in 1927. His brother was already in El Salvador. His
brother had gone down there because an uncle was there. He
went because conditions were not the best in the world in Paris,
and for a young person going to America was attractive. Why
El Salvador? Probably because there were already relatives of
his there.

F: Your father's name was Andre Joseph.

J: My father's name was Andre Joseph; my mother's Sylvette Joseph.

F: And your uncle was?

J: Armand Frenkel.

F: When your parents got to El Salvador, what kind of a community
did they find there?

J: My parents met after World War II, were married in 1949 and
arrived in Salvador in 1949. I don't know very much about what the
community was like in 1949. Most of the community that was there
as of five years ago, was there in '49 (with the exception of
the children, of course).

F: Jean Paul, what do you remember of your childhood as far as
Jewish life in El Salvador?

J: The synagogue in El Salvador served very much as a community
center. Going to synagogue on a Friday night or Saturday morning
was as much a religious activity as it was a social activity.
It was an opprotunity to meet everyone. As children, we grew
up in a community which wasn't large. But nevertheless, we had
twenty or thirty young children in the community that would
assist the others' birthdays. As a child, I remember the services
very much because of the way they were carried out. I remember
the social activity, the plays in particular, that were done by


the community and the admiration that the younger children had
for the older children that participated in these activities and
a desire to imitate them in the future.

F: Jean Paul, how many children were your age?

J: There were two other girls born the same year as I was born.
There was a friend born two years before. There was another
friend born the year after. There were four or five that were
born two years after.

F: When did you start having religious classes?

J: I think religious classes started for us in fourth or fifth grade.
They used to happen at the Escuela Americana at four o'clock,
after classes were over. I think there were two or three different
groups and there were maybe ten children per group. At that time,
I think the oldest group was not a very large group. We were
the largest group with maybe ten or twelve, and the next group
was between ten and fifteen people.

F: Who gave you the classes?

J: Classes were given by Rabbi Alexander Granat. We felt very
comfortable saying that we were going to religious classes at
4 p.m. because the other kids used to have Catholic religious
classes at 4 p.m. and the pattern was very much the same -- meeting
in a specific spot in the Escuela Americana and going from there
to religious classes. Needless to say, none of us very much
looked forward to going to these classes. We went because we
had to. I couldn't say that we all were dying to go to these

F: What did he teach you?

J: He taught us to read Hebrew and he taught us essentially the
Torah, through reading stories within the Torah.

F: On Friday nights,did you participate in any way with the other
youngsters at the synagogue?

J: There was a custom on Friday night services that after the
kiddush all the children.of a certain age, essentially from five
or six years old to twelve, thirteen would drink from the kiddush
cup after the kiddush and insofar as that was concerned
we did all participate. We didn't have at that time what we used
to get later on in services, where the kiddush was performed at
the end.of the service. There was much more of a social activity
limited to two or three minutes after the kiddush was done.


F: How were you prepared for your bar mitzvah and by whom?

J: I was prepared by the rabbi, Alexander Granat, and we worked about
nine months I believe, or ten months in preparation for the reading
of my section of the Torah and of the Haftorah.

F: And you were prepared a year in advance? For how long were you
prepared for that?

J: I don't remember exactly what the frequency was. I think it was
no less than two times a week, no more than three times a week
for nine months, ten months maybe.

F: And at the same time you were being prepared for your bar mitzvah,
were you having classes in school?

J: No, I believe the accommodation had been that I no longer had to
go to religious classes in return for the rather intensive prepara-
tion, which required not only those two or three hours with the
rabbi, but also many additional hours on my own, preparing for
those two or three hours.

F: Do you remember how your bar mitzvah was celebrated?

"J: I remember it was a rather extraordinary event in the community.
All bar mitzvahs and, for that matter, births and marriages were
special, simply because there weren't that many of them. Unlike
many communities in the states (where you many times have two or
three children celebrating their bar mitzvahs in the same Shabbat),
we had one bar mitzvah a year and it was a great event. We had
family who came for this occasion from Europe. We had a family
dinner on Friday night. We had a reception on Saturday afternoon.
I'm sure we had other things I can't recall.

F: What you remember is a very beautiful and very special occasion.

J: Yes. I remember it as a rather special occasion not only to me,
but for the entire community. It wasn't this bar mitzvah in
particular, it was the fact that there was a bar mitzvah in the

F: But your bar mitzvah was very beautiful, Jean Paul. The activities
that you mentioned before that you were looking forward to taking
the place. Can you tell us a little bit about those activities,
what were they and by whom were they done and prepared?

J: Unlike other communities in Central America, we didn't have
sporting activities at all. I think the reason was there weren't
enough of us. We had plays of various levels of sophistication,
plays the children put on. The plays were prepared by Perla


Meisner and Inge Bernhard. The rabbi's wife Marianne Granat
also participated.

F: What were the plays about?

J: The plays were for specific occasions. The first one that comes
to mind is Purim, of course, and they were essentially plays of
a religious topic. They weren't lay plays and they were for
specific religious holidays.

F: Like Chanukah.

J: Yes, like Purim, like Chanukah and Purim, specifically. Those
are the two that come to mind. In addition, a special service
where the children participated to a much greater extent than the
other services. This was for Simjas Torah. I would say all the
childrenof the community of four or five years, or older, would
participate in the service, walking around synagogue with flags
and the Torahs. We always looked forward to that. It was the one
service where the rigor of the other services was not observed.

F: And afterwards, you were given candy.

J: Yes, we were given candies or rather, small gifts.

F: What do you remember of Sukkoth?

J: Oh, we had a sukkah outside the synagogue, very sophisticated.
The first sukkah, I believe, was not that complex. It was a very,
very light structure. The second sukkah we had, in fact, was a
sophisticated sukkah. It had a movable roof that, of course,
failed to work every time it was required to. And again, it was
one of the holidays essentially designed for the children
in the community.

F: Do you remember how Chanukah was celebrated in your home and at
the synagogue?

J: Chanukah was one of the holidays we had to play at the synagogue.
We celebrated that way as a community and at home we lit the

F: How do you remember those holidays, Jean Paul? Were they something
that gave you what they were supposed to, a certain feeling of
security towards your religion among the non-Jews? How did you
take it?

J: The great security that these holidays give you comes from the fact
that they are highly repetitious, that they, in fact, are a routine
that repeats itself year after year after year in our lives for


hundreds and thousands of years. This, in fact, gives you a certain
security and you look forward to the holidays. They essentially
follow the same pattern every time. You feel very much at ease
with them when they come. In some cases, specifically Chanukah,
you tend to identify a little bit with the clelbration of Christmas,
for the Christians. You feel that you're not being cheated (as
a child) out of a special, specific holiday where you get gifts
and at the same time you realize that there is something very

F: Do you think that most of the children in the Jewish community of
El Salvador had this same feeling towards the holidays?

J: Yes, I think so. I think there is a very homogenous community
and I think that essentially all the children have felt the same
way. They certainly enjoyed all the holidays and looked forward
to participating in all the holidays, subject to the differences
in individual character. Some were shyer than others, and as
a result were more reluctant to form part of plays. Some parents
were a little bit more, and some less distant from the rest
of the community, and that affected the degree of participation
of children. But in general, yes, I would say all the children
felt the same way I did about it.

F: Jean Paul, did you feel any anti-Semitism while you grew up?

J: No. I felt no anti-Semitism at all. I think I can make a fair
statement that there was, in fact, no anti-Semitism in Salvador.
There were isolated cases of anti-Semitism, cases whose sources
were traced to individual persons, certainly not to any organized
group or any organized effort to develop an anti-Semitic situation.

F: Do you remember how Yom Hatzmauvt (Independence Day) was celebrated?

J: I'm not sure if Yom Hatzmavt was celebrated at all during my time
as a child in the community. I'm sure this is something that was
instituted later on.

F: Jean Paul, when did you leave El Salvador?

J: I left Salvador in 1964 at age fourteen following essentially the
same pattern that was followed by many parents who would send
their children to high school in the states. They subsequently
would continue to college and some of them to graduate school.
Colleges would be either in the United States, Israel or France.

F: When you went back on your vacations, you participated again on
the Jewish life of El Salvador? How was it when you came back?

J: I think the community made a very special effort to always welcome


children coming back from school. Even the reception at the airport
used to be extraordinary. I personally remember going to the airport
to receive some of the older friends coming back from school at
that time, and waiting for Andres GuttFreund and Jorge Weill coming
back from school. I was very anxious to find out what life was like
for them. Distances were much greater in those days, flying to school
in the Boston area was very different from what it is now.
Telephones were not what they are now. Flights were not what they
are now and essentially going away meant being away for three,
four months at a time, with minimal communication with your parents
and some adjustment in the first year away.

F: When did you come back to El Salvador, Jean Paul?

J: I came back at the end of a ten year period in the states, four
years in high school, four years in college and two years in
graduate school. I returned to El Salvador in 1974.

F: What kind of a change did you find when you came back? What kind
of community was it when you came back?

J: I didn't find any changes. In 1974 the community had evolved
like any other community evolves, but it essentially was the very
same community that was there throughout my years as a child in
the community. There were some people who were no longer there,
but it essentially had not changed.

F: How was your participation in the community religious life when
you came back?

J: Coming back after a ten year period puts you in a totally different
position because you came back as a young person who, at that point,
was in a position to offer something to the community rather than
to take from it. You can form part of the various organizational
groups within the community that in turn help organize activities
for the children, religious activities and social activities.
I think it was time at that point, it was recognized by both the
community and the persons coming that it was time for them to serve
their communities a bit.

F: How did you serve the community then?

J: I was part of the board of the community in various positions.
It was felt (correctly) that the persons entering the board would
enter the board through the secretariat center because it was one
of the more time consuming positions within the board. I felt this
was the proper position for somebody who was coming into the board.
I also helped with religious services, sometimes when
the rabbi was there, sometimes


when he was not.

F: You were able to help in the religious services because of the
way you were prepared for your bar mitzvah and what you saw at

J: In.part because of the way I was prepared. In part because, as
far back as I can remember, the services never changed and they
were a repetition Friday after Friday, Saturday after Saturday,
exactly the same structure, the same melodies.

F: Did you start with new songs at the synagogue?

J: Every so often we changed melodies. We did use two or three
different melodies for specific prayers and we tried to introduce
new melodies. Nevertheless, it was understood that the melodies
introduced would have to have a certain concordance with the rest
of the service. They had to maintain the unity of the service.
They should not stand out as being totally extraneous to the
liturgy previously used.

F: I remember you helped a lot when the rabbi was having his open
heart operation.

J: The rabbi had cardiac problems and he had to be operated on.
Before that he was away for vacation, and again when
he was sick. I helped with religious services both in synagogue
or burials, and I would have loved to do a marriage. I never got
to do a marriage. I was close to doing one, to doing two, as a
matter of fact. Rabbi came back from Texas the day before the
marriage of Kathy Geissmar. It was unknown whether he was going
to be back. He wasn't feeling well for the marriage of Betsy
Freund, and I might have done that one, too.

F: I remember you prepared someone for bar mitzvah.

J: No. I didn't really prepare someone. The rabbi was in a bad
period again; he was sick so often, and there was a period
of time he was away. It was necessary not to lose the continuity
of the preparation of this kid. All I did was made sure that
he continued practicing what he had learned so far. I didn't
in fact teach him anything new. We did continue reviewing
everything that had been taught him by the rabbi.

F: For Rosh Hashanah,Yom Kippur, when the rabbi was not well, you
also helped.

J: Yes. Rosh Hashanah,Yom Kippur, were more complicated operations,
more complicated from a logistics point of view. Yom Kippur
and Rosh Hashanah like in many other communities) were used


for fund raising activities. These had to be organized. The
rabbi for many, many years handled both services on his own.
I mean it was a monumental task. It couldn't have been done
by many other people. There were very lengthy services, and
he did all of the services, including the reading of the Torah.
When he became older, it was necessary to obtain assistance
and to bring in some cantors and rabbis from the states to
assist the rabbi in the conduction of the services, and all
these activities required a bit of coordination.

F: That was your job. And you did a wonderful job.

J: I think it was my job to take care of the logistics of the opera-
tions of those three days--to make sure that the lists were made,
and the things in those services worked as smoothly as possible
so as to not disturb the dignity that was demanded of those
services. A malfunction of the administrative assistant would
have affected that dignity.

F: Jean Paul, how did you go about getting that help from the states
and what kind of help did you get for the specific services of
Rosh Hoshana, Yom Kippur?

J: I'm not exactly sure how we came upon the idea of contacting
the Hebrew Union College. I am not sure whether other efforts
Shad been made before through other organizations. In any case,
we did contact the Hebrew Union College and through them we were
able to get student rabbis who were willing to come spend high
holiday periods with us in El Salvador and assist the rabbi.
In the last two years I was there it was one of the faculty
members, Dr. Weisber, who came down to Salvador to assist us
with these services.

F: Jean Paul, you also had the mitzvah to play Yom Kippur, Rosh
Hoshana the shofar. Who prepared you for that and how did you
come about doing it?

J: Well, it was necessary to get someone to play the shofar. I
don't know who was doing it in the years that I was away from
Salvador. I know that various people had this mitzvah. They
were at a certain age and they were having some problems with
the shofar. It worked well at the beginning, but as it went
they had greater and greater problems. When I got there,
nobody was prepared to do it. There wasn't really anybody who
knew how to do it, either, for that matter. I had a shofar
which.was given to me by my mother. It belonged to her father
[my grandfather was a rabbi]. I went to the house of
Wehrner Meisner and he had a shofar which belonged to the
community. We started the procedure of trial and error trying
to extract sound out of this.



0 F: Which year was that?

J: I don't think that was in 1974, the first September I was there.
It was probably the year after that, probably in 1975, because
I can only remember doing it three or four times. I do not
remember doing it five times. It was an extraordinary thing the
first time. It required a tremendous amount of preparation,
several months. It was psychologically a very difficult thing to
do, very easy to do at home, very easy to get the sound out
perfectly at home, very difficult to do at synagogue because of
the extraordinary fear of disappointing the community.

F: You did it beautifully.

J: Well, I remember the first sequence was extremely exhausting.
remember finishing the sequence and trembling quite a bit at
the end and sweating, having teary eyes, just from the fear of
not being able to do it. I think once the first sequence was
over, doing the second, third, and fourth was a .maj9r problem.

F: Was Wehrner Meisner also doing the shofar? Why did he have a
shofar in his home?

J: I believe Wehrner Meisner was one of the persons that had
attempted to one point to handle the shofar. Mr. Jose Baum
was another one. There was a Mr. Ernesto Dreyfuss who at one
point had also done it. I don't know who else had.

F: Jean Paul, then you got married to your wife, Jessica Friedman,
from New York, and you came back to El Salvador. That was in
which year?

J: That was November 1976. Jessica Friedman, an American, from
New York moved down to El Salvador.

F: For how many years?

J: We lived there for a year-and-a-half. In February of '79
we had a baby daughter, Alexandra, and we stayed in El Salvador
until November of 1979. When Jessica came down in November of
'76, she saw the community still in its glory. I remember
that one of the very first things she attended was the bar mitzvah
of Scotty Egan Wyer.

F: That was the boy that you helped.

J: That was the boy that I helped with the preparation for the bar
mitzvah. And undoubtedly, the community, at that time (even
though it was already slightly reduced from the death or
departure of certain members) was still operating very much in
its normal manner. She still saw the greatness of the community


and appreciated the fact that persons who came down a year-and-
a half later no longer did.

F: When we talk about the glory of that community, we are talking
about a community of about 300 people?

J: Yes. I think the count was something like 130 families; a little
bit over 300 persons. I guess 334 persons.

F: What was it that Salvadorian community had that was so wonderful?

J: That was a very different community from the other communities
in Latin America. For one, it was not a post-World War II
community. It was not a community constituted out of persons
who had fled Europe slightly before 1939 or during the years from
1939 to 1945. It was formed in the early part of the century and
continued in that basic form (expanded by the birth of children),
from the beginning of the century to the end. In fact, some
people did come from Europe in those years but it was a very
minor migration. Most of the communities in Latin America, except
the extremely old ones in the United States and certain very old
communities [Panama and Curacao] were World War II-type communities.
These communities were almost universally also eastern European.
Our community was a western European community, Franco-Germanic,
essentially. Ashkenazim, very few Sephardim. A very dignified
community. Its members were all very well-bred, intelligent,
well-educated people, although most of them had I think members
of the community with a university-level education were the
exception. The origin of these persons showed the manner in
which a community could be so carried out. The social and
religious activities showed a certain dignity, a certain excellence
that I think was.recognized not only by us, but by the other
communities in Central America. We had a much greater contact with
American or South American communities.

F: Jean Paul, tell us about FEDECO and your opinion of that? FEDECO
was the Federation of Central American Communities. What was that
for our community in El Salvador?

J: I do not think there were any negative factors in FEDECO. FEDECO
was established essentially as a vehicle for the rapprochement of
the Jewish communities in Central America: Guatemala, Honduras,
Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and ourselves. These communities
varied in origin and in size. The Honduran and the Nicaraguan
communities were essentially very small communities, maybe
twenty families, approximately, each. In practice, the
rapprochement between the communities was much more at the level
of the children, where summer camps were organized. The location

was alternated in Guatemala, Salvador, Panama, and Costa Rica,
essentially which were the communities which were large enough
to be able to organize activities for FEDECO. I think it was a
very positive vehicle in a sense that it helped to link all the
essentially small communities in these Central American countries.
Some attempts were made late to raise historical and demographic
data regarding these communities, but it unfortunately came too
late. It came at a moment when the Nicaragua community was
essentially non-existent, because of the earthquake they had
suffered. Many people had left after the earthquake.

F: It was in which year?

J: I don't know in which year it was, but of the twenty-five
families that were there at one point, there must have not been
any more than ten families who left after that. In the late 1970s,
in any case. That was way below the level that is required to
maintain an operating community. Honduras, also. They were
below the level of an organized community. There was one Jew in
Belize. I don't think any one of us ever visited, but joked
about it enough. We joked that when we went to Belize, we should
go visit him. But we do believe there was one. There might still
be one. The communities in Costa Rica and Panama seemed particu-
larly prosperous at this time. I think partially in function of
their size. As these communities fall below a minimum level for
the sustenance of organized activity, they tend to disappear.

F: Jean Paul, is there anything that we have forgotten about the
community that you would still like to add? What are your views
about the community right now?

J: I have to repeat again, this was a most extraordinary community.
I don't think you could find a community like this
in many other places. It was extraordinary because of the way
things were handled. In spite of its very minimal size there
was an extraordinarily powerful community, and it certainly gave
all of us who grew up a certain confidence, a gratefulness for
our experience. Even the ones who came at a later date recognized
there was a debt to this community. There is unfortunately not
much left there now because of political reasons. Perhaps with-
out the weight of political problems, a natural dispersion was
bound to occur because of the education of the children. The
children tended to be sent away from Salvador for their education
and the girls tended not to come back. They tended to remain
wherever they would marry. Very few of the boys came back.
Certainly none of the professionals would ever consider coming
back. Doctors, lawyers,and parents normally would
follow their children away from Salvador. My feeling is, with
time, a community of the size of El Salvador was not sustainable.


It was not problematic for the men. At all times there were
five or six men that were in the position to help, and they
were willing to help. This means with all the travelling and
the absences, we always had a minimum of three men plus the
rabbi to take care of these circumstances.

F: Who were they?

J: Well, I remember Wehrner Meisner, Jack Davidson, Enrique
Guttfreund, Rabbi Alexander Granat, and myself. There was
maybe one additional person, I don't know.

F: There was Ernesto Freund?

J: Ernesto. Yes, and probably others at one point rather helped.
It was not a problem with members. The problem was the women
in the group were more reduced. One older woman (Paula
Widawer) would always participate and because of her age had
a very reduced ability to handle it, and certainly not by herself.
We were called generally by Wehrner Meisner, who, because of
the excitement of the moment, would forget that some of us didn't
speak German. He would call us up on the phone and speak in
German. We all knew that when Wehrner Meisner called up in the
middle of the day in German it meant somebody had died.

F: In the middle of the night, you mean.

J: Believe it or not, since people tend to die early morning and
later in the day for some unknown reason, most of the times it
was during the day. When I got a phone call at the office in
German from Wehrner Meisner, I knew. I knew I had to go to the

F: It was a community that respected each other very much. It was a
group of people where, whether you were sixty-five or twenty-five,
you did things together.

J: Certainly there was a tremendous admiration by the younger members
in the community for the older members and vice versa. I think
the encouragement the children always got from the adults was
extraordinary. The pats on the back, the congratulations, the
positive reinforcements certainly were of great help. No effort
made by the children ever went unnoticed or unrewarded.

F: Jean Paul, you were an outstanding member in our community and
helped all over, and I wanted to thank you very much for what
you were then and what you did for our community, and I want
to thank you for the interview. Is there anything else you
would like to add?


J: I thank you for that, but I would like to say that it is merely
a case where we all felt that we had such an extraordinary debt
to the community it most certainly was a debt that could not
remain unpaid. We did as much as we could in the few years that
we had to pay them back, because we had a limited amount of years
left there after we came back from college. Other members who
had lived there for thirty or forty years, had plenty of time
to do things for the community. I think that the younger ones
had a minimal time and certainly the ones even younger than I
never had an opportunity to serve. They left Salvador never to
come back.

F: I wish you all the best in the world. I hope we can go back
to Salvador some day and visit the community.

J: Me too.

F: Thank you Jean Paul.