Balkan Dreams, Modern Realities; Sarajevo, Center of Sephardism


By Stephen Schwartz

Published August 15, 2003, issue of August 15, 2003.
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Of the friends I have made in my Balkan travels, there is nobody alive who is dearer to me, in certain respects, than professor Muhamed Nezirovic´ of the University of Sarajevo. Born in Sarajevo in 1934, in the mixed Muslim and Serb mahala, or neighborhood, of Nadmlini, Hamo — as he is universally known — and his family had strong personal links with the Sephardic business community. Indeed, one of his uncles, although Muslim, was a member of the Jewish choral society, Lira, and toured Palestine with it in the mid-1930s, while an aunt often spoke bitterly of the arrest by the Nazis of her three Jewish women friends, Mazalika, Mazalta and Ordunja. She protested their arrest, saying she did not wish to be separated from them, and a German soldier warned, “If you love them so much, you can go with them.”

Hamo moved through the academic ranks to a professorship at the University of Sarajevo. Though he has served as his country’s ambassador to Spain from 1994 to 1998, he remains a scholar through and through, and the centerpiece of his academic work is his work on the Bosnian Sephardim. In fact, this Bosnian Muslim has gone much further than any Jewish scholar alive today in studying the Judeo-Spanish idiom and traditions among the Jews of the South Slavic lands.

Several years ago in Athens, at a conference on Spain and Hispanic culture in the European southeast, Nezirovic´ delivered a summary of Sarajevo Sephardic history, titled “The Place of the Sephardic Community of Bosnia Between the Sephardic Communities of Europe and the Mediterranean.” At the conference, he conferred with Marius Sala, a renowned Romanian scholar of Romance linguistics, and the two agreed on something perhaps shocking but, after some thought, perfectly logical: Sarajevo should become a new center of Sephardic studies.

In fact, they were not the first to come up with the idea. As noted by Nezirovic´ , in 1924 the Sarajevo newspaper Jevrejski Zivot (Jewish Life) criticized “the Sephardismo of Sarajevo, a Sephardismo absolutely detached and separatist, that wishes to see Sarajevo as a center of pan-Sephardism because Sarajevo, according to the opinion of the promoters of this idea, is the capital and most central city in the entire Sephardic world.”

Nezirovic´ offered even more evidence from another article, titled “The History of the Jews of Bosnia,” by Moshe ben Rafael Attias, which offered an indispensable panorama of intellectual life among the Sarajevo Sephardim at the end of the 19th century. It referred to the founding in 1900 of the weekly newspaper La Alborada (The Dawn), which was issued in Judeo-Spanish, mainly using square Rashi-Hebrew type, by the poet Abraham Aaron Capón. La Alborada carried as its subtitle, Periódico Instructivo-Literario órgano del Judaismo de Bosnia y Erzegovina, or Periodical Educational-Literary Organ of Judaism in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Capón was born in 1853 to a rabbinical family in Rushchuk, on the Bulgarian bank of the Danube. He had first attempted to launch La Alborada in Ploesti, Romania, in 1898 to 1899, although a letter indicates that it was printed in Rushchuk. But the enterprise failed. Capón then decided to immigrate to America, but on the way he stopped in Vienna, where he was delayed by a great influx of Russian Jews heading across the Atlantic. He met a Jew from Bijeljina, in eastern Bosnia, named Meir Danon, who invited him to go to Sarajevo. When he arrived in Sarajevo, his sophistication surprised the rest of the Jewish believers, along with his dedication to the study of scientific and Hebrew topics. He wore European dress, rather than the traditional Ottoman costume still typical of Sarajevo. Capón worked as a religious and secular teacher and was an enlightener who remained in Sarajevo until his death in 1930.

While there, he published La Alborada. It lasted only seven and a half months, but it had a considerable impact. Congratulations on its founding were sent by the Rabbinate of Turkey and the Jewish Academic Youth of Vienna and Sarajevo, and one of its contributing writers was also one of the most distinguished Jewish citizens of the city: Moshe ben Rafael Attias, known as Moshe Rafajlovic and as Zeki-Effendi.

Zeki-Effendi was born in Sarajevo in 1845 to a leading family and was educated in a Turkish state school open to members of all confessions but mainly attended by Muslims. The curriculum was Islamic, and Zeki-Effendi’s participation was notable, although not unique among Sarajevo Sephardim. He traveled to Istanbul where he carried out further religious studies, and his knowledge of Islamic culture led to his devotion to the outstanding Persian poet and mystic Muslih-uddin Sa’di, the 13th-century author of the “The Gulistan orThe Rose Garden.” He may even have become a Jewish Sufi, or enthusiast of Islamic spirituality. Returning to Sarajevo, he entered the Turkish official service and rose to a high position in the tax authority. With the arrival of the Austro-Hungarian occupation in 1878, he remained employed as financial counselor.

Both Capón and Zeki-Effendi wrote in standard Castilian, not Judeo-Spanish, although their texts were printed in Hebrew letters. In 1911, the renowned Spanish scholar of Sephardic balladry, Don Manuel Manrique de Lara, toured the Balkans in Attias’s company, collecting oral texts in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo. Capón commissioned Zeki-Effendi to write an authoritative history of the Bosnian Jews, and Moshe ben Rafael Attias has become especially identified with the historiography of Rabbi Moshe Danon, “the rabbi of Stolac.”

Another of the most interesting aspects of Zeki-Effendi’s history is his indication of the communal role of the waqf, or Islamic endowment, of the great Ottoman governor Gazi Husrevbeg, to whom the residents of the original Jewish residences, as well as Jewish shopkeepers in the Bezistan market, paid rents. Other items of interest include a record of departure for Safed, the Palestinian center of Lurianic kabbala, by one of many distinguished rabbis.

The contribution of Muhamed Nezirovic´ to Sephardic studies represents an indispensable resource for Jewish cultural history. But his position in Sarajevo may also be the seed of a vision. Sarajevo has been scarred by the same intolerance of the non-Christian “other” that led to the Holocaust. Its university, which once graduated numerous doctors and other professionals employed throughout the Muslim world, today struggles toward reconstruction. I have often been told by Eastern European diplomats and intellectuals of their ambitious plans for new memorials to Jewish martyrdom in World War II. But I have several times proposed that rather than create new museums, one of the governments or universities in southeast Europe should endow a department of Sephardic studies, with the mission of preserving books and manuscripts, and providing a home for visiting scholars from Spain, Israel and the United States. I am prepared to offer my own small contribution to such a program, in the form of Sephardica I have collected. But I can imagine no better place for such an effort than Sarajevo, and no better person to lead such a program than Muhamed Nezirovic´ , my friend and mentor.

Stephen Schwartz is the author of “The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa-Ud from Tradition ot Terror” and director of the Islam and Democracy Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. A former Washington bureau chief for the Forward, he is completing a volume on Jewish-Muslim relations in the western Balkans.

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