On a busy Saturday morning, the cool, stone synagogue with its bare interior walls had a calm, unhurried air, as if — despite a half-century of upheaval — tradition hadn’t skipped a beat. Just a five-minute walk away, waiters were wrestling with café umbrellas and Yugos were zipping past Republic Square, leaving clouds of dust behind. But the attention of the two dozen mostly middle-aged people who faithfully attend the Sabbath services was focused directly ahead. Between the brass candlesticks, 26-year-old Stefan Sabljic, the thin, fine-bearded cantor with large round glasses, was spinning old Sephardic melodies from the Balkans like a muezzin calling his congregation to prayer.
Playing the cantor is just one of Sabljic’s roles. Much of what he knows he learned from tapes, he said, as he checked his cell phone for messages immediately after the service. Singing in the synagogue keeps him in practice for his band, Shira u’Tfila (Song and Prayer), which sets Sephardic melodies to Middle Eastern instrumentation. Sabljic would like to make it big in Serbia but, with barely 3,300 Jews registered in nine tiny Jewish communities, the country doesn’t offer much of a market for his music. Lately, he has been thinking about bringing his band to America.
It wouldn’t be the first time that Sabljic tried his luck in another country. In the spring of 1999, after NATO began bombing Belgrade, he boarded a bus to Budapest, Hungary, with some 300 members of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia and left from there for Israel. But after studying theater and liturgical singing in Tel Aviv for two years and finding himself with little money and fewer friends, he returned to Belgrade. “I tried to live everywhere,” he said. “I tried a kibbutz. I tried university. Okay, I also have ideological reasons to live in Israel. But they don’t prevail.”
Sabljic is one of hundreds of young Serbian Jews who have tried to live everywhere — everywhere, that is, but Serbia. With the collapse of the former Yugoslavia in 1991 and the rise of nationalism, ethnic revival had become both a political weapon and a source of comfort for all. Anxious to close ranks, like the rest of Yugoslavia’s peoples, young Jews were searching for information about their own ethnic identity. But when things took another turn for the worse in Serbia in 1999, moving to Israel seemed like a natural option. The war finally had been brought home to the capital, and, with it, the sense that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s repressive policies had defined Serbia and its people in the eyes of the world.
For Serbian Jews, this was especially problematic. They didn’t even share the ethnic and religious markers that had ripped Yugoslavia apart. The precedent for seeking a better life abroad had already been set by the hundreds of thousands of young Serbs who had emigrated since socialism’s fall. When financial support for moving to Israel suddenly appeared from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and several European organizations in the wake of the NATO strikes, there wasn’t much to keep Serbian Jews from leaving, too.
But looking back at the number of young people who took the bus to Budapest, many of them flying from there to Israel, Rabbi Yitshak Asiel shook his head ruefully: “The bombing completely destroyed any kind of community we had.”
The 37-year-old Asiel is present-day Yugoslavia’s only rabbi. Appointed to his native country in 1995, he immediately realized the moment’s significance. “The war situation helped people think in more of a traditional way,” he said. “The previous society had been built on the premise that religion was not important at all, and then, after 50 years, the structure collapsed.” In April of 1995, he opened a school for Jewish teenagers. Topics in his culture class didn’t get much more specific than “Hospitality,” “Divorce” and “Death and Mourning,” but for the more committed students, there were regular courses on Jewish history and law. Enthusiasm spread to the synagogue, where holiday celebrations that hadn’t been held in more than 50 years were reinstated.
Asiel still measures the period between 1995 and 1999 by the number of lessons he gave (1,119, to be exact), and he boasts a bit about the 12 or 13 families that started keeping kosher since he became the first ritual slaughterer in the country in decades.
But Asiel knows the limits of his influence. “This community is not concentrated on God ideas. It is more cultural, historical, ethnic,” he said. So instead of focusing on religion proper, his program leaned toward Israel. Serbian Jewry’s long history of Zionist sympathy goes back to the socialist youth movements before World War II and was reinforced by the mass emigration of half of the survivors in the years that followed the war. In the late 1990s, it was even commonplace for non-Jewish Serbs to liken their struggle with Kosovar Albanians to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. As Davor Salom, the swarthy 53-year-old secretary of the Jewish Federation said, “Israel became the symbol of identity in the country. Not much culture, not much tradition, just Israel.”
Most of Asiel’s protégés from the 1990s have left or are leaving Belgrade, and the new generation isn’t stepping in to replace them. Even the president of the Belgrade Jewish community’s youth chapter, Dimitrije Gaon, has considered getting out. Gaon, who is 23 and studies engineering at the University of Belgrade, joined the Jewish Federation in 1994 and wanted to move to Israel from that point on. But every time he had the chance, something got in his way. In 1999, he caught the bus to Budapest but lost his passport and had to return to Belgrade. Some time later, he signed up for a youth trip to Israel but didn’t make it off the waiting list.
By the third time around, the political situations in Serbia and Israel had switched places. Headlines proclaiming the fall of Milosevic in October 2000 appeared alongside reports of the eruption of a violent new intifada in Israel. For the first time in a while, Serbia seemed like a better option. Gaon was offered a trip to London instead, and he took it. “Now I don’t want to go to Israel. I’m afraid. I don’t want to get killed,” he said.
After the Budapest emigration, Asiel kept his classes running for one more year until enrollment dried up. The Belgrade Jewish community still offers classes in Hebrew and Israeli dancing and runs a theater troupe as well as a Serb-Jewish choir. But much of the effort has shifted back to social services for the elderly, such as weekly medical consultations. Asiel turned to his own priorities: translating philosophical and liturgical books into Serbian and leading services and a handful of classes on Fridays and Saturdays. “It’s too much work for one person. I don’t see myself searching for these kids,” he said.
He may be right. The rate of intermarriage is phenomenally high. Over three-quarters of the families registered in the Belgrade Jewish community in 1983 had only one Jewish parent, and many of the parents of the remaining quarter were only partly Jewish. Salom, Sabljic and Gaon each has only one Jewish parent, and Asiel, who was drawn to Judaism after his father’s death, is a convert. “100% Serbian,” Salom said about the rabbi, with a grin.
There may be many more Jews scattered across the former Yugoslav republics who are not registered in their communities, but it is almost impossible to count them since public displays of Jewish identity are uncommon even for official members. In the last Croatian census, released in March, only 576 people declared themselves Jews even though the membership of the Jewish community in Croatia is known to number around 2,000. Frightened of losing its own financial support, the Yugoslav Jewish Federation sent a letter to all of its members imploring them to declare their religion on the next census in Serbia. Professing Judaism has nothing to do with religious belief, the letter asserted, since Judaism has a national element, too.
But Belgrade’s Jews have more than one national heritage, and the Jewish one doesn’t always take precedence. Long experience working in the Jewish Federation has taught Salom that, on its own small scale, the community’s Jewish identity is a faithful reflection of the current situation in Yugoslavia. Even when they were returning to their roots in the mid-1990s, Jews were following a national wave of ethnic polarization. Now that the decade of wars has come to an end and ethnic tensions are beginning to subside, Jews are eager to blend back in.
As secretary of the federation, though, Salom believes that reigniting religious interest is the only way to preserve the Jewish community. Raising money for Sunday school classes, training new youth leaders and building a ritual bath are at the top of his list. On a personal level, Salom slaps a yarmulke on his head whenever he walks around the city. Bright red is preferable, he said, because every stare that it provokes keeps him on message.
Rebecca Reich, a doctoral student in the Slavic department at Harvard University, spent the summer traveling and working in the Balkans.