Jews of Yugoslavia Exhibiting Increased Interest in Judaism

The recent upsurge of nationalism in some parts of Yugoslavia has been paralleled by a new interest in Judaism among young Yugoslav Jews.

“We now have more interest by young people for a religious life,” Dr. Ivan Brandeis told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview at Jewish Community Federation headquarters here.

Two young men of the community are now training to be cantors, and another went to Israel last summer to study for the rabbinate, he said.

“We hope he will return in two or three years as a rabbi,” Brandeis added.

If he does, he would be obligated to serve as a rabbi in Yugoslavia for at least five years.

Brandeis said there is now a group of 15 to 20 young people who get together regularly for Bible study. “The younger generation grew up in atheistic surroundings and earlier showed no great interest. Now it starts, and we hope it develops,” he said.

One sign of increased interest in Judaism was that more young people are attending Jewish functions such as the communal seder every Passover.

“There are still very few, but for us everything is relative,” said Lucy Petrovic, the federation’s secretary.

More than 80,000 Jews lived in Yugoslavia before World War II, and nearly 70,000 were killed during the Nazi occupation. There are about 6,000 Jews in Yugoslavia today.

The Jewish Federation lists dozens of cities, towns and villages with Jewish populations. Only nine have synagogues.

But only three cities in the country — Belgrade, Zagreb and Subotica — are able to muster a minyan (quorum) for services once a week. Belgrade is the capital.

There is a fairly big Jewish community in Sarajevo, Brandeis said, but Friday night services can’t be held for want of a minyan.

“We have to solve the problem of Sarajevo. There is no rabbi there. One youngster is training to be a cantor, but it will be a year or more before he is ready to perform,” Brandeis said.

ONE FULL-TIME RABBI

In fact, there is only one full-time rabbi in all of Yugoslavia, Tsadik Danon. He is based in Belgrade but travels to other towns.

The Subotica community functions with a young man sufficiently knowledgeable to conduct services.

But most other towns with Jewish populations may see a rabbi only once a year, when visiting rabbis conduct services on the High Holidays.

In the Dalmatian coast resort of Dubrovnik on the Adriatic Sea, there is a “very beautiful 400-year-old synagogue, but only about 20 Jews, and only seven are men,” said Brandeis.

“Sometimes, during the tourist season, we can organize services by finding tourists for the minyan. But for now, the synagogue is more a tourist attraction than a house of prayer,” Brandeis said.

According to federation figures, there are more than 1,500 Jews in Belgrade and more than 1,000 each in Sarajevo and Zagreb, Jewish museums in Belgrade and Sarajevo document a rich Jewish past in Yugoslavia.

There were many more synagogues before the war that were destroyed by the Nazis.

Some that survived now serve different functions. One elaborate synagogue is now a theater, while another houses the largest museum in Sarajevo.

Brandeis said it was a great problem to maintain the synagogues and Jewish relics. “There are over 200 Jewish cemeteries in towns where no Jews live anymore,” he said.

He and others noted that there seems to be a new interest in Jewish life and culture among Yugoslav non-Jews.

Belgrade broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967 at the time of the Six-Day War.

Brandeis said many books on Jewish topics are published in Yugoslavia. They include an illustrated book of Old Testament stories that rely heavily on Jewish imagery.

“There is also a wide interest in Yugoslavia in mysticism and the Kabalah,” he said.

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