BELGRADE (Jan. 23)
Last summer, crisis-ridden Belgrade was the scene of a particularly joyous simcha.
Two young members of the Belgrade Jewish community celebrated their wedding in the city’s sole synagogue.
It was the first full-scale, traditional synagogue wedding in the city in many years.
“You start a new life when you get married,” 29-year-old Dejan Petrovic, who works as the activities organizer for the Belgrade Jewish community, said half a year later. “My wife and I decided to start to keep kosher, to keep Shabbat. We can’t do everything, but we try.”
The turmoil, economic hardship, isolation and trauma associated with the bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia have led to a strengthening of Jewish identity and a remarkable revival of Jewish community life and activities in Belgrade and elsewhere in Serbia.
In the words of Aca Singer, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, “Every bad thing has a good aspect.”
Jews here “survived very difficult times and even maybe have gotten stronger,” said Sonja Licht, a Yugoslav Jew who is president of the board of the Belgrade division of the Soros Foundation’s Fund for an Open Society.
Rabbi Yitzhak Asiel, who arrived as rabbi in Belgrade two years ago, said the war caused people to see that “time is the main tissue of life.”
“They may have lost all their property and suffered other hardships, but what they lament is not lost property, but the lost time they didn’t spend with their family and friends,” he said.
Despite continuing upheaval — exemplified by the daily mass anti-government street demonstrations against the government of President Slobodan Milosevic – - Serbian Jews have ambitious plans for new cultural, social, educational and religious endeavors.
These include a new culture center in Belgrade to serve both Jews and the general public; a project to preserve Ladino, the Jewish language spoken by the traditional Serbian Sephardi community; and a project begun a year ago to help the revival of four small communities in the provinces.
Already, the monthly Jewish Federation Bulletin reads like the community newsletter to be found anywhere in the organized Jewish world, with descriptions of board meetings, sisterhood activities, sports clubs and other community organizations.
It announces the schedules of classes, concerts, lectures and children’s camps; reports on Holocaust commemorations; and runs death notices and announcements of other events of significance to the community.
This month, the Belgrade Jewish Historical Museum helped organize a major exhibit on Belgrade’s pre-Holocaust Jewish quarter.
The event drew big crowds and widespread publicity.
About 3,000 to 3,500 Jews live in what today is called Yugoslavia, which is made up of Serbia and Montenegro. The total includes about 250 refugees from neighboring Bosnia.
Many community members, particularly younger and middle-age people, left for Israel or elsewhere after war broke out in Bosnia in 1992.
Parents sent dozens of Yugoslav Jewish children to Israel for safety, and some remained.
“We now have the situation that our children speak Hebrew and we don’t,” said one mother. “But it’s important for our survival — our children have a new identity.”
At the same time, a number of younger Jews who stayed in Serbia began to take an increasingly active role in community life. Much of the community leadership now comes from the post-World War II generation.
“With the rise of nationalism” at the start of the war, said Singer, a retired bank director in his 70s, “many Jews recognized their Jewish identity and returned to their roots.”
Asiel’s arrival two years ago as rabbi was a key catalyst for religious and educational development, and provided a new spiritual reference point for a secular community, many of whose members are partners in, or children of, mixed marriages.
“This new, young rabbi has been very important for us,” said Milica Mihailovic, director of Belgrade’s Jewish Historical Museum. “He has organized a school, holds Shabbat services. He has great ideas and is an active worker.”
Bespectacled and soft-spoken, the 32-year-old Asiel is a Serb who converted to Judaism and studied in Jerusalem for nearly seven years with the financial support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which finances the day-to-day operations of the community and most of its special projects.
With his arrival, Asiel took over much of the hands-on work of Belgrade’s long- serving Rabbi Cadik Danon, who at 78 is in frail heaith and semi-retired.
“I see my mission to be the saver of individuals,” Asiel said. “I can teach them tradition in a real traditional way. For people who have been standing in one place and not moving for a long time, one step is big.
“If you look at what’s happening from a distance, maybe it’s nothing. But from the inner point of view, it is something — and at least it’s hope.”
Working with Danon, Asiel undertook a series of initiatives to celebrate Shabbat and holidays and to teach Hebrew and religious traditions at an afternoon Jewish school and various clubs for youngsters and adults.
He travels regularly to provincial communities, and in Belgrade gathered a group of 10 young men for cantorial studies.
Asiel also reintroduced “shechitah,” or ritual slaughtering, into the community, even if only he and a few other people keep kosher.
Throughout the years of crisis, the Jewish community has maintained a strict policy of steering clear of nationalist politics, and community leaders remain anxious that Jews not be manipulated by any side in the conflict.
The conflict, however, including the international isolation of Serbia, produced lasting effects among Jews who are Western-oriented and who before the war enjoyed close, open contacts with world Jewry, particularly with communities in other parts of the former Yugoslavia.
“We miss these regular connections,” said Petrovic.
He and other community members expressed the hope that conditions would improve, particularly if peace holds in the Balkans.
But Asiel noted that in working for the future, he found it difficult to rely even on the present.
“It’s very interesting to be a rabbi in the Balkans,” he said, “because nothing is stable here. You can’t plan your life.”
Asiel said he plans “for the short term, but with a maximum input” in his work with the community because “I live with the possibility that tomorrow my life could go into a complete new direction without my will.”