Arts & Culture Director and Cantor Find That Plays on Jewish Themes Resonate in Serbia

Serbian Jewish theater director Stefan Sablic has another hit on his hands, a deeply disturbing play set in the 1930s about a German Jewish immigrant in America and his former best friend, who becomes a Nazi.

Sablic’s adaptation of “Address Unknown,” by Katherine Kressman Taylor, opened recently in Belgrade to enthusiastic audiences and extensive media exposure.

Powerfully performed by two of Serbia’s leading actors — both of whom, coincidentally, are Jewish — the play is a harrowing chronicle of love, betrayal and vengeance presented in the form of letters between the two one-time friends.

“The actors managed to express very deeply how the strong friendship between them at the beginning of the play turns to utter hatred and ends up in an act of cold, determined revenge,” Sablic told JTA in a recent interview.

The theme of politics transforming a friendship into enmity clearly hit a nerve in a country still trying to come to terms with the ravages of war, nationalism and ethnic hatred that marked the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

“The audience reaction showed without a doubt that this play touches a strong chord,” said Sablic, a boyish-looking 27-year-old with big round glasses and a wide smile. “Fascism is seen as a metaphor for all other repressive regimes, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and other prejudice.”

“This story reminded many here of a very common situation they faced with close friends from Croatia or Bosnia,” he said. “During the war many of them broke all connections with very dear and close friends.”

“Address Unknown” is the second play with an overtly Jewish theme that Sablic has adapted and staged successfully in Belgrade.

Before opening to the general public, both were premiered, with support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, at the annual Beyachad Jewish culture festival held each Sukkot on the Croatian island of Hvar.

Sablic’s previous production, an adaptation of “Visiting Mr. Green” by the American playwright Jeff Baron, was one of last year’s biggest box office hits in Serbia, playing to capacity audiences in Belgrade and other cities.

Starring one of the actors from “Address Unknown,” it recounted the complex, developing relationship between two lonely New York Jews — an embittered Orthodox retiree and a young, secular homosexual.

With its subtext of how vulnerable or marginalized people must struggle to find their place in society, it also struck a chord with audiences around the country.

“The play resonates in terms of the sources of tensions, pain, anxiety and suffering in the former Yugoslavia,” said Yechiel Bar Chaim, the JDC director for the former Yugoslavia. “Everyone has a family member who has married ‘out’ or has lost people they were close to or has lost ideals.”

“This is a society that is obsessed by a sense of loss,” he said. “They are presented by the collapse of society, and at the same time they are still in the middle of it.”

Sablic’s own increasingly prominent place in society straddles the Jewish and mainstream worlds in a way that is unique in this part of Europe.

In addition to his work in the theater, he serves as the cantor for Belgrade’s Jewish community. He also performs with a Sephardic music group called Shira u’Tfila, or Song and Prayer, which showcases Jewish liturgical music from the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East.

The European Association for Jewish Culture awarded the group a grant this year to help produce its third compact disk, “At Thy Gates Oh Jerusalem,” which is being released this fall.

The son of a well-known actress and a writer, Sablic studied to be a theater director in college. He was drawn to Jewish music and liturgy in the 1990s when he took a course in chanting the prayers with Belgrade Rabbi Yitzhak Asiel.

“He was so good that the JDC helped him go to Israel to study to be a cantor,” Bar Chaim recalled.

JDC then provided funding for Sablic to work as a cantor in Serbia and Macedonia, which have a combined Jewish population of about 3,000.

At the same time, he and Asiel formed the Shira u’Tfila group, which has gained a following among Jews and non-Jews alike.

“There is an appeal to the general public regardless of the religious tradition the group represents,” Bar Chaim said. “The religious feeling that emerges through the music is thrilling. They sing with kavanah,” religious fervor.

Sablic said he has no problem balancing his secular and religious careers.

“I don’t see any contradiction in being a cantor and working in the secular stage world,” he said. “Both are spiritual fields to which I have an attraction and which fulfill me.”

He said he had considered staying in Israel after his studies, but decided that his place was in Serbia, where young people were needed to help construct a new democracy following the ouster of nationalist President Slobodan Milosevic three years ago.

“I felt after the change of regime in Belgrade that I had to decide where I wanted to build something,” he said. “I decided on Belgrade, although of course I keep my spiritual ties with Israel.”

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