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In Belgrade, a warm, inviting Sukkot celebration

Greetings from Belgrade.

I got into the city — which on first glance reminds me alternately of Athens and Moscow — in late afternoon and had just enough time to drop my stuff off before the Sukkot celebrations began at the city’s only synagogue, located just a few blocks away from my hostel.

I’m no expert on the Serbian Jewish community, and I haven’t conducted any interviews yet — that all starts tomorrow, after morning Sukkot services — but I’m already struck by the warmth and friendliness of the Belgrade congregation.

In so many places I’ve traveled in the last three months, relations between historic Jewish communities and more recently established Chabad outposts are frosty at best. But here, Rabbi Ichak Asiel of the Belgrade synagogue and Rabbi Yehoshua Kaminetzky of Chabad sat side by side in the sukkah, comparing strategies for how to verify the ancestry of people finding their way back to Judaism.
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And then there were the congregants — about 30 smiling faces packed into a long, sparsely decorated sukkah in the courtyard of Belgrade’s majestic synagogue, built in 1926.

Several women invited me to sample a delicious, dense egg-heavy cake. (I’m not sure if it was specifically Serbian, but it was fantastic.) Noticing that I was sitting alone, someone else offered me some cherry candy and a smiling "chag sameach." And a lovely woman named Sandra was excited to hear I’d be in Belgrade for five nights and hit me with a flurry of restaurant, bar and historic site recommendations. She said she’d normally show me around herself — but she’s turned her phone off for the chag.

And all this before I’ve even met up with the one Serbian Jew I actually know — cantor Stefan Sablic, who I met in July in Avignon.

Tomorrow, services kick off at 8:30 a.m. I don’t usually attend synagogue for Sukkot — with my own observance generally confined to an etrog and lulav and handful of meals in my backyard sukkah — but with tonight’s positive experience under my belt, I’m happy to make an exception for Belgrade.

Chag sameach, everyone.

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