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Hebrew is Popular in Yugoslavia, but Few of the Students Are Jewish

December 27, 1989
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Hebrew schools are flourishing in Yugoslavia. But the majority of the pupils and at least one of the teachers are non-Jews, according to the one and only rabbi in this Balkan nation of fewer than 5,000 Jews.

The surging interest in Hebrew studies here comes as a surprise to Rabbi Cadik Danon, who is hard at work on a comprehensive dictionary translating Hebrew into Serbo-Croatian and vice versa.

His project could become a major contribution to Jewish scholarship. It will be the first dictionary of its kind since World War II, Danon explained to a visitor in his high-rise flat in Novi Beograd, a suburb of the Yugoslav capital.

“There was a dictionary before the war, but it is rather useless,” he said.

He began his won dictionary in response to the Hebrew-language boom, which is a recent phenomenon, Danon said. He said he started teaching Hebrew about 10 years ago.

“In the beginning, there were only about 10 pupils,” he said. “Then each year, there were new pupils, and we had to get new teachers. When I described the situation to people in Israel, they were surprised.”

Danon said the Belgrade Hebrew School now has 60 to 70 pupils taking lessons in four or five different grade levels. Students he has taught have gone on to teach younger people.

There is a full-time Hebrew teacher in Zagreb, in northwestern Yugoslavia. There are also Hebrew classes in the northern cities of Ljubljana, Novi Sad and Subotica.

“Among my students is a Serbo-Croatian Orthodox theologian,” Danon said. “Most of the students are non-Jews.” One Hebrew school teacher is a non-Jew and, in fact, an Arabist, who also teaches Arabic.

The interest in Hebrew is running so high, Danon said, that the philosophy department at the University of Belgrade is preparing to establish a lectureship in Hebrew.

It will try to hire a teacher from Israel who can begin classes in January. It is hoped that eventually the university will establish a Hebrew department.

Meanwhile, Danon hopes to complete his dictionary in two years. “I’m doing it all by hand, but we shall do it,” he said, showing the carefully lettered Hebrew words written with vowels, and their Serbo-Croatian counterparts.

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