Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Sarajevo Seder; So long Sarajevo; Belgrade Blues

Working backwards.  Going to rewind to Momday and recount from there.

Monday night began the start of Passover.  I had reached out to a friend David- a French Jew who had spent time in the Balkans to connect me with any Jewish friends he might have to find a seder for Passover.  Thanks to Facebook and 6 degrees of Jewish geography, he was able to connect me with some Jews in Sarajevo and they told me where to go to find a Passover seder.  It was just two blocks away at the Ashkenazi Synagogue on the river bank near my hotel. I was also connected secondarily by the Embassy to a Sarajevan Jew named Raheli who worked at the Embassy and also offered me a space at the ceremony.

I made my way to the synagogue at the required time, and was kinda shocked to see people smoking in the lobby of the synagogue.  People smoke everywhere in Bosnia, why should the lobby of the shul be any different.  Lost in smoke and foreign languages, I met an American Jew from Philly named David who was teaching in Budapest, and a Croatian-Bosnian Jew named Dino who was an interesting fellow.  We followed the crowds upstairs to the actual sanctuary, where thankfully no one was smoking.  The sanctuary was gorgeous in a Moorish style.  There were approximately 60 people in the synagogue for the Passover service.  And it seemed equally as many cameramen.  There were a number of video and still cameras that were taping the service.  And they were paparazzis for it.  I was a little annoyed at the constant shutterbuging.   But it was fine.

After the service, we reconvened downstairs in the hall to have the seder itself.  There was a little confusion over who had actually invited me, since I hadn't found the person who actually invited me.  All the other younger congregants were sitting in the middle of the room but the table was full, meanwhile the rest of the tables in the room had families occupying all the spaces.  A woman said that we really should have contacted the synagogue, and I replied that I had been invited by two people.  I mentioned the first name, and she didn't know who it was.  So I gave the second name, and it was her.  She got much friendlier from there.

David, Dino and I were sat together at a small table and the seder began.  It was a fascinating mix of Bosnian and Hebrew.  Suddenly, I heard something that sounded like Spanish.  LADINO!  This was the ancient Judeo-Spanish of the Jews of Andalucia who fled the Inquisition.  It was like a Spanish-Yiddish.  The cool thing was I could understand bits and pieces of it.

Over the seder meal that was familiar, and with some foreign dishes like a fried matza fritter in honey syrup (yum!), I chatted with Dino about what it was like growing up Jewish in Croatia and Bosnia.

Later Rahela joined us, and gave us a fascinating perspective on the siege of Sarajevo.  She said that her father was a Holocaust survivor, and immediately before things really got bad he knew what was coming. He sensed it, and got out.   They didn't believe him, this was Europe.  But sure enough, the troubles came.

Rahela braved through it, but ultimately left for Israel to live with her family for a few years.  That was both good but difficult as it is never easy to change your life at a later age.  She was working on microprocessors, and the level of Hebrew she needed to continue her work was just not attainable.  Also, life in Israel tougher than life in Sarajevo.  In Sarajevo, she owned 2 apartments; in Israel, she scraped to get by.  Eventually, when things in Sarajevo returned to normalcy post-Dayton, she and her family returned to Bosnia.

We were invited by the younger set of Sarajevo's Jews, who had a clubhouse next door, and Rahela exhorted us on.  We went to the top of the next door building, where about 10 Sarajaven Jews were hanging out, drinking wine and chatting. They were all approximately my age.  I finally got to meet the fellow who had invited me; he had been looking unsuccesfully for the Che Hemingway in my Facebook profile picture.  I met an interesting girl named Lea, who was from Sarajevo, but had been living in Spain.  She was trying to get citizenship in Spain, where she had lived during the troubles.

On Tuesday morning it snowed.  Yes, middle of April and it was snowing.  Despite being woefully unprepared for such weather, I took it in stride because the city looked beautiful dusted in white.  I visted the Bosnian History Museum, which was utterly gripping.  There was an exhibition on the destruction and rebuilding of Sarajevo.  A photographer had snapped pics of the city destroyed, then came back 20 years later to get pictures of the exact same spot rebuilt.  The pictures were exhibited side-by-side, it was quite riveting.

There was also a very good exhibition on the siege of Sarajevo through pictures, press clippings and things of life from the times like the make-shift stoves people used, or the homemade weapons that were fashioned.  All I could do was sigh.

I found a picture of Waiting for Godot by candle light and I got chills.  There was also an incredible poster of the famous cellist of Sarajevo ositting in ruins with his hand over his eyes.   

There was also a very good exhibition on the War Crimes Tribunal and its work prosecuting those who devastated the region.

On Tuesday afternoon, my boss Mark was supposed to arrive but his flight got delayed getting to London and he missed his connectors to Vienna and Sarajevo, and would not get in until later tonight.  I rolled with it, and just took on the meetings with Lejla the CAS of Embassy.

We met with two leaders of hip hop dance crews in Sarajevo, who were acting in the hip hop musical The Change.  Unfortunately, the show was opening just after I left.  But Lejla and I had a good meeting with the two dance leaders to set up future programs.

After, Lejla and I met with the director of the Juventa Youth Festival, a theater and performing arts festival for youth from across the former Yugoslav countries.  It was going to be held in Sarajevo during our program, and we made arrangements to do some overlapping work shops and programs.  I had one more meeting at a ballet school, and we made plans to do both a hip hop dance for the ballet students, and also plans to try to include a couple of ballet students in our overall program and performance as a means to have some fun letting ballet and breakdance interact.

For dinner, I grabbed some traditional Bosnian food, which was delicious.  Peppers stuffed with meat and stewed lamb.  Bosnian food is like Balkan comfort food.

Mark finally arrived from his delay, and I took him out around the city and over to a funky bar I had found called Zlatana Ribica.  The place is filled with interesting kitsch and old hanging lamps.  I introduced him to pear brandy, and we ate nuts out of a shell dish.

On Tuesday, we returned to the theater hosting the show The Change.  We met with the producers, and also the director of the theater.  The theater, we learned, was called "The Sarajevo War Theater."  It opened just days after the siege of Sarajevo started, and remained open during the siege.  The director Nihad spoke of the necessity of theater and culture as a way to remain alive during times of war.  He spoke of art and culture as keepers of memory, and a way to reconstruct emotional space.

He also spoke of a project that the Sarajevo War Theater did with a Sarajevo resident who survived both the Holocaust and also the Siege.  The survivor remarked:

You can't learn how to forget, but you can learn how to forgive.

Nihad spoke of building a space to give a way to also learn how to remember through arts and culture as a way to understand what befell the community.

I spoke of a Hebrew term Ba'al Zichronot, someone who is both keeper and master of memories.

And we watched the theater troupe perform a few scenes from The Change, a hip hop musical focused on broaching conflict resolution through such arts.  It was fantastic.

From there, I had to depart to Belgrade.  Since Mark had come later than I did to Sarajevo, he wanted more time in the city and was flying the next morning in the wee hours.  So the Embassy car dropped he and Lejla off, then drove me to the small Sarajevo airport.

It took me exactly 10 minutes to check-in and get through security for my Air Serbia flight to Belgrade.  I killed time and leftover Bosnian Marks at the bar, drinking lozo (grape brandy).  The flight was delayed, but eventually we got on the tiny little plane and took off from the rainy city.

No sooner were we up that we were back down in Belgrade.  I landed in the airport named for Nikola Tesla in rainy Belgrade.  I was met at the airport by Marija, the Embassy's Cultural Affairs Assistant.  Marija and her family had left Serbia at the time of the war.  She was about 12 when she left Serbia, and spent the next decade or so growing up in California.  She returned some years later to Serbia, and started working with the Embassy in the cultural department.  We had a great chat about the Next Level program, and the Embassy's other work in Serbia as we drove through the afternoon traffic on the washed out day.

I wrote already of my dinner adventures in Skadarlijia.  The next morning Mark arrived around 7:30am from Sarajevo.  We grabbed some breakfast at the hotel, which included wonderful Serbian sheeps cheeses that went very well with matzah.

We met in the morning with Drew the Embassy's Cultural Affairs Officer.  He was probably around my age, originally hailing from Atlanta.  Nice fellow, and we were on the same page.  He spoke about the Embassy's more dynamic cultural outreach, especially to alternative communities within Serbia like the extreme sport community and skate community.  The Embassy has been doing some really innovative outreach in support extreme sports through public/private partnerships, and also working to build skate parks to give Belgrade's youth a space to be involved in more positive activities.

After we met with Serbian breakdancers Andjelko and Igor.  Andeljko had just organized a breakdance competition and showcase in Belgrade called Balkan Fury for breakdancers from across the Balkans.  We spoke about the role that breakdance had played in giving youth in the Balkans a positive outlet and ability to connect with their peers across the region.

Later, we met with a Serbian Prima Ballerina named Ashen Ataljanc, who runs a school for ballet and also contemporary dance styles including hip hop.  We also met her hip hop teacher named Milica, who had lived in Los Angeles.  We spoke about doing masterclass workshops to help her teachers teach hip hop dance better.

We had one last meeting with the editor of a dance magazine, and also a well-known dancer in the Belgrade community.  From this, our program took more of its shape.  Less the traditional tours that I am used to conducting, and more an academy for mcs, djs and dancers.  Once I changed my perceptions of how it would exist, I came to like the way it was shaping up.

Finally, we visited some of the spaces where we would work.  Some fun areas at a youth center near the center of the city.

We bade farewell to Marija with excitement for how the program was shaping up in Serbia.

Later, Mark and I went out for dinner at a kafana- an old style Serbian restaurant.  We sat on low stools and  to warm up from the incessent rain, we sipped quince brandy.  It was strong but smoothed out into warm.   For dinner we tried stuffed peppers and fried cheese.  I had a wonderful chicken and roasted pepper caserole.  For dessert, we tried the tufahije- the baked apple filled with crushed walnuts and topped with chantilly cream.  This one also had raspberry sauce drizzled on top.

Mark's pic
We met back up with Andeljko and headed down through town to a club called Peron to see a band called Barka Dilo, which did a type of music best described as French Gypsy Jazz Funk.  The band was quite cool, and the singer took on all the proper extravagent French airs.  Meanwhile, the club Peron, which means something like "platform" or "trainstation" is literally built next to train tracks.  So while Barka Dilo jammed on the accordion and trumpet, cargo trains passed on by the club.  And we drank honey brandy, which is impeccable.

Friday was Good Friday, and so we didn't have any meetings.  It was still rainy and grey, and I was struggling with the weather.  Mark and I worked in the morning, then wandered down the rainy main drag, and stopped outside a little shop selling tiny fried fish.  I stopped to get 100 grams worth of the tiny fried fishies, which were crispy and delicious.

We continued on to a giant main basilica with huge domes.  The massive church was finished on the outside but still under construction on the inside.  We watched worshippers come and go, crossing themselves in opposite fashion than the Catholics.

We continued our wanderings, and ended up in a beautiful stone church named St. Mathew's.  This one was completed, and it was gorgeous inside.  The smell of incense filled the air during the Good Friday prayers.  Parishioners stood in rows as chanting took place.  We just sat in the back, watching devotees come to kiss the icons and listening to the chanting and the chorus, whose voices swelled through the high ceilings of the church.

We continued down by the parliament and over to the old Ottoman fortress.  The day was greyed over and still soggy, but we wandered through the old compound.  Lost in the fog, the vista had an ominious quality to it.


We caught up again with Andelijko, and went to Rakija Bar to warm up over the brandy.  I had lozo, the grape brandy while Mark and Andelijko had the honey brandy.  We picked at a plate of Serbian feta cheeses and pickled vegetables that went perfectly with the rakija.  We had a quince rakija over a plate of figs, raisins, dried plums and apricots and walnuts drizzled in honey.

After, we caught the bus to a Belgrade metro station, where Andelijiko's friends practiced breakdancing. Down in the subterranean world of the Belgrade metro, I spent the evening watching b-boys and b-girls spin, break, pop and lock. Oh, and there were circus performers as well. They were from a sister circus of Cirque d'Soleil, and they were amazing.
Mark's pic



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