Culture, Global, Identity

Ferentari, Novi Sad and Tel Aviv

I can’t believe it’s been over a year since I hauled my suitcase off that rickety bus that rolled from Belgrade to Nis. It was in that little town, wedged in between Kosovo and Belgrade that Serbia gripped my beating Jewish heart. There was a small synagogue filled with garbage four blocks from the city center. With their spare hands, little boys chomping on pizza at a nearby cafe held the triggers on their toy guns. The Jewish community in Nis numbered about 40 people, mostly intermarried in the aftermath of the Shoah, many had adopted Muslim and Christian names. Their cemetery, which dated to the years when Sephardim fled to the Ottoman-controlled Balkans, had been cordoned off with barbed wire. Surrounding it, a new mahala, or ghetto, had been constructed. This time I couldn’t find no shtibl. The Roma had been forcibly settled directly on top of the cemetery in the aftermath of numerous Balkan wars. Now swarthy, mustached men stood with one foot on the gravestone of a Jew, the other in mud. After Israelis of Serbian origin drew attention to the Serbian government’s goof, the salvagable portion of the stones had been protected. Donkey drawn carts paraded along the edges of the cemetery, which had been carefully fenced in by a team of Romani men hired by The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Where were the Jewish, Serbian and Romani activists to demand better housing in the first place? Where were the voices in Nis to voice outrage at the desecration of a Jewish cemetery? Without economic or political power, the Roma in an EU-aspiring Serbia were literally living on top of Jewish memory.
Jewish memorial space like the cemetery is disappearing if we believe that the only remnants of our civilization are in the discolored cement where a mezuzah was scratched off of its doorframe. I believe what we built wasn’t only physical. It existed in tandem with the creativity of the non-Jewish minorities who still live on the eastern and southern edges of the continent. The music of Roma, especially in countries like Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, bear a relationship to European Jewish culture as it existed then and as it exists now. Manele, Chalga and Serbian Turbo-Folk are styles that emerged from Balkan, Turkish, Greek, Roma, Flamenco and Klezmer music. Considered to be the musics of the underclass, they reflect the traditions from which they draw while borrowing from hip hop and other Western music. They have given a unique voice to the silenced. They reflect the reality of being on the edges of Europe. With lyrics that tout sex, gun-running and economic hardship, the origins of the music are both dubious and known to all.
One of my most memorable moments in Serbia was sitting at a computer with Ismail, a bright and toothless man of about 25, at the offices of RTV-Nisiva, a Roma-run TV Station. Fiddling with Winamp, he played for me the manele remix of “Turn Me On” by Kevin Lyttle, a soca musician from St. Vincent, West Indies. I smiled with my teeth, listening to the clarinets and thinking to myself: I came here as a Jew, but I’m going to leave a stronger one.
(Some bands and performers to look out for on youtube and the like: Adrian Puradelu’ Minune / Vali Vijelie / Florin Fermecatoru / Florin Salam)

3 thoughts on “Ferentari, Novi Sad and Tel Aviv

  1. That’s so cool. I would really like to visit the former Yugoslavia. I hear that Sarajevo is beautiful, and everything else is really interesting as well. Not that they are the only things I’m interested in visiting, but what notable Jewish sites are there? Also, do you know if there is there kosher food in Sarajevo or anywhere else in the former Yugoslavia? Thanks for your post.

  2. yo,
    you’re very welcome! Kosher food in Bosnia as well as all of the former Yugoslavia is a challenge to find. However, you should contact:
    Synagogue and Community Center
    Hamdije Kresevljakovica 59, Sarajevo
    Tel: 71-663-472
    Fax: 71-663-473
    Email: [email protected]
    …for more information. I don’ t know you’re kashrut standard, but Halal meat is abundant in Bosnia. Serbia is a different story however. The communities are very small, of course, but Jewish sites can be found in almost every major city. I recommend talking with people on the streets of Belgrade, Novi Sad, Nis, Subotica, Sarajevo, Mostar, etc. Almost every major city in the Balkans hosted at least a small community. You’d be hard pressed not to find someone who claims some Jewish ancestry. Like anywhere in the land of the Shoah, the best way to find the places is through conversation in cafes, on busses, etc. Good luck! Feel free to email me with any questions!

  3. Here’s info from the Joint web page.
    In Historical Inter-ethnic Cooperation, Roma clean Jewish Cemetery in Serbia
    The Jewish Cemetery in Nis, a large city in Southern Serbia, is one of the most important in the region. Dating back to the 17th century, this resting place features tombstones with signs and symbols unknown anywhere else in the world. Stories point to possible links with the Kabbala (mystical numerology) but much is still shrouded in mystery.
    When heavy floods struck Nis some fifty years ago, the city moved the local Roma out of their riverside settlement in the center of town. Homeless and without resources, they began to settle in the Jewish cemetery. Over the ensuing decades nearly 130 of these nomadic families built their homes over and around the tombstones. Cut off from normal Municipal services, like many other Roma living in this region, these families used another part of the cemetery as a garbage dump and public toilet. In some cases, to address the practical problem of sanitation, cesspools were constructed inside the open area of the cemetery.
    Despite ongoing public outcry over the desecration and neglect of the burial grounds, the problem went unaddressed for decades. But years of advocacy by Jasna Ciric, the dedicated president of Nis’s 40-person Jewish Community, culminated favorably this summer. Through a special donation for Roma employment from Dr. Alfred Bader of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, JDC’s Country Director for the region, Yechiel Bar-Chaim, was able to engage the services of Roma rights activist Paul Polansky and his Kosovo Roma Relief Foundation. In close cooperation with Ms. Ciric and the Nis Municipality, Mr. Polansky organized teams of workers from the Roma settlement itself to carry out a cleanup operation.
    Working at least eight hours a day for seven weeks in oppressive heat, the Roma workmen carted out some 200 tons of waste from the open part of the cemetery. And in an unprecedented degree of collaboration, soldiers from the Serbian Army also joined in the effort during weekends. Moreover, the Nis Municipality has now moved to connect the homes of the Roma families to the public sanitation system.
    This groundbreaking effort, which brought a period of steady work to the participating Roma and relief to Jews upset by the desecration, helped to alleviate a decades-old source of tension between the Serbs, Roma, and Jews in a cooperative way. With the cleanup officially completed, the area will be protected from further degradation.
    Now researchers can again attempt to unravel the secrets of the Jewish Cemetery of Nis.
    The project has also highlighted an element at best deemed ironic. Mr. Polansky points out that the preservation of the Jewish cemetery is, in fact, a direct result of its degradation. All the other historic cemeteries of Nis – Serb, Turkish, and Roma – disappeared decades ago, vandalized by thieves who removed the tombstones for use as building materials. As startling as it may seem, it was the Roma homes and refuse that protected – and preserved under the detritus – this unique and intriguing site.
    In their ongoing efforts to promote inter-cultural respect, both Polansky and Bar-Chaim visited a synagogue in Prague last week to describe the success of this extraordinary initiative.
    The cemetery project is one of JDC’s many non-sectarian programs through which humanitarian aid and long-term development assistance has been provided in over 45 countries. Most specifically, JDC carries out non-sectarian activities for the benefit of the Roma population in Macedonia, Serbia, the Czech Republic, and Israel.

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