Global, Justice

Huffin Glue

Skadarska, an easy slope of cobblestones just off Belgrade’s main pedestrian mall, was the street of bohemians, poets and artists in this fortressed capital of Serbia. Today, this bombed city’s Montparnasse is an understated tourist attraction, where cafes remain mostly empty, and the gray skies above give it a rush of inexorable macabre. I traveled to Belgrade with some friends who, after a sojourn in Budapest to meet with members of the Jewish community there, decided to trek 8 hours south to explore a different kind of Europe, one that lives on the periphery, like a Serbian Kiryat Shmona rushed through centuries of war, occupation, building and bordersmashing. The Jewish community of Serbia is an aging but vibrant one, and as always, is mostly made up of a Sephardic community with origins in Spain. Like other post-socialist Jewish communities, it has dwindled, and most of its members have emigrated. The cityscape is one of less glory than other European cities, and drab trams rumble loudly under disinterested mid-century buildings. Much like the rest of the Balkans, The Roma, or Gypsies, are moving into the spaces that Jew’s left empty. They often pack their lives into old synagogues and on top of cemeteries.
This was my second time in Belgrade, but this particular walk down Skadarska was a jarring one. While crossing into the quarter from a side street, I watched a police officer and a young Romani boy confront each other, the pre-pubescent boy digging his fists deep into the front of his pants, as if he had been caught soiling the curbside dumpster and now had to face the cop. Then, after the officer told him off for loitering in one of Belgrade’s most attractive streetscapes, he ran down near me to meet his comrades, all of whom were clutching flaccid bags of glue. They huff and huff, inflating the red plastic bags like the throats of some sort of neon lizard. Today, Serbia’s famous citizens aren’t dying in The Hague, they are barely living in the center of the capital.
I have long expressed my view that the Jewish and Romani people are linked by history, if not by destiny. Today, as always, the Roma are described a rogue anti-community of dark vagrants ruled by their slum’s incessant inability to enter civilization. In a record store in central Belgrade, a cashier tells me “Call me a racist, I do not like the Gypsies; they refuse to work, they are dirty, they steal. You may like them, but you do not live here. I have my reasons.” I see a century ago, when a Ukrainian saleswoman may have expressed a similar sentiment to a traveler about sidelocked youths loitering on the edge of Kharkov’s ghetto strapped with violins and brandy.

10 thoughts on “Huffin Glue

  1. “a rush of inexorable macabre” – what does that mean?
    “drab trams rumble loudly under disinterested mid-century buildings” – ?
    call me a philistine – or a palastinian – i was born there – (Tel Aviv)

  2. Max,
    It’s a grim city in many ways. There are trams that makes a lot of noise when they pass under buildings that were built during the Tito era, an era with Yugoslavia was united under a socialist system. The buildings are drab and crumbly.
    Philistine? Palestinian? What? Tel Aviv? What?

  3. Is the Romani condition to be distilled to such an extent that they are purely objects, with no ownership over their own circumstances?
    Is the Jewish condition to be distilled to such an extent that they are purely objects, with no ownership over their own circumstances?
    When their kids stop huffing and pick-pocketing, will it be the result of an internal change in them, their families and people, or because enough outsiders have awakened to the injustice?
    Are Jews thought to be successful as s result of changing circumstances among the gentiles, or because of what we have achieved on our own merits? In other words, are we enjoying the fruits of liberation because we left Egypt, or because of our 40 years in the desert?
    Just wondering – without the identity politics colored glasses….

  4. Jew Guevara,
    No, the Romani condition is not to be distilled. My post expressed quite the contrary. The Rom boys I described are both children with little control over the exploitation that they have suffered under the boot of corrupt Romani oligarchs, and under the wheels of a society that rolls over them in search of its own way of overcoming its failures. You’re interpretation of my post has entirely missed the point. I am connecting the condition of Roma people with the European social forces that also have cornered Jews, even to this day. It is incorrect to assume that I have disregarded the own responsibility that Roma have for their own fate, but as a Jew and a student of history, I know it is irresponsible not to acknowledge the fact that the Roma are among the most resented and oppressed people on the European continent. As a Jew whose chosen the tag Jew Guevara, perhaps you can relate.
    The Roma boys have become addicted to glue and have resorted to a life of stealing. I do not think that they decided to partake in these activities because their families and their Romani-ness somehow obligates them to take this path. I think its safe to assume that children do not choose to become animals. It is the gift of true citizenship, not some abstract and all-encompassing Romani cultural revolution that will heal their wounds. The cityscape of Belgrade affords them no opportunity for an equal education, nor do their parents believe that such an education could be afford them a voice in new Serbian democracy. I am one that fully believes, after years of working with Roma on two continents, that the social spaces Roma inhabit are largely a result of the unwillingness of European governments to confront the reality that Roma must be given equal political and civil rights under the law. Such rights would force European governments, many of them with weak economies, to first provide equal education, health care, social security and employment opportunities. For the Roma, culturally autonomous community is not only necessary, but a right. However, this right comes with responsibility, and Roma must take up the mantle of citizenship in the same way that many successful Jews did. However, Roma ghettoization, as we have seen even in the most prosperous of EU countries, is reality.
    Jewish people largely suffered a similar political inbetweenness in Europe, as they do today. They both belong to their country’s society, but remain a nation apart, largely as a result of their refusal to identify fully with the national projects that surround them. Fortunately, we have a country, and troves of people in our community who both have assimilated after centuries of pogrom and murder, made money, and then known the importance of sustaining Jewish life around the world. As I said in my post, perhaps Roma will have a similar destiny.
    I’m sorry that you have taken this post as a distillation of the Romani and Jewish narratives, especially in Europe. You’re reference to Yetziat Mitzrayim doesn’t make much sense to me. Maybe you’re just trying to get into the spirit of the Chag.
    peace, um, che?

  5. “Philistine” – is the English term for someone who isn’t cultured – it is based on the Biblical name of the a small tribe called the Philistines –
    The British named the Area we now call Israel – Jorden – Palastine – (as a joke)
    I was born in Tel Aviv – therefore I am a Palastinian – or just a plane stupid Philistine!
    Because I find the authors overly descriptive gibberish – as i’ve said before a ‘pain in the arss’ (pronounced with a southern British accent) I must be stupid and uncultured
    eli – i’ve explained myself – what is there not to get – humour? hmmm…
    If you want to write a novel go ahead – but please let me know what you’re gonna call is so i can avoid reading it.
    nothing personal – but you probably read to much

  6. I have no idea what you are talking about. I have no idea how my original post related to where you were born, the Philistines, British accents, or a sense of humor.
    But if i do write a novel, I will be sure not to let you know.
    Chag Sameach, Max. Du bist a bissel tzafloygn oon sehr modneh. Ex-lubavitch? You still remember a little bit of your roots? O wait, you’re Palestinian.

  7. I don’t know what the fuss is all about. If someone writes something they want to express, let them do it, no one has to read anything and everything.
    Eli – I think your piece was fantastic. I personally like descriptions, and I thought yours were great, painting a vivid image of a place I never was, but could imagine. And creating a link between the gypsy people, wandering into a Jewish past, not only in place, but in persona, is an interesting idea. We are also a gypsy people, wandering, always searching. It is that placelessness which is at once a great strength and great weakness. It is freedom, and freedom unbound is insanity. To have no place is to be able to forever choose. But to choose forever is overwhelming and lonely, and its why people sniff glue, because they have lost and forgotten their freedom, and sacrificed it to trade time for brain cells.
    Keep writing, I liked it.

  8. max–it’s hard enough finding good people to contribute to jewschool; it becomes much harder when i have to convince people not to give up after they’ve been unfairly attacked by a commenter. do me a favor–dislike his writing style all you like, but keep it to yourself. he’s a good man, and a good writer, and i would prefer he not be made to feel bad for participating in this project.

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