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COLUMN ONE

A Place for Jews in Sarajevo?

The tiny community survived communism, assimilation and ethnic violence. But now it faces a shaky future as it struggles to renew traditions amid rising Muslim nationalism.

April 30, 1996|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The American rabbi imported from Jerusalem struggled mightily, leading his congregation in a slow, unsteady sing-along of traditional Hebrew hymns of thanks and praise. By the third refrain, several of those seated in the 94-year-old synagogue were beginning to get the hang of it.

"Da-da-yaynu, da-da-yaynu. Da-yaynu," the adventurous few sang. "We would have been grateful, grateful and content."

"No one has to tell you what bitterness is," Moshe Tutnauer told the gathering. "I hope the bitterness in your country has passed."

The ceremony this month marked the first celebration of Passover here since the end of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. For many of the more than 500 Jews remaining in Sarajevo, it was a rare connection with the religious tradition that has been lost through decades of communism, assimilation and, most recently, ethnic bloodletting.

Throughout the fighting, the Jewish community here became known around the world for supplying food and medicine from international donors to the war's victims. Now, as peace begins to settle in, the community that has been helping others survive may be losing its own battle for survival.

Its numbers are dwindling, its people are aging, the traditions are fading. And after years of loyal co-existence, Sarajevo's Jews are on a collision course with the Bosnian government over property disputes and the rising tide of Muslim nationalism.

"This will be the year of decision for the Jews of Bosnia," said Jakob Finci, a prominent leader of Sarajevo's Jews. "The fate of the Jewish community will follow the fate of Bosnia."

With Bosnia splitting more definitively along ethnic lines, Finci added, there may no longer be a place for Jews. And there are other questions that go straight to the heart of the community, its identity and its potential for revival.

These descendants of the 1492 Sephardic exodus from Spain have no permanent rabbi. Tutnauer was just visiting, and the young yeshiva scholar being prepared for Sarajevo is having second thoughts about returning to such a tiny congregation. There are no regular religious services; of 50 children in Sabbath classes, fewer than half are Jewish. Hardly anyone understands Hebrew, although a small, aging group of old men can still speak Ladino, the language of the original Sephardics.

Most of Sarajevo's Jews--about 1,000--were evacuated to neighboring Croatia, other European nations and the United States at the start of the war in 1992. A few hundred people, some with only the faintest ties to Jewish heritage, joined the community during the war. The definition of "Jew" was stretched to embrace them; today, only five families have Jewish parents on both sides. The 532 members of the community include 52 newly reunited Jews from Grbavica, a suburban Sarajevo district that was, until recently, under Serbian control.

The Jewish community's humanitarian aid work, not its religious tradition, was its foundation through the tedious, trying war years. "People were joining the community for their daily bread," Finci conceded.

The question that Finci and other Jewish elders face now is whether in today's Bosnia--peaceful, yes, but more nationalist than ever--there is genuine interest in revitalizing the faith.

Finci, a lawyer who is president of the Jewish La Benevolencia humanitarian association, thinks there is. But others worry about the small number of followers, their high average age and the community's "diluted Jewishness."

At the Passover ceremony, for example, where women sat in the back, men in the front, only a handful of people were younger than 30. Among them was Svjetlana Papo, 20, who is the daughter of a Muslim mother and the granddaughter (paternal) of a Jew.

"I'm not a pure Jew," said Papo, a literature student with a quick smile who lives near the synagogue. "I went to Pesach [Passover] to see if there was anything good to eat. . . . I don't know how to pray to God and I don't go to temple. A lot of people turned to religion during the war, probably because of fear of death. There were thousands of times I thought, 'Dear God, let me come home alive.' But the war is over, and I forgot about God."

*

Slobodan Kosanovic, 50, a computer engineer who has been volunteering at La Benevolencia for the last three or four years, said Bosnians in general, Jews among them, are not very religious, especially after communism. "Our holidays are more of a social gathering than a religious tradition," said Kosanovic, whose mother was Jewish and father Serbian. "My children do not know what it is to be a Jew."

Indeed, the Passover service relied on certain improvisations--with kosher meat unavailable, eggs and cheese graced the traditional Seder plate; some women donned yarmulkes, the skullcap commonly worn by men.

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