Several years ago, at a Washington reception, I met Dijana Pleština, the wife of Croatia's late prime minister, Ivica Račan (1944-2007), a social-democrat and left-wing opponent of the country's controversial nationalist leader Franjo Tudjman. Dr. Pleština is American-educated and has taught political science in the U.S. She told me of a plan to erect a museum to commemorate the lives of Croatian Jewish children, and I answered with an argument I had made many times in ex-Yugoslavia: "Monuments and museums are good, but it is a shame that there is no department of Judaic studies at any university in the region. That and a new library would draw scholars from the U.S., Israel, and other countries."
During an academic conference in Bosnia-Hercegovina last year, I learned from a distinguished Croatian linguist, Mislav Ježić, also of the University of Zagreb, that Rabbi Kotel Da-Don had established such a program. Da-Don is Israeli in origin, and chief rabbi of the Bet Israel Jewish Community, the second synagogue established in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, since the second world war.
I immediately presented Prof. Ježić with an inaugural gift to be passed on to Da-Don – a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam translated into Hebrew and printed in Tel Aviv in 1939. To Da-Don, books are central to the restoration of Jewish memory. He told me, "we are starving for a small library on Judaism." In a wider context, Da-Don expresses his joy at the establishment of his chair. "It is very successful so far, I have more than 120 students and with a commitment to four semesters. There is great interest in our work and we are very satisfied."
The rabbi was not a stranger to me. I knew of his work, commencing at the end of the 1990s, when he took over religious duties at the main Zagreb synagogue, known as the Zagreb Jewish Community. Under his direction the community produced a series of prayerbooks, on plasticized pages with colored illustrations. These new seforim included prayers in Hebrew and Aramaic with Latin letters, but with directions for completion of rituals in Croatian. They were also adopted by the Synagogue in Sarajevo. They comprised Kabalat Šabat (The Sabbath Ritual), Songs and Blessings for the Sabbath, and a Mahzor (Prayer Book) for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I met Da-Don himself in 2004, at a conference on Jewish history in the Adriatic, held in Dubrovnik.
And thus in July 2009, the Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP), an international network of moderate Muslims of which I am executive director, donated a package of rare books to what may be the newest Judaic Studies program in the world.
Da-Don welcomed this latest, larger gift, which included two items of 19th century Italian Judaica – relevant because the Jews of Dubrovnik, one of the oldest Hebrew communities in the region, included Italian Jews as well as Sephardim – as did the Jews of the other great Dalmatian city, Split. The authority of the Dubrovnik rabbis extended southward among Jews on the Adriatic coast, as far as Vlorë in Albania. In addition, the Italian Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment is especially identified with Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1801-65), known as the SHaDaL, who lived in Trieste, a town considered Slavic, Jewish, and Austro-Hungarian, as well as Italian. The package also comprised North African and French Sephardica, a commentary on Islam by a Jewish scholar, printed in German in Jerusalem in the 1930s, and copies of the Bosnian-language edition of a book of mine, Sarajevo Rose, which deals with Jewish-Muslim relations in the Balkans. In that book, I had advocated the establishment of such a program at the University of Sarajevo, but without success.
The rabbi wrote me some weeks ago, "these books are of great value to people who have some background and to students who are into research." But he also noted a greater need: "current books in English (which most students read and speak) for students who have no background." His students, many of them non-Jewish, are studying Hebrew as well as Talmud, halakhah, and Jewish ethics.
Da-Don's effort helps to fill a long-felt gap in the southeast European intellectual world. While travelling in the former Yugoslavia, beginning in 1990, I was aware of the spectral absence of Jews from general public life, an obvious effect of the Holocaust. But remnants of Jewish worship, architecture, and publishing were also visible to those who cared to look. Jews had once made up prominent communities in Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, and Kosovo. The public traces of their presence were haphazard: tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions in obscure graveyards; a book kept in a private home, often by a gentile, here and there. Some fine Jewish ritual objects were held in museums. Documentation of Jewish martyrdom in the Holocaust has been accumulated for years. But much physical evidence of the Jewish legacy, and the training of new specialists competent to study, preserve, and even revive it, had been neglected and was in danger of disappearing.
The University of Zagreb, according to Da-Don and Ježić, share the belief that it is necessary to do more than assure that the Holocaust in occupied Yugoslavia during the second world war is not forgotten, and that Jewish properties seized by the Nazis, their collaborators, and the Communists be returned to their original owners. In Croatia, as in Poland today, one finds a hunger for what one might call "intellectual restitution" – restoring the past standing of Jewish traditions.
The CIP offering was mainly symbolic, although as will be noted in comes in a series of such presentations. But one might naturally ask, why would a moderate Muslim group donate Jewish books to a Jewish studies program?
Many people who encounter CIP incorrectly assume I was a Jewish apostate who entered Islam. Sending these books had no component of ethnic nostalgia; although my father was Jewish, my mother was the daughter of a prominent Christian minister, and I was brought up in a leftist, antireligious environment. Islam is my first religion. While I contributed for several years to the Forward, a Jewish weekly in New York, and have written for other Jewish periodicals – and have always supported peace and reconciliation between Israel and its Arab neighbors – my study of Jewish topics reflected intellectual curiosity and sympathy more than a typical sense of identity.
Providing books to libraries in the countries scarred by the recent Balkan Wars goes beyond Jewish-Muslim relations. I and CIP have made many such gifts. It should not be forgotten that in the Bosnian War, the National and University Library, and the library of the Oriental Institute, both in Sarajevo, were destroyed by Serbian rocket fire. The attack on the first institution reduced hundreds of thousands of books and documents to ashes, which fell like snow on the city for days afterwards. The legacy of Bosnian Sephardic printing vanished in that act of arson, along with much of Bosnia's Christian, Ottoman, and more recent documentary history. The Oriental Institute sheltered tens of thousands of Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Bosnian, and Hebrew manuscripts, which were lost. The National Museum of Bosnia-Hercegovina, also under fire, housed the magnificent Sarajevo Haggadah, which was saved both in the second world war and in the later conflict by Muslim librarians. The Muslims saw the Haggadah as emblematic of Bosnian multireligious identity, and as a patriotic symbol for the whole nation. Serbian vandalism produced more burned libraries in Sufi communities in Kosovo.
Jews and Muslims alike believe that reading is a form of worship. As a rabbi from Sarajevo, Nehemiah Hiyya Cajón, wrote in the 17th century, "There is no whisper quieter than the print in a book, to be read by a person in solitude." Right now, I have two small Hebrew books from Baghdad, printed in 1892 and 1900, waiting to be turned over to the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, for that country's national library. The donations will therefore continue.
[Readers interested in contributing books to the University of Zagreb Chair in Judaic Studies may contact Rabbi Kotel Da-Don at [email protected]. The website for the Bet Israel synagogue is http://bet-israel.com.]