Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook is a collection of mostly previously published articles about Sephardic Jewish life among Muslims in the Balkans, with a special focus on that life in Sarajevo, the "little Jerusalem of the Balkans." Early in the book author Stephen Schwartz tells readers that he was, "perhaps, always on the road to Sarajevo" . Sarajevo Rose is a personal notebook in which he openly reveals his love affair with the Sephardic Jewish and Muslim cultures of the Balkans, especially as they blossomed in polycultural Bosnia. It is a felt and lived narrative. "My lover was the world: Sarajevo the gift the world gave me" . Given the affective nature of the author's encounter, it is not surprising that he devotes considerable space to poetry, printed in the original Judeo-Spanish and translated into English. For Schwartz, "this poetry…was the ecstatic expression [he] had searched for throughout [his] adolescence and early adulthood" . The title, "Sarajevo Rose," comes from lines in "one of the most beautiful Sephardic songs:" "I am a rose—I am a flower. I grew in the foliage—where no sun had shone."
Schwartz does not set the order of his narratives according to chronological time. Rather, the book "is an intensely personal, elliptical, and non-Aristotelian story" . Under construction is Schwartz's own protean self. It is the liminal phase of his life in which he, the initiate, travels across Jewish, Bosnian Muslim, Croatian, and Albanian borders, adding and rearranging the parts of his self along the way. From the moment his fascination with things Spanish began back in the California of his boyhood to experiencing a "genuine revelation" in the Judeo-Spanish proverbs and romances of Samuel Elazar's Romancero Judeo-Español, and finally to his apartment on once heavily shelled Kalmi Baruh Street, "the center of [his] universe in a Sarajevo recently emerged from hell", Schwartz's mythical-history is one of personal makings and remakings.
Throughout, however, Schwartz recognizes that he also is describing real events in real places, past and present. Schwartz takes readers on this very personal journey, or journeys, during which his life became intertwined with and transformed by the fusion of Sephardic and Muslim cultures and some of the representatives of these cultures. As such, the book is as much a Balkan Muslim Notebook as it is a Balkan Jewish Notebook. For Schwartz, the story of the one can and should only be told in relation to the other, so inextricably connected are they.
He writes, "[J]ust as Balkan Muslims are a singular and heterodox element in the Islamic ummah worldwide, so are the Sephardim a unique and distinctive element of the general Jewish culture. Just as the Islamic ummah has been dominated by the powerful Arab nations, so has the Jewish world been overwhelmed, in the past century and a half, by the wealth and influence of … mainly Ashkenazim…, who in the final reckoning of things have remarkable little in common with Sephardim" .
He writes, "In a dream at 50, I saw a Muslim woman writing Sufi texts; my writing is hers; I am only her pen" . Whereas Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andric's Balkan novels describe Balkan interethnic relations often in an antagonistic manner, Schwartz deliberately chooses to accentuate the positive, constructive elements of the past and ongoing relationship between Bosnia's Sephardim and Muslims. He argues for the power of a Bosnian alchemy that transformed Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam (but apparently not Serbian Orthodoxy) for the better, with the Muslim rule and a "tolerant and open Islam of the Balkans" being the key ingredient in spurring the Sephardic Jews to great religious and cultural achievements [44-45].
The author places himself at the center of many of his tales, not only as the narrator but also as an actor. One such tale finds Schwartz searching for the tomb of Sabbetai Zvi, the Jewish messiah pretender who converted to Islam. The trail led Schwartz to the Dalmatian coast of Montenegro. Another drama finds him at the grave of Rav Moshe Danon in Stolac, Hercegovina, pronouncing kaddish at this site of the one-time annual pilgrimage of Sarajevo Jews. A Muslim peasant, he tells us, now cares for the grave.
Schwartz retells different versions of the "Sarajevo Purim," story that describes how the city's Muslims rallied to save the rabbi from certain death at the hands of Ruzdi-pasa. Schwartz describes Rav Danon as a Bosnian Jewish saint, "or, as Muslims would say, a wali" . Even in passages describing historical figures, such as Abraham Kohen Herrera, the "Renaissance Jewish Traveler," there seems to be an underlying text that casts Schwartz as Herrera. Consider the following passage, for example: "A merchant and scholarly wanderer, he [or Schwartz] stood at multiple historical crossroads between Christian [Muslim] and Jewish aspects of Hispanic [Bosnian] civilization; between the Christian western Mediterranean and the Ottoman east; between the old, mystical, Spanish school of Kabbalah and the then new "messianic" Kabbalah emerging in Palestine [between the Spanish school of Kabbalah and Sufism]; between scholastic philosophy and mysticism in general. His life encompassed a series of adventures, revelations, and remakings of his identity" [174-175]. Change a few of the details, as I have done by adding the parentheses, and the text describes the personal narrative of the author.
Occasionally, Schwartz points his pen in the other direction, noting the complexities of Bosnian life and the contradictions found in individual lives. Here, he goes beneath the coherent surfaces of Bosnian Jewish and Muslim life and reveals the complex realities and ironies of living in volatile times in which individuals made choices that, in come cases, would later haunt them. One such significant other in the author's life was Ivica Ceresnjes, who served bravely as president of the Jewish community during the siege of Sarajevo. Others, such as Jakob Finci, current president of the community, chazzan David Kamhi, and shammash Moric Albahari are community elders who continued to lead the community after the war ended in 1995. Also noted for its exceptional contributions is La Benevolencija, the resurrected Jewish humanitarian society that provided food, communication to the outside world, and medicine to all of Sarajevo's peoples, whether Muslims, Serbs, or Croats.
I would like to correct a minor detail concerning a major figure in the book, Samuel Elazar, who late in his life produced a monumental work of Sephardic folklore from Bosnia. Elazar did not die in 1965, as noted, but more than two decades later. In fact, I interviewed Samuel Elazar in 1986 in his Sarajevo home. At that time he continued to proclaim the success of the ethos of good neighborliness that united the peoples of Sarajevo and Bosnia as a whole. He died before the siege of his beloved city.
Except for one remarkable Serbian general, Schwartz has nothing good to say about Serbs, or anyone associated closely with Serbs. Without explanation, the Jewish organizations in Serbia are found lacking, ostensibly because of the contagion of living among Serbs. It would be interesting to know why Schwartz has dismissed Belgrade's Jews, among them a considerable number of Sephardim, in this way.
Schwartz has been affected deeply by his encounter with the people, texts, and places of Jewish and Muslim Bosnia, and his mission is clear: he wants people to know that these Balkan peoples made a notable contribution to religion, literature, the arts, and mysticism. More than ever, following the attempts to destroy these cultural treasures, he calls for efforts to preserve this cultural legacy. He recommends that an academic program of Sephardic studies be inaugurated in Sarajevo and led by Professor Muhamed Nezirovic of the University of Sarajevo, former ambassador to Spain and a "Bosnian Muslim [who] has gone much further than any Jewish scholar alive today in studying the Judeo-Spanish idiom and traditions among the Jews of the South Slavic lands" .
Related Topics: Albanian Muslims, Balkan Muslims, Bektashi Sufis, Bosnian Muslims, European Muslims, Kosovo, Montenegro, Muslim-Jewish Relations, Sephardic Judaism
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