This article was published in "Israel Hayom" newspaper. It has been translated from Hebrew to English by the author, Ronen Dorfan.
The room is very simple. At the head of the tower at the top of the cliff, not far from the Montenegrin-Albanian border. It is nicely maintained, with whitewashed walls, a small holy arc on the east and a small alcove for the scholar's holy books on the west.
Here on Yom Kippur 1676, the 5437th Jewish year, ended one of the most unfortunate chapters in Jewish history - with the death of Aziz Muhammed, the false Messiah Shabbatai Zevi, in the pirate settlement of Ulcinj. Where he was exiled to by the Sultan's orders after converting to Islam.
Modern Ulcinj is an Albanian-Muslim town in the Montenegrin periphery. Its inhabitants livelihood being regional tourism. My guide, Ilir, believes that maybe Shabbatai Zevi's final address may lure Israeli tourism to the town “as he was an important person to you.”
He tells me that with Shabbatai Zevi arrived 29 families of his most fervent followers. Like him, new converts to Islam. “Up to a generation ago you could find a Stars of David in local homes”, he says. These symbols disappeared in the many years of an anti-religious communist regime. “But many families have Jewish blood in them”, he explains.
Half an hour north up the coast Jaša Alfandari comes across Jewish blood all the time. Alfandari resides in a Muslim area of Bar which is rather ironic. In ex-Yugoslavia, bleeding ethnic hate for the last quarter-century, Jewish-Muslim relations have been usually idilic. Alfandari has been serving as president of the Jewish community of Montenegro in the past two years. It's the world's youngest Jewish community.
He says Jews are discovered here almost randomly.“Some connection tells me that there is a Jewish- woman living with her two sons only 200 meters from me. They fled Macedonia during the war. I go to speak to her but she won't join. She's apprehensive of such a connection”, he says.
They are different stories too. Five or six families recently joined by their own initiative.
One man in his seventies, who was adopted as a child by a Jewish doctor who married his mother, knew nothing of Judaism. But at the age of 18 approached his adopting father and asked to be circumcised. Now he has joined the community too.
The community is currently 107 members strong. Alfandari estimates that they are about 300 Jews living in Montenegro. Every few weeks the members convene for a Shabbat or holiday dinner. Their proud moment was when the government approved Judaism as the country's fourth official religion – along with Catholic and Orthodox Christianity and Islam. The authorities donated some prime real estate in the center of the capital Podgorica, for the building of a synagogue and cultural center.
Alfandari accepts members usually by the Halachic standards – people who can prove a Jewish mother. “But often I mix Halacha with the Law of Return” he says - and settles for a Jewish father when he feels a strong Jewish identity. “If they were Jewish enough for my friend Adolf (Hitler, in irony RD) – they are good enough for me”, he adds.
Especially when by contrast he hears of biological Jews, descendants of girls smuggled to Montenegro during the 2nd World War, who want no association with Judaism.
A vigorously assertive individual, Alfandari is an expert historian. He often enrages members of his small community. “Judaism is not a democracy”', he insists. “5000 years and it never was a democracy. People know nothing. I even have to tell them that they are beans in the Cholent.”
In one respect he is right. His members are learning their faith and tradition almost from scratch.
He was born in Subotica, by the Yugoslav-Hungarian border, while the embers of the WWII still glowed. His father, Nisim Alfandari, was the playboy son of a rich Jewish-Sephardi Belgrade family and not a great believer in hard work. But in war time he joined the Partizans. His mother, Gisella, was from a Vizhnitz Hassidic family that opposed to her marriage to a “Frank”.
“But father went to my grandmother and told her the marriage will happen. Either according to social norm or by him kidnapping his love”, Jaša explains.
They were separated by war. When Nisim Alfandari returned to Belgrade he found no living relatives. Belgrade, that today prides itself on some anti-Nazi legacy, was actually the first to report to Hitler's Berlin that it was “Judenfrei” – free of Jews.
Mother survived too. Lost a kidney and most of her eyesight in a beating by a German soldier. But despite doctors advice, that pregnancy will take a toll on her body and lead to blindness, she accepted her husband's plea for a child. A single successor to the Alfandari annihilated ancestral line.
So Jaša was born.
Only 10 days old, he was taken by his grandmother to Szeged, on the other side of the border. She heard of a “Schochet” who had returned from the camps who could circumcise her grandchild. Upon her return father cried in despair “why have you marked him a Jew?”
He wanted to escape his Jewishness?
“No. He was always a proud Jew who never hid his association. But times were different. He was afraid of a day when people will be asked to drop their pants again.”
In the early post war years the Alfandari family enjoyed a full Jewish life. Grandmother taught Jaša the reading of the Torah for his Bar Mitzvah, and they were Jewish holiday celebrations and a working Synagogue.
This was Tito's relative paradise longed by many of the region's elderly these days. But at the of 22, disillusioned from the dictatorship, Jaša cut his university studies short and emigrated to Israel.
“Fast forward, please”, he says about the next quarter-century he spent in Israel. A mixture of secrecy and work for Israeli security, broken marriages and failed businesses. So when the walls of communism collapsed he moved on to Budapest. Like most of Subotica's Jews, Hungarian was his mother tongue.
Are you angry at Israel?
“At a certain age you realize that you have only screwed yourself.”
The economic sanctions on Yugoslavia during the Balkan War presented some opportunities. “At one stage I had about 50 straw companies registered in Hungary and helping the Serbs to avoid the embargo”, he reveals. Convinced himself that the Serbs were the forces of light and the Croats of darkness.
“Today I know that no one was good. But strangely they all wanted to side with the Jews. Believing the old stereotypes of the Jews controllingthe world”, he explains.
One day his connections in Hungarian corridors of power informed him it was time to leave. He holds no grudges: “they had every reason to arrest me”. So he returned to Subotica.
A few years later he would move on to Montenegro, that was conspiring independence. Helping the future republic build it's independent police force.
People around him will testify: Jaša can fix anything in the Balkan with a couple of phone calls.
I am visiting Montenegro in an uneasy time. The Jews of Montenegro don't posses great riches and the community is short on resources. Ties with Israel are loose and for the upcoming Passover Alfandari needs government support, that has yet to arrive.
Why does one actually need a Jewish community here?
He replies with a saucy metaphor: “Sometimes you are at a party. Everyone is screwing everyone. Then a few months later a lady tells you she is pregnant. You can't really remember. It was dark. The child looks somewhat like you. What can you do? You have to provide him a decent upbringing.”
Be more specific please!
“They were some Jewish dinners. Some of them I attended, some not. Next thing I know we have an NGO and I am the president. Everyone enjoyed these events, but no one realized that a community is a serious project.
“I call the Conservative Jews. You know why Conservative? Because at the time of Yugoslavia no one knew he was Jewish. Then came the war and suddenly the Joint was distributing Conserves (tinned food) to Jews. Suddenly everyone remembered his roots.”
But beyond tales and anecdotes, Alfandari has a clear vision and plan. He has just had an uneasy phone call with a Chabad Rabbi who inquired why the Lubavichers were not invited to take care of the Passover this year.
He has chosen a different Rabbi for the community. Rabbi Luciano Moses Prelavic from Croatia – whose uncle once served as the Chief Rabbi of Split, and his father was ethnic Montenegrin. He belongs to the predominantly Jewish-Hungarian Neolog movement, in which most of his community have roots.
So why doesn't he invite Chabad and ease his financial constraints? “Because I am building a Montenegrin Jewish community for the ages. For real Montenegrins. My people are still babies. They cannot handle Chabad. The Lubavichers will come, start telling women to wear long sleeves. Say men should sit here and women over there. And next thing I won't have a community. People won't want this. In 50 years, only then, it may be possible. First learn your history. Understand your roots. Then the Lubavichers may come with their product – and people can decide if it suits them or not.”
And this future generation indeed is his motivation: “We have wonderful youngsters. They take interest. They get involved. Not the old people that come to our events hoping to find some business”.
Alfandari has little contact with his children in Israel. “They think I'm the lousiest dad in the world”, he admits in sadness.
But he has been afforded a late life miracle. His youngest offspring Hana, exceptionally beautiful, seems to have naturally absorbed all the wisdom he had to gather by tribulations.
She speaks three languages fluently, and knows six. Knowledgeable in world affairs, despite never traveling beyond Serbia or Montenegro.
She is slightly concerned about the upcoming year, when she is intended to start her university studies in Rome.
Proud of her cultural heritage, she does not compromise her Judaism. Her friends know she will not eat pork in their homes. “Kidush Hashem”, says her father with pride. Over the years she heard some degrading remarks about her people - but she dismisses them firmly as belonging to the “uneducated”.
Quietly opinionated she explains “finally belong to somethings. In Montenegro people don't like it if you don't belong.”
What makes you proud of being Jewish?
“The many Jews that have contributed to humanity.”
What is Judaism?
“I believe thatpredominantly it's a way of thinking. Jews are practical people. They are also ironic – look at my father, he is so ironic.”
Jasa shows a photo of his parents wedding in the great Subotica synagogue. “It's like they have taken photoshop and eliminated the people”, he slightly raises his voice.
I ask Hana if she has interest in visiting Auschwitz.
“I think yes. It's important”.
Do you know how many Jewish died in the Holocaust?
“Six million”, she says. Accurate information that is not trivial to people in Montenegro - even members of the the community.
Is the Holocaust a reason for being Jewish?
“I don't think so. Father takes it in a more emotional way. He fears people will forget. But we need to be positive. I really dream of a thriving community here. But we can't build it on sorrow and tragedy. People won't come. We need to emphasize our uniquenessand capacity to contribute to our surroundings.”
Do you know the name of the Israeli Prime Minister?
One of his problems, Alfandari is being ironic again, is that Montenegro lacks serious anti-semitism. In times of war some people betrayed their Jewish neighbors“ but no village or town has needs for a plaque commemorating a transportation to death camps”, he proclaims.
A few years ago he achieved a “Righteous among the Nations” status for a local man named Peter Žanković. “But in general, these stories remain anonymous. Montenegrins believe that real help is discrete”.
But some Montenegrin Jews lived through anti-semitism.
Maria Pochek resides in Cetinje. The old royal capital of Montenegro, seat of it's only king – Nicholas. Her non-Jewish father, was the king's Minister for Postal service and ambassador to Rome.
When he wed Konstantina Goldberger, daughter to a prominent Jewish family, with family ties to the famous Captain Alfred Dreyfus, it caused somewhat of a sensation. People were amazed by her beauty and education and many of them envied her.
Konstantina herself preferred seclusion. She tried to limit interaction between her son and daughter and non-Jewish children. During the 1914-1918 war she came under threat, as she resided in a home belonging to Jovanović – one of the key conspirers involved in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that ignited the war.
She spent most of her days corresponding with relatives in Vienna and Paris. Or reading her books, some of which were in hebrew - when WWII began her father buried the Jewish books in a hiding place. And at home they avoided mixing dairy products with meat.
But they were some moments to savor. Like dinners for the country's elite, when mother enjoyed intellectual conversation.
Maria remembers such an evening. The head master of the gymnasium was among the guests and mother played the beautiful citara she had brought from Vienna, which Maria still keeps. The next morning the head master went to the Nazis and informed them that Marinović's wife is a Jew.
The soldiers arrested mother, Maria and her brother and they were locked in the fortress. Father utilized his connection with a Orthodox priest, who convinced the Nazis the children were Christian and they were released. Mother remained imprisoned for another two months, but eventually set free under restrictive conditions. Father devoted himself during the war to the rescuing of Jewish women and providing shelter to Partizans.
In post war Yugoslavia matters were good. The communists even executed the treacherous gymnasium director. But Jewish life sadly declined.
Maria has married twice, but both affairs were short-lived. Unlike her mother she never gained a meaningful Jewish education. Her heritage was in fading photos and her parents marriage certificate.
In 2005 something drove her to write to the Jewish community in Belgrade, when Serbia-Montenegro was still a single entity. She admits she needed some money after breaking her hand and thought they may be able to help her.
But what is the relevance of Jewish identity to Montenegrin youngsters who never experienced holocaust or discrimination or even the Balkan War. Most of them from mixed families with very little Jewish tradition.
For Ivana Mitrović it's family pride. Her great uncle, Danilo Kiš, was a legendary Yugoslav author. Kiš had a complex affair with his Jewish identity, wrote volumes about it, but ultimately was buried as an Orthodox Serb.
He died in 1989, aged 54, about a month after Ivana was born. But he remained his sister's great idol. Ivana's grandmother always considered the family Jewish.
Ivana explains her great uncle's decision to be buried as a Serb: “He felt in debt to the Serbs for saving him and his mother and sister during the war. He felt he needed to repay them.”
His writing is complex and difficult, but very beautiful too. Ivana loves a scene from an autobiographical book, where a love-stricken adolescentis serenading for her grandmother under her balcony. “People say I'm as beautiful as she was”, she adds with a mischievous smile.
So what was Jewish in Danilo Kiš?
“He had a great mind and it is no secret this is a Jewish characteristic.” To another question she responds that Albert Einstein was the greatest Jew.
Ivana grew up in the touristic town of Herceg Novi. Always took interest in the outside world and in her Jewish identity. She enjoys meeting people through the community and sometimes assists it in hosting foreign guests.
Maybe it's “cool” to be part of a small community. But how would you feel to live among millions of Jews in Israel or America?
“Good question. When I visited Israel through the Taglit project, I remember celebrating Shabbat near the Sea of Galilee. A group of people that I met for the first time, but already I felt like I know them. But ultimately I guess it feels “cooler” to be part of a small community”
She enjoyed her Israel visit and made many friends. Though the goals of the project were somewhat transparent to her – like when they were taken to see young soldiers graves.
There is no lack of young soldiers graves in the ex-Yugoslavia.
It may be the ultimate stereotype, but there is a pretty simple way to find a Jew in Montenegro. In one town in the south I am told that when the Nazis arrived they arrested the doctor and pharmacist, who had no Jewish heritage, just by assumption.
This strong connection – between the Jew and the medical profession – is very evident in the cheerful Medigović family in Budva. Ivo Medigović maintains volumes of albums of family photos, containing the images of some of the greatest Yugoslav doctors. As well as Sophia Loren and Princess Margaret, who visited this beautiful resort town during his father's tenure as Mayor.
“Mom had more brains in her pinky than I have in my head”, he announces and his Montenegrin wife and two daughters consent in glee.
“From Kibbutz Petrovac”' he laughs, as he offers delicious figs from his orchid. Then, on a more serious note, he explains that he encourages his daughters, Katina and Lubica, to attend Jewish events because they are “like university”. Full of interesting people. Budva will host a “Limud-Keshet” seminar of Jewish studies in November. With visitors from throughout the Balkan.
The two daughters hope the community will create ties with Israel so they can be afforded a free visit through “Taglit”. Lubica adds she is interested in visiting Auschwitz “because many of the people in the photos died there.”
And what about the future?
“This is a different generation. Doctors have it difficult here. They should both study business”, Dr. Medigović says before enquiring about the opportunities for young doctors in Israel.
Still I ask the girls what are their own future aspirations.
“To be a doctor”, says Katina.
“To be a doctor”, says Lubica.
I ask their father who were the greatest Jews and replies with Einstein and Freud and Mahler. He knows little of the Jewish religion or the state of Israel.
So what makes you want to be part of a Jewish community?
“Jewish blood is not water”, he says. Still browsing his albums.
Kotor is picturesque town, on the shore of a beautiful fjord, fast establishing itself as a destination for cruise ships and luxurious yachts. On it's outskirts is tiny Jewish cemetery besides the town's Catholic graveyard. The community here were connected to the Jewish community of Dubrovnik– descendants of the Spanish exiles. The graves are predominantlyfrom the 19th century and Austro-Hungarian rule. Some neighboring towns, like Budva and Herceg Novi, had Jewish cemeteries too.
I ask Edit Klein why all the effort? Klein is Alfandari's right hand woman. Her knowledge of Judaism is minimal and even a organizing the Passover is not a trivial task to her.
She had visited Israel in the mid-nineties, but her everyday interest in the Jewish state is small. She has hardly experienced anti-semitism. “I know where not to look. Not to see the dark side of the moon”, She says. And admits she would not like to visit a concentration camp.
Klein is a prominent woman in Montenegrin life. A successful business woman and even a mentor for women's businesses on behalf of the European Union.
She was born in 1954 in Vararždin – now in Croatia. Her father, Šandor Klein, hardly spoke about his Jewishness. Her knowledge about her father's personal history comes from her half-brother, born to her father's first wife.
Šandor Klein survived the Holocaust probably because the Nazis failed to realizehe was a Jew. He was sent to a POW camp as a Croatian soldier. His mother was murdered for ridiculing the Ustaše – the Croatian Nazis – and her entire family perished in Auschwitz and Jasenovac – a death camp in Yugoslavia.
As a child she knew little about being Jewish. Her father once took her to the Zagreb Jewish community, probably to enroll her. On Passover he would bring Matzo and teach her Catholic mother to make Kneidlach.
But one thing available during the Tito regime were Jewish youth summer camps. In these camps she began to feel some Jewish belongingness. They were serious discussions and quizzes and intellectual stimulation – though very little religion.
Soon after her father's death she visited the Jewish Cemetery in Vararždin – and to her horror she saw that many graves had been looted. By people probably searching for gold teeth.
Klein's first husband brought her to Montenegro. But it was really her second husband Đorđe, a Serb, who rekindled her interest in Jewish life.
Đorđe is from Zlatibor – where many Russian-Jewish had settled after fleeing the Russian Bolshevik Revolution. They lived in an area of town known as “Jewish Mountain” and were hated by many locals. But he always felt affection to them and even named his daughter, of pervious marriage, Leah.
So Edit never got to speak to her father about Judaism and nobody has ever taught her about it.
But at some point she realized that it was her gift. Her cosmopolitan outlook and love for business were something neither Croatian or Montenegrin but Jewish.
And that she had an obligation to be Jewish for the Montenegrin society. To direct people in business and show them the way. “They call me here Nokia – connecting people”, she smiles and says “This is why Montenegro needs a Jewish community”. It's an interesting outlook - not a need for the Jews but for the young nation they live in. It is her Montenegrin calling – to be a Jew for them.
But why are Jews like this? Because they are dispersed? Less obsessed by patriotism?
“I think Jews see things a bit clearer. They always have to think of the next problem.”