– His Majesty Aleksandar I, King of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, a member of the national dynasty of the Karadjordjevićs on the 15th June 1924, on the 13th Sivan 5684 lays foundation stone of a building to house Serbian-Jewish religious community of the Ashkenazi rites in Belgrade – repeated Aleksandar.
– That’s right, – said uncle Julije, – and then this charter was signed by King Aleksandar and Queen Marija and laid into the foundations of the synagogue! –
– The king and the queen laid the charter into the foundations? With a shovel? – Aleksandar opened his eyes wide.
– Not at all! – uncle Julije laughed – The shoveling was done by the workers, while the king and the queen signed the charter and thus blessed the construction of the Ashkenazi synagogue in Belgrade, comprising a school, offices, mikvahs, a gym and the apartments for the employees of the Serbian-Jewish religious community. –
– And that is why you live in an apartment in the synagogue, for you are employees, aren’t you? –
– That’s right, a gabbai, or, as some use to say, a shamash, is an employee in a synagogue and we live there in the apartment. – uncle Julije was answering patiently.
– Does this make Pavle an employee, too? He also lives in the synagogue, doesn’t he? – Aleksandar kept asking.
– Not at all! – Julije laughed – Pavle lives in the synagogue because he is my son. The aunt also lives there, because she is my wife. It is quite natural for a family to live together in an apartment. You live with your father, mother and Selma, too, aren’t you? – the uncle spread his arms explaining it.
– Well, yes. – answered Aleksandar absorbedly – But will Pavle be a gabbai, too, one day? –
– I doubt it. He is not very keen on it. – uncle Julije shook his head, – He is more into earthly matters. You know yourself that he is assisting Mika Altaras at his shop saving money for a college education abroad. He wanted to go to Prague. That’s where our cousin Solomon studied, too. But, it ‘s not possible to go there anymore, so he’s thinking about trying to study in Switzerland. –
– Earthly matters…? – repeated Aleksandar, – You mean, like planting potatoes? – Aleksandar was trying to understand.
– Not at all! – uncle Julije laughed again, – Pavle is interested in sciences, such as maths, or mechanics, earthly knowledge, you know, I personally have always been more keen to learn spiritual sciences – to study Thora understanding the world through God’s teaching. –
– So, you are like a rabbi, aren’t you? – the boy kept asking.
– Well, I am not a rabbi. Ignjat Šlang is a rabbi, – uncle Julije pointed with his head to the rabbi standing down the courtyard, – but I assist him in everything which concerns services and the synagogue itself. All practical matters, whatever is necessary. That is what a gabbai does. –
Aleksandar was watching rabbi Šlang from the top of the stairs in front of the right entrance to the building. Rabbi was walking from one group of guests to another talking with everybody for a few minutes. Being solemnly dressed in his attire, with his big silver beard, to Aleksandar he looked like a sage from the old stories about Moses and Joshua. The wide, stone paved courtyard was glittering with colourful reflections of multi-coloured stained glass windows of the synagogue, bathed in the May sun.
Today it was a solemn day – Moša and Jakov turned thirteen and were having their Bar Mitzvah together. Aleksandar remembered how his father had explained to him for the first time what Bar Mitzvah was: “Young persons acquire their rights, as well as their responsibilities, as adults, thus becoming accountable for their decisions and acts.” Moša and Jakov had their pictures taken in front of the wall, close to the gate, with white tallits around their necks. They were a little nervous, but proud and happy. “How could they possibly not be happy?” – thought Aleksandar, impatiently daydreaming about that day when he would have his own Bar Mitzvah. He was not quite sure what exactly would change in his life after that, but since he would be considered adult, he was hoping that he would be able to wear his hair the way Pavle did, his mother not being able to forbid him. That seemed a rather good start to adult life! His eyes searched for Pavle across the courtyard. There he was! Pavle was standing with the aunt, his mother. With a deep sigh of resignation, Aleksandar concluded that Pavle’s dark silk kippah was so sophisticated and elegant, while his own white knitted was so childlike.
Uncle Julije descended the stairs to the courtyard followed by Aleksandar, who came skipping among the guests. Parents of Moša and Jakov, proud and smiling, were just receiving congratulations from Aleksandar’s father and mother.
– Mazal tov, mazal tov!-
– Wow, how much Selma has grown! – Moša’s mother squatted before Selma holding her gently by the shoulders, looking straight at her eyes, nodding her head as if amazed in disbelief. Selma was just smiling and blinking her eyes.
– Come, Aleksandar, you should congratulate, too. – father added. Aleksandar checked with his fingertips if his kippah was adjusted well on his head. He remembered how once Bogdan’s mother had admonished Bogdan that he “shouldn’t behave like he were a clown from a circus” when his school cap had been askew.
– Mazal tov! – Aleksandar was shaking everyone’s hands one after another.
“How strange it is that Moša is our relative and Jakov isn’t, while on the other hand, Moša and Jakov are related to each other. These family relationships are so complicated!” – thought Aleksandar – “And there again, it doesn’t really matter too much – take Bogdan, for example, Bogdan is not related to me, and yet I feel like he is almost closest to me. Only my mother, father and Selma are closer because we are family. And Pavle, of course.”
Passers-by kept coming down Kosmajska Street, walking slowly, and enjoying the Sunday sun. Some of them would stop for a while, smiling at Moša and Jakov, some would even wave “Mazal tov”, while others would mind their own business or being too absorbed in their thoughts, probably, wouldn’t even notice the celebration in the synagogue’s courtyard.
Hanging around among the guests in the courtyard, full of the sounds of laughter and joy, Aleksandar felt that the voices sounded differently at one spot – more muffled and more worried. A war was being mentioned. ”A war is a terrible evil bringing out an animal in a man. “ – Aleksandar recognized the voice of uncle Julije. He stealthily moved closer to hear better.
– It will bypass Yugoslavia, as long as we don’t take sides… – a female voice was saying. Some other male voice responded:
– But have you seen what happens in Poland now and what happened in Germany a few years ago? – then the voice went down – Kristallnacht…that was terrible, pogroms again. And then Anschluß Österreichs! Outrageous!
– It is said that it had nothing to do with Jews. It was against communists. It was communists they were after, not us. That’s what I have heard. –
– I think Hitler won’t last for long. Mark my words! – replied the third voice, – Germans are civilized nation, gentlemen, they are not like us. For them order is the most important thing. That and the honest hard work! –
– I still worry, though. Can’t you see that the refugees are coming from Vienna? From Vi-e-e-en-na, gentlemen! – a voice whispered in a hoarse tone distorting that “e” vowel, probably to point out that Vienna was some very special place, thought Aleksandar.
– What refugees? – a female voice uttered worriedly.
-The Vienna Jews, my darling. – continued another female voice. – They are fleeing toward Palestine. One of them was at the Demajos, for Shabbat. They say it was terrible when Hitler’s supporters showed up. Terrible!-
– Don’t be naïve! It can happen to us, too. You’ll see! Our authorities are afraid of Hitler, too. They already dance to Hitler’s tune! –
– But.. what does Hitler play? – slipped out of Aleksandar’s mouth. Having heard that, everyone straightened up surprised and fell silent, and then burst into laughter.
– Go there and play with other children! – uncle Julije gently patted him on his head and softly pushed him towards Moša and Jakov.
But Moša and Jakov were not kids any more, thought Aleksandar.