“His Majesty Aleksandar I, King of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, a member of the national dynasty of the Karadjordjević’s, on the 15th of June 1924 and on the 13th of Sivan 5684, Aleksandar I laid the foundations and placed the first stone to build the first building that would house the Ashkenazi Serbian-Jewish religious community in Belgrade” Aleksandar read.
“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 and the school, offices, mikvahs, gym and apartments for the employees of the Serbian-Jewish religious community.”
“And that is why you live in an apartment in the synagogue, you are an employee, aren’t you?” Aleksandar responded.
“That’s right, a Gabbai, or as some used to say a Shamash. I work in the synagogue and we live in the apartment over there.” Uncle Julije answered 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. Your 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, don’t you?” his uncle spread his arms explaining.
“Well, yes,” answered Aleksandar as he was absorbing this information. “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 yourself know that he is assisting Mika Altaras at his shop, saving money for a college education abroad. He wants 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.” answered Julije.
“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 the sciences, such as math or mechanics. Earthly knowledge, you know, I personally have always been more keen to learn spiritual sciences–to study Torah 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 gestured with his head towards the Rabbi standing across 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.” Julije said proudly.
Aleksandar was watching Rabbi Šlang, who was at the top of the stairs in front of the right entrance to the building. The women were finely dressed in their best sophisticated skirts and their best shoes, while the men donned smart suits and felt hats. Aleksandar’s sister Selma felt so pretty in her red dress, which fell to her ankles, so she could twirl around exposing her small, shiny black shoes. Their parents, Rihard and Ranka, held each other by the waist lovingly. The Rabbi was walking from one group of guests to another, talking to 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 the colourful reflections of the intricate stained glass windows of the synagogue that was bathed in the May sun. The illuminated shadows danced in spirals on the ground.
Today was a joyous day. Moša and Jakov turned thirteen and were having their Bar Mitzvah together. Aleksandar remembered when his father explained to him what a Bar Mitzvah was.
“Young persons acquire their rights, as well as their responsibilities as adults, thus becoming accountable for their decisions and actions.”
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 the 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 an adult, he was hoping that he would be able to wear his hair the way Pavle did. That seemed a rather good start to adult life! His eyes searched for Pavle across the courtyard. There he was!
Pavle was standing with his mother, Aleksandar’s aunt. With a deep sigh of resignation, Aleksandar concluded that Pavle’s dark silk kippah was so sophisticated and elegant, while his own white knitted one was so childlike.
Uncle Julije descended the stairs to the courtyard followed by Aleksandar, who came skipping down to the guests. The parents of Moša and Jakov, proud and smiling, were just receiving congratulatory remarks from Aleksandar’s father and mother.
“Mazal tov, mazal tov!”
“Thank you Rihard, thank you Ranka!” replied Mr. Leon, Moša’s father, grabbing and shaking first Aleksandar’s father’s, then mother’s hand, with a huge smile on his face.
“Wow, Selma has grown so much!” Mrs. Simha, Moša’s mother, squatted before Selma, holding her gently by the shoulders, looking straight into her eyes, nodding her head as if amazed in disbelief. Selma just smiled and blinked her eyes.
“Come, Aleksandar, you should congratulate them 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 for his school cap being askew, “You shouldn’t behave as if you were a circus clown”.
“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 yet 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 be too absorbed in their thoughts. They probably didn’t even notice the celebration in the synagogue’s courtyard.
Hanging around among the guests, in the sounds of laughter and joy, Aleksandar noticed that the voices started to sound different in one spot. They were muffled and worried. A war was being mentioned.
“A war is a terrible evil that brings 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 uttered.
Some other male voice responded. “But have you seen what is happening in Poland now and what happened in Germany a few years ago?” Then he lowered his voice, “Kristallnacht…that was terrible, pogroms again. And then Anschluß Österreichs! Outrageous!”.
“It is said that those things had nothing to do with the Jews. They were against communists. It was communists they were after, not us. That’s what I heard”.
“I think Hitler won’t last for long. Mark my words!” Replied another voice. “Germans are a civilized nation, gentlemen. They are not like us. For them, order is the most important thing. That and 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 the “e” vowel. Vienna must be some very special place, thought Aleksandar.
“What refugees?” A female voice interjected worriedly.
“The Vienna Jews, my darling,” continued another female voice, “They are fleeing towards 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 also happen to us. 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. They all 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 anymore, thought Aleksandar.