The Story of the Lost Jewish World of Sarajevo

Rabbi James Stone Goodman

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

I had no personal connection with Bosnia-Hercegovina, with Sarajevo, with the war there in the early 1990s, with the small Jewish world especially in Sarajevo that distinguished itself at one time but has almost disappeared, with the La Benevolencija the Sephardi social arm of the community in Sarajevo that revived itself to become one of the major if not the major social service arm serving Sarajevo during the War in Bosnia; I had no personal connection, I thought, with any of that. I had a curiosity and a computer with WiFi and sometime while I was taking care of my kid, I had a friend named Elsie Roth whose story I had heard — about mobilizing Hadassah on a life-saving mission and going to Sarajevo herself to serve during its war, and I had a couple of songs that my teacher had taught me over 30 years ago that came to Sarajevo from Salonika. 

I am a good student so I kept the songs, sung them often, noted in what I call my mind that the songs were of a character that I didn’t recognize from anywhere else—they were extraordinary and I made a mental note to track those songs and the culture that gave birth to them—there must be a story in those songs. But I didn’t track them.

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In 2005, I was asked to deliver a message, clergy style, at a memorial remembering 10 years since the massacre in Srebrenica, Bosnia. The memorial took place at the History Museum. I showed up on a Saturday afternoon, sang a few of the songs and read a poem I had written for the occasion. The audience (not a good term for a serious group of listeners not present in the least for entertainment purposes) went wild.

The songs were from the lost Jewish world of Sarajevo, something I knew little about but was learning through the transcendental classroom that the computer opened to me. The audience was mostly Bosnian Muslim, many of them refugees from the U.N. “safe havens” of Sarajevo and Srebrenica. It is estimated that there are between 50,000 and 70,000 Bosnians in the St. Louis area.  

I was asked to expand my offerings so I went home and while my daughter was recuperating on her bed I tapped away on my computer, flew around the world by Google and discovered four extraordinary stories of Jewish Bosnia that opened to me through nothing loftier than curiosity and a computer with WiFi connection.

Soon I had a larger story than I 

imagined, told in four tales: a 19th century rabbi whose burial place became revered by Jews and Muslims both; the story of the Jewish community response to the war in the early 1990’s and the revival of La Benevolencija a social service arm dormant for years; the longing for the Jewish community in Sarajevo’s origins in Spain; and the glorious tale of the celebrated Sarajevo Haggadah that resides in the National Museum in Sarajevo today after a long and mysterious history. 

I told all the stories in poetry and music, and in the next concert I told all four stories and when I finished the last word or the last note of the song the room erupted into the only truly explosive standing ovation I have ever received. I had struck something deep. 

Many of the Bosnians in the room knew these stories, parts of them anyway, even some of the music I sang was familiar; they were familiar with the Jewish story as it has played out in Sarajevo and other locations in that vicinity over the last five hundred years. There were tears and much deep talk after the performance piece, and I promised them I would do a longer concert with these themes. They asked me to appear on the Bosnian radio with them, sing these songs and tell these stories. I did.

I took this dream of peace and wove it into stories and songs, gave it back to the Bosnians and a group of interested Jews another Sunday in a concert that not only reminded them of where they came from, but what might have been a second Golden Age. It was well received, from heart to heart, it wasn’t so much a concert as a communicated dream of peace squeezed out of our shared longing for better times. 

These are stories that belong to the category of dreams of peace that sustain; something concealed in the little known histories of corners of the world that rose and fell and struggled to get up again and unless the stories are told no one will know.

Those of us who have known exile dream deeply the sense of return, the longing for rootedness. When we dream, we dream up.