I am at this moment sitting in a car with two Serbian journalists whom I have never met before an hour ago taking the seven hour drive from Belgrade to Mitrovica in northern Kosovo in time for Vidov Dan, the annual commemoration of the Battle of Kosovo. How did I come to be here?
On Wednesday, my first full day in Belgrade, I visited Belgrade’s one remaining synagogue. There I met Rabbi Asiel, the community’s chief (and essentially only) rabbi and shochet. After listening to my story, he called his friend, a Serbian Orthodox bishop in Vojvodina to see if there was any way the Church could help me get to Kosovo-Metohija. He contacted one of his journalist contacts who in turn called back the Rabbi. He suggested to the Rabbi that I be in touch with another journalist who was about to do a documentary project about Serbian cultural sites in Kosovo. The Rabbi gave me his number on Thursday and I spoke with him on Friday. He invited me to join their group leaving today, on Saturday.
Now I am on the road with two other journalists in his team going to pick him up on the way to Mitrovica. A fortuitous turn of events to say the least. From what I gather, we will be in Mitrovica tonight, going to Gazimestan, the monument in Kosovo Polje commemorating the Battle of Kosovo, for the observance of Vidov Dan. It seems I really could not have picked a better time to come to Serbia. Mrs. Petkovic at the Ministry for Kosovo and Metohija told me that she wished she could be there herself but all the hotels were booked. In short, I’m getting quite an amazing and exclusive opportunity to see Serbian links to Kosovo first hand. Other major visits between now and Wednesday will include Gracanica, one of the oldest Serbian Orthodox monasteries, Pec, the former capital of Serbian Orthodoxy, and several Serbian enclaves.
But since I am not there yet, I’ll try to fill in the gaps from the last 24 hours or so. Yesterday morning I rushed out to Knez Mihailova (that’s the pedestrian mall) with two new American friends from the youth hostel where I thought there was going to be a rally for Vidov Dan. As it turns out, I was two days off. Obviously the rally will be on Sunday in conjunction with the event I will be attending in Kosovo. We did, however, run into one of the men I met on Thursday at the church shop who was helping organize the daily protests that have been held in Republic Square since Kosovo was granted diplomatic recognition as an independent state by the United States and many others last year.
Afterward, my friends and I went separate ways so I could return some phone calls, figure out my trip to Kosovo, and return to the hostel to pay for my evening’s stay and so they could see more of the city. They have been much more adventurous than I and have been on a several month-long backpacking trip spanning North Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Unfortunately this also means they have to pack a lot more sightseeing into a day as they’re moving on to other parts of Serbia today.
We met up a few hours later at the Military Museum in Kalemegdan, the ancient fortress in the oldest part of Belgrade. While there is no longer much in the way of a “fort” within the walls of the fortress, it is an imposing structure with many rings and layers of thick stone walls that would seem to make the place practically impenetrable. In the middle sits the military museum which has relics (mostly replicas) dating back to the first settlement of the Balkans extending to the modern day. Unfortunately the vast majority of the signage is entirely in Serbian so don’t expect to learn much when you’re there. One of the “high” points of the museum is its collection of captured and discarded military equipment from the Balkan Wars of the 90s including a part of the hull of the American stealth bomber Serbian anti-aircraft batteries took down in the NATO bombardments in 1999, known locally as the “NATO Aggression”. Outside the museum there are a large assortment of tanks and artillery on display that I’m sure would make any military history buff salivate.
At the highest level of the fortress within the innermost wall, you get an incredible view of the Sava and Danube rivers with New Belgrade and Zemun. Inside, it is a green, lightly wooded, well tended park with none of the mosquito I experienced across the river. For travelers in Belgrade who are looking for a nice spot to relax on a warm afternoon, this is the place. A bit down the hill are several old Orthodox churches, one of which I am told used to be used by the Ottomans for gunpowder storage. From here, we went to lunch at the popular Belgrade restaurant, ?. That’s not a typo, it’s name is actually a question mark. Prices here are pretty reasonable but the food that we had was not terribly exciting and the portions were quite small. The atmosphere and the company more than made up for these shortcomings.
Next we headed back to the hostel where I packed up for the evening and prepared for Erev Shabbat services at the synagogue. I headed over to the shul just in time for davening to begin. As a Sephardic congregation, the tunes were all new to me. Apparently the Rabbi leads in essentially the same nusach as was used by the Sarejevo Jewish community before the Second World War. The chazan is a young man from Belgrade who I believe grew up in the community. I’ll have to ask him a bit more about his background next Shabbat. The service was quite well attended and, fortunately for me, many people spoke English. Afterward the Rabbi invited me and several other guests up to his apartment for dinner where I met a number of other really interesting people including a man visiting from Poland who has had a big hand in revitalizing the community there, a Serbian woman and her daughter who now live in South Africa, and an American woman who used to work for USAID and now is an independent consultant now working on Armenia.
After dinner we enjoyed a few rounds of Slivovitsa and then made my way back to the hostel. While I had every intention to go right to sleep so I could be awake in time for shul in the morning, some of the guests and staff collectively convinced me to join them at a local underground club which turned out to be well worth the trip. The atmosphere was a real kick and I met a few Serbian guys who were visiting family but live in Chicago. More good connections.
Eventually, I got back to the hostel to crash for the evening. As 7:30, I woke up to pack my things and trudged over to the synagogue. The rabbi was kind enough to allow me to leave some of my things with him while I am traveling in Kosovo, so I was sure to show up well before davening began. The service itself was again wonderful. It was a particular treat to hear Ladino woven into the davening in addition to the Hebrew. We were finished by 11:15 which gave me plenty of time to make it over to the Patriarchate to meet my new journalist friends.
As I wrap up this post, we’re driving through the town of Kragujavac, home to about 200,000 people, one of the original capitals of 19th century Serbia, and home of the Yugo manufacturing plant. For those of you who have never heard of the Yugo, that’s the lovely little deathtrap communist era car that was famous for its frequent breakdowns and its tiny frame. Now my computer is running out of batteries and we have just picked up the third journalist, so I’m going to call this a finished post. I am not sure when I’ll have a chance to actually upload this, but hopefully I’ll be somewhere with internet (and electricity) tonight. 🙂
As always, wish me luck.
Serbian word of the day: Izvinite = excuse me