Because making money seems to be more important to me lately than God, I have recently spent Rosh Hashanah far from Home, Hearth and Family in the Hotel Intercontinental in Belgrade, in the relatively newly formed Repbulic of Serbia and Montenegro. (This is the same hotel where Arkan the Tiger, scourge of the Bosnians, was assasinated by unknown assailants during the lobby, and which refuses to take American Express because AMEX still owes them money from the era of the US boycott on Serbian goods.
Last night, on New Years eve, provoked by a subtle and complicated mix of social and spiritual longings, I went to the city's only synagogue. It took about 45 minutes to get inside, mainly because the Serbian Army was blocking off the entire street to prevent a rumored attack by Muslim Extremists; there were metal detectors, road barriers, and army vehicles, all surrounding a relatively nondesrcript, grey stone building near the center of town. (Let me be clear - there was almost NO chance of any type of Muslim attack, not least because the Serbians had done their own job of massacring or deporting any Muslim woman, man or child foolish enough to Remain in Serbia after the opening of hostilies in the Bosninan wars. I think the local police just wanted a chance to show off) The building serves as the synagogue, kosher kitchen, community center and charitabile giving headquarters of the town's 2000 Jews.
The inside of the syngagogue was typical of the depressing detritous of many Jewish communities in Eastern Europe: hard looking old Serbian Jewish men and a gaggle of Israeli businessmen wearing too much silver jewelry and immaculately tailored clothes. The local looked less Jewish, more Serbian; they looked around them at all the newcomers in an unfriendly way, although perhaps that was just their normal expression. The spoke among themsleves in Serbian, often quite loud, at a number of points during the prayers. They wore cheap communist era suits, the type apparatchniks still wear everywhere in the Balkans. The Israelis were a completely different breed. Like me, they seemed to have ended up here by accident, on a short trip to build the next hotel or close the next deal. They greeted one another with forced good cheer, suspicions of their own playing around the eyes masked by a smile or even a smirk.
As for me, I was raised to be a pretty proud, conscious, Zionist Jew. We're supposed to think of all Jews as our brothers, or at least distant relatives whose visits we may despise but to whom some vague obligation is owed. I sat on the uncomfortable wooden bench (a symbol of syngaogues everywhere - it reminded me of my youth) and tried to wonder what on earth I had in common with any of these people.
Whether I had anything else in common with them or not, we're all Jews. There's no where easier to make friends than in a synagogue. Within minutes everyone even remotely friendly knows all of their neighbors and if no one speaks the two Jewish lingua franca, Hebrew and Yiddish, there are always smiles and friendly gestures. In this case, everyone spoke either one of the two. There was a Persian Jew next to me whose wife was Serbian, (and who had retired to Serbia using their Israeli pension), and a pure Jewish character behind me - an old, bulbuous man, full of smiles and hearty good cheer, wishing everyone a happy new year and kissing complete strangers, with whom he seemed to feel a spontaneous emotional connection, right on the cheek. Despite the fact that unfriendly glances still controlled the room, I began to feel more comfortable in my skin.
Within a few moments, though, the discussion turned to politics. Even with fellow Jews, its not worth time entering the minefield of former Yugoslavian politics. It quickly becomes an issue of who killed whom first, and who had the right to kill whom because, after all, one was first killed by whom and what is one supposed to do other than the kill the family of the person who killed your family because, etc. Some of my fellow Jews clearly identified themselves as Serbians; when they whispered, it was about the national lines. Others were clearly more internationlists. Horrified by the behavior of their fellow citizens, they spoke about politics with even more violence and pathos than the nationalists.
Since I was, after all, in a Synagogue, I decided to pray. Now I didn't really feel any affinity with anyone in the room - Serbian hardmen and Israeli casino magnates are not my style. Well, maybe with the old man who kissed on both cheeks and told me that it was great that I came all the way from Argentina to be there, when in fact, I have never been to Argentina. But he seemed insane. The good tihng about crazy people, though (here I mean the harmless insanity that the aged can safely indulge in, not the painful pathologies) is that one can relate to them on a simple level - no need to talk about business or politics, you can just let yourself be meaninglessly kissed on the cheek. With this fortification, I tried to lose myself in the Siddur as the prayer began.
Unfortuantely for me, though, I also don't really believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Jewish prayers on New Year's tend to stress the awsome power of God more than specific spiritual yearnings - those are more evident on other holidays, Yom Kippur for instance, or Passover. I went through the motions, reading through the numbingly similiar phrases about the might and glory of god. I began wondering what on earth I was doing there, mumblinging phrases with which I did not really believe, sitting in a room with people I didn't know, surrounded by armed guards to prevent us all from being killed by some unknown and probably illusory threat.
In this bad mood, the spirituality began. The Cantor began to sing from the evening prayers, the relatively innocuous words, "The Lord God Loves His People". When he got to the word Loves, he rose in the typical baroque but oriental melody on the vowel, "e" (The Hebrew word for Love is "Ohev".) As he kept singing it became clear that he almost couldn't finish the letter - the melody kept rising and rising, becoming clearer and clearer. At this point, the congregation came in. For once (and this is rare) everybody knew the melody. The entire room began chanting the letter "e", the second vowel of the word "ohev", until even the old men who are veteran talkers stopped talking and joined it. It went on for minutes. Exactly when it's normally supposed to stop, the cantor began singing the letter again letting his voice naturally fall and then rise. Suddenly, the entire room was a unity of men, many of whom had never seen each other before and would never see each other again, singing a 1000 year old melody to the theme of love.
It's hard to remain feeling completely seperate from people with whom one has gone through such an experience, no matter how cheap their cologne or how many big silver chains they wear. On the other hand, it hardly became a tearful celebration of our people and life - it was just a song, and just a simple word. Everyone went back, when the prayer was over, to doing what they do - the Israelis talking about business, the locals argiung about politics in a Yiddish much harsher than any i had ever known - and I walked back to my hotel, passed the still bombed out wreck of the Ministry of Defence and over the bridge which crosses the Sava river, not permanently wiser or a better man, but temporarily, certainly recharged.