Thursday, May 28, 2009

Bosnia: Some Thoughts of Jewish Sarajevo and People of the Book

A picture for Shavuot: Moses Receiving the Law as represented in the Sarajevo Haggadah

Your blogger surveying Sarajevo Jewish cemetery when last in Bosnia

Some Thoughts of Jewish Sarajevo and People of the Book
by Samuel D. Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber and Bob Cohen have posted interesting accounts of Jewish Sarajevo that every reader of People of the Book will want to visit. you can read more, too, by Ruth and me about Jewish sites in Bosnia at the Jewish-Heritage-Europe website.

I mention People of the Book, the best selling account of the Sarajevo Haggadah, because author Geraldine Brooks will be speaking in (my home of) Syracuse this fall as part of the prestigious Gifford Lecture Series and I have been asked by the Sisterhood of Temple Concord to give a pre-lecture on the art and history of the story. So this week I've enjoyed reading the book. Though utterly fictional, it does provide a lot more food for thought than a Dan Brown novel, and its actually inspired me to look at a number of historical episodes in a new light.

For me the book resonates since it hits at least four of my major interest areas: medieval Spain (where I am now engaged in evaluating aspects of the recent Jewish finds in Lorca); the Venice Ghetto (the origins of which I have been researching for the past few years); Fin-de-Siecle Vienna and the origins of modern "Jewish Art;" and post-siege Sarajevo (where I spent time on the restoration of the burnt-out pre-burial house/synagogue on the Jewish cemetery site).

Pre-burial chapel / synagogue in Sarajevo Jewish Cemetery during restoration.
Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2000

Since most of what Brooks provides are emotionally challenging and cathartic (and sometimes fatal) stories about people, she really has little to say about the places where her stories unfold. Its mostly atmosphere, but I did like her account of drunken young Venetians in the Ghetto at night, and also her ability to conjure up some sense of a Juderia in oppressive 15th century Spain. Most of all, from an art historical view, she gets kudos for her descriptions and evocations of the incredible long, hard, and often painful work that was required to produce the illuminated manuscripts we cherish. Of course, much the same could be written about any pre-modern craft - and it should be. Maybe the time has come for a novel about building and decorating a synagogue...or perhaps just a Discovery Channel episode of "How Things are Made."

Ruth and Bob both write about the Old Sephardi Synagogue in Sarajevo - one of the least known but most important synagogues in Europe. I have previously described the building, first built in in 1581, : " --> The narrow, three-bay long main space of the central prayer hall has thick walls which support a series of interior domes, echoing the arrangement of many Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques, but contrasting with both: more emphatically axial than a mosque, but without the crossing that would be normal in a church. The main space is surrounded on three sides by galleries on two levels. At one end there is an apsidal space for an Aron Kodesh."

I have not been back to Sarajevo since it has been restored and rededicated as a synagogue (it is also a museum), but will be looking for an opportunity to do so. I recently met Mario Kabiljo, the educator at the Jewish Museum in Sarajevo, and its sounds like there are some exciting plans for the museum in the works. When I have a report I'll let you know.


No comments: