Isak Samokovlija And His Blonde Jewish Girl

Isak Samokovlija
and his

By Kaća Čelan

“SARAJEVO’S CHEKHOV”, Isak Samokovlija, has lived his not so long life in three countries; he was born on December 3, 1889 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; in its capital, Vienna, he earned his medical degree. He spent his mature years in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia where he practiced medicine while writing stories and plays at night, entirely for his own plea-sure. He would thus, through his literary work, save his people “with the edge of the horizon in their eyes”, from oblivion. He continued working during both world wars. He was one of 320,000 Jews who participated in World War I (out of which 40,000 lost their lives) and was one of the few among the six million who survived World War II. Illness kept him from seeing Paris, which was his great dream, but he managed to visit Israel two years before his death, which was his duty. He died in the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia on January 15, 1955 and was the last Jew from Sarajevo to be buried in the old Jewish cemetery, at government expense and honored as a great writer. (The oldest grave in the old Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo - after Prague’s cemetery, it is the biggest Jewish cemetery in Europe - is the grave of Rabbi Samuel Baruch, the first rabbi of Sarajevo who served from 1623 to 1649 and whose last name had been shared by Isak Samokovlija’s family up until its arrival to Bosnia from the Bulgarian town of Samokov. And thus “crossing over” they ceased to be the ones “blessed with the holy oil from Bet Hamikdash” and became “the ones coming from the city of Samokov.”)
Literature made him humane, but his medical practice forced him to encounter people in extreme situations: sick people reduced to physiology and the ugly presence of death, contaminated soulless bodies. Like Chekhov, he gave up his medical practice as soon as he was able to make a living from his literary work. “When, in my sleep, I felt a terrible cold, I knew I was dreaming of people,” says Chekhov. And as if continuing this thought, Samokovlija notes: “I had the impression that the city was giving me leprosy. I even started to feel hatred towards the things I liked most […] People are foul, all of them, there is no exception […].” Luckily his professional medical deformation would help him to become particularly attuned to his literary heroes, and to follow and explore their behavior and reactions to distress, as well as unfolding of their fate, treating it like a rare illness that is hard to diagnose, and that requires absolute patience and a round-the-clock watch.
During his lifetime he published 36 tales, 2 trage-dies, 2 comedies, 1 collection of poems for children, newspaper articles dealing with Jewishness, literary, theater, art and film reviews, medical articles about typhus, genital diseases, tuberculosis of the lymph nodes, malaria, as well as a few poems of no great significance for his opus, spread throughout literary magazines, of which he dedicated one to Yugoslavia’s president Tito. He publicly expressed his political opinions twice, once commenting on the elections and once on the national debt. He translated the works of Isaak Leib Peretz, Willy Haas, Heinrich Heine, Felix Saten and Stefan Zweig from German.
From the Ladino language (Jewish-Spanish) he translated the Megillah of Sarajevo, written by Moshe Rafael Atijas-zeki effendi Rafajlovic for the occasion of the Purim celebration in the city of Sarajevo. He never got to see, but the “wonderful and wild Drina” was his “Jordan”; there he spent all his childhood and it provided for one of his first deeply felt sensations: “It seduced me like a living, divine being.” He was born in Gorazde, a small town in Eastern Bosnia with the Drina flowing through, a river which will also mark the destiny of Samokovlija’s fellow student from Sarajevo’s First High School, the Nobel Prize winner to be, Ivo Andric. (Andric was also the first to compare Samokovlija to Chekhov.) “I was swimming in it and during all those summers I have accumulated the blinding sun light glowing from the sky and from the round stones by the Drina. My parents’ house was first located right by the water and later on, when the Drina rose, we moved and settled by the foot of the mountain. And even from the window of that house I could see the water. I climbed all hills, cheered with Muslim and Christian children and grew up with them. We fought, beat each others heads, but did all as if we all came from the same parents. We ate cookies for Passover, gourabiehs for Bayram, pretzels for Easter.”
1492 was the year when the family Baruch, like 160,000 other Jews, had to leave Spain and start for the north coast of Africa searching for a new homeland. On the journey, which led all the way from Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Turkey, around 20,000 died, and approximately 90,000 settled down in the Ottoman Empire, which because of its multi-ethnic character most resembled their former homeland of pre-Conquest Spain. The Baruchs came to Bulgaria from Greece and settled in the city of Samokov. Harsh living conditions forced the two Baruch brothers in 1860 to head west looking for work. They arrived in Bosnia, where one of the brothers stayed in Travnik while the other changed his name and continued for Gorazde, where he became a merchant. His first name was Isak, and that is how the hero of this text, the son of Isak’s son Moshe, would be called. When this younger Isak was six years old, his parents sent him to stay with his maternal grandparents in Sarajevo where he spent three years. They lived in Bjelave, the city’s quarter primarily inhabited by Sephardic Jews. Positioned in the north of the city, it was richly lit by the sun. The community bore a strong Spanish mark: it spoke the “Dzidjo” or Ladino, the Jewish-Spanish language and it behaved “like abandoned lovers whose unrequited love hadn’t died” (the love for the Andalusian home). They celebrated rituals born in the newly acquired solitude. They had their own Sarajevo Purim, “Purim Di Saraj” celebrating Rabbi Moshe Danon’s release from jail as well as that of 12 distinguished members of the Jewish community imprisoned by Ruzdi Pasha in October 1819 after being accused of the death of Moro Havi, a Sarajevo Jew who converted to Islam. A typical ritual from Bosnia and Sarajevo was the “Sekoratar La Mortaja,” which was celebrated by older members, welcoming the beginning of old age and the approach of death by singing merry songs, and included eating as well as taking measurements for the death robes. Another typical Bosnian Sephardic ritual was the pilgrimage to Rabbi Moshe Danon’s grave; the rabbi died unexpectedly in 1910 on his way to Palestine and was buried near the city of Stolac in Herzegovina.
In Sarajevo were an area where Samokovilja’s deeply felt encounters with the future heroes of his literary opus took place. The intensity of the boy’s experience of a completely new, urban life would resonate heavily in his writings. In the story “The Porter Samuel” we can find a detailed depiction of the atmosphere and the buzz of the fall in Bjelave:
“[…] At that time of day the lanes rang with joy. The air was full of singing. Wild cries echoed on all sides. It seemed that the earth was flowing with milk and honey and happiness and contentment were every-where.
People were making jam in their courtyards.
A crowd of women and girls would sit all afternoon by the troughs full of plums, taking out the stones, cleaning the cauldrons, stocking up the fires, and now, as evening fell, the fires were already blazing joyfully, the think jam was bubbling and little red drops kept splashing out of it.
At one end of the courtyard the men sat drinking brandy, nibbling snacks; at the other the women squatted in lively conversation. The girls stirred the hot red mass, fueled the fire, sang, laughed. The children chased each other round the cauldron, shrieking. One minute they would hide behind their mothers’ and aunts’ wide skirts, the next they would fly out like mad things. They would not settle anywhere. One minute they would go up to the cauldron, take spoonfuls of the still uncooked jam, and lick it bumming their tongues, the next they would go out into the lane only to come back waving their empty spoons and shouting at the top of their voices.
In many courtyards pipes, harmonicas and other instruments could be heard. Here and there a “maestro” would turn shish-kebab over a grill while the children baked cobs of corn.
High over the courtyards rang a song:

Yo pasi por la tu guerta,
Tu estavas en la puerta.
Te saludi, te fuites.
Esto no me se aresenta.”
(From the book “Tales of Old Sarajevo” by Isak Samokovlija, translated by Celia Hawkesworth)
One street in Sarajevo’s Sephardic quarter was nicknamed “Loud-noise street” (Galamića sokak), and could have served as the model for the picturesque description above.
Isak returned to Gorazde after three years in Sarajevo to finish elementary school, and in 1902 he moved back to the city to continue his studies, this time accompanied by his mother, his brothers Baruch, Chaim, Jakob and Leon, as well as by his grandfather Isak. He enrolled in Sarajevo’s First High School, the oldest in Bosnia and Herzegovina, founded on November 6, 1879, one year after the onset of the Austro-Hungarian occupation. In the first preparation class, in the founding year, out of 46 attendees, sixteen were Jews. He graduated from high school with high grades and for that occasion his mother presented him a green gold-plated vase illuminated by a forest landscape full of trees, grass and flowers. (All his life he would be fanatically devoted to that painted landscape, a symbol of the perfect harmony of nature-mother.) That vase was a worthy gift from his favorite person to whom he would dedicate one of his post World War II stories, with these words: “I’m happy that she died before the war and did not experience the horrors that we witnessed.” He wrote his first literary works in high school and published them in “Zora” (“Dawn”), the almanac of the Jewish student community “Yehuda Maccabi.” In 1910 after receiving a scholarship from the Jewish society for culture and education, “La Benevolencija”, he left for Vienna to study medicine. (The first educated doctor in Bosnia and Herzegovina was his namesake Isak Salom who graduated in 1830 in Parma, Italy.)
“The Jews are a people of books. The Jews are a people of law,” notes the Sarajevo philosopher Predrag Finci in his text “The Jewish Question or About Identity” written for the manifestation SEFARAD 92, which during Sarajevo’s occupation in 1992 marked 500 years from the banishment from Spain. On August 27 that same year, day and night shelling of the National Library by the Serbian invaders led to the probably biggest ever burning of books in history: one million and a quarter of books vanished along with the library that contained them. (The Nazis burned about 20 million books but across approxi-mately 45 different locations.) One of the conse-quences of this cultural genocide was the segregation of the literature from Bosnia and Herzegovina into the Bosniak (Muslim), Croatian and Serbian, after which the only authentic Bosnian writer left, was Isak Samokovlija. During that same barbarian time, “Sarajevo’s Book of Books”, the Haggadah, which resided in the National Museum, was successfully salvaged, just as it had been done once before during World War II.
HAGGADAH, the beauty, given as a gift, sold, hidden, displayed, whose beauty and significance has been portrayed by many for centuries, is 22,8x16,5 centimeters in size, has 284 pages, born somewhere in Spain, one doesn’t exactly know where or when, or who made Her: She was either created in Zaragoza or in Barcelona, sometime in the second half of the 14. Century, She was written by a Jewish hand and most likely painted by a Christian hand. She is made of 142 parchment folios, some of which are filled with calligraphy, some illuminated and some empty, bound in sheets of 8 or 12 pages. They call Her the Sarajevo Haggadah and claim that She is the most beautiful in the world. Her beauty was first noted round 1607 in North Italy, possibly Venice, then She was brought to Sarajevo. Partially stained and spilled with wine during Passover celebrations, She was sold in 1894 by the family Koen, who had lost its livelihood, for 150 Forints to the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. She was then brought to Vienna for presentation and left there until 1913. In Vienna, David H. Müller and Julius Schlosser admired and studied Her; She was kept wrapped up in the safe of the Ministry of Finance, and then brought back home after anxious requests from the Museum. Sarajevo was Her fate. During World War II Her admirers Jozo Petrovic, the head of the museum, and the curator Dervis Korkut hid Her at times outside of the city and at times in the safe of the National Bank and thus saved her from the greedy hands of the German officer Forstner (who was sentenced and executed in Belgrade in 1947). During the still undefined war, which befell Sarajevo in 1992, they hid Her in the same safe of the National Bank. Risking their lives, during artillery attack, Professor Enver Imamovic and the policemen Hajrudin Alispahic, Edis Brackovic and Goran Maksimovic as well as the museum officer, Hamo Karakaj, brought the book out of the museum. The prefaces for Her reprint editions in 1962 and 1983 were written by Cecil Roth and Eugen Werber. After 400 hundred years, during which She excited and tempted men, the Haggadah lived to see the day when a woman would be inspired by Her beauty: Geraldine Brooks, in her book “People of the Book.”
“THE BLONDE JEWISH GIRL“, Isak Samokovlija’s play brings the European drama tradition thousands of years back to its roots, and to the “scene of crime”, the Balkan peninsula, filled with the floating screams of Medea and the lamenting of Antigone, like shadows of the past. Their names adorn the works of the Greek dramatists whose creative lifetime marks the ascent of a truly humane political system, of the democracy; the theater was its principal engine. Like atavistic totems, the female heroines of the Greek plays were fighting for the respect of the matriarchal moral principals, on behalf of the two important spiritual institutions: the family (Medea) and the world of the dead, that is, of the majority of mankind (Antigone).
“[…] it is not so hard to sin as it is to live born into the sin” is one of the final phrases of the Director, a character from the Curtain Raiser of the play “The Blonde Jewish Girl” who announces and directs the raiser. This part culminates in a love scene where a young Jewish woman betrays her old husband with a young, blonde and blue-eyed Spaniard. The event takes place in Toledo, Spain, towards the end of the 15th century.
The first act of the play happens some 500 hundred years later; it is “set in a larger town in Herzegovina”, but in fact, from the meteorological cues: “the city in the valley surrounded by fog”, one can easily identify Sarajevo. We are introduced to the Sephardic family of Gabriel Pardo, whose only daughter, the 18 year old, “born into the sin,” the blue-eyed and blonde Miriam, is at the same time the object of mockery and admiration of the neighbors in the quarter. Isaac, the rabbi’s son is in love with her but her heart belongs to the Christian, Dushan, as if to emphasize her singu-larity. Her mother Bulissa, who claims that she is the cause of the sin, because “all mothers are sinners,” wishes to marry off Miriam to the rabbi’s son. The old rabbi refuses as he doesn’t want to have such “oddity” in his house. Isaac dies because of the unrequited love while Miriam is away at her aunt’s, in the province. Only after her return does she learn about Isaac’s death and decides to secretly leave her parents’ home. She heads to her Dushan, intending never to come back to the neighborhood which had mocked her all her life and which saw her as responsible for the death of the rabbi’s son. After Dushan’s mother informs her that she must convert to Christianity in order to marry Dushan, Miriam decides to return home once more to see her mother one last time. Arriving at home and hiding behind a curtain, she overhears her parents’ conversation: the father proclaims the mother a sinner and tells her that Miriam no longer exists for him. His words are deadly poison for her; Miriam commits suicide by the grave of the rabbi’s son Isaac and her grandfather, who has gone blind reading religious books, sees the play to its end with the words: “Miriam has come back.”
The sentence “[…] it is not so hard to sin as it is to live born into the sin” is very precisely and consistently turned into two completely different dramatic genres by Samokovlija. The Curtain Raiser, where characters like caricatures are entirely reduced, is extremely reminiscent of the figures from the Commedia dell’arte but without masks. If the story wasn’t set in Spain, it could easily be ascribed to Carlo Goldoni’s quill. The second part, like the Greek tragedies, aside from the tragic heroine also features a “chorus”, its role taken by the neighbors. (The “leader of the chorus”, the neighbor Hanucha, in some scenes could even be compared to Hecate in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”.) This part was written with a clear, vivid language, the characters are presented meticulously in a situation forcing them to confront their fatal destiny. They remain engraved in our memory, a painfully precise diagnosis delivered by the hand of Doctor Isak Samokovlija.
In this tragedy legend becomes the alter-ego of everyday life, the past defines the present and transforms into the setting for the play’s living protagonists. “To be born into the sin” is the brutal definition of Miriam’s fate. “To be different” is her universal symbolism.

Theater TAS <moc.satretaeht|ofni#moc.satretaeht|ofni>

A Quarterly Journal of Politics and Culture Selected and Edited by Ivan Ninic
Shlomo Hamelech 6/21 42268 Netanya, Israel Phone: +972 9 882 6114 e-mail: li.ten.noisivten|cinin#li.ten.noisivten|cinin

LAMED-E Spring 2011 Number 10


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