01 Mar Jewish Macedonia & The Berkshires
Jewish Macedonia & The Berkshires- Who Would Have Imagined A Connection?
A Guest Blog by Joshua Bloom
Over a young families’ Shabbat havurah dinner last fall, Hevreh member Sarah Aroeste Blaugrund and I decided to co-lead a Jewish heritage tour to Macedonia based on our shared connections to Macedonia and its people, Jewish heritage, and modern day Jewish community. Sarah’s grandfather immigrated to the United States from Macedonia between the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, and I worked in Macedonia from 2001-2004 and have returned on a number of occasions.
Just a week before our Shabbat dinner together, Sarah visited her grandfather’s hometown of Bitola (formerly Monastir) for the first time. She performed a concert of her Ladino music to a sold out non-Jewish audience in Bitola who embraced her as a beloved homecoming celebrity.
Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language, was widely spoken in Bitola and elsewhere in Macedonia by the predominantly Sephardic Jewish community who fled to the Balkans during the Spanish Inquisition. A staggering 98% of the Jewish population of Macedonia, including many of Sarah’s extended family members and the rest of the Bitola Jewish community, were deported to their deaths by occupying Bulgarian forces during World War II. Despite that devastation, the Jewish community of Macedonia survived and surprisingly thrived. While the country only has approximately 225 Jews, it is an active community that opened a brand new synagogue/community center and a multi-million dollar Holocaust Memorial Center in the capital of Skopje over the last 20 years.
Just one week after my Shabbat dinner with Sarah, I revisited Macedonia. Back in 2001, I came to Macedonia as a peace-builder and human rights professional as part of an inter-governmental mission following a short-lived inter-ethnic conflict between the ethnic Albanian minority and the ethnic Macedonian majority.
I returned this past October as an international elections observer with the same inter-governmental organization to monitor a round of Macedonian municipal elections. The serendipity of our two trips and our shared love of Macedonia and its people, spurred us to want to introduce this little-known country to a broader audience.
For those who are unfamiliar with Macedonia, it is a country of exceeding natural beauty with snow-capped mountains and pristine lakes. It is surrounded by Greece, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia, and Albania. It was home to Alexander the Great, Mother Teresa, and Milton and Janaki Manaki, two of the world’s earliest pioneers in photography and cinematography.
Macedonian history can be traced back to the Neolithic era and through the rules of the Kingdom of Paeonia, Kingdom of Macedon, and Roman, Byzantine, Bulgarian, and Ottoman Empires. The Macedonian territory was partitioned between Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece following the First Balkan War of 1912 and became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia following the Second Balkan War of 1913. During WWII, Axis-aligned Bulgarian and Albanian forces occupied the territory of Macedonia. Following the war, Tito unified most of the Balkans, including a semi-autonomous People’s Republic of Macedonia, into Yugoslavia. During the fall of Yugoslavia, the Republic of Macedonia peacefully gained its independence in 1991.
Sarah and I want to invite Hevreh members and the broader Jewish community to join us on our once-in-a-lifetime exotic adventure to Macedonia. Highlights from our trip include visiting the remains of a 2nd century synagogue at the Stobi archaeological park, volunteering in the clean-up of Bitola’s Jewish cemetery, touring Bitola’s former Jewish Quarter, learning at Skopje’s Holocaust Memorial Center, and paying respects at sites commemorating the deportation and near annihilation of the Jewish population of Macedonia. We will spend Shabbat with the modern Jewish community of Skopje. And, we’ll be Sarah’s VIP guests at a unique Ladino concert reconnecting with her Macedonian roots.
Through our personal connections, we will be privileged to meet the Israeli Ambassador to Macedonia, Macedonia’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs, and several historians eager to share with us little known Jewish history from the cities of Bitola, Ohrid, Tetovo, and Skopje.
We’ll stroll through Skopje’s Ottoman Old Town, see Mother Teresa’s birthplace, visit colorful mosques, find intricately designed iconostasis shrines and fresco reliefs at Macedonian Orthodox churches, marvel at the beauty of Pelister, Galichica, and Mavrovo National Parks, and appreciate the pristine waters of Lakes Prespa, Ohrid, and Debar.
This trip is not to be missed! If you sign up to join us at http://bit.ly/jewishmacedonia before the March 16 application deadline, you will be invited to a private pre-trip Macedonian dinner party hosted by Sarah and me here in the Berkshires.
We hope you will consider joining us!
Husband of Rabbi Jodie Gordon