Home Culture The Ragtag Rebuilding of Slovenian Jewry

The Ragtag Rebuilding of Slovenian Jewry

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Robert Waltl in the lobby of Mini Theater in Ljubljana, surrounded by Christmas and Hanukkah decorations

The road from Trieste, a grungy Italian port city, to Ljubljana, the shimmering capital of Slovenia, is harsh and steep, with sharp switchback roads cutting skyward along mountains of karst and pine. When I rode up on a recent December afternoon, grey clouds overlapped our bus, dropping flurries of snow onto the road and obscuring a panoramic view of the Adriatic Sea.

In July and August, when warmer weather draws tourists to Ljubljana, Rabbi Ariel Haddad makes this hour-long trip every week. Sometimes he takes the train, sometimes the bus. When he cooks kosher food, he’ll load up his car and zigzag along the mountainside, a dedicated one-man kosher delivery service.

Rabbi Haddad makes this trip often, because even though he lives in Trieste, he is the Chief Rabbi of Slovenia — a country with just a few hundred Jews, determined to rebuild their community.

“It’s not the story of revolution,” Rabbi Haddad tells me in his office, on the third floor of the Carlo and Vera Wagner Museum of the Jewish Community, in Trieste.

“It’s the story of slow changes, which I believe are as good as revolution.”

Slovenia is a  country of 2 million people, more than 10 per cent of whom live in Ljubljana. The first nation to break from Yugoslavia, Slovenia enjoys the architectural splendor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and natural beauty in abundance — you can’t ride an intercity train for more than 10 minutes without spotting a medieval castle perched over a reflective blue lake. Economically and culturally, it is one of those in-between countries: between the Balkans and Central Europe, between rich and poor, between old and new.

Slovenian Jews, too, stood precariously between Hitler’s encroaching armies and Mussolini’s indifference. Slovenian Jewry was never huge (less than 1,000 in 1921). By the time of the Nazi occupation in 1941, most Jews had fled, allowing historians to pinpoint with eerie precision the number of Slovenian-Jewish deaths: 587.

After the war, when Jews who belonged to Yugoslavia decided to make Aliyah, the government forced them to sign a document agreeing that neither they nor any of their descendants would ever ask for reparations, which many were happy to do, if it meant leaving the country. Though Yugoslavia no longer exists, the Slovenian government has expressed interest in continuing the dialogue.

Rabbi Ariel Haddad in the Carlo and Vera Wagner Museum of the Jewish Community in Trieste, Italy. (Michael Fraiman photo)

That leaves Slovenia’s handful of remaining Jews, like Robert Waltl, entirely on their own. A theatre director and exuberant conversationalist, Waltl only discovered his Jewish ancestry 30 years ago, but it has since become a defining part of his life.

In 1999, Waltl took over a decrepit building in one of the city’s oldest streets with plans to transform it into a modern black-box theatre. Over a decade later, some fellow Jewish artists approached him with a problem: funding for their synagogue had run out and they needed a space to move.

“That was a completely new moment for us,” Waltl recalls.

He’s since transformed the upper levels of his theatre into a makeshift Jewish history museum and the only functioning synagogue in Slovenia.

The walls of his Jewish Cultural Center are literally layered in history — behind crumbling plaster and drywall, Waltl points out fading 16th-century frescoes of cherubs and dancing women. The building’s heritage status makes renovations difficult and costly. He estimates he needs 2 million euros to complete the project, which he’s hoping to drum up from private donors.

“After all the projects we create,” he says, “we still have no support from the government.”

In the building’s frigid, unfinished rooms are Jewish art installations, like a heap of light bulbs in the middle of an empty floor. Waltl flips a switch: every couple seconds, some bulbs flash as a voice recites the name of a Slovenian Jew murdered in the Holocaust. The voice reads all 587 names, taking about 40 minutes.

Light bulbs, a rescued menorah and a list of all 587 Slovenian Holocaust victims comprise an art installation in Slovenia’s Jewish Cultural Center.

Upstairs is the synagogue, which feels like the living room of a diehard Judaica collector. It’s packed with rescued furniture from Holocaust victims, light fixtures from old synagogues, Jewish paintings and a donated Torah. When synagogue is in session, they remove some larger furniture pieces to accommodate around 50 people, including Rabbi Haddad, who stands before the group for every high holiday and summer Shabbat. (In the summer, the influx of Israeli tourists necessitates regular Shabbat services.)

At first glance, Haddad is an odd addition to this culture. Ljubljana’s Jews are religiously lax, their connection to strict orthodoxy having long been severed. But Rabbi Haddad is a Chabadnik, a black-hat graduate of a New York yeshiva with a long, scraggly beard he strokes when thinking. Roman by birth, he moved to Trieste with his wife 27 years ago and started working at the local Jewish library before being asked to curate the city’s Jewish museum in 1993.

“At first, I saw myself as an intruder in the world of academics,” he says. It didn’t help that the local Italian-Jewish community was set in their ways — while just a few hundred strong, they already had a rabbi, and the city enjoys one of Europe’s largest synagogues as a major tourist attraction. Rabbi Haddad reflects that those first years were “a relationship if not of conflict, then of tension.” With time, they accepted him, but their attitude gave his heart room for another community.

In 2000, Rabbi Haddad created an exhibit on Sigmund Freud, who briefly lived in Trieste, that a Slovenian-Jewish visitor had seen. This acquaintance invited him to Ljubljana. Rabbi Haddad hadn’t thought much of Slovenia since its inception less than a decade earlier, but it was close to Passover and they made a perfect match: they had no rabbi and he had no congregation.

“We did the first seder of Pesach in Slovenia since the war, probably,” Rabbi Haddad says.

After that, his visits became regular, and within two years, the community asked him to become their chief rabbi. “Honestly, I didn’t have in mind any kind of title,” he says. “I was doing things only because it was right — there was no other reason.”

Ljubljana’s synagogue feels like a living room packed with historic Judaica.

In the 16 years since he became chief rabbi, he and Waltl have become eager public faces of a community that few would have otherwise noticed. As families stay and some Israelis have moved to Ljubljana, Waltl and Haddad are optimistic about the community’s growth.

One more addition to the community could be Rabbi Haddad himself. “It is my dream to move to Ljubljana,” he says, but “at the end of the day, it’s all a matter of economics.” In the meantime, he’s stuck in this liminal space: between cultures and countries, between academics and religion, between ancient traditions and new communities.

But that suits him fine. It’s not a drawback, existing between worlds. Rather, for him, it’s an opportunity.

“All Jewish people should work together,” he says. “Globally speaking, we should all be a little more united.”

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