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CROSSING NARROW BRIDGES AS A TRAVELER IN SOFIA, BULGARIA
by Dan Grossman
from the Spring 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
ALL ACROSS THE BALKANS, as all across Europe, religious tensions won’t stay in the past. In Mostar (southern Bosnia and Herzegovina), a bridge divides the Bosniak Muslims from the Catholic Croats, with the church towers on the western bank mirroring the minarets on the east. In Skopje (Macedonia), deep divisions persist between the Macedonian Orthodox majority and the Albanian Muslim minority. But in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, there are four active religious sites in the city center, and Sofians proudly called it the Square of Tolerance.
One Friday in Sofia I set out to visit all four sites.
First up was the St. Nedelya Church, a Bulgarian Orthodox Church created as early as the 10th century, damaged by the Turks, and rebuilt many times since. During a military funeral in 1925, communist terrorists blew up the dome and killed 150 people; in response, the government declared martial law and executed 450. That’s the Balkans for you: a conflict on every corner, a plaque on every garage.
Like many Orthodox churches, St. Nedelya has a central dome supported by several side domes, creating an open, cool, airy space with innumerable frescoes of saints on the walls and a large iconostasis — a wall of icons and religious paintings — at the front. Plenty of light filtered in from the chandelier, from the glowing gold of the iconostasis, and from the twenty-four windows around the dome. The light, neither dim nor overpowering, seemed calibrated to mystery.
I sat along the back of the nave. As a dark-bearded priest performed a ceremony for two children and their family, regular people came in off the street, crossed themselves, lit candles, kissed the icons and dropped charity into slits. Two custodians also drew my attention: old women with gray hair and black cloaks, one with her toes dangling off her sandals. They plucked out used-up taper candles and dropped them into gold pails, the candle making a ding as it landed, and more than the frescoes or the incense or the prayers, this action, so competent, so elegantly achieved, put me in a daze.
As the custodian with sandals went to refill her water bottle, she cast me a glance not of anger but of admonishment, as if sweeping me gently toward the door. It’s possible that I’m inventing this glance, because the more I enjoyed my presence, the more I felt out of place. I hate the notion of being a tourist to someone’s sacred rites, but what else was I? They were praying, I was prying. And so I left.
THE ONLY FUNCTIONING mosque in Sofia is the Banya Bashi Mosque, completed in 1576. The Ottomans built several other mosques around Sofia, but those have been turned into cultural centers or museums, just as during Ottoman times many churches were repurposed as mosques. The blurring of church to mosque has its counterpart in architecture, since the Banya Bashi Mosque also contains a large dome and an open, airy space. Inside, however, there was no crowd of stiff saints and gentle virgins, but instead a sublime geometry of looping blues and greens that stood out against the bright red carpet.
The absence of human figures came as a relief. A relief, too, the sense of relaxation, the mosque as a hangout spot. On the right, two men napped with their forearms over their eyes, and on the left, men pored over giant, propped-up texts. Once again my attention was drawn to the custodian, a middle-aged man deftly running his vacuum over the red prayer carpet, smoothing it out as he cleaned.
Then a family of German tourists in wandered in. The father set about photographing every inch of the place while the daughters, wearing t-shirts and shorts, gazed around smiling and curious. The custodian put down his vacuum, took three green modesty capes from a hook, and handed them to the mother and daughters. The cloak covered them from hair to ankles. The daughters’ smiles widened for a minute as they contemplated each other, and the man resumed vacuuming, and then their smiles began to fade, and the costumes were perhaps no longer so funny, no longer like costumes. Sensing that the time had come, the father put away his camera and the women handed back the capes. When they left, I could no longer pretend I was a fly on the wall. I was taking as many mental photos as the father took real ones. And so I left.
THE ST. JOSEPH'S Catholic Cathedral is another structure with a tragic history: it was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid during World War II and wasn’t rebuilt until 2006. Though it has the classic features of a Catholic cathedral, its freshly painted white walls, strong overhead lighting, and three tiers of stained-glass windows look very modern, to its credit. But what struck me as I sat in the pews, and what continued to strike me, was the seven-meter crucifix. It dwarfed the nave, consumed the room’s attention. The cross appeared simultaneously stone, gold, wood and flesh, and as the light shifted through the windows, the shadows of Christ’s crown elongated on the wall and new details were illumed: the gash beneath his chest, his toenails, a drip of blood on his hand. He appeared very old, or aging before my eyes.
Eventually I turned to look at the others who’d joined me in the pews. Many of them carried maps: fellow tourists. Then a thin young man in a white cloak swept like a turtledove down the aisle, and a woman in a red dress exited through a side door by the apse, and an important-sounding door was shut, and more people entered and sat down with or without maps, and I realized the obvious: it was Mass. I wanted to stay, wanted to sit around and observe, but an impulse checked me. A different impulse this time, since no one cast me admonishing glances or shooed me to the door. That was the problem. They didn’t assume I was an outsider; they assumed I was a Catholic. I wasn’t a Catholic. And so I left.
THERE ARE PEOPLE who find themselves when they travel and people who lose themselves. I lose myself as easily as I get lost navigating a new city. Or rather, I realize how little tethers me to the ground. My life in New York City seems impossibly far-off, my job like a rumor, my friends like a memory. In sum, I risk feeling like a self-conscious nothing, a gust of wind down an anonymous street.
With that in mind, I was more than excited to attend Friday night services at the Sofia Synagogue. It felt necessary. I showed up early and went into the synagogue, the largest in all of Southeastern Europe and one of the most extraordinary I have ever been inside, its traditional Jewish motifs exalted by a high domed ceiling and enormous brass chandelier. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of a chance to look around, since the prayer session, with only a dozen of us on hand, took place in a small side room.
Everyone was either an English- speaking backpacker or an Israeli, or both. I quickly got to know Zev, a twenty-something Scottish Jew with tattoos on his forearm who had recently moved to Tel Aviv. We talked about his changes in adapting to a new culture and about his desire to study at a well-known liberal Orthodox yeshiva. Zev had that friendly glow of the newly religious, whose kindness has evolved from civility to spiritual fulfillment.
Soon the rabbi from Jerusalem (dark beard, very brisk manner) came in, but there was a problem. We had nine men and two women (separated from the men by a screen), and ten men were necessary for a minyan. Some of the congregants suggested, in Hebrew, that the women should be counted, but the rabbi wasn’t having it. There wasn’t a flicker of doubt in his voice: the women did not count.
Frankly, I wasn’t upset that we couldn’t do the full service, since I hoped to catch the Sofia pub crawl at 8:00. We sprinted through Song of Songs and did some private praying, and the rabbi gave a short sermon in Hebrew, and we finished by 7:45. I felt less uplifted than I’d hoped. In fact, I felt nearly as out-of-place as I had at Mass, in a mosque, at the back of an Orthodox Christian church.
I was on the verge of running out for a night of hedonism when Zev, talking to an American backpacker named Yoni, suggested that we walk to the Chabad house. I couldn’t turn down free food, and so we set off, me doubtful, Zev hyper-enthusiastic, Yoni navigating on Google Maps, joking that he was violating the rule against using technology on Shabbat. I was surprised by Yoni’s sense of authority: in his grey t-shirt, he looked more like an off-the-grid ex-drummer than an expert on an ultra-Orthodox Jewish organization. You knew it was Chabad, he explained, when you saw a police car out front. Ever since the fatal terrorist attack on a Chabad house in Mumbai in 2008, they’d beefed up security everywhere.
Finally we located the building. The first thing we saw upon entering was the ubiquitous framed picture of Rabbi Mendel Schneerson, “the Rebbe,” whom many in the movement believe to be the messiah. Zev waved off the security guard by showing him his yarmulke and we climbed up the stairs toward the prayer space — but as we did the service ended and dozens of old Israelis with large white skullcaps streamed past us, and we flattened ourselves against the wall until a young man stopped to greet us. He was the rabbi’s assistant (the head rabbi was away), a cheerful guy whose curls of hair on his forehead were thicker than the wispy peyes around his ears. He introduced himself as Saul and asked us to dinner. Actually he didn’t ask us; he insisted. Actually, he assumed with religious expansiveness that we were here for dinner and that was okay, that was great. Ah, this secret world of open doors!
We ate dinner in the large basement, where many long tables had been set with tuna, beet and egg salads, and bottles of soda and vodka. Saul joined us at the largest table, across from a pair of overly well-dressed couples from Israel. At the other tables were the old men with white skullcaps and their energetic wives. They were Yemenites from Israel, part of a travel group that every year picked a new exotic destination.
As we progressed from salads to chicken and potatoes the Yemenite men and women belted out traditional Shabbat songs. They had spirit, these globetrotting old folks, and they worked up to some real table-bangers, including “Kol Ha’Olam Kulo,” whose lyrics translate to, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is to have no fear.” It was a joy.
Saul was also delightful. Relishing the head rabbi’s absence, he popped around the tables and played host, and when the chef, a skinny, nervous Bulgarian teenager, tiptoed over with a question, Saul put his arm around him with chummy authority. Later, Saul brought to our table a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label and then asked us where we were from. Yoni’s answered surprised me. “I grew up in Chabad,” he said. He told us how he’d been kicked out of various Chabad schools, how he’d begun reading forbidden books, and how, when he abandoned the movement for secular society, he had to re-learn how to dress and talk. But he hadn’t totally left the religious world: a year ago, when hospitalized in a tiny town in California, his only visitor came from the local Chabad.
And of course, Yoni was here.
“It is very difficult,” Saul said, his voice just above a whisper, and then he told us his story. At 16 he was the prankster of his yeshiva, squirting ketchup down at the girls from the neighboring seminary. At 17, he met a pretty girl at the Western Wall (his father had told him, “When you’re married, you can do whatever you want”), and soon after they were married. It didn’t work out. For an entire year after their divorce, they pretended to be married to avoid his parents’ wrath, while Saul revolted, partied, even had a non-Jewish girlfriend for a few months. But he’d returned to the fold, partially, which explained why he worked for Chabad all the way out in Sofia and why his peyes were wisp-thin.
“At least I didn’t leave it entirely,” he’d said to his parents, who weren’t impressed. Worse, when his mother visited him in Sofia, when she saw that he went out on Friday nights, she took a cab to the airport and hadn’t spoken to him since. “It is very difficult,” he repeated.
For the rest of the meal, Saul and Yoni entertained us with crazy stories from yeshiva life. The Yemenites were still singing, a little softer, and the great warmth I’d just felt had an edge running through it: the reality of extreme religion.
It’s worth stopping to record all the contradictions here. There was the former Chabadnik who’d left the faith but still felt a sentimental pull to the world. There was the current Chabadnik trying to find the balance between prayer and partying. There was the secular-born guy who, unsatisfied with shallow life at home, moved to Israel and was soon going to study in a liberal yeshiva. And there was me, who was also dissatisfied by the shallowness of modern life, who was also interested in studying Judaism, but who understood that when it came to religion, the higher you rose the greater the dangers. Even Zev’s level of religiosity threatened me, since earlier in the night he’d been soliloquizing his love for Naftali Bennett, a nationalist Israeli politician whom I despised.
Yet who else would welcome me for a Friday night meal? Where else do strangers from another land belt out tunes I know by heart? So much paradox it made my head spin, but how else to know I was, in a strange way, home?
THE VERY NEXT EVENING in Sofia, I listened to a debate between a college-aged Swede and a mid-thirties Bulgarian about the millions of Syrian refugees flooding into Europe. The Swede argued that if Europe opens its arms and accepts Muslim immigrants they will integrate peacefully, while the Bulgarian pointed to Balkan history as a sign that multi-ethnic societies don’t always work.
After thirty minutes of listening, I joined in. I didn’t want to take sides — I didn’t know which side to take — but I was curious about a gap in the Swede’s logic. Although he spoke in the language of diversity and multiculturalism, he admitted that any immigrants would need to accept “human rights.” Except that for Sweden, human rights is not a simple punchcard but a wide net that encompasses every aspect of life from marriage to education to gender roles. The full acceptance of what Swedes consider human rights would change traditional Muslim culture as much as it would change traditional Jewish or Orthodox Christian culture.
It didn’t once enter the conversation that Muslim immigrants might not want to assimilate into Western secular life. When I asked the Swede if John Lennon’s daydream of “Imagine there’s no countries…and no religion too,” would be a utopia or a dystopia, he answered, “utopia” without hesitation. He himself had no religion, no patriotism, no cultural identification — and isn’t that how we will arrive at world peace?
He’s right: a world without religion or nationalities would be more peaceful. And yet I think “Imagine” is a dystopia.
Or I think it’s both, a bridge set over a mirror. When I imagine a world without nationalities or religion, I don’t imagine a joyous peace circle, I see a bunch of kids on their iPhones. Digitized, corporatized, monotonized — that’s what the song makes me imagine and fear. I imagine a world without the spirit that invited me in for a Friday night meal.
But to reject “Imagine” at a more than trivial level is to admit to a world whose danger I witnessed throughout the Balkans and heard from the stories of Yoni and Saul. It means a lack of natural coexistence, a moral universe where fairness is not the only norm, where loyalty and tradition compete with our highest virtues.
There is simply a contradiction, and it can’t be wished away.
An hour later, when talking about his trip to South America, the Swede said that his favorite countries were Peru and Bolivia rather than Argentina or Chile, which were too westernized to be all that interesting. He, too, was on a narrow bridge.
Dan Grossman is a writer and teacher living in New York City.