It was Shabbos Nachamu, the Shabbos after Tisha B’Av, traditionally a weekend of partying and socializing for young observant Jews, which, coincidentally, falls this weekend. This, according to Isaiah, is the Shabbos in which the Jewish people are comforted after their suffering. But while all my friends were preparing to party in Brooklyn, I landed late Friday afternoon in a city where I knew no one.
Sarajevo was 104 degrees. When I left the plane after a painfully long trip–New York to Reykjavik to London to Vienna to Sarajevo–I felt the heat before seeing the beautiful mountains that surrounded the city. I was there for the Muslim Jewish Conference that began Sunday evening. For the next three days, I was alone.
A tour guide later explained that it was the Jerusalem of Europe–a melting pot of many cultures. Years of ethnic cleansing, violence, and war made it less culturally diverse.
In the Vienna airport, half of my kosher food was confiscated by airport security for being too liquid adjacent. My Shabbos fare became a little more pitiful. After the short flight, in which I sat next to the German basketball team, I arrived in Sarajevo. It was a city close to me, as it was the first war of my lifetime. I was 2 when the Yugoslav War broke out and I remember watching the shelling of homes and the sniper fire with my father on the news.
My Airbnb host met me in the airport and drove me to his apartment. For Shabbos, I splurged on an Airbnb. As we drove in his car with no AC or working windows, I looked out and saw empty buildings. He didn’t speak a word of English, so he put me on the phone with a woman who I surmised was his daughter, but she didn’t speak English either, so it was a fruitless exercise. I sank deeper and lonelier into my seat, wondering if I was to find any comfort at all.
After settling down and enjoying the poor air conditioning, I lied down for five minutes only to wake up to darkness hours later. None of the lights were on and I couldn’t turn them on because it was Shabbos. It was late, and I was hungry and tired. But I was restless–I wanted to see the city to feel more settled. I donned a white shirt and black pants–my Shabbos regalia–to feel close to my Jewish community back home. I prayed quickly and blindly felt my way to the exit.
After nervously hiding my keys in some weeds (carrying things in your hands and pockets is prohibited on Shabbos), I headed to the main thoroughfare. My apartment seemed like it was in a sketchy neighborhood. To get to my one bedroom, we walked through a black market car wash. I walked down a hill, passing a grocery and cemetery. As I trekked, I desperately tried to remember sites because the street names were not in English. If I got lost, I would not know how to ask for directions. I could not even pronounce the street I stayed on nor did I fully understand how the address system worked.
I thought about my friends back home. I imagined they were having lots of fun–drinking and partying—while I was stuck here all alone with a little food and a dark apartment. I made the wrong choice.
The main road, named for the socialist leader Tito, was alive. Loud music and hookah smoke poured into the streets. Of course, none of this is for me, as it was Shabbos which makes me feel further alienated. I wandered around and passed the bridge on which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot, starting WWI. The city had a history of war and violence, much like the real Jerusalem.
I passed a karaoke bar. The maître d’, a woman, called me in. I tried to explain that I have no money but she didn’t understand. For whatever reason, I followed her instructions and went inside. It was a dimly lit bar and restaurant full of about 10 locals.
An old man sitting near the door pulled out an empty chair for me. I obliged as he started talking in Bosnian. I politely nodded and smiled. I didn’t understand a word. He soon motions to the bartender, who was waiting for my order. I pulled out my empty pockets and shrug. The man bought me a local beer, Sarajevsko, and then two more. He talked and I nodded politely for half an hour. But then, slowly, amazingly, I started understanding him. Something about him was familiar. I understood not only some of the words he used but also the way he talked. He was Jewish! Through his hand motions, I made out that his mother was Jewish and his father was Serbian. He explained that the Jews left during the Holocaust and the years since. He signed that his family had been in Bosnia since the turn of the century, surviving regime changes, two world wars, and atrocities too numerous to mention. Like Jerusalem, despite wars and hardship, Sarajevo survived. My new friend was happy to see me with a kippa in the streets–being so publicly Jewish because that’s how Sarajevo used to be.
The Jerusalem of Europe was slowly starting to rebuild.
A man sang schmaltzy music and played a keyboard as the whole bar sang along. I downed my second beer and listened to beautiful Shabbos songs.
We soon said goodbye and I left without knowing his name. I didn’t need to know much about him at all, though: His story, the story of Jewish suffering and redemption, was immediately familiar to me. It was the story of the Jewish people, the story of Shabbos Nachamu.
Far away from home, and far away from tradition, I still managed to find a bit of comfort in knowing that our shared story, of survival despite the odds, lives on.
Eli Reiter is an educator and graduate student at the University of Chicago. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Slate, among other outlets. He is working on a book now. He can be found on Twitter at @AlreadyEli. You can read more of his work and contact him at elireiter.com.