Monday, July 4, 2011

Tables Open and Closed

One hard-boiled egg, two pastries filled with cream, and an empty glass of wine lay before me on the table.  The egg’s shell was dark brown, like it was made of mahogany.  “It’s because they boil them with onions,” the woman across the table from me hinted, apparently having read my mind through my face.

Last Friday, I celebrated Shabbat at the Sarajevo Jewish Community Center.  Sarajevo used to have a thriving Jewish community.  Sephardic Jews fled the militant Christians of the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century in search of a more tolerant home.  Sarajevo’s conspicuous blend of cultures and religions appealed to them.  The 19th century brought a wave of Ashkenazis from Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine, also seeking more hospitable climes.  Some one-thousand Jews remain in Sarajevo today, a faint shadow of the community that flourished here 100 years ago.  The Holocaust, more recent wars, and emigration have left only a remnant.

“Shabbat shalom!”  I offered confidently as I extended my hand to the mustachioed man who looked to be in charge.  This Hebrew greeting felt like familiar territory compared to what followed.  With great effort and awful diction, I expressed to this man who I was, what I’m doing in Bosnia, and most importantly, my need to borrow a yarmulke.  His thick mustache peaked into a smile, and he pointed me toward the kipas.

Following the brief service, sung entirely in Hebrew, the men on the right side of the temple met the women on the left side in the middle, and we filed downstairs for a light meal.  Here is where I found my dark brown egg.  But in the midst of all these unfamiliar things, I recognized what came next.

The leader of the synagogue sat at the head of the table.  He called the assembly’s attention and lifted a loaf of fresh challah bread.  After saying some words of blessing, he broke it and gave it to the men to his left and to his right.  Each person tore off a piece from the loaf, and gave the rest to the next person.  Then, the leader took a small, silver cup.  He poured some red wine into it, lifted it up also, and offered a blessing on the meal.  As he did this, the woman who had explained the strange condition of my egg took my empty glass and filled it to the brim with wine. “L’chaim,” she said through a big smile.  “To life!”

Sabbath had begun.  We took and ate, and it was good.

I will not call this something it is not.  Not one Jew in that room would have called this communion, so neither will I.  But the familiarity of this meal shared with friends and strangers resonated in my soul.  A simple meal of kruh i vino, bread and wine, centered around a worshipping community, offered to friends in friendship and to strangers in hospitality and to all in fellowship; that was familiar.  Celebrating the goodness of a God who rested and injects rest and rejuvenation into our weeks; this I recognize when I see - brown eggs and all.

On the third day, so to speak, I sat in the pews of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Old St. Pat’s of Sarajevo.  For the second consecutive week, Monsignor Zovkic invited me to read the Old Testament and Epistolary readings at their English Mass.  Both times, I have been surprised by how natural and good it feels to take leadership in worship and to read Scripture in the midst of Christian community.  It feels like home to me. 

But then that dark brown egg returned.  I saw it when I watched them form a line down the central aisle. I felt it when I slid my feet to the side and pinched my legs against the old pew, letting the others brush past me.  Some receive the blessing of Christ’s broken body and blood, and others sit in their pews and watch.

Both the Jewish community and the Catholic Croat community of Sarajevo feel that their identities are endangered.  Both are deeply concerned as they watch more and more members of their communities emigrate to the West.  But in spite of the temptation to hunker down and turn inward, this tiny, vulnerable Jewish community keeps their table open.  They showed me that it is possible to be authentic to their Jewish identity, threatened as it is, and still extend a risky hand of hospitality to those who do not share that identity.

The Jews of Sarajevo are proof that identity does not have to be a rigid, exclusionary thing; it can be flexible.  And when we choose to be who we really are in all our particularities while simultaneously engaging those unfamiliar others that seem threatening at first, we might be surprised to find that the Kingdom of God is chock full of dark brown eggs.


  1. Not to sound trite - but your profile pic for this blog is way better than the one from the Bosnian days.

  2. touche will. i think you actually took this picture, although I'm sure that's a coincidence.