Balkan Tales I


I am beginning this post, the first of our honeymoon trip to the Balkans, in Ben Gurion Airport. I will continue it on the plane and hope to have finished it by the time we disembark two hours later in Istanbul. During five weeks of traveling, we plan to visit many incredible places and communities and hope to return with ordinary and extraordinary stories. For now, I want to dedicate this time and space to explaining a little bit about how and why this trip came about.

Many people I’ve spoken to hear our intended destinations and ask “why”. Why honeymoon in the Balkans, why not the Caribbean, or Hawaii, or Paris? The first part of that is that we both enjoy off the beaten path adventures, experiences where we get to interact with locals, to really see a city or country. The less touristic places are much better for that. I also find that the optimal traveling experience comes when you get to see a place that you cannot or do not hear as much about from others who have been there.

More specifically about the Balkans, my initial interest probably began from a number of conversations with and articles by Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, of the Center for Islamic Pluralism. Schwartz, who lived in different parts of the Balkans for several years, described some of the more unique aspects of both the Balkan Islamic and Jewish communities. As my interest in this region grew, I did more research, learning for example that the Albanian Jewish community, although small, actually grew during the Holocaust as Albanians throughout the country risked their lives to protect even non-Albanian Jews in accordance with the Besa moral code. I discovered that Salonika was a city of majority Jewish population just a little over a century ago, that there are a still a small number of active synagogues and Jewish community centers dotting the Balkan horizon, that Spanish (Sefaradi) exiles, Greek Romaniotes and Ashkenazi communities all made up part of the Balkan Jewish tapestry, which largely coexisted peacefully alongside the other ethnic and religious communities.

In fact, one of the strongest common elements to what I learned from researching Balkan history, is a relative successful past of ethnic and especially religious co-existence. Under the Ottoman Empire, Jewish life in the Balkans was particularly successful, but so generally were other communities and relationships. As the Ottoman Empire eroded, piece by piece, various countries gained independence and national conflicts arose. However, even in these changing circumstances, the Balkans retained an aspect of multiculturalism and religious diversity that was quite unique. It is only in the very recent past that the disastrous conflicts arose during the break-up of Yugoslavia. If we look back farther than that, the region was comparatively harmonious and indeed a place of refuge for those fleeing persecution from the rest of Europe.

In a tragically ironic sense, the Balkans has become known to some only through violence over the last century and especially, the post-1990 conflicts emerging out of the break-up of Yugoslavia. This too, is a source of interest—how did such ethnic conflict in a post-WW II Europe arise, and, more crucially, how have the various peoples and sides been able to resume living with their neighbors in post-conflict Bosnia and Kosova? The history of the cities, the traditions of the dwindling but still present (in many cases) Jewish communities of the Balkans, the rich multiethnic, multi-religious cultural flavor of the region that I find most unique about the Balkans and that I am most excited about experiencing personally.


About the Author
Steven Aiello has a BA in Economics from NYU and an MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies from the IDC Herzliya. He has also studied Jewish, Islamic, Israeli and British law. Steven has served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress.He edits and teaches part-time. He can be reached via email at