Letter From Split

By Marcus Tanner, August 17, 2009
Ana Lebl: reviving a community

Ana Lebl: reviving a community

In the 20 years that I’ve been coming to Split, I’d never registered the fact that this old Mediterranean port not only had a Jewish community but one of the oldest in Europe.

How many times had I hurried through the narrow, dark alleyways without noticing the delicately carved niches in the doorways, designed to hold mezuzot?

Pointing them out makes Ana Lebl, feisty leader of this hundred-strong community, break into a smile. A one-woman powerhouse and store of knowledge, she and her non-Jewish husband have pored over the records, tracing the long history of Split’s Jews over the ages.

“We’ve definitely been here since the 7th century,” Ms Lebl says, emphatically. “When the Roman city of Salona was evacuated and the people moved into the ruined palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian at Spalato, the Jews came with the refugees.”

Over the following millennium, as Roman Spalato evolved into Slavic Split, Ms Lebl says Jews encountered little hostility, partly because of their strong philanthropic role.

She points to the sign on the street where I am staying: “That’s named after Manuel Rodrigo,” she explains. “A Jewish merchant in the 16th century, he designed the new harbour that helped this city become a more important trading centre.

“He also obtained the right from the Venetian government to establish the first Jewish graveyard, in 1573,” she adds.

The past 70 years have been less glorious. A plaque in the synagogue commemorates the 150 local Jews, about one-third of the community, killed by the Nazis or the Ustashe, the local Croatian fascists.

The emigration of many survivors to Israel and the secularisation of the remnants under Tito’s communists seemed to seal the fate of a community that had a rich past but no future.

Ms Lebl decided the community had to adapt or die. But how to unite a hundred or so disparate individuals of all age groups — a community “more traditional than religious”, as Ms Lebl puts it?

Holding more religious services didn’t really work. It was then that she hit on the idea of reviving a communal Friday-night dinner. “About 20 or 30 of us gather now on Fridays. We light Sabbath candles and for about ten minutes we read the Torah. We do Sephardic cooking. And we chat!
“Now people know a lot more about their religion.”

The success of Ms Lebl’s venture is palpable. The renovated social centre underneath the synagogue is busy and breezy. Locals, Jewish and non-Jewish, pop in, sink down into easy chairs and gossip.

“We are still a living community but whether we will be so in 30 years’ time remains to be seen,” she says, philosophically.

True, I think. But with Ms Lebl in charge, I’d say there’s more than a fighting chance that this community will be around for a while to come.

Last updated: 4:35pm, September 23 2009