Serbian Culture – A Midwest Perspective

By Kayla Urban & Nina Kesic

Milwaukee is a great melting pot of cultures, and has a rich history of immigrants coming to the area to seek a better economic life.  Before World War II, people all over Europe migrated and settled in Milwaukee, bringing with them their homeland’s traditions of food, music and dance.

The Serbian people, from former Yugoslavia, were no different. They are a prevailing subcommunity right in our own backyard that is worth exploring.

For Serbian immigrants coming to the United States, Milwaukee and Chicago were prime destinations to settle because of the promise of employment. Very Rev. Father Dragan K. Veleusic, of Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Milwaukee, believes that is why over 300,000 Serbian people have settled in Milwaukee and Chicago.

“Milwaukee was an industrial center and starting in 1900, the majority of those who came first were hard-working people,” Veleusic said.

When looking for employment opportunities, Veleusic believes that most Serbian people at the time preferred hard labor jobs compared to ones in an office setting due to the overwhelming need for laborers at the time.

Many Serbs came to Milwaukee or Chicago to seek employment with labor-intense jobs compared to ones that may have required degrees or fluency in English. Even though many Serbs had higher degrees, at times it was easier and quicker to find hands-on jobs.

The last and most recent year that the U.S. Census recorded the number of Serbian Americans was 2011. Veleusic believes that there are about 8,000 Serbs in Milwaukee and about 300,000 in Chicago today.  There are many Serbian Americans here in the U.S. that are fourth or fifth generation citizens, yet many are still coming to Milwaukee or Chicago to settle because of the established Serbian communities and churches in the area.

Deborah Padgett, the author of  “Settlers and Sojourners – A Study of Serbian Adaptation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” believes that the established Serbian churches are part of the attraction to the area. Padgett said “the Serbian Orthodox church was a social, religious and culturally unifying institution.”

Church and Religion Tying Together Serbs

Religion and the presence of the church in Serbian culture serves as an important focal point for Serbians over the centuries. For St. Sava in Milwaukee, that is no different.  The Orthodox church has served as a refuge after the Civil War and continues to be a place for Serbian people to seek comfort and knowledge.

“In the last, unfortunate civil war in former Yugoslavia, many people were forced to leave [their] homes,” Veleusic said. “We accepted in Milwaukee about 350 families of refugees. They were looking for some place that where they have organized Serbian congregation where they can somehow feel at home … As church we really open our hearts and doors and we accepted and helped them.”

Private and Public Serbs

The Serbian community has been seen as private, and one that many non-Serbs are unable to penetrate. However, Veleusic hopes that open conversation can change that.

“We have to introduce ourselves more than we do,” Veleusic said. “There is a big part in our hands; I have to do my part.”

With Father Veleusic’s willingness to talk about the Serbian people it was only natural to bring to light the annual festival Serb Hall and St. Sava hold for the community.  Serbian Days is held every year in August at Serb Hall in Milwaukee.

“[It] was established not for us to enjoy ourselves but to offer something to [the] wider community,” Veleusic said. “Come share [our] church, kitchen and many beautiful things. It’s to offer to others, to share.”

Serbian Food

Food is the connecting factor when Serbs come together as a community for different social and traditional events. Traditional meals include sarma, pasulj, ?evapi, and then tons of sweets like pala?inke, tamni kola? and much more. Whether it be at a zabava, a traditional Serbian dance festival, a family member’s house, a wedding, or saint day celebration (slava), food – and lots of it – is always there.

The following foods are staples at Serbian celebrations, dinners and get-togethers: Sarma, a stuffed cabbage roll; pasulj, a bean stew; and cevapi, sausages originated from the Balkans, which are usually served with kajmak, a dairy spread, onions, lepinje (a type of bread) and some cole slaw or potatoes on the side. Favorite and most popular desserts include palacinke, Serbian crepes, and tamni kolac, a dense chocolate pastry.

This is all just a small portion of all of the different types of foods Serbs usually eat and enjoy.

Sara Mitrovic, a Serb from Chicago, said that her “top favorite Serbian food is a Karadjordjeva Šnicla because of its crispy outside, but cheesy and savory taste on the inside.”

Traditions

Many Serbian people are followers of the Serbian Orthodox faith. The word “orthodox” itself means “traditional,” which is the basis of Serbian culture and beliefs.

Serbs are very traditional when it comes to religion, household structure, holidays, and cultural practices.

In the Chicago area especially, Serbian folk dancing is a huge part of maintaining Serbian culture and keeping tradition alive. There are several dance groups throughout the Chicago, Milwaukee and Indiana Serb populations. Children start dancing as young as the age of 5 and continue to do so throughout high school, and some continue on throughout their young adult years.

The traditional clothing that the dancers wear is called nošnje. Dancers practice at their respective church once or twice a week, and then on Saturday nights, the different dance groups from throughout the Chicago, Milwaukee and Indiana areas perform at the zabava. Different churches will host a zabava throughout the fall and spring seasons. This allows for children and adults from different churches to connect with Serbs from different areas.

Another part of Serbian tradition that is important to acknowledge is the celebration of slava. Slava is a celebration and feast day of a family’s patron saint. In Serbian culture and religion, iconography and the the relevance of saints and their stories are incredibly sacred.

Serbian people are the only people in the Orthodox religion that celebrate slava. Before Serbs were faithful Orthodox people, they were Pagans. On the day that the father and his family were baptised into Orthodoxy, that day would be the day of a saint, and then would become that family’s slava, which would continue to be passed down through the father and husband.

“One of the traditions I cherish the most is slava,” said Suzana Bicanin, a Serb from Chicago. “It is not only an example of how interwoven religion is into our cultural identity, but is also proof of our perseverance throughout history to keep our culture intact. It is a piece of my family and culture that is gifted from generation to generation and something that I can gift to my children.”

There are so many different slavas throughout the year because there have been so many baptisms throughout history on different days of the saints. In today’s Serbian culture, not much has changed about how slava is celebrated. Close family and friends are invited to the house of the person celebrating slava, and it is a day to feast and venerate the saint that protects the family, but also to connect with family and friends, and to share thankfulness of being able to celebrate a Serbian tradition that has been around for centuries.

Milwaukee is a great melting pot of cultures, and has a rich history of immigrants coming to the area to seek a better economic life.  Before World War II, people all over Europe migrated and settled in Milwaukee, bringing with them their homeland’s traditions of food, music and dance.

The Serbian people, from former Yugoslavia, were no different. They are a prevailing subcommunity right in our own backyard that is worth exploring.

For Serbian immigrants coming to the United States, Milwaukee and Chicago were prime destinations to settle because of the promise of employment. Very Rev. Father Dragan K. Veleušic, of Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Milwaukee, believes that is why over 300,000 Serbian people have settled in Milwaukee and Chicago.

“Milwaukee was an industrial center and starting in 1900, the majority of those who came first were hard-working people that didn’t look for science center to work but to work with their hands,” said Veleušic.

Many Serbs came to Milwaukee or Chicago to seek employment with labor-intense jobs compared to ones that may have required degrees or fluency in English. Even though many erbs had higher degrees,  at times it was easier and quicker to find hands-on jobs.

The numbers last recorded about Serbian Americans by the U.S. Census was in 2011.

The last and most recent year that the U.S. Census recorded the number of Serbian Americans was 2011. Veleušic believes that there are about 8,000 Serbs in Milwaukee and about 300,000 in Chicago today.  There are many Serbian Americans here in the U.S. that are fourth or fifth generation citizens, yet many are still coming to Milwaukee or Chicago to settle because of the established Serbian communities and churches in the area.

Deborah Padgett, the author of  “Settlers and Sojourners – A Study of Serbian Adaptation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” believes that the established Serbian churches are part of the attraction to the area. Padgett said “the Serbian Orthodox church was a social, religious and culturally unifying institution.”

Church and Religion Tying Together Serbs

Religion and the presence of the church in Serbian culture serves as an important focal point for Serbians over the centuries. For St. Sava in Milwaukee that is no different.  The Orthodox church has served as a refuge after the Civil War and continues to be a place for Serbian people to seek comfort and knowledge.

“In the last, unfortunate civil war in former Yugoslavia, many people were forced to leave their homes,”  Veleušic said. “We accepted in Milwaukee about 350 families of refugees. They were looking for some place that where they have organized Serbian congregation where they can somehow feel at home … As church we really open our hearts and doors and we accepted and helped them.”

Private and Public Serbs

The Serbian community has been seen as private, and one that many non-Serbs  are unable  to penetrate. However, Veleuši? hopes that open conversation can change that. “We have to introduce ourselves more than we do,” Veleusic said. “There is a big part in our hands; I have to do my part.”

With Father Veleušic’s willingness to talk about the Serbian people it was only natural to bring to light the annual festival Serb Hall and St. Sava hold for the community.  Serbian Days is held every year in August at Serb Hall in Milwaukee.

“[It] was established not for us to enjoy ourselves but to offer something to the wider community,” Veleušic said. Come share our church, kitchen and many beautiful things. It’s to offer to others, to share.”

Serbian Food

Food is the connecting factor when Serbs come together as a community for different social and traditional events. Traditional meals include sarma, pasulj, cevapi, and then tons of sweets like palacinke, tamni kolac, and much more. Whether it be at a zabava, a traditional Serbian dance festival, a family member’s house, a wedding, or saint day celebration (slava), food – and lots of it – is always there.

The following foods are staples at Serbian celebrations, dinners, and get-togethers: Sarma,a stuffed cabbage roll; pasulj, a bean stew; ?evapi, sausages originated from the Balkans. Favorite and most popular desserts include palacinke, Serbian crepes, and tamni kolac, a dense  and rich chocolate sweet.

This is all just a small portion of all of the different types of foods Serbs usually eat and enjoy.

Chicago Serb, Sara Mitrovic, says that “top favorite Serbian food is a Karadjordjeva Šnicla because of its crispy outside, but cheesy and savory taste on the inside.”

Traditions

Many Serbian people are followers of the Serbian Orthodox faith. The word “orthodox” itself means “traditional,” which is the basis of Serbian culture and beliefs.

Serbs are very traditional when it comes to religion, household structure, holidays, and cultural practices.

In the Chicago area especially, Serbian folk dancing is a huge part of maintaining Serbian culture and keeping tradition alive. There are several dance groups throughout the Chicago, Milwaukee, and Indiana Serb populations. Children start dancing as young as the age of five and continue to do so throughout high school, and some continue on throughout their young adult years.

The traditional clothing that the dancers wear is called nošnje. Dancers practice at their respective church once or twice a week, and then on Saturday nights, the different dance groups from throughout the Chicago, Milwaukee, and Indiana areas perform at the zabava. Different churches will host a zabava throughout the fall and spring seasons. This allows for children and adults from different churches to connect with Serbs from different areas.

Another part of Serbian tradition that is important to acknowledge is the celebration of slava. Slava is a celebration and feast day of a family’s patron saint. In Serbian culture and religion, iconography and the the relevance of saints and their stories are incredibly sacred.

Serbian people are the only people in the Orthodox religion that celebrate slava. Before Serbs were faithful Orthodox people, they were Pagans. On the day that the father and his family were baptised into Orthodoxy, that day would be the day of a saint, and then would become that family’s slava, which would continue to be passed down through the father and husband.

Chicago Serb, Suzana Bicanin shares that “one of the traditions I cherish the most is slava. It is not only an example of how interwoven religion is into our cultural identity, but is also proof of our perseverance throughout history to keep our culture intact. It is a piece of my family and culture that is gifted from generation to generation and something that I can gift to my children.”

There are so many different slavas throughout the year because there have been so many baptisms throughout history on different days of the saints. In today’s Serbian culture, not much has changed about how slava is celebrated. Close family and friends are invited to the house of the person celebrating slava, and it is a day to feast and venerate the saint that protects the family, but also to connect with family and friends, and to share thankfulness of being able to celebrate a Serbian tradition that has been around for centuries.

 

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