Staying strong as a group

Serbian Americans savor the good times, each other

Posted: Sept. 23, 2004

Each weekend, the dark-haired group of twenty- and thirtysomethings file into the downtown bars together. They pick a spot in the club and order a round of their favorite drinks - beer, red wine and Coke with no ice and maybe a shot or two of Slivo.

44356Go Serbia!
Photo/Michael Sears
With St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, a focal point of Serbian American life in the background, the United Serbians soccer team plays. Todor Zezelj (3) shakes the hand of John Dizas after a great play. Dizas also gets a hug from coach Vojislav Tubic.
Photo/Jim Bovin
The Serbian American presence is strong as friends, family and community members gather for the opening of Moct/Cafe Fabrika, owned by brothers Nebi and Sini Torbica and husband and wife Nikola and Vesna Lakic.
Tattoos with a Serbian theme are not uncommon. Zoran Micic displays one symbol of his heritage at the Moct/Fabrika opening.
The nightclub/restaurant, one of two new Serbian American-owned nightspots, was filled with people and Serbian American pride on its opening night.
Traditional dance is a point of pride and culture in the Serbian American community. Michael Malich puts teenagers through a vigorous practice - even though the Packers-Bears game is on TV.
As dean of St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, Father Dragan K. Veleusic oversees many of the cultural activities that swirl around the church.
As dean of St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, Father Dragan K. Veleusic oversees many of the cultural activities that swirl around the church.
I couldn't tell you the last time I hung out with someone who wasn't Serbian. We're always together.
- Jovo Acamovic,

The friends look like any other group of young professionals hanging out on a Friday or Saturday night. But this group is much more than a gathering of colleagues, kickball team members or old high school buds. They are the young, hip generation of one of Milwaukee's oldest ethnic communities. And they're proud to be hanging out together.

"People notice us," says Michael Malich, 27. "They're like, 'Look at all those Serbs.'"

The Serbian community has long been an integral part of the fabric of Milwaukee.

American Serb Hall is a requisite campaign stop for politicians. Three Brothers Serbian Restaurant in Bay View gets nods in travel books. Many longtime city residents know that 27th St. is lined with motels owned by Serbian Americans.

But what some people may not realize is that the Serbian community also has a noticeable presence in Milwaukee's youthful nightlife.

On any given Friday or Saturday night, it is not uncommon for a group of Serbian friends - as small as 3 and as large as 20 - to head out to bars and clubs together.

They may start off at south side hot spots, such as Una or Dynasty Lounge, then head downtown to Tangerine, Eve and Dino's Taverna.

Over the years, bartenders at Dino's have learned to stock Slivovitz, a plum brandy popular with the Serbian clientele. DJs have added Serbian music to their play lists.

And recently, Serbian Americans added two of the newest spots to the downtown bar scene: Moct/Cafe Fabrika - a nightclub and restaurant serving contemporary versions of Serbian food at 240 E. Pittsburgh Ave. in Walker's Point; and LEX at 530 N. Water St.

Although the owners of Moct and Cafe Fabrika are quick to note that the business is targeting young professionals of all ethnicities and backgrounds, last week at a grand opening party, the Serbian spirit was present.

In the midst of invited city leaders and local business owners stood a cluster of dark-haired men raising their glasses for Nikola Lakic and his wife, Vesna, who opened the restaurant portion of the business.

"There was like, an urgency - I had to come here," said Zoran Krecak, 28 who has known the owners of Moct and Cafe Fabrika most of his life. "If they can't rely on the people they grew up with, who can they rely on?"

Over drinks, the group reminisced about their friendships. They remembered the way when many of them attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Serbian friends met in a spot in the Student Union unofficially known as "The Serb Table." They thought about how when a handful of the friends turned 18, they went together to get Serbian-themed tattoos.

"I couldn't tell you the last time I hung out with someone who wasn't Serbian," said Jovo Acamovic, 36, of Milwaukee. "We're always together."

It's not that the young Serbians want to exclude anyone.

Nebi Torbica, who opened Moct along with his brother, Sini, said they were mostly interested in bringing Milwaukee a venue with interesting architectural design. They own a similar bar in Serbia.

Still, the Serbians do have something that is rare to see from this MTV-watching, melting pot generation: They are protective of their heritage.

"It's our upbringing. It's our culture. It's our personality," said Zoran Micic, 30.

And where does such a bond that can keep young Serbian Milwaukeeans together no matter how much time passes, no matter the jobs, no matter where they were born? Ask any member of the group where the bond began and they always give the same answer.

It begins with the family and, in many cases, the church.

(STYL)tribull mmm

Sunday liturgies have just let out at St. Sava's Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, 3201 S. 51st St. But the parking lot will remain full of cars for the remainder of the day.

Behind St. Sava's cultural center, the United Serbians Soccer Club is in the middle of a match. Inside the gymnasium, more than 25 teens in shorts and T-shirts are working up a sweat at Serbian folk dance practice.

"See how good my young people are?" asks Father Dragan K. Veleusic, dean of St. Sava's, as he walks through the rooms bustling with people. Teens on their way to the soccer fields and dance practice stop in front of Veleusic, grab his hand and give it a kiss to show they are respectful.

There are 12,000 Serbs living in the Milwaukee area, and leaders say the ethnic group is in its fifth generation. Many of the recent immigrants came here to escape fighting that ripped through the region around their native Yugoslavia.

"Serbian people are still tied with Old Country," says Veleusic, adding that he also believes Milwaukee's Serbian community may be closer than other American Serbian populations because they have one main church to stay connected with; other cities such as Chicago or Indianapolis may have several.

So Malich, who spends his weekend nights with his friends at the city's hottest nighttime spots, devotes Sunday afternoons to dancing.

On this particular Sunday, he is teaching his dance pupils a rigorous dance where boys and girls link arms and do a series of kicks and hops together.

"Four kicks! . . . "

"Shoulders back, head up . . . "

"Serbian dancing is not solo dancing. You must work together as a group!" he calls out to the teens.

Nobody seems to notice that they're missing the first quarter of the first Packers-Bears game of the season. Not even 14-year-old Luke Petrovich, who is dressed in green Packers shorts and a Packers T-shirt.

"You've got to keep the culture alive," he says, shrugging his shoulders as he checks the Packers score on a mini-TV set during a break in the rehearsal.

There was a time when Nikola Lakic, 31 and the co-owner of Cafe Fabrika, tried to hide the fact that he took traditional Serbian dance lessons.

In high school, he didn't want classmates to make fun of him, or say "oh, you have another Serbian thing."

But as he got older, he learned to appreciate his heritage. He married his wife, Vesna, a Serbian American from Indiana, in a wedding with 1,100 guests - mostly family members. He and his wife are teaching their 19-month-old son to speak Serbian before English.

When he opened Cafe Fabrika, he was excited to bring Milwaukee dishes he grew up eating - with a modern flair.

"I wanted to show Serbian food in a more contemporary fashion," said Lakic. "You figure younger people, when they're on a date, they're not going to go to Old Town."

Jsonline.com - Sep 24 2004 17:26:36 GMT

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