During an academic conference in Boston last month, Sasha Toperich, a multilingual native of Bosnia-Herzegovina, presented a speech on recent political developments in the Balkans.
That was appropriate — Toperich is a diplomat.
Toperich also gave a concert during the two-day conference.
That, too, was appropriate — he’s a concert pianist.
“I’m blessed. I’m not an ordinary case,” says Toperich, 32, a Jewish native of Sarajevo who made aliyah a decade ago, and is now based in New York City as a presidential envoy of Bosnia-Herzegovina and president of the America-Bosnia Cultural Foundation. “It usually takes 15 minutes to explain.”
“I learned about diplomacy in Israel,” he says. “I schmoozed with the diplomats,” the ones he had met while doing fund-raising lectures.
His homeland, 40 percent Muslim, is one of the republics that became independent when communism ended in Yugoslavia in 1991.
Toperich’s mandate is to boost his homeland’s image and economic standing through his international diplomatic and artistic contacts.
He talks about “when I succeed, not if I succeed.”
First, he says, unwrapping his scarf in the Bosnia-Herzegovina UN Mission on the East Side and pouring a cup of coffee, is the country’s image. News reports in recent years, especially after the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the United States, identified Bosnia-Herzegovina as an al-Qaeda hotbed, a recruiting center for aspiring terrorists.
“That is a huge misconception,” Toperich says. “There are no active terrorists [there]. There are no terrorist cells.”
As signs of Bosnian moderation, he points to the troops sent to the U.S. coalition in Iraq, to the centuries of good relations among its Muslims, Jews and Christians, to the interfaith effort that kept the famed Sarajevo Haggadah out of Nazi hands during World War II.
“It says a lot about the country” that it appointed a Jew to a prestigious post here, Toperich says.
As a representative of a land with a small Jewish community (about 700 members), his open Jewish identity (he began reading the Torah at 14 in a Serbo-Croatian translation and now is Sabbath observant “when possible”) and his unique artistic-diplomatic background (he has given masters’ music classes on three continents, and represented Israel as a cultural ambassador) immediately attract curiosity.
In recognition of the charity performances for Bosnian causes, UNESCO named him an “Artist for Peace” and a representative of the organization in 1999. He resigned the honorary title in 2001 to protest UNESCO’s decision not to display the work of Tibetan artists on UN premises because of pressure from China.
“That was hypocrisy,” Toperich says of the UNESCO decision.
During his three years as presidential envoy and the Foreign Ministry’s honorary envoy, and during his decade of concertizing in a dozen countries around the world, including Egypt, he says he has encountered no anti-Semitism.
“Not at all,” Toperich says, sipping on his coffee.
He speaks fluent English, in addition to the Bosnian dialect of Serbo-Croatian, Hebrew, French, Russian and Portuguese.
“I’m learning Japanese now,” he says, for work in youth leadership development.
Toperich, who had maintained a low public profile, has intentionally increased his visibility for the sake of his current projects.
While still practicing piano three to four hours a day, he is planning a conference in Boston next year to mark the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-brokered Dayton Accords that ended Serbia’s three-year war against Bosnia-Herzegovina. He’s also acting as a go-between for Bosmal (www.bosmal.com), an enterprise that is building roads and doing other construction in his country.
“I want to do concrete things,” he says.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, calls Toperich “assertive and talented.” They have known each other for a few years from human rights meetings.
“He’s certainly a proud Jew. He does not compromise his Jewish identity,” Hoenlein says. “He’s been very helpful in communication with the Jews there. He does have the ear of the Bosnian officials.”
Toperich, who comes from a family that has lived in Sarajevo “at least two, three generations,” began taking piano lessons at the age of 5. At 7, on a family vacation, he declared his life’s ambition to his parents.
“I told them one day I’d like to be a famous concert pianist and a high-ranking diplomat,” he recalls.
His parents humored his childish aspirations. What do they say now?
Toperich says, “They just say, ‘Wow.’ ”