The Jewish presence in Macedonia dates back to the end of the Second Temple period, as Jews settled in the area following Alexander the Great’s conquering of Asia Minor in 330 BCE. This association with the classical world marked the community’s importance, evident by Philo referring to the Jews of Macedonia in a list of Jewish communities quoted from the correspondence of Agrippa I to Caligula. Moreover, ruins of a 3rd Century synagogue in Stobi are evidence of a once-sizeable community situated on an important commercial crossroads between Turkey and Western Europe.
The greatest influx of Jews to Macedonia occurred during Ottoman Rule, a period in which Macedonian Jews thrived. This may be in part why Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition decided to seek refuge in Macedonia. These Jews spoke Ladino, the medieval language of Sephardim, and brought a distinct culture with them. In cities throughout the country – such as Bitola, Stip, and Skopje – these Jews prospered in a number of industries and the community enjoyed peaceful relations with the rest of the Macedonian population.
Religiosity among the community began to decline in the 18th and 19th century, but the study of Kabbalah remained an important facet of Jewish religious life in Macedonia. The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century was a time of prosperity for Macedonian Jews, as the community found itself involved in many aspects of Macedonian public life – including industry, agriculture, and trade. The community’s population also continued to grow during this period, with the Jewish population of Salonika growing so large that almost all citizens (including the gentile population) were fluent in Ladino.
However, Greek control over the city of Salonika in 1912 saw Jews prohibited from residing in certain parts of the city, resulting in a large number of the Jewish population emigrating to the United States and other European countries. That being said, the Jewish community in Macedonia continued to constitute a sizeable portion of the Macedonian population.
The two World Wars and the Shoah were devastating to the Macedonian Jewish community, and after 1945, the Jewish community in Macedonia was virtually non-existent. Many Holocaust survivors immigrated to Israel. For the few remaining Jews in the country, life was somewhat tolerable as a member of the communist federation of Yugoslavia under President Josip Tito, despite the staunch secularism that his regime promoted.
Life throughout the latter part of the 20th century was precarious for the Jewish community in Macedonia, largely due to external geopolitical tensions involving the region. The breakup of Yugoslavia saw Macedonia gain its independence in 1991, with the Jewish Community of the Republic being one of the five religious communities included in the Constitution of the Republic.
Since achieving its independence, Macedonia has been one of the few countries fully committed to the protection of the property rights of deported Jews without living heirs. In 2000, the government passed an heirless property restitution law. Today the Jewish community of Macedonia is largely centered in Skopje, the nation’s capital, and enjoys a sense of stability despite heavy emigration.