Becoming A Man In Zagreb


It was, at first glance, a scene out of a Yiddish folktale, transposed from the Old World shtetl to modern-day Zagreb. There were rabbis and healers, plot twists and turns, a small miracle, even the requisite chickens. And just when I thought it would remain a vision from the pages of my imagination, the pictures that flashed on my iPhone confirmed it was real.

The idea germinated as my husband planned his recent December visit to Croatia to celebrate his father’s milestone 80th birthday. Our youngest sat nearby, reviewing his Torah portion. My brain began to connect the dots.

“He can go with you and put on tefillin there!” I suggested. That way, the Croatian side of the family, which cannot travel to the States for the bar mitzvah in February, could be part of the extended festivities.

The video replay would have to suffice for me, though I kept my envy under wraps. My son’s sole reservation was that he’d be denied the donuts we served at his oldest brother’s hanachat tefillin (the middle brother had far less desirable Danish). The real challenge, we knew, would be gathering a minyan. Though not required for the putting on of tefillin, a quorum of 10 for the morning Shacharit service would give my son’s personal rite of passage the extra spiritual oomph of a communal event. It would be particularly meaningful for my husband, too. It was in Zagreb that he nurtured his own sense of belonging to the Jewish people — despite the confines of Yugoslav socialism, his reality until the country’s bloody breakup in 1991.

Today, about 1,500 Croatians identify as Jews, whether by matrilineal or patrilineal descent, marriage, conversion or affinity. Most of them live in or around the capital, Zagreb, and nearly all are intermarried. Though most connect with Jewish culture over religious observance, a devoted cadre makes a minyan on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. A regular weekday minyan, for now, remains out of reach.

Still, the city boasts two beautiful synagogues within its separate Jewish communities: the Zagreb Jewish Community and Bet Israel. Plenty of market-day gossip pivots on the chasm between them, a gap that compounded the difficulties my husband faced in getting 10 Jewish men in a room at the same time.

He feels allegiance to both Jewish houses, the former in which he grew up and the latter in which he now davens when he visits. He lives too far away to have to choose definitively. As he began his count to 10, he appealed to compatriots on opposite sides of the aisle and scheduled the hanachat tefillin for Christmas Day, when no one had to be at work. Bet Israel’s Rabbi Dadon would be out of town at a conference, but his sons and the shul president, a well-respected doctor, would attend in his stead.

Rabbi Asiel, the chief rabbi of Serbia and one of my husband’s long-time friends, rode into town with a carload of chickens he’d shechted for the Bet Israel community. He also brought with him two men for the minyan, the father of another friend from the old chevra and a man who was their teacher at the Pirovac Jewish summer camp decades earlier.

When the day arrived, the sun shone through the etched glass windows of the synagogue, though the glow of father and son was enough to light up the room. After all, they’d spun a bit of magic. Between family, friends, a few new faces, and the local Chabad representative, they surpassed a minyan.

It was a Thursday, so there was the added merit of the Torah reading from Parshat Vayigash, which describes the reunion between Yaakov and his son Yosef after 22 years apart. It was also 22 years ago, a short time after my husband and I first met in Zagreb, that Rabbi Asiel gave him a pair of tefillin of his own, the start to a new life bound by the yoke of heaven.

My phone beeped with images from the ceremony. In one, my son follows his father’s lead, placing a parchment-filled box above his forehead. In another, he winds the straps around his arm. My favorite, though, features both father and son in their tefillin, leaning head to head, only love and the future between them.

On that morning, a boy about to become a man laid upon his heart and his memory the values of his father, and wrapped himself in the wisdom and history of his people. He may not have tasted the fleeting sweetness of those donuts, but he will always have Zagreb.

Merri Ukraincik, who lives in Edison, N.J., is a regular contributor to this space.