Unassuming Treasures

I was going to call this post zipping through Zagreb since it sounded so ´cute – or really too cute and not at all representative of this charming old city full of museums, a great botanic garden, coffee shop filled squares, and endless pastry shops.  Nothing moves quickly here and personal and professional relationships are forged over leisurely drank cups of coffee as the Chabad Rabbi, Rabbi Pini, and Borut at the JCC-Beit Israel told me.  Winding through streets and climbing the hill to the High Town past expensive stores and restaurants it is hard to believe the recent wars that have plagued this city (and country).  Winding back to my room I once again, find myself staying around the corner from the synagogue and what was the Jewish Quarter before the war.

(I am writing this on  a Croatian computer so if you are wondering where the punctuation is in this post realize that it hidden somewhere on this keyboard that has reversed z and y and if I knew exactly which keys to hit I could unearth a wide array of accent marks.)

Unlike the beautiful showcase synagogue of Budapest, I walked by the synagogue here peering at the street numbers several times before I realized where it was.   The best clue should have been the tinted security cage in front of this unassuming building in the middle of an unassuming block.  Four stories high and the width of about 25 feet, it was understandable that I walked past more than once.   After several unanswered emails, I found myself walking past and ringing the bell on more than one occasion before finally being answered by a live voice and after much discussion between the security guard and an unknown person, whisked up to the 2nd floor and the the sanctuary.

Biserka, the cook was preparing for an upcoming luncheon and took time to talk to me.  One thing I have found, which will not surprise anyone is that if you listen people will talk and Biserka was full of animated stories.  Synagogue Zoz is one of three places where people congregate here  and pray and is the most liberal or should I say the least Orthodox.  While only a few old people pray here on most Shabbats, Biserka let me know that for Rosh Hashonah she prepared salmon for about 200 people.  Like the other sanctuaries, Zoz is a community gathering place and serves as a meeting place for Holocaust survivors and youth and led by Ana Hermanovic.

I will write much more about everything once I am home next week, but I have to share a little about Biserka whose Grandfather was Jewish, but not her mother so technically she is not Jewish.  Her grandfather wasnt raised with Judaism but before the war was sent to a small village where he met a charming and beautiful woman active in helping Jews and “twisted his arm” leading him to a lifelong love.  Neighbors would warn him when the Germans were coming and he would go and hide in various barns before leaving behind his lover and child and  joining the partisans  for the last four years of the war.  When the war ended, he was ready to go home.  The partisans didn”t view the situation the same way – they didn”t see the war as over or his job finished and after he made lots of anti-communist comments found himself in jail.  He was released after a Jewish captain (?)  told the officials that the grandfather was not very bright (and he only finished third grade) so it was best to be rid of him.  With that he went back to his lover and two children (one born in his absence).   Biserka had a chance to go to Israel when she was in her 20s where she has an aunt and cousins , but now at 43 feels she is too old.  Just to show you how complicated the story becomes, in her 20s she fell in love and married a Muslim man and had a daughter.  Now divorced, she claimed she was without hope about life and the good in humankind, but I found that hard to believe after being captivated by her energetic conversation for over an  hour.

Zoz is one of three local congregations, the others are Beit Israel housed with the Jewish Cultural Center, and Chabad.  A plaque in a parking lot marks the location of the Great Synagogue which still comes up as The synagogue if you google Zagreb Synagogues even though it was demolished by the Croats in 1941 in anticipation of the Germans arrival (and to show solidarity with them).  The land and funds are available to rebuild the synagogue (thanks to restitution), the community just needs to be able to agree on how to proceed and getting this small group to do that appears to be very challenging.

That said, this small group of Jews is fairly active though as Rabbi Pini, the effervescent Chabad Rabbi told me, people aren”t sure what it means to be Jewish and how to practice the rituals and traditions.  When he first arrived seven years ago, he spent several years just getting to know the community and identifying needs, or in other words, doing organizational development.   He said people are hesitant to come to services since they are shy about not knowing anything.  I was lucky to spend about an hour and a half with him since he is usually out and about sitting and having coffee with people, forming relationships and having small classes with various members of the community including doctors and lawyers.  Chabad is in the process of renovating a building and the Rabbi is confident that they will start to draw a huge crowd.  People are looking for community.

Around the corner from Rabbi Pini”s home, is the JCC and home of the third congregation Beit Israel.  The Rabbi there was in Warsaw for meetings, but I figured since I hadn”t heard from anyone else there, I would just drop by, a good move on my part.  Borut, the secretary, introduced himself and let me know he didn”t have much to say, well only about 90 minutes of conversation anyway.   He also let me know that his name – and he – is NOT Borat, but joked that if Borat/Sasha Baron Cohen came for services he would likely be called to read the Torah first since he was  a Kohane and chances are the Rabbi hadn”t seen the movie.  With both parents Jewish, though Borut didn”t learn about Judaism growing up in communist Yugoslavia.  Interestingly he still asked to have exams and classes excused on Shabbat.  In the 90s, a young energetic Rabbi came to Zagreb and as Borut says, opened a whole world for him sparking his curiousity and interest and satisfying a need.  He has worked at the center for four years and helps arrange meetings and activities of which there are many.  Like Zoz, there is  a large meeting area for people to sit, drink coffee and mingle in this space, reinforcing the importance of relationships and community that I heard from all three places.  Borut reinforced this cultural strength by sharing that Starbucks came to Zagreb with the intent to open a shop here until they realized this is not a “coffee to go” kind of town.  Again I hear that coffees are nurtured over long conversations.

The JCC was built as a gift by the Zagreb mayor and the sanctuary is beautifully decorated by a Croatian artist (and yes, there will be pictures…).   For the last 5 or 6 years, the Beit Israel Rabbi with the Mayor, lights the Chanukah Menorah in the town Square which is decorated for Christmas.  The community here is making a stand.  Before I left I asked Borut  if he thought there would be a community here in the future.  At first he shrugged and said, maybe the same number.  But then pointing to a picture of the elementary class, he had to smile and say, maybe it will grow.

While I have so much more to share, I am getting ready to head back to Berlin and then in a few days back home.  I can”t believe these weeks have gone by so quickly.  One of the things I”ve learned is that I have to open my eyes to find what I am looking for and while I initially said that ghosts outnumber souls in Berlin, I was sooo wrong.  I can see my last few days of travel will be filled with visiting  various congregations while strolling this beautiful city.

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