ZAGREB, Croatia — Emanuel Israel Da-Don, the eldest son of Croatia’s chief rabbi, Kotel Da-Don, was recently called to the Torah here as a bar mitzva.
What made the day special was that Emanuel is the first so-called “kosher” bar mitzva in this Balkin republic since the Holocaust.
Although sources say that several 13-year-old Jewish boys have marked the occasion during the past 65 years, there has not been a rabbi in the country prior to 1998, when Da-Don arrived in Zagreb and there was no mohel in Croatia to circumcise Jewish boys. There were no Jewish schools, congregations, weddings with a ketuba or kidushin providing a Jewish home in which to raise Jewish children; and formal Jewish tradition had all but disappeared, amidst intermarriage, assimilation and lack of a religious framework.
“This will be the first bar mitzva in Croatia in over six decades, which is more than a date to be acknowledged, but to be prepared for,” Kotel Da-Don said. “It will be the first time in their lives for many Jews and non-Jews to witness such an event.
“I want to take this opportunity to educate the community and bring about awareness of Jewish lifecycle events,” he added, “just like the Jews know about the lifecycle events of non-Jews.”
And so it was.
The bar mitzva was reported in the Croatian daily newspapers, Jutarnji List and Veãernji List, explaining the event as “the Jewish rite of passage when boys are recognized as members of the religious community.”
Media coverage created national awareness of the event.
Bet Israel Congregation’s sanctuary was full. Approximately 35 women and 40 men — seated with a low-rise mechitza dividing them — attended the bar mitzva at Zagreb’s Bet Israel Congregation, as did about 12 children running around and babies sleeping in their mother’s arms.
Among the participants at both the ceremony and the reception were Orthodox Jews, liberal Jews, those in the process of converting to Judaism and intermarried couples, as well as Israel’s ambassador to Croatia, Yossi Amrani, and Sasa Mesic, daughter of Croatian President Stjepan Mesic.
“Being invited to participate in the minyan is a big event in my life,” said Emanuel Da-Don, the Jerusalem-born bar mitzva. Everyone is happy about it. It is written in the Book of Life that I should do this and will lay tefilin daily.”
Emanuel Da-Don read the entire Torah portion dealing with Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright.
Jewish life was nearly wiped out of existence by the Nazis and the fascist Ustase (‘oo-stasha’) regime in Croatia during and following World War II. A community of approximately 25,000 Jews was reduced to about 5,000, many of whom left the country, died or intermarried.
Current estimates are that approximately 3,000 Croatians identify themselves as Jews or remotely so, having a Jewish parent or grandparent, but only about 300 belong to one of the two communities in Zagreb, and pockets of Jews in cities such as Osijek and Dubrovnik.
“I am so grateful to God to reach this day,” said Agi Da-Don, Emanuel’s mother.
She had been raised in Communist Hungary, where practicing Judaism was a dangerous undertaking.
“Even the word ‘Jew’ was mystical for me, although inspiring fear … and today, Emanuel understands the responsibility of being a bar mitzva. When I was young, I missed that feeling of belonging,” Agi Da-Don said.
(Karen Gold Anisfeld, a former Pittsburgher living in Ra’anana Israel, is a freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com. Zagreb and Pittsburgh are sister cities.)