Yona’s Yarmulke

Baila Olidort

Zagreb, Croatia

In Zagreb, people are coming forward to participate in an exciting experience that takes Judaism out of the museum and into the lived life.

In the beginning, Yona Brandl’s classmates wanted to know what a kippah was, what those fringes hanging at his sides were, and why he wouldn’t eat at their birthday parties. Yona is the only Jewish boy in a school of 230 students. His sister, Rina, is the only Jewish girl.

Before enrolling their children in Zagreb’s elite Ivan Gundulic School, Michal and Roni Brandl met with the school’s administrators. “We told them who we are and what we do. We established our boundaries and explained that the children will miss classes on Jewish holidays,” Michal, a native Croatian, tells me. “We were direct and open, and they appreciated that.”

Practicing Jews are almost unheard of in Croatia, and having one as a classmate is even rarer. Yona and Rina accept their unique status among their classmates as a matter of fact. And thanks to them, their peers now know that Jews are not museum artifacts. In fact, Michal, an assistant professor at the University of Zagreb’s Chair of Judaic Studies, tells me that Croatians are often pleased “to finally see Jews here again.”

The Brandls did not grow up observing Jewish tradition. “I was not irreligious. I was anti-religious,” says Roni, who is Tel-Aviv-born and Croatian-raised. “Socially and politically, I was as far left and anti-religious as you can imagine.” But today, the Brandls are strictly kosher and Shabbat observant.

When asked how they cultivated this level of observance and this courage of their convictions in a place like Zagreb, the Brandls will tell you that they owe it all to Pini and Reizy Zaklas.

In 2004, Pini and Reizy moved from Israel to Zagreb in order to serve as Chabad’s emissaries to the region. The odds were stacked high against them. They didn’t speak the language. The Jewish community is small. And the assimilation rate is high. In the past, many Jews converted out of the faith to survive, and Croatia’s intermarriage rate hovers near 100 percent. The vast majority of Croatian Jews are highly educated but woefully ignorant about their heritage.

“My wife and I came here to share an experience of Jewish life that had ended in Croatia with the Holocaust,” Pini explains. “We do that first of all by just living here visibly as Jews.”

With a paltry few leads to go on, Pini began to meet people one at a time. “Here in Zagreb, it’s practically a ritual to visit the cafe every morning,” he says. “I’ve turned that to my advantage and have been connecting with people this way for the past fifteen years.” The strategy has worked well, and although Pini still goes for his coffee “fix” as often as twice a day, local Jews are now coming to Chabad of their own accord—for weekly classes, Shabbat services, holiday programs, bar and bat mitzvahs, and just to connect.

Excerpted from “The Lamplighters of Zagrebas published in the Lubavitch International magazine, Spring 2019 edition.