I’ve become addicted to stories and four days in Budapest have found me wandering about in a bit of a stupor. My feet have out-stepped my mind causing my body to appear in the wrong place at the right time which I mentioned in my last blog. Although I’ve taken the opportunity to fill up on pastries and peruse the chachkee shops they haven’t satisfied my real hunger.
right around the corner from where I’m staying. Services are held in this main sanctuary in the summer – too expensive to heat this time of year considering less than 50 people attend services. In winter, the smaller Hero’s Temple behind this one is used. Having cleared security once the hair clips hastily attached to the hem of my sweater were identified, I hesitantly entered the sanctuary. After all, I wasn’t totally sure if men and women sit separately. Let’s just say this was a most interesting service unlike any I have ever attended and provided me a needed and unexpected reality check.
Let me set the stage. With 80,000 Budapest has a sizeable Jewish population. The census ten years ago found twelve thousand Jews documented. But, census data includes addresses and when the Germans invaded Budapest (after Hungary ‘switched sides’) the Hungarians easily handed over the Jews thanks to this documentation. Hesitation to check a box labeled Jewish is understandable, right? But, when retribution was offered, the population swelled to this higher number or so I was told. New census figures should be out soon.
I’ll add that I’ve heard lots of ‘things’ and while they may all be ‘true’, they may not be true to and for everyone. Nor might anyone admit to anything or agree to what is true or want to be quoted. This attitude is a souvenir from the Soviet era whose dust still lingers over the city.
Next, groups of Jews. Here factions include Orthodox, Reform, Chabad, and Neologues of the Dohany Synagogue. The Neologues, reformed Orthodox, were given permission to build this showcase synagogue with caveats and controversy. The architects were not Jewish. There’s no central Bimah which synagogues had. Dohany has elevated side pulpits for Rabbi’s to stand. I’ll post pictures on a facebook page when I get home. That front Bimah which most of us are familiar with is more Christian-like and the focus in Dohany . This Neologue synagogue has an organ – and a choir. Since Jews can’t ‘work’ on Shabbat this means that a non-Jew plays the organ along with a paid choir. ‘I heard’ that Franz List played here in 1859 during the synagogue’s inauguration.
Let’s just say I was unprepared at 10:00 a.m. Saturday for the organ accompanying the black-robed Cantor’s deep cavernous singing backed by the hidden choir.
I stopped pretending to follow the Hebrew in the prayer-book. Since I didn’t have to look down I looked around observing the tight-knit community. One man delivered books and conversation to women – and men – as they came in, regularly crossing the aisle separating men from women to kibbitz (chat). I created no interest or curiosity and was left on my own. Understandable since I imagine there are lots of righteous-religious tourists like me, piously attending services in this famous synagogue. What blew me away was watching the Cantor lead the choir in prayers as the congregants chatted and connected most not even attempting to follow.
Except for the organ and choir, this could have been any American High Holiday service with congregants clutching prayer books and reading emotions not words. Is the worship of connection and friendship as holy as the words of a prayer? These thirty men and women were in the synagogue on a Saturday morning which means they were getting a need met. I shared my experience with a fellow hosteler and he just laughed acknowledging that this sounded like most other congregations. His grandparents are Hungarian survivors and his Jewish identity has been built through years of camp and solidified by going to Israel with Operation Birthright.
As the service ended I heard no mention of a Kiddush, so I had no chance to ask how the congregation defined itself. I’ve been spoiled these last few weeks yet I know each place has its own culture, an unknown culture complex with history and meaning. The small intimate communities I’ve visited have capitalized on the need to be inclusive and personal. Big fish in small ponds. With 80,000 Jews the identity and challenges of the community shifts. Here, there are 23 synagogues, Jewish groups, kosher restaurants, outreach, four schools, lots of opportunities to connect and get involved.
Budapest’s Jews are rewarded with a ‘western’ challenge: assimilation. Opportunities in the Jewish community play tug of war with the outside. Here it’s more complicated. There’s the Holocaust followed by about forty-five years of Soviet rule that pushed Judaism and all religion deep underground. As Anna, the JCC program manager said in Krakow, ‘it’s easier to come back to Judaism from christianity than from communism.’ (She was referring to there being more Jews in Warsaw who turned to christianity than in Krakow where Jews turned to communism.)
Is being Jewish special enough, exciting enough to hold young (and old) Jews attention? How much information is needed to make a choice and even understand what it means to be Jewish and why it is important? History and culture aside, the bottom line is the challenge exists – everywhere. Assimilation is like color running from a red shirt into the whites. At some point everything becomes the same having lost what made it special. I’d ask if this sameness would prevent discrimination, but I think we all know the answer to that is No! Technology and the quest for facebook ‘likes’ may be a modern contributor to the loss of identity, but Jews in Budapest have been challenged with assimilation way before Mark Zuckerberg.
Today on my way to the Carl Lutz Glass House where 62,000 Jews were saved, I started talking with Amit, an Israeli woman working at a skin care store. When I shared my trip’s mission
Amit told me she isn’t sure
she has a
Jewish identity and asked me to let her know when I learned what it means to be a Jew. So even in Israel, Jewish identity isn’t secure or easily defined.
I was lucky to have a chance to chat with Andrea Medguyesi, the director of Jewish Visitors Services Sofort Travel Agency. She shared her enthusiasm and wealth of information as she guided me through the Jewish Quarter and over coffee at a great little Jewish pizzeria. Check out her website and the tours she provides www.jewishvisitorsservice.com. Andrea is what we would call modern Orthodox and traveled from the Buda side of the river over the Pest side where I was staying. I asked that we meet at a place called Kosher Bolt since I knew where it was and wouldn’t get lost. Amazingly though I was standing in front of the wrong place – again. Lucky for me Andrea was so observant and spotted me. I’ll share some of our conversation now and when I get home I’ll have time to write more.
She said sometimes people ask if it it’s safe to come here as a Jew. Of course it is! It’s important for Jews to come and visit the city and the small countryside towns. Without understanding ‘here’, don’t/can’t understand American Jewry. In answer to why be a Jew, her three-part answer was clear and concise: faith, culture, morality, or as she summed it up, ‘Be a Mensch!’
Andrea said that Chabad’s young enthusiastic Rabbi was good at generating interest and pulling in young people. More atmosphere than religion, Chabad offers an opportunity for people to sit and share food. Chabad offers healthy competition to the other synagogues. They may not be increasing the numbers of Jews, just redistributing where they participate.
She shared an anecdote that says it all about Napoleon visiting a synagogue at Tisha B’av. He sees Jews sitting on the floor, crying and asks why. The Jews tell him about the destruction of the Temple. Napoleon is shocked and says he doesn’t know anything about it to which the Jews say well it happened a long time ago. Napoleon’s response is that such a nation who understand the past have a present and a future.
As Andrea says, it’s important to keep tradition, like some Americans on her tours who keep kosher at home to remind their kids about what it means to be Jewish.
I had to ask my standard stupid question about anti-Semitism and Andrea reminded me that anti-Semitism is everywhere. Recently, her and her husband and son were dressed for Shabbat and over here on the Pest side when some drunk guy started hassling them as Jews. Sure she had on a skirt and hat, and her husband had on a suit, but nothing readily identifying them as Jews. The drunk followed them while continuing his ‘Jewish’ comments. No-one said anything, no-one told him to shut up. Unfortunately, comments like that occur everywhere. Stupidity is everywhere competing with education and communication. Which will win?
My journey is drawing to an end. This means I’ll have time to finish all the conversations I haven’t done justice in sharing here. My plan was for Sofia, Bulgaria to be my last stop before returning to Berlin then home. But time! Long travel times and short visit times is redirecting my last conversations to Zagreb, Croatia.