Activity: Reviving Community?

The Case Of Hungary

The aim of this activity is to familiarize the students with an example of a community that is now reviving.

Here are a number of scenes from the life of the contemporary Hungarian Jewish community. They are written in the first person as if they were the impressions of a visitor.

SCENE ONE: THE DOHANY SYNAGOGUE.

The first thing that I notice is the size. It is massive. They say that it is the second biggest synagogue in the world. It must seat thousands. And what outstanding beauty. It doesn’t look like any synagogue that you’ve ever seen in your life. The truth is that it looks more like the inside of a cathedral or a very large church. What a magnificent organ. They say that some of the greatest pianists in late-nineteenth century Europe came here to try it out: the fame of the building and the size of the organ pipes drew them. Just look at the tourists. They are also overwhelmed. This is a national site - that is clear: it is not just for Jewish tourists although, over there, there is a group of Israeli tourists and in the other corner - they are so far away that I could have missed them - there is a group of tourists who look like American Jews.

I have asked whether it is open for prayer services and the answer I got was that, because it is winter, and it is cold in Budapest, the few Jews who do come pray in a small synagogue annexed to the back. Perhaps that is a good thing. It must look very empty to see just twenty or thirty people praying here on Shabbat. I must hurry on my way. They are closing the synagogue in about ten minutes and there is so much left still to see.

SCENE TWO: THE LAUDER SCHOOL.

This is a very beautiful school, there’s no doubt about it. There must be hundreds of students and it is only a few years old. The walls are covered with the students’ art projects. Many are connected with the different hagim; some are representations of stories from the Torah. The whole place is so light and airy. It is clear that a building like this in the suburbs of Budapest must have cost an enormous amount. How on earth could a community like this, with its limited resources, have raised the money? And it’s not as if this were the only school that’s opened here in the last few years.

Here is the Principal coming down the corridor towards me. They say that she was an expert in education who taught at the local university before the school started, but that she knew nothing about her Jewishness. In fact that is true for almost the entire staff. When the decision was made to open a school like this, the Principal and her staff had to undergo intensive education and self-learning in Jewish studies before they could even start of starting to teach the children. What a funny idea: a Jewish school staffed by teachers who knew next to nothing about being Jewish only a few years ago! Judging from the pictures on the walls, however, they’ve learned a lot since then.

SCENE THREE. A MEETING AT THE SYNAGOGUE.

This is a very strange scene. There are well over a hundred people here, young and old. There are even a few young children with their parents. They are sitting in an upstairs room in the synagogue building, around tables with modest food and drink, listening to the speaker. The truth is that this synagogue is housed in part of the building that belongs to the Pedigogeum, the rabbinical seminary, now called the Jewish university. Just a few minutes ago I was looking for a seat in the small cozy synagogue, and singing loudly with all the others as the old hazan led the prayers. What an enthusiastic ! Everyone sang along with the organ and the hazan. Tremendous spirit.

And then I was invited to the oneg shabbat. I expected that people would stay for a few minutes and then go home for Friday night dinner, but they have been here for an hour already. The woman sitting next to me explains that most of the people don’t have a Shabbat meal. Many are married to non-Jews and many have not quite mastered the art of making Shabbat for themselves yet. The whole thing is so new to them.

The speaker talks on; everyone listens. That doesn’t surprise me. The issue is the resurgence of anti-Semitism. Once again it is on everybody’s mind. People are discussing what to do about it. More and more public figures are coming out with remarks against the Jews, and people are frightened. But at least here, in this upstairs room, with the memory of the service not yet faded, they can discuss freely: they are among their own.

SCENE FOUR: THE FOLK CLUB.

The crowd is certainly pretty sparse, but the musicians don’t seem to mind. They are good for such youngsters. Most of them look as if they still go to school. Guitars, keyboard, accordion, flutes and fiddles: this is real klezmer music. They sing in Yiddish and here is a modern song in Hebrew, performed with great enthusiasm, in klezmer style. Now they stop as one of them gets the audience on their feet and drags them into the center to learn a Hassidic dance. He’s very good and clearly knows his stuff. We whirl around, trying to keep up with his movements. It’s a good job he closes his eyes at certain more ecstatic parts: he doesn’t see all of our mistakes! Now, thank goodness, there’s a break. It’s a chance to speak to the band and ask them about themselves. I must congratulate them on their Hebrew singing which is excellent. I don’t know Yiddish, but their accents sound fine to me.

Here they are. Let’s talk. Yes, I was right; they are young and most of them are still at school. They do this at weekends largely for fun. It has to be said that they sound professional to my ears. Where did they learn their Hebrew? They don’t know Hebrew - they’ve just learned the sounds of the words! I can’t believe it. And their Yiddish? It’s the same story. And then it dawns on me, and I ask hesitatingly, how many of the group are Jewish. None??? One girl then confesses slightly shyly, that actually she is Jewish. The rest of the group seem surprised. They tell me that Klezmer music is all the rage in Hungary. They wanted to try it out and they enjoy it enormously. They play regularly at clubs around Budapest. Sometimes the crowds are sparse like tonight, but sometimes they pull in large numbers. Maybe some are Jewish, but you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the music! I guess that much is clear.

SCENE FIVE: THE CEMETERY.

You have never seen such a large cemetery in your life: it seems to go on forever. Tens of thousands are buried here and this doesn’t include Holocaust victims. There’s a memorial to them of course, and it is not unimpressive. There must be tens of thousands of names inscribed on the wall of the monument, but they say that this is only a fraction of the Jews actually killed. Look carefully: you can see that all sorts of extra names have been added by hand. No-one would ever think of wiping them off: that would be sacrilege. The monument is in the memorial section of the cemetery, before you get to the main sections. Just behind it there is a grave of bodies that were recently found and reburied here - the results of a massacre in the late-seventeenth century. Nearby, there is a clear area with white benches surrounding it and a monument in the middle. This is where the community remembers the ten thousand of its members killed in the army during World War I.

As you look around the cemetery itself, what really strikes you are the monumental structures placed over many of the graves: there are dozens of them. Some of them are simply stunning. Beautiful artwork - art deco and other modernist styles, as well as some classical motifs. They are built all along the inner walls of the entrance to the cemetery. I’ve seen these in other graveyards - they are called ‘ohelim’ – tents, but the ones that I’ve seen were always over the graves of famous rabbis and scholars. Here they have been placed over the graves of famous merchants and professional men. To the generations that put them up - at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth - they must have been the community’s holy men.

SCENE SIX: CONVERSATION AT THE COMMUNITY CENTER.

I met her at the community center, Bet Balint. It is a very pleasant building, alive with activity most days of the week and almost every evening. I met her on a Sunday morning. We had both come to the local Jewish history group. I actually got there late; most of the people had already gone but I was told that there had been around thirty people there. Most of them would have been old, but there were some younger people as well. She was middle-aged, a social worker, and I understand that she was a good one. She’d got a number of prizes from the Budapest Social Services Department for her work in different frameworks, but it clearly wasn’t enough.

She seemed very upset when we talked. They had just found her out. She didn’t know how they knew. She herself had been very careful to hide the fact, but a few weeks before we talked, she had felt that some of her colleagues were giving her strange looks; some had stopped greeting her. It was then that she knew that they knew. She knew now that it was only a matter of time before they stripped her of some of her privileges. She knew that they wouldn’t tell her why, or at least, they wouldn’t give her the real reason. They would say it was inefficiency, or that they were reorganizing the department. They would never tell her the real reason: that they had found her out; that they knew… that she was Jewish.

SCENE SEVEN: SATURDAY NIGHT DANCE.

There must be three hundred young people on the dance floor. More seem to be coming. The music is loud: it is Western pop and rock music. They sing mostly in English, and there are people who sing along with them. The group is not young: they are in their thirties, perhaps a little more. They seem pretty respectable - look a little like middle-class professionals. I guess that is what they are. About once a month they get together and play for fun in the community building. They are clearly very popular. People know them and know their music.

There is nothing about the people that would suggest that everyone here is Jewish - the musicians, the crowds, the organizers. There is nothing Jewish about the way they talk, look or play; but, as they move freely around the dance floor, it is important to remember that they are - all of them. Twenty years ago such a thing could never have been imagined. Three hundred or so young Jews getting together for a dance on a Saturday night in a Jewish community center in wintry Budapest. Three hundred young people who want to get together with other young Jews, just to dance, as free Jews in a free land.

SCENE EIGHT: JEWISH UNIVERSITY SEMINAR.

Some of the people look very young next to the others: the older ones must be in their eighties. The younger ones look as though they are barely out of school. The young and the old interact - they have a common purpose. This Sunday morning they are all here to talk of community roots.

This is a presentation of a department of the Jewish university and open to the public. I sit on a chair and look around me. There are Jews from Budapest and Jews from the provinces, with a few others from small Jewish communities in surrounding countries. Many of the younger ones are in a special course at the university in the faculty for Jewish liturgy. They come from all around to learn how to pray. More precisely, I should say that they come to learn how to lead prayers for others. They represent small communities throughout Hungary and the wider area that need prayer leaders for their even smaller congregations. There are twenty Jews in one place and thirty Jews in another who are trying to pray but don’t know how. They will never have a rabbi of their own because their numbers are simply too small.

The university - a Jewish institution which is connected with the university of Budapest - trains rabbis. There are not many students but the numbers are growing every year. All the rabbis will go to the larger communities, however. The smaller communities are lucky to have a course for prayer leaders. They come every month for a day of learning.

Today they have arranged a public meeting on the history of hazanut in Hungary. Many of the older generation were once hazanim or rabbis themselves. They have come to see their successors, the ones who are trying to carry on the tradition that was almost broken, but which never completely died. The first speaker is introduced. He puts on a cassette of a rabbi from before the war. Everyone moves forwards in their chairs to listen to this long-dead voice from the past. The meeting has begun. A community is trying to learn about its past and to help some of it come alive again.

  • Tell the students that you are going to examine the story of a Jewish community that they have not yet encountered. Each student should be given two of the scenes. Their job is to squeeze as much information as they possibly can out of the scenes that they have, in order to begin preparing a profile of the community.
  • When they have finished this, pair up the students, such that each pair now has four different scenes. The students should pool their information and explain to each other the scenes that they have received. As a pair they should try to list as many aspects about the community as possible.
  • The last stage is to bring two pairs together into a group of four, so that they now have all the scenes. As a foursome they should try to prepare as much of a community profile as possible.
  • Bring everyone back together. Try to establish what the class as a whole has discovered about the Hungarian community (did they realize that it was Hungary?).
  • With the students’ help, list the things that they consider it important to know in order to understand the Hungarian Jewish community. Also list anything that strikes them as strange or different about this community. Can they explain or suggest these things?
  • Now give them the national community profile in the form of the ten-question sheets for Hungary. Back in their pairs or foursomes, they must try to answer the questions that the group came up with previously.
  • The whole class should now re-assemble, and discuss the answers to their questions. This is an opportunity for discussing the strange story of a community that, in many ways, is slowly coming back to life after the years of darkness during the Holocaust and under Soviet rule. Explain that Hungary is only one among many such communities. It is atypical in that many Budapest Jews were spared death in the Holocaust and therefore, alone among the East Central European states, it has a large Jewish population. In that sense it is much more typical of the states that were part of the Soviet Union proper during World War II. (such as Russia, the Ukraine and Lithuania).


 

 

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10 Dec 2006 / 19 Kislev 5767 0