Saturday, April 12, 2008

Budapest [1]: A Final Leg

We arrived in Budapest midday on Friday and spent the afternoon seeing the city and hearing from Professor Michael Miller, an alum of the Wexner Foundation, who is teaching here. He provides an incisive analysis of the situation in Hungary, especially for Jews.

The Hungarian Jewish community is "vibrant" compared to what is the case in Poland. There are about 200,000 Jews here and all the synagogues, schools, summer camps, and internecine warfare point to a normal Jewish community.

Normal, that is, if you include children being subjected on occasion to overt antisemitic comments, such as: You should go to Auschwitz.

On the day we arrived there was a big counter demonstration against the antisemitism. Some of our group went. I was simply too exhausted and, along with the other not so stalwarts in our group, went to Cafe Gerbeaud

Shabbat dinner was low keyed. Saturday a.m. we spent walking around Budapest and then for lunch we were joined by about 7 members of the Budapest Jewish community. Professor Michael Miller, who is a boon of unbelievable proportions to this community, had invited them to join us.

Miller teaches at Central European University which has an emerging and impressive Jewish Studies Program. One of the people Miller brought to lunch was Andras Kovacs.

Kovacs is head of the program and deserves great credit for what he is building. The program seems to have the potential to really help resurrect [is that the right word??] Jewish Studies in Eastern Europe. Of course, there are already pockets of Jewish Studies programs in different places, but this one seems particularly impressive.

I spent the lunch chatting with a young woman who had just finished her Ph.D. at the university. She had written on Ba'alei Teshuvah, Jews who "rediscover" or "return" to Jewish practice [though the term implies a "return" it generally signifies someone who was not at all observant of religious practices and who becomes so]. As she observed, every Jew in Hungary is a Ba'al Teshuva of one degree or another.

When this trip was in the planning and I heard that we were going to fly from Krakow to Budapest for Shabbat [it entailed two flights], I thought it was not a good plan [actually I think the term I used was "nuts"]. It did not seem to make sense, on such a short trip, to devote a half day and two flights to getting someplace for a total of 36 hours.

So I was wrong. Really wrong.

First of all, Budapest is a lovely city [so, of course, is Krakow]. It is, however, much bigger than Krakow and somewhat more cosmopolitan. More importantly, from the perspective of its Jewish community, Poland's was decimated while a major portion of Hungary's survived.

The contrast was striking and not having seen this city, I am sure many of the participants would have walked away from the visit convinced that Eastern Europe was a Jewish wasteland. It certainly is not what it once was [through no fault of the Jews] but Budapest reminds us that there are communities fighting to not just survive, but thrive.

The reaction of some of the Israeli participants was notable. They commented with great sensitivity and concern, why would someone remain in Budapest, even with all its schools, shuls, and Jewish communal life, especially if your child is subjected to these kinds of attacks. They just did not get it.....

On one hand I fully understand their response and on the other... well these are HUNGARIAN Jew and they don't want to leave Hungary judenrein. It is the same feeling expressed by people such as Stashek Krijewsky and other Polish Jews we met. This is where they are and this is where they feel they belong.

My computer battery is about to die and I have got to catch my plane to Amsterdam and home.
All in all quite a trip.

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