Monday, September 22, 2008

Shabbat in Budapest

The following post was written late at night after Shabbat in Budapest came to an end.

May 31, 2008
כ"ו אייר תשס"ח

The sun rises early here in Central Europe and although I fall back asleep each morning, my initial wake up is at 5 am. Today, however, I sleep until 8 am and finally feel rested. Entering the small kosher restaurant for breakfast, I wish the mashgiah a “Shabbat Shalom.” Being the good Hasid that he is, he demonstratively responds with “A Gut Shabbes” as if to remind me that I am really in 17th Century Szatmar – Land. All goes well until one of our colleagues brings an unused plastic cup into the restaurant at which point the mashgiah blows a gasket. I respect stringent observance, in fact many people see me as very stringent in observance, but this is, well, ridiculous, as if, Heaven forbid, word might get out that a plastic cup violated the sanctity of this place. For God’s sake, it is precisely this kind of stupidity, along with things like the allegations of illegal and unethical conduct at Rubashkin’s that gives Kashrut a bad name.

Having already visited Dohanyi and Kuczinski, I decide to go for the trifecta and visit Habad. I was surprised to learn that there were two Habad shuls here in Budapest. One is in the Jewish Quarter where we are staying and the other is down the street from the Dohanyi. “In-town” Habad is well concealed and you need to know to look for the small bronze sign on the wall next to the door next to the travel agency with the British flag on it to know that this place exists. Getting past the security guard, however, requires a simple “Shabbat Shalom.”

Occupying an entire floor, Habad is bright and airy. The entrance stairs give way to a lobby with an enormous portrait of the Rebbe. Once again, I discover that there is not a single native Hungarian resident here. The shul caters mostly to Israelis, dati and secular, who are here as tourists or on business. I feel at home, as if I am in a little pocket of Israel, of life, in this dreadful place.

In the afternoon, we take a walking tour to the Danube. We stroll through the renewed downtown and square. It is beautiful. I am once again self-conscious, feeling as though the entire square stares at the back of my head and says, “Wait a minute! Didn’t we get rid of all of those guys?” I am certain that it is not really the case but after a week of visiting anti-Semitism and Shoah related sites, I am tired and angry, self-conscious and suspicious. The tour goes without a hitch until we get to the Danube.

Our destination: a new monument dedicated to the Hungarian Jews that were shot on the banks of the river and then cast into the Danube... And it is here that I draw a personal line. Shabbat needs to be a sacred time, differentiated from the rest of the week. I will not visit a monument today. I will bear witness by observing Shabbat. I will bear witness by standing on the banks of the Danube, but I cannot go to another monument. “V’Ka’rata l’Shabata Oneg “ – And you will call the Shabbat a delight – is meaningful to me, and takes on new meaning here.

As a distraction while others visit the monument, I watch the Budapest 5K – 10K passing by. We cheer for the runners when one guy calls out “Shabbat Shalom MiKol HaLev” or “Shabbat Shalom from all my heart!” It is chilling in a positive way: Jews standing at the Danube cheering on runners, finding one of our own. Victory!

Motzei Shabbat is spent with Eran, the representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel for Central Europe. He talks about his work here and the hope that it will bear fruit sometime in the future. “Where are all the Jews?” we ask. Initially, we were told that there were over 160,000 Jews living in Hungary. With a little prodding, the number dropped to 100,000. Our professor tells us that according to the demographer, Serge Della Pergolla, the numbers are closer to 60,000. Eran, the shaliach, tells us that his target population, realistically, is 20,000. How does he arrive at that number? Taking Della Pergolla and subtracting the very young and the old, he believes that his pool is 20,000 Jewish souls.

“Why does he do this work? Does he really think that there is a chance to make a huge impact here? Will Hungarian Jewry be rebuilt?” He replies that the works is long and boring and tedious, and he does not expect to see the fruits of his labor during his time in Hungary, as he will be here for no more than three years. He hopes and expects that those who follow him will benefit and that there will be some growth in the future.

The evening ends with a concert performed by the members of the youth group and other contestants from the Hungarian version of “Kochav Nolad” which is the Israeli version of “American Idol.” The event was held in conjunction with the 60th celebration of Yom Ha’Atzmaut. We walk home and I go to sleep.

Part of our group goes out for a while but I need sleep. I am done. Before our group returns, I am awakened by drunken yelling in the halls. I lock the door and go back to sleep. In the morning, I learn from my roommate, an Oleh from England, that he had an anti-Semitic encounter with one of the “chaps” in the lobby that night - as appropriate an end to our trip as I could ever have planned.

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