Fresh Eyes On Hungarian Jewish Life

by Zev Nagel

Although I am originally from Los Angeles, I’ve spent the past ten years bouncing between Israel, New York, and Boston, so there is no one single place I call home. Before now, I had worked in advocacy and political communications, and was earning my master’s degree in international business and conflict resolution.

All this time, I knew I wanted to live and work in a foreign country. But I realized that the ideal job would have to combine my interest in international affairs and my passion for Jewish life. I had little real sense of what it means to “be Jewish” outside the United States and Israel. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) offered that perfect combination.

My work in Budapest can be best characterized as community development … working with institutions, programs, and leaders … to help them create the communal life that meets their needs, expectations, and hopes. Specifically, I help plan seminars and retreats that educate young Jewish leaders, ages 18-35, and enhance their skills through training in conflict resolution, leadership, management, and building Jewish identity.

This might sound like the kind of work that occurs in lots of different American Jewish communities, and this is certainly true. But in Hungary, it is particularly challenging for a variety of reasons. Allow me to explain by way of three stories:

The first: A few months ago, a new Hungarian friend asked me when was the first time that I realized I was Jewish? The question puzzled me: Growing up in a house with a “thick” Jewish identity, I don’t ever remember a time in my life when I thought I was not Jewish.

But my friend explained that he only found out that he was Jewish when his father died; my friend is 19 years old.

Since then, I have heard stories like this repeatedly. Many Hungarian Jews, in the younger and middle generations, only learned of their Jewishness later in life – usually at a point close to or after the end of Communism here.

In Hungary, it is estimated that there are roughly 100,000 Jews, of whom about ten percent participate in Jewish life. So if stories like this are as frequent as I have heard them, then there is probably a large number of Jews who either have no idea about or who are still concealing their Jewish identity.

Second story: At the JCC here in Budapest, visitors can join for an annual membership or pay fees a la carte for each individual program. For argument’s sake, let’s say the annual membership is 100 dollars, while the a la carte fee is 10 dollars per program.

Now take a JCC attendee who comes to 20 programs a year. Financially, it would make sense to become a full-fledged member and get a nice discount.

But most JCC visitors prefer to pay for each program separately and forgo the discount for being a registered member. Why? They do not want to be on a list affiliating them with a Jewish institution.

It is a simple fact that, despite the passage of time, both the Holocaust and Communism continue to linger in the minds of Hungarian Jews.

Coupled with this is the fact that Hungarian society has not come to grips with its role in the Holocaust and its mistreatment of minorities. In Hungary today, when someone asks “are you Jewish?” it is generally taken as implied anti-Semitism, not genuine curiosity … and some Jews see publicly identifying as a minority – as Jewish – as tantamount to social suicide.

And the last story: Three months ago, in December, Chanukah was celebrated here in the streets, pubs, and restaurants of downtown Pesht …. These celebrations would have left you speechless: flash mobs, public candle lightings, indie-klezmer fusion concerts, and parties with Jewish DJs – all in honor of Chanukah.

More importantly, this took place in a part of the city akin to New York’s Lower East Side, an area of town once known as the Jewish ghetto, but today being reclaimed as a Jewish space and inhabited by bohemians, artists, and passionate beer drinkers. And this is where we live.

My wife, who is traveling with me, pointed out that in no other city would we be able to live in the coolest, hipster part of town. You walk around this neighborhood, at any time of the year, and you can find numerous pubs and restaurants that are “Jewish.”

No one seeks to define it beyond that. It’s a curious thing, because other than a mezuzah on the door or a hamsa hanging on the wall behind the bar, you would not know that this space is Jewish. And, more astonishingly, it is shared and enjoyed by Jews and non-Jews alike.

Of course, this last story contradicts the previous two because it is largely the story of the younger generation, and it illustrates a tale of two cities being played out here. The Budapest of the past – of the Holocaust and Communism, with “Jewish” as an uncomfortable word, and the Budapest of today – where to be Jewish is cool and maybe even hip. These younger Jews realize that Hungarian society will always see them as Jewish, and so they seek to define it on their own terms.

So which narrative is the future? It remains to be seen.

As I see it, Jewish life here hangs somewhere in between, and its rise and fall rests on how this society – all generations from old to young, and people of all faiths and ethnicities, Jewish and non-Jewish – can create a space that respects and embraces diversity and difference.

Zev Nagel is JDC’s Ralph I. Goldman Fellow in Hungary engaged in Jewish community development work. JDC officially returned to Hungary in 1980 and focused on welfare support, among other services. In the last decade, JDC’s introduction and creation of Jewish content and organized educational, cultural, and community-building activities have nurtured a generation of leaders helping to move the community forward. Additionally, JDC’s investment in Jewish life “without walls” activities in Hungary is creating the space for many young urban Jews to engage with Jewish life on their terms.

Zev’s story, and his connection to the Jewish world, is just one of several we are bringing to you this year.