For eight years, the JDC-sponsored Judafest festival has brought thousands of members of Hungary’s Jewish community to the streets to celebrate their culture and share their pride in their identity. The festival is especially remarkable in the face of Hungary’s unsettling rise of right wing, anti-Semitic political rhetoric.
Peter Berenyi, who coordinates Judafest as part of his deputy director post at Budapest’s Balint Haz Jewish Community Center, took a few minutes to speak to JDC about the value of the street festival and the importance of resilience in Jewish Europe.
Q: What’s new with Judafest this year? What programs or sessions are you most excited about?
A: The festival can’t grow bigger in a tangible physical way, because we already use the full street, but we always come up with new ideas. This year, for the first time, we have a guest of honor: Poland. The ambassador, the Polish Cultural Institute, and representatives of the Warsaw Jewish community will come and bring tons of programs – like five-minute Yiddish and Polish language lessons, a Polish klezmer band on the big stage, and Polish culinary goddess Malka Kafka cooking all day long. There are more than 100 programs, many of them under the creative direction of András Borgula of the Golem Theatre, so I’m really excited about the whole day!
Q: In Hungary’s tricky political climate, why is Judafest especially important right now?
A: In just eight years, Judafest has become one of the biggest community festivals. Today, when the extremist right is the second-largest party in Hungary, we need to make a statement that being Jewish in this country can be done this way, too: by not hiding, by being happy and proud. The Budapest event serves as a role model for other smaller Hungarian Jewish communities, so it’s not just fun anymore, but also a big responsibility! But it seems that others understand this, too – we have more partners and supporters this year than ever before.
Q: What are the biggest challenges in staging the festival? What are the biggest opportunities?
A: The biggest challenge is the weather! As much as we pray, it doesn’t always help! But seriously, the challenge is to bring the Jews out from their houses and “towers.” The community is big, but the members are largely not so active, and they often hide their Jewish identity, roots, and culture. We need to create an atmosphere where it is safe, fun, educational, and adventurous – all at the same time. It’s not easy. But this is our biggest opportunity, too: If we can get them to come out, even if only 10 percent of them will became active in any way, we won the day.
Q: Tell us about the festival’s growth over the years.
A: Eight years ago, we started with one event and a simple goal – to get 1,000 people to attend the festival. On that day, 3,500 came! So we knew that this spoke to people, to our people. We built a bigger and stronger event the following year and added another culinary festival, too. And it happened again. The crowd was way bigger then we expected. Today, Judafest is “the” brand in the Jewish community – and even in the city of Budapest as a whole – with a huge street festival, a family day, a picnic, and a film festival. We hope the excitement will continue through the next decade.
Q: What’s your favorite part of Judafest?
A: The community dinner! The last two years, we’ve closed the event with a huge table, 50 meters long, for 200 people, with the Jewish community hosting another community for dinner. Last year, it was the Hungarian National Association of Large Families, and this year, 50 families who are living with Down syndrome. We cook for them, we serve them – it’s a time for them to just enjoy life. This time, the Israeli and Polish ambassador and the head of the Hungarian Jewish community will serve the meals.
Q: What are your dreams for Judafest? How would you like to see it expand?
A: We wish to stay alive! It may sound strange, but in this country and in this economic situation, it is not guaranteed at all. I see the opportunity to expand to other cities here in Hungary. There are cities that have invited us, but we don’t have the resources to come to them. I hope that will change.