Semi - Quick Highlights of Budapest:
A beautiful city. My favorite fun fact is that one side of the river is called Buda and the other is Pest. I spent most of my time on the Pest side, but would definitely recommend checking out the Buda side as well. The bridges are easily walkable too!
The Jewish community here is much larger than I thought. There are over 100,000 Jews living in Budapest, more than 16 active synagogues (active meaning have services and attendees – it's not to say everyone in Budapest goes to synagogue regularly), multiple kosher restaurants, a number of local organizations, and is home to some newer and innovative initiatives.
The Jewish community here is also complex and has people across the Jewish denominational spectrum – conservative and reform do not exist in the same way as in the States, additionally a complex history exists that makes Jewish identity nuanced, interesting, and challenging.
A complicated history.
It’s jarring and poignant to remember that in Budapest the picture of the Jewish ghetto on “liberation” day in 1945 is misleading. Being liberated by the Soviet Army meant the next day was the beginning of Communism, and while Jews survived, they were unable to practice religion. (Yes, this is a complete over simplification). This lead to many Jews surviving the Holocaust only to keep secret for years to come that they were Jewish. A whole generation (or more) growing up not knowing they were Jewish and finding out as adults, and the next current generation of children either finding out as teens that they were Jewish or today growing up knowing they are Jewish but having it mean something completely different to them than their parents.
I had one gorgeous sunshine and 60 degree weather day that was spent lounging at Margaret Island, an island park in the river you can walk to (via a bridge – it's an Island). Think Belle Isle or Central Park, but kind of different.
I was able to visit with Café Europa, a program where Holocaust survivors that get together once a month. My mom (hi Mom!) volunteers with Café Europa in Oak Park, which I have always thought was a local program through our Jewish Senior Life. But while in Israel I learned that this program exists around the world, so it was extra special to visit with this group in Budapest. Each of them sharing a bit of their story or background, recognizing these survivors survived not just the Holocaust (many as children – or were born during those years), but then living through communism. I asked them about identity and they felt extremely proud to be Jewish, equally Hungarian and Jewish, one woman sharing she is Hungarian by citizenship and her people are Jewish. She shared she tears up at both the Hungarian national anthem and the Israeli national anthem.
*As a piece of contrast our interpreter was a 23 year old young woman who works for JDC, she is a student, and while she is not religious and attended Camp Szarvas (more below), she answered that she feels very Jewish and would say she is Jewish before Hungarian.
I visited synagogues and had a tour of the Jewish quarter with little hints of history all around you.
I really have so much to share - this is just the tip of the iceberg, but wanted to get something out on what I’ve been up to...it's missing conversation about the innovative Hub that Jewish non-profits utilize as a co-working space building new organizations and programs in Hungary, the impact of Szarvas camp on today's young people, listening to the Megillah at a bar with multiple synagogues coming together for it, and of course Shabbat experience,
along with my favorite coffee shop, visiting Rudas Baths, and other highlights of this city!
I’m going to keep trying to update as I continue my travels right now, currently in Krakow, on to Warsaw, and then Riga.
Here is a great article that highlights some of what I’ll see in Poland, and some of the people I'll be talking to specifically here in Krakow Talk about challenging, much of my time on trains or walking around these communities often I start to picture what these places and experiences were like in the 1930’s and 40’s. That said, I’m also trying to recognize how these communities are moving on today, what modern day looks like, and how some of these communities are flourishing, have deeply engaged young people who are excited about their ancestry and wanting to learn more.