Budapest, City of Surprises

For Jews visiting Budapest, Hungary, looks can be deceiving. A city blessed with breathtaking beauty and EU membership, it also houses a ruling party associated with the rise of right wing nationalism and a major opposition party that is openly anti-Semitic. With an estimated 100,000 Jews living in and around the capital, we flew in recently as members of the new Global Committee of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation, eager to learn how we could help.

Instead, our premise turned out to be wrong: the Budapest Jewish community should be a source of inspiration, not pity, as Professor Michael Miller of the city’s Central European University asserts. Indeed, despite vastly different histories, Jews from Northern California have much in common with their Hungarian counterparts – from exceptionally high rates of intermarriage and assimilation to a cultural fixation on food. Should we look to Budapest, as Miller suggests, for solutions to Bay Area problems?

Professor Michael Miller and Global Committee member Alan Rothenberg

Take Mazel Tov, a bustling restaurant described on its website as an “open hearted cultural place…in the middle of the historic Jewish quarter, today’s downtown’s night-life center.” Other than the Kosher Fizz listed on the extensive drinks menu, the food isn’t kosher, nor is Mazel Tov a Jewish restaurant per se, but rather a popular addition to a thriving local food scene. Another restaurant we ate at in the Jewish quarter, Spinoza, inspired one of the members of our committee, Andrei, to post a photograph of the menu on Facebook, with the caption: “We need a menu like that in San Francisco – everything is kosher.” A cafe we stopped at, Blue Bird, had an onsite roaster reminiscent of Northern California – plus, to our surprise, kosher certification. 

Dining with us at Mazel Tov was Sasha Friedman, director of Camp Szarvas in rural Hungary, which hosts nearly 2,000 Jewish campers each summer from more than 20 countries, including Israel and the U.S. (the camp is supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, with funding from our Federation). The pricing at Szarvas is pegged to the country of origin, ensuring that children from countries with vastly different levels of wealth can attend, and additional scholarships are often awarded on top of that. The Szarvas staff we met were young, passionate, and deeply committed to building community. They were involved with the camp despite a broader culture that is often hostile to Jews, sometimes even from families whose Jewish identity has been hidden or lost for generations. “It’s all Jews by choice,” said JDC’s country director for Hungary, Taly Shaul, describing members of the community.

Which brings us to anti-Semitism. In Marin County, where I live, being Jewish is a fun marker of ethnicity in a mostly homogenous world, and often little more. Racist statements are something we read about in newspapers and attribute to people far away, and yet relatively few Jews are active in the community. California is a place where people come to reinvent themselves, and Judaism doesn’t always make the cut.

In Budapest, by contrast, the rise of nationalism and anti-Semitism is a very real concern, especially considering the past. A 20-something we met at Moishe House – a Federation partner that helps Jewish young adults create local communities through home-based Jewish experiences – described the atmosphere as “mild anti-Semitism, not aggressive. We can live with it.” A resident said that he hadn’t mentioned his affiliation with Moishe House during a recent job interview, because he hadn’t wanted the interviewer to know that he was Jewish. It is estimated that just 10% of Hungarian Jews are affiliated with the Jewish community, and hostility toward Jews presumably prevents more people from connecting.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area, with its open embrace of diversity, may have a similar level of affiliation. And yet the Budapest community boasted an array of institutions and programs – often supported with funds from our Federation and others across the U.S. Among them were: the Golem Theater, an award-winning professional Jewish theater company; the Intergenerational Program, which brings together young adults with Holocaust survivors to visit Israel for the first time; Judafest, an annual Jewish cultural, culinary and film festival attended by tens of thousands of people; two K-12 Jewish day schools and 16 working synagogues; and Mozaik Hub, a Hungarian version of UpStart, created with seed-funding from our Federation, that is working to strengthen Jewish life in Budapest.

It was inspiring to see the vibrancy of Jewish life in Hungary, but what lessons does it hold for those of us in California? Professor Miller instructed us to ask everyone we met through Budapest’s Jewish community when they found out they were Jewish. So successful were Jews’ efforts to hide their identity, from the initial passage of anti-Semitic legislation in Hungary in 1920 through Communism, that many people are still discovering their roots 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Is freedom the ability of Hungarian Jews to reclaim their identity, or is it our ability to shed it? Is it when the local community is able to support Jewish institutions, or when local Jews feel free to support causes only outside the community? 

I don’t claim to have any answers, but I liked what Mircea Cernov, director of the Mozaik Hub, had to say about the Jewish community in Budapest, and I think it can be applied to Jewish communities around the world, including our own: “No matter what the issues are, no matter what the challenges are, there is huge potential.”

Melissa Schneider, a resident of Marin, is a member of the Federation’s Global Committee and joined the group for its mission to Ukraine and Hungary. In addition to traveling, she enjoys visiting cooking, hiking, and gardening.

The Federation’s Global Committee seeks to care for our global Jewish community through supporting humanitarian relief and revitalizing Jewish communities worldwide. Jewish communities around the world have confronted the unthinkable over the past century: famine, world wars, communist repression, political strife, and genocide. The Federation addresses the needs of vulnerable Jewish individuals and communities through strategic partnerships with effective and seasoned direct service organizations. A significant portion of our funding is directed to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a very experienced and trusted organization with which the Federation has partnered for decades.

Categories: Overseas


December 02, 2016


Melissa Schneider