by Willard Manus
Hungary provides the opportunity to witness a society in transition to
democratic capitalism. What will emerge from the clash of
That's the way one popular guidebook introduces its chapter on Hungary. The proof of those words was immediately born out upon our arrival at Budapest's main train station. After smooth, sleek, bourgeois Vienna, it was a shock to suddenly be accosted by gypsy beggars, hustlers, drug addicts, importuning money-changers, guides and flower-sellers--and to encounter pigeons flying around in the station, even in its coffee-houses.
Outside it was just as chaotic: rough, dirty, crowded streets; ancient buses and trolleys; a heavy smell of pollution in the air.
Over the next few days we began to investigate Hungary's largest city, a crazy mixture of medieval castles and glass skyscrapers, paprika-spiced ethnic cuisine and Pizza Hut specials.
Even before the fall of Communism, Budapest was the most liberal and Western-minded city in east Europe--the home of "goulash communist" governments, one of which stood up to the Russians only to be crushed in 1956.
Jews have had a long
history within the modern limits of Budapest, attaining special significance
in the 19th century. As the historian Arthur J. May said,
Before WW I, Jews comprised more than half of Budapest's industrial managers. They were also bankers and financiers, doctors, merchants, lawyers, journalists and publishers.
The Hapsburg rulers named nearly 400 Jewish families to the ranks of the nobility. Many upper and middle class Jews turned to Neolog Judaism and assimilated into mainstream Hungarian culture. Some even were invited into the Hungarian House of Lords.
The post-war Jewish population of 80,000 makes Budapest the largest Jewish city in Eastern and Central Europe, outside the Soviet Union. Jews can attend services in any one of a dozen synagogues (down from the pre-war number of 125), but the focal point is the old Jewish quarter, where Pest's main synagogue still stands.
The largest synagogue
remaining in use in all of Europe, it seats three thousand and was commissioned
in 1895 by Rabbi Low Schwab, who wanted a temple that would attract both
liberal and Orthodox wings. The
During the Nazi occupation,
the synagogue was used as a jail where Jews were imprisoned before deportation.
Courtyard plaques mark the mass graves of thousands of victims of the
wartime Budapest Ghetto, and there is a memorial to the thousands of Jewish
soldiers who died in WW I and a Holocaust memorial as well. Financed by
Estee Lauder, the latter is a weeping willow designed in granite and steel
by Hungarian sculptor Imre
As one writer has noted, "Traditional Jewish dishes, like sholet--the traditional Shabbat dish of beans, barley and meat cooked all Friday night in the warmth of a sealed oven--have become part of Hungarian cuisine. Canned sholet, kosher schnapps, and braided Challah bread can be found in ordinary grocery stores all over the city, and sholet (including distinctly non-kosher sholet made with pork!) is a Saturday standby in many downtown restaurants."
In the Old Town of
Buda is a Gothic synagogue which, after extensive archaeological work,
was excavated and now houses the Jewish Museum, which is only open between
May and October (because of the lack of
On Szilagyi Erzebet
Fasor in Buda is the Wallenberg monument, erected in honor of the Swedish
diplomat who saved thousands of Budapest Jews from the Holocaust by providing
them with Swedish identity cards. There is
The city's subway system is equally reasonable and efficient. We took advantage of it (suffering an embarrassment when we were fined $8 for riding on an expired ticket). We ate in ordinary restaurants most of the time, splurging once on a visit to the famed Carpathia Restaurant--elegant decor, fine linen and tableware, a string quartet scraping away in the background. Dinner for two was $25 with two glasses of (bad) house white wine. The chef turned out to be Jewish and recommended that we try his chicken soup with matzoh balls!
Budapest isn't easy to navigate on foot. The street layout is confusing (no continuity of names), many sidewlks are in bad shape, construction is going on everywhere, but we persevered as best we could, hoofing it both day and night. There was no feeling of danger in the air, though, not with so many other pedestrians around and numerous young couples smooching openly in the parks and cafes.
On one of our walks
we discovered the Central Market, a huge, two-story, glass-enclosed edifice
that was built in the l1920s and once served as the city's wholesale market.
Today, it is strictly occupied by retail shops offering foodstuffs downstairs
(paprika by the bushel); clothing, gifts and trinkets upstairs (Hungarian
lace galore). Vast and crowded as the market is, it's
Music plays a big part in the life of the city.
Every street has its
record shop, cars blare music of all kinds (even rap), and the classical
concert (piano & violin) we attended on a Friday night at the Academy
of Music drew a full house, approximately 1200 people, mostly young. We
went to a jazz concert the next night, at the Museum of Modern Art. This
one, held in a room, not a hall, drew 300 appreciative people. A
Laszlo, who survives
by teaching music at a high school, told us that in addition to monthly
appearances at the Museum, he and his band played in
Laszlo's band recently put out a CD which I can recommend (click on firstname.lastname@example.org). For all its rough edges and schizophrenic personality, Budapest has much to offer any visitor, whether Jewish or not.