Too often recently, Hungary has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The elevation of the ultranationalist Jobbik party to the parliament in 2010 and the provocative, anti-Semitic statements made by their members that followed has led many to wonder: Who would want to be Jewish in this Central European, former Communist state?
However, hidden away through a courtyard in Budapest’s ramshackle District VIII, an area of the Hungarian capital known for its high population of Roma gypsies and immigrants, the shul ("synagogue" in Yiddish) on Teleki Square is quietly challenging this notion. It is one of the very last surviving "apartment synagogues" in the country and may well represent the spirited renewal of Jewish life that is currently sweeping the city.
For nearly a century since the shul’s foundation by Hassidic Jews from Ukraine at the beginning of the 1920s, it has survived World War II bombings, Communist oppression, and the damp – but from the last, only barely.
When chairman Andras Mayer, his brother Gabor, a dozen other members and a South African rabbi decided to renovate the shul – which like many prayer houses of its era situated inside an unassuming, shabby apartment – the ceiling was near collapse and the walls rotting.
“Everyone was waiting for this place to close down and nobody really cared about it," says Gabor. "This was nothing to do with the original Hungarian Jewish establishment. It was simply formed by a bunch of friends, they opened it and it was no one else’s business.”
The shul has never closed down, even during the war, always keeping a skeletal attendance. But in the last few years, the Mayer brothers and friends started to invigorate the community with new and young members.
“People were getting older and dying off. It was a disappearing culture, so it was not just a renovation needed here; we had to start a new life.”
A dwindling population
For centuries Hungary has been home to important and vibrant Jewish communities that, until World War II, lived in relative peace. They acquired a more prominent role in the late 19th century after many Jews took part in the revolution against the Habsburg monarchy in 1848, an event that is still considered a milestone in Hungarian history. Jews grew in number as the prosperous dual monarchy of Austro-Hungary established itself and many prominent figures of world Judaism claim Hungarian roots, such as the father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl.
During the interwar period, up to 25 percent of Budapest’s population was Jewish. But under Miklós Horthy’s rule as regent of post-World War I Hungary, numerous anti-Jewish laws were established restricting Hungarian Jews’ ability to study and even cohabitate. This was the first of many discriminatory policies, culminating in the deportation of Jewish families with the active collaboration of the Hungarian Gendarmerie. Recently, some local municipalities in rural Hungary have caused uproar by erecting statues and renaming parks in honor of Mr. Horthy.
The deportation was was almost completed when Arrow Cross, the Hungarian fascist party, took power in October 1944 under pressure from Nazi Germany. In just a few weeks, around 450,000 Hungarian Jews perished at Auschwitz, leaving the country's Jewish population a mere fraction of its former self.
At Teleki Square, even with the new blood, it is still sometimes a struggle on Saturday mornings to make a "minyan," the 10-man quorum required for communal worship under Orthodox Jewish law. On the more quiet Sabbath mornings, some members walk to the neighboring synagogue to humbly ask to borrow a man or two.
For Sholom Hurwitz, serving as the shul’s rabbi since its revival, the job can be sometimes challenging.
“After the Holocaust and the Communist suppression of religious organizations, lots of Hungarians forgot their faith, and this shul is part of the Jewish renaissance we see in Budapest," he says. "Not everybody present can read Hebrew, and in the beginning people had their mobile phone out on Sabbath! But there is a strong feeling of community here, and everyone agrees on Orthodox standards. I’m proud to say we are user-friendly and, being so diverse, we’re one of the least sectarian prayer house in the city.”
The "Jewish renaissance" underway in the Hungarian capital is twofold. Previously a tumbledown, crime ridden corner of the city, Budapest’s historic Jewish quarter has morphed into a gentrified nexus of bohemia, replete with Jewish restaurants full of tourists and wine bars peppered amongst the towering synagogues. On a more intellectual level, the elevation of the ultranationalist Jobbik party and the virulently anti-Semitic beliefs held by some of their members have prompted a renewed wave of Jewish political engagement. Initiatives like the Sirály cultural center organize direct activism whilst running cultural events designed to encourage observant and non-affiliated Jewish youth alike to explore their heritage.
The majority of the congregation, at Teleki Square, where baseball caps are sported alongside yarmulkes, do not identify themselves as particularly religious, despite the synagogue’s loose affiliation with the Orthodox movement. However, the stringent rules of a kosher kitchen and the Jewish lineage of the members ensure that they can also open their doors to whoever wants to observe.
Certainly within the walls on Sabbath morning, all the traditions are strictly kept, despite the often lighthearted atmosphere that pervades. As the rabbi chants in Hebrew from the hefty scrolls resting atop the bimah (table), the adjacent wall is dominated by a modern white clock inscribed with Hebrew numbers whose hands intriguingly tick backward.
“We wanted a nice ornate clock with a pendulum but some guy brought this back from Israel as a joke and it has stayed. It doesn’t mean anything, although entering this shul is a bit like stepping into a time machine,” Gabor remarks, exposing the modern idiosyncrasies that speckle the pious history of the shul.
The Mayer brothers are almost evangelistic when it comes to their passion for revitalizing and unearthing the Jewish history of the neighborhood, with ambitious plans afoot for two books, a documentary, specialized Teleki Square merchandise including branded yarmulkes, and even homemade brandy.
Not every synagogue has a metallic vat of strong Hungarian "Palinka" fermenting in the kitchen, but then the shul is not like other synagogues. The equipment is brand-new, the apple mush has been checked for worms, and the whole process supervised by the resident rabbi thus denoting the potent house spirit to be kosher.
“I think we are going to become very popular,” muses Andras. However, discussions about the local area are always bittersweet.
“The saddest part about the history of this neighborhood is that people don’t know about it. Sometimes that’s for the best because there have been some nasty stories going on in some of the houses here. During the war this was one of the only sites of Jewish resistance against the Nazis, and there was a big bloodshed as a result. With brooms they were sweeping up the blood on the streets.”
In Jobbik's shadow
Mere blocks away stands a foreboding gray edifice emblazoned with the banner of the Jobbik party, currently the third largest political force in the Hungarian parliament.
Its vocal "anti-Zionist" stance has been accused by some as being a smokescreen for general anti-semitism, a charge that Jobbik vigorously denies, and many have drawn comparisons between the uniformed members present at their political rallies and soldiers of the Arrow Cross. Despite – or more likely because of – the high Roma and migrant population in District VIII, they maintain a high profile here.
Andras pays little heed to Jobbik. “People make distinctions between Nazis, neo-Nazis, and Arrow Cross, but what difference does that make to me? They don’t care what kind of Jew I am and I don’t care what kind of Nazi they are.”
In a country with a tragic past too often misunderstood and manipulated for political gain, the restoration of the Teleki Square shul seems very much the symbol of the wider reconstitution of Hungary’s Jewish identity: recovering, resilient, and threatened, but reasserting itself with characteristic quirkiness.