Budapest: Culture & Community

Interview with Erika Siegfried-Tompson

Erika Siegfried-Tompson is a member of Bet Orim in Budapest and an activist in the Hungarian Reform Movement.

What excites tourists about Budapest?

Budapest offers grandiosely beautiful views. From the gentle curve of the Danube River, you see rising hills and lovely islands spanned by great bridges of various styles. The vista is spectacular at night. For a romantic evening, spend dusk to dark on the terrace of the Citadella Restaurant. You’ll never forget the sight of the lights coming up, one by one, on our historic buildings and on the bridges over the Danube.

In Buda, the oldest part of the city, walk the little winding streets and you’ll discover many restored medieval buildings. And visit the inner city of Pest, a busy commercial and shopping area.

Visitors are often impressed by Budapest’s Art Nouveau architecture, seen in many late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings. The unique style incorporates old Hungarian folk motifs and beautifully glazed pottery roof tiles.

What are the Jewish attractions?

Tourists can revel in Hungary’s Jewish cultural revival. The Judafest Street Festival, a free, joyous one-day Jewish music-performance-food festival, takes place each June. From late August to early September our Jewish Summer Festival features Jewish music, dance, fine art, books, and films. Also in early September is the Day of Open Doors Street Party, offering music, Hora dancing, arts and crafts, Krav Maga (Israeli martial arts) demonstrations, and more. Throughout the year, exciting and buzzing Limmud days offer an array of Jewish community-building study sessions, many of them in English.

Budapest’s main Jewish attraction is the Dohany Synagogue, which seats 3,000 and is said to be the largest continuously active synagogue in Europe, and the third largest in the world (after the Belz Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, seating 6,000, and the Satmar synagogue in Kyrias Joel, New York, said to seat 5,500—7,000). The adjoining Jewish Museum, built on the former site of the birthplace of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl, houses Europe’s second largest Judaica collection (after Berlin’s Judisches Museum). Also worth seeing is the 14th-century medieval Synagogue of Buda, on what was formerly called “Jewish Street.”

Outside the capital, visit the splendid late 18th-century Baroque synagogue of Mad, located in a region renowned for its wines (and have a first-class wine tasting experience at Torok Pince). In the 1850s some 800 Jews lived here, many of them wine traders and kosher wine producers. The last Jew of Mad died in 1994, but the community’s synagogue, renovated in 2004 and awarded the prestigious Europa Nostra Heritage Award, remains. It is now cared for by a non-Jewish couple. If you call them (00 36 47 348 043), they will show you the synagogue and tell you many interesting stories.

Where can you find the best Jewish cuisine?

I recommend Yiddische Mamma Mia, which offers a fusion of Jewish and Mediterranean cuisine; Fülemüle (Nightingale) Restaurant, presenting traditional home-made recipes for goose, smoked meats, and cholent (a Hungarian-Jewish specialty bean dish); and Rosenstein Restaurant, a “hidden treasure” (as it’s located in a not-so-nice area near the Eastern Railways station), where the goose and duck are prepared with an especially light touch.

Don’t miss out on the traditional Jewish dessert called flodni—a layered pastry of ground walnut paste, poppy seeds, and apples. You’ll find the best flodni (with cherries instead of apple) in the Holocaust Memorial Center's coffee shop. Also try the Ruszwurm “kremes” (Cream Pastry), a mouth-watering sweet made of egg, vanilla and whipped cream, available at the Ruszwurm coffee shop, the oldest confectionery on the continent (since 1827), still run by the last active Hungarian confectionery dynasty.

How many Jews live in Hungary?

The estimated number is 70,000—100,000—a large variation because the vast majority of Jews are unaffiliated. Many hide their Jewishness and/or are not even aware of their Jewish origins, despite nearly 2000 years of Jewish presence in the area. In the Second World War, Nazi Germans and Hungarians killed approximately 500,000 of 700,000 Hungarian Jews, all but extinguishing what had been the largest Jewish community in Central Europe. Because of Nazi persecution, the subsequent Communist oppression of all religions, and continuing deep-rooted antisemitism, neither the Jewish community nor the general society has begun Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, the proper processing of the past. Nonetheless, since 1989, the end of the Communist era, all religious groups have experienced a revival.

What is synagogue life like?

The Neolog community, a Conservative Jewish stream that was once great and is now declining, lists 17 Budapest synagogues on its website. Budapest also has a small, independent Orthodox community with four synagogues; a small but vocal Chabad Lubavicher community with two synagogues; and—in a revival of 19th-century Hungarian Reform Judaism—a Progressive community with two congregations, Sim Shalom and Bet Orim.

Sim Shalom (“Give Peace”), founded as an association in 1994 and as a congregation in 2004, was the first Progressive synagogue to be established in post-Communist Hungary. Like many post-war Hungarian Jews, its founding leader, Katalin Keleman, a language teacher by profession, only became aware of her Jewish roots as an adult. She began engaging with Judaism in the late 80s, when the regime slowly relaxed its opposition to religion. Eventually she trained to become a rabbi and was ordained at the Leo Baeck College in London. Upon her return to Hungary, she slowly organized a community.

Today Sim Shalom has approximately 60 paying members and as many occasional visitors. Services—using the community’s own siddur in Hebrew, transliteration, and Hungarian—are held on most Friday nights in a rented inner-city apartment. The atmosphere is joyful, with lots of singing, as Cantor Miklos Budai plays guitar and a young member accompanies him on drums.

My congregation, Bet Orim (House of Light), with approximately 50 members and about 100 supporters, was founded in 2005 to educate Hungarian Jews about Jewish traditions, history, practices, and ethics—knowledge that had not been passed down to them from their parents and grandparents. We consider it our mission to make both members and drop-ins feel equally welcome. Shabbat services are led by Hungarian-born Rabbi Ferenc Raj (PhD, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, California) with humor, love, and a little extra Jewish teaching that makes everybody feel that they’ve taken away more than they came in with. His erudite sermons reverberate long after he delivers them. There is no dress code; you wear whatever makes you feel comfortable. We read from our own siddur, in Hebrew, transliteration, and Hungarian, with a smattering of English text and poems. After the service we encourage lively discussion.

For all festivals, services are in both Hungarian and English, which enables Bet Orim to reach out to Budapest’s English speaking Jews and attract many foreign visitors. On the High Holy Days, services occasionally feature the well-known Hungarian pianist/singer Zoltan Neumark, the Yiddish-Hebrew-Ladino singer Diana Samu-Pandzarisz (who belongs to the congregation), and the internationally renowned classical guitarist Sandor Mester. Their masterful “performances” draw big crowds.

Do you have unique communal celebrations?

On Sukkot, Sim Shalom builds a sukkah in a public park, waving the lulav and etrog as passersby watch with interest.

On Simchat Torah, Rabbi Kelemen of Sim Shalom invites up to the bimah a few people who have had an especially happy or sad year to recite blessings, and thereby feel supported by the community. Later, everybody dances with the Torah to Cantor Budai’s music—the young children dancing with the community’s “children’s Torahs,” miniature scrolls. At Bet Orim, after dancing, the whole community stands around the Torah as many worshipers participate in turning the scroll back to the beginning—a community-bonding ritual.

What challenges does your Progressive Jewish community face?

In 2010 the new Hungarian government enacted hundreds of new laws, one of which abolished the religious status of hundreds of congregations, including Budapest’s two Progressive communities. The financial consequences have been significant: Hungarian taxpayers are allowed to donate 1% of their income tax to a religious organization, but now that Bet Orim and Sim Shalom have lost their “religious organization” label (becoming “associations”), a substantial part of their income has been lost. To try to stay financially afloat, Bet Orim is conducting fund-raising events and has introduced membership fees, and Sim Shalom has increased dues. Both have applied for grants.

While it may not easy to be a Progressive Jew in Hungary, our community is heartened by our relationship with Jews worldwide. At Bet Orim, our rabbi, cantor, and quite a few members speak English, French, and German. We are happy to conduct multilingual services and very much enjoy talking to visitors from abroad.

So, the next time you are in Europe, I hope you will come and meet us! Please, if possible, contact Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor at the World Union for Progressive Judaism in advance (see "You're Never Alone When You Say You're a Jew" for instructions) so that we can offer you proper hospitality.