Thursday, February 3, 2011

Jewish Quarter

While in Budapest we stayed in an apartment in the Jewish Quarter and took a walking tour through the Quarter to learn more about it. Jews were banned from the city in the 18th century so they established this quarter just outside the city (back in the day).

Budapest has the second largest synagogue in the world, Dohany Street Synagogue or Dohany Utcai Zsinagoga (the largest is in New York). There is a park on the Synagogue grounds, the Raoul Wallenberg Park (named after the Swedish diplomat who helped many Jews to escape from deportation in 1944-45). In the park, stands a Holocaust Memorial, the Tree of Life, which contains the names of victims who disappeared or died during the Nazi terror engraved on almost each of the 30,000 metal leaves. Thousands of bodies were buried under the memorial. Between 20% to 40% of Greater Budapest's 250,000 Jewish inhabitants died through Nazi genocide during 1944 and early 1945.

After Hungary lost a lot of land in WWI, they sided with Germany during WWII, when Hitler promised they would gain back their land. They lost even more land. In addition, 600,000 Hungarian Jews were deported in 6 months. Previously called the "Jewish Mecca" because of the high Jewish population, today less than 1% of the population is Jewish.

During our walking tour, one of our stops was a small synagogue and seminary where we got a chance to go inside and see the inner-workings. Our guide chose a small synagogue rather than the large one (a popular tourist sight) so we could get a more authentic view of Jewish life. The synagogue houses a seminary where students can learn from rabbis and get back to the Jewish faith. Less and less young people are adhering to the faith. The small synagogue is built inside the courtyard of a building. This was not uncommon in Budapest, as the building offered protection from the street and provided free land (the buildings' occupants were happy to house a Synagogue and donated the space). This synagogue looked like it was going to crumble at any moment and it doesn't look like anyone has given any thought to restoration.

Our small group entered the building up a narrow staircase, then passed through a small hall that was lined with tables and wooden chairs and smelled of food. The tables were strewn with the messy remains of breakfast, scattered giant books with Hebrew text, and a couple typical Jewish fedora hats. Whoever ate the meal was nowhere to be seen. Next we passed through a room where a bearded elder man sat with two children, a boy and a girl, studying Hebrew. The sanctuary of the synagogue had small wooden pews that were partitioned off by curtains that separated the men and women. The Star of David adorned just about anything in the room, from light fixtures to pews. The back of the room had bookcases that were stuffed full of Jewish books in horrible condition, and an electronic menorah. The synagogue was super old and simple, the students were not much for cleanliness, but at least it appeared well lived-in and the community was open to visitors.

Despite the hardships, Budapest contains the highest number of Jewish citizens per capita than any other European city.


Dohany Street Synagogue, the second largest in the world.

Inside a smaller synagogue/seminary...