Hungarian accent

One doesn’t hear so much about Hungarians in Israel since the deaths Ephraim Kishon, Tommy Lapid and Kariel Gardosh, or the return to Hungary three years ago of Olympic gold medalist Agnes Keleti.

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September 5, 2019 10:46
3 minute read.
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Viktor Orban. (photo credit: REUTERS)

At the beginning of every Hebrew calendar month, Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai hosts an evening of lectures and song pertaining to a specific Diaspora community. This week, at the beginning of Elul, that community was Hungary, and the auditorium was packed with Hungarian expats and some of their progeny.

One doesn’t hear so much about Hungarians in Israel since the deaths of people such as Ephraim Kishon, Tommy Lapid and Kariel Gardosh, or the return to Hungary three years ago of Olympic gold medalist Agnes Keleti, 98, perhaps the greatest woman athlete of all time.

Moderator Tal Rosner spoke of pre-Holocaust Hungarian Jewry, from the 11th century CE through the 1930s, from totally assimilated to radically ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist.

Tel Aviv University historian Dr. Raphael Vago noted that territorial changes have led to a lot of confusion about national identity.

As an example, Vago said, he was born in Romania to Hungarian Holocaust-survivor parents, and the language and culture he absorbed at home were Hungarian.

However, confusion continues among latter-day Hungarian Jews, he said, not so much as a result of territorial changes, but largely from politics and ideology.

While antisemitism has resurfaced in Hungary, it is not government policy. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is not an antisemite, at least not a classical antisemite, Vago said, although the incitement against revolutionary Hungarian billionaire George Soros emanated from Orbán’s office. There are many who attribute the attacks on Soros to antisemitic propaganda. Yet, there are many Hungarians who, while they engage in antisemitic activities, are surprisingly very pro-Israel. They admire Israel’s achievements and make a distinction between Israelis and Jews, something Israeli officialdom cannot accept, but nevertheless cannot see as sufficient cause to sever diplomatic ties.

There are currently more Jewish festivals taking place in Budapest and elsewhere in Hungary than ever before. Despite antisemitism or perhaps because of it, the revival of Jewish culture is encouraged by the government. This encouragement includes keeping these festivals so tightly patrolled that Hungary can now be characterized as one of the safest places in Europe for Jews. This, Vago said, is despite the fact that the Hungarian government is totalitarian, populist, nationalist and veering to the Right politically.

Yet, at the same time, Hungary is whitewashing and rewriting its history of collaboration with the Nazis, and is building monuments to honor the memories of such virulent antisemites as Admiral Miklós Horthy.

Vago noted that following the German conquest of Hungary, it wasn’t the Nazis who put Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, it was Hungarians. Yet today, despite the revival of antisemitism, there are excellent relations between Hungary and Israel, and the Hungarians often defend Israel in international forums.

He also warned that the resurgence of Jewish life in Hungary in its many forms is something we should not take for granted. Hungary today has the largest percentage of population of Jewish ancestry than ever before. A recent DNA study determined that 130,000 Hungarians are at least 50% Jewish (albeit not necessarily according to Jewish law). Vago said that while today former top-ranking Communists have become doting Jewish grandfathers, in another generation or two, assimilation will again take over, and nearly all vestiges of Jewish identification will disappear.

He also questioned what exactly defines Jewish identity. Is it synagogue attendance, connection to the Jewish Diaspora, Zionism, Jewish culture? Everyone has their own answer, but the most common one is Jewish ancestry.

We live in a generation that has a passion for tracing its roots.

Many non-Jews with a Jewish parent, grandparent or great-grandparent feel an urge to explore the Jewish side of their ancestry, and sometimes discover they are descended from great rabbinical figures. In some cases, this leads to an in-depth exploration of Judaism, serious study and conversion. In others, it is merely an acknowledgment of one’s Jewish genes and little or nothing more.

So how do Hungarians or anyone else for that matter identify Jewishly?

As with almost anything else, it depends on whom you ask.


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