Reporter's Notebook: Shabbat on the 'wrong side' of Budapest

Buda might be the smaller Jewish community of Hungary’s capital, but it was the right side to be for a warm welcoming Shabbat.

The Obuda Synagogue on the Buda side of Budapest (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Obuda Synagogue on the Buda side of Budapest
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
BUDAPEST – “You’re on the wrong side,” several friends told me when I said I was staying on the Buda side of Budapest for Shabbat.
The city is split in two by the natural divide of the Danube River running between Buda and Pest. The majority of the city’s Jewish community is on the Pest side, even though Buda is slightly more ancient in years.
Despite this, the Jewish communities on both sides of the Danube are close and celebrate special occasions together at every opportunity.
“Come Together,” the famous song by the Beatles, kept coming to mind during my Shabbat in Buda, my first-ever in Hungary.
The Chabad Ofen-Obuda community is nothing short of incredible. The hospitality, warmth and fantastic atmosphere made my experience unforgettable.
Although the community is small, the phrase “less is more” applies here in every respect, as they enjoy Shabbat together as a big, happy family.
It was no surprise to me that I stuck out as the outsider, but men and women from both sides of the mechitza (partition) made a concerted effort to find out who I was and made me feel right at home.
The synagogue is magnificent. Although there are still areas being refurbished, the main area is complete. As I walked inside, I could not stop staring at the details and decor on the walls, ceiling and the Aron Kodesh – the holy ark that houses Torah scrolls.
I spent my Shabbat with a small group of journalist colleagues and we went to pray at the synagogue, which feels ancient, like we had entered a time warp into a place of old, like the synagogues our grandparents and great-grandparents used to describe.
There are synagogues in Safed that resemble the style and beauty of that in Obuda, but what the synagogue most resembled to me was a mix of the Ramah Synagogue and the Old Synagogue in Krakow, where I was privileged to visit in 2010.
The cantors’ prayers carried strongly and musically across the synagogue and sometimes brought tears to my eyes.
IT NEVER fails to amaze me how, despite the language barrier, no matter where I am – Johannesburg, Jerusalem or Budapest – we are able to connect over the familiar tunes of Kabbalat Shabbat – “Lecha Dodi” and the evening prayers, which are all the same. The central European Ashkenazi tunes are widely used throughout the world.
There was also something special about seeing the prayer books and Tanach with Hungarian translations, with the Hebrew facing it on the opposite page.
We headed upstairs to the area of the synagogue that was once the women’s section. Rabbi Shlomo Koves welcomed us warmly, and introduced us to some 40 people who regularly join for Shabbat dinner in three languages: English, Hungarian and some Hebrew. It was beautiful to see Jews from all walks of life and backgrounds coming together for the Shabbat evening meal.
Koves explained that the synagogue, built in the 1820s, functioned for some time after the Holocaust, despite the community dwindling on the Buda side. However during the Soviet occupation in the 1960s, the building was sold and turned into TV studios.
Koves pointed out where the studios once were, and that the main synagogue sanctuary was turned into the main studio, but “the outside structure remained the same as it is now.”
The synagogue was rededicated in 2010 – on Rosh Hashanah – and restored to its original use, following the Unified Hungarian Jewish Community (EMIH) being able to reclaim the building “as a result of unprecedented communal effort.”
KOVES WAS born and raised in Hungary, and is one of the most prominent rabbis in the country even though he was not born into a religious family. From early on, he said, he always wanted to rebuild the Hungarian Jewish community after it was shattered during the Holocaust. In 2003 he became the first rabbi to be ordained in Budapest after the Holocaust.
Asked about antisemitism in Hungary, Koves explained that unlike many countries in Europe, Hungary is one of the safest places to be Jewish freely.
He told me several interesting stories about Hungarians who have found out they were Jewish or had Jewish lineage, something that happens often.
Koves and his staff have a genuine love for their congregation, to the extent that whenever there is a birthday, a birthday cake and a little celebration – with “Happy Birthday” sung in Hungarian and English – is organized at the meal for the celebrated congregants. There were two such birthday parties there the week I was there.
On Saturday, one of the congregants took us journalists on a stunning Shabbat walk to Margaret Island. He described it as the Central Park of Budapest.
We chatted about Jewish life, politics, and life in general in Budapest; overall the people are happy.
“There are small concerns that [the situation] could change for the Jews, but it’s very unlikely that it will,” he said. “We are happy here.”
The gardens, views and scenery were spectacular and made for a picturesque walk on a bright and cool Shabbat afternoon.
After two hours we made it back to the hotel and took the words “Day of Rest” to heart for the rest of the afternoon.
One thing is for certain: I was definitely on the right side of Budapest for Shabbat.
The writer is a guest of the EMIH.