Revival in Budapest (Extract)

Extract of article in Issue 6, July 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A generation of Hungarian Jews sets out on paths of discovery Two years ago, Eszter Susán, 30, put up a small plastic mezuza on the doorpost of Sirály, a bar where she spends many an evening. She'd had it for 19 years, gathering dust since she won it when she was 11 years old, at some now-forgotten event of the city's Jewish community. At the time, it was merely a curious object. "I never knew how to put it up, so I kept it in my drawer," says Susan. Over the years, she educated herself about Jewish religion, identity and culture and today, the mezuza means a lot to her. The little piece of plastic represents the awakened Jewish identity of a generation of young Jews that she has been nurturing. And for years, Susan has been actively bringing together like-minded souls to learn about their Judaism and traditions in a country that suffered the ravages of the Holocaust followed by the oppression of the communist system. Sirály ('Seagull' in Hungarian) is not just another bar. It is a smoky cultural hangout where teens to thirty-somethings immerse themselves in good vibes, cheap beer and wine and rich cultural interaction. On any given night, a group of teens could be planning an upcoming play at one table, while at another a filmmaker meets with a friend to dream up their next production. A small office on the upper floor is the headquarters of Marom, an organization of Jews in their 20s and 30s that focuses on Jewish culture. It holds exhibitions, debates, concerts, film shows and even religious-themed evenings, all presented informally amidst an eclectic selection of other cultural programs. Sirály is where suave Jewish culture meets the hip-and-happening crowds of Budapest's buzzing nightlife. A generation ago, the insular Jewish community remained reclusive and dormant. And only a few years ago, Jewish events were spread by word of mouth "within the community," says Susán. But Marom advertises its programs in the press and on lampposts, and distributes fliers throughout the city. Susán, and her generation are undaunted by fears of anti-Semitism and are bent on asserting their newfound burgeoning identities. "We don't want to reestablish borders between Jews and non-Jews," says Susán, who conceived of Siraly as a lively, comfortable and neutral space for debates on Judaism and related topics. "We want to stimulate dialogue," she explains. "Many people who come here know something about Judaism, but not too much. Here immediately they have something to talk about." During the Nazi occu- pation, Budapest's Jews were interned in the ghettos, and many were deported or died. But since the ghetto was not liquidated, a relatively large number did survive. Outside of the capital, the vast majority of Hungary's Jews outside of the capital were exterminated, but Hungary remained one of the largest Jewish communities in Eastern and Central Europe. Of the original 825,000 Jews living in Hungary before the war, some 260,000 survived. Today, an estimated 100,000 Jews live in Hungary, the largest number in East-Central Europe. After the Holocaust, however, communist Hungary was under the direct influence of the Soviet Union and heavy-handedly discouraged religion. Most of Hungary's Jews did not speak about their Jewish roots, while others denied them or simply didn't know about them. Even into the 1980s, as the Hungarians were openly challenging the Soviet regime, Jews would still hardly even mutter the word "Jew" for fear, of anti-Semitism. Like many others of her generation, Susán first came into contact with the budding Jewish community in the early 1990s. Until then, Susán, whose mother is Jewish, had merely an inkling of her background. "My mother was raised under communism and she did not know much about Judaism, but she always somehow made it possible for me to gain this knowledge," she recalls. "It was a long process," says filmmaker Diana Groó, 34, smoking edgily on the window-seat of Sirály, overlooking the gray streets of Budapest's seventh district. Groó began trying to understand her family history at the age of 13 by continuously asking her grandmother about her past. It took her years to pry open the doors to the elderly woman's stories and secrets. "She was really worried, having survived the Holocaust," Groó says. "She was the only member of the family who came back, at the age of 18. She experienced those years when confessing to be Jewish was not without danger." Groó has directed feature films and documentaries. Some are cinematic dreams of her lost relatives, stories and memories of the Holocaust or fantasies of magical books from long-lost worlds that often point to the communal loss of WWII. Her documentary, "Corész," portrays the different ways in which her generation has sought out its roots. Groó distinguishes between those who left Hungary for the United States, Canada, Israel or elsewhere after surviving the Holocaust and those who remained in Hungary. The latter were a generation, she explains, that stopped talking about Jewish life because they equated it with danger and fear. Those who escaped were able, from a distance, to make sense of the Holocaust - maybe even heal the wounds on their own terms. Those who remained lived on the same streets where tragic events occurred, and sometimes even faced living next to the very perpetrators of horrible crimes. They had no let-up - and sometimes chose to avoid speaking of the past in order to save themselves from the pain. "How can you tell the details of Auschwitz to your children? I am not sure that it works psychologically," Groó muses and continues, "My mother's generation didn't get very many answers about the past, their origin, or even how to be Jewish. There was a wall for them: before the war and after the war. How could they define themselves when they themselves didn't get any information? The biggest victim regarding Jewish identity is my parents' post-war generation, who were met with silence and did not get any answers. What does it mean to be Jewish? How does it work that if we say this word we have to speak very silently. Why? Why? Why?" But by the early 1990s, the Hungarian Jewish community was being transformed. The newly democratic and open country attracted hosts of international Jewish organizations and movements, important catalysts for the young people reclaiming their identities. After a while, being Jewish was even suddenly cool. While other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, where the vast majority of Jews had been murdered, experienced a revival of Jewish culture without the Jews, in Hungary there were Jews thirsting for that culture. Suddenly there were both Lubavitcher Hasidim and the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth movements, as well as Orthodox and liberal institutions. The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation established a youth camp in the outlying village of Szarvas in 1990. Young people began to explore, somewhat haphazardly, often unaware and perhaps not even interested in the complex philosophies, directions or religious bents of the organizations that were wooing them. So while Susán's mother's generation was largely ignorant of her family's Jewish heritage, it was up to her to relearn her Jewish identity, culture and even symbols - like the simple mezuza. And as communism waned, and finally fell in 1989, it was up to her and her peers to overcome the taboos and give voice to the stories that had been silenced. Extract of article in Issue 6, July 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.