Keeping the (Israeli) flag flying in Budapest

With the fourth-largest Jewish population in Europe, Hungary’s Israel Cultural Center is engaging a new generation of Jews.

Vered Glickman  (left), director of the ICI, stands with co-chair Gabor Rona in the Herzl Center. (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
Vered Glickman (left), director of the ICI, stands with co-chair Gabor Rona in the Herzl Center.
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
With 11 performances of Emmerich Kalman’s operetta Bayadere (Die Bajadere) lined up for the Israeli Opera House between February 12 and 21, and a series of events scheduled for January 19-31 to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of preeminent Hungarian-born Israeli satirist Ephraim Kishon, Hungary appears to be the flavor of the month in these parts right now.
The flipside is that there are also willing souls in Budapest who are doing their utmost to keep the Israeli cultural flag flying high and proud over at their end, too. The hub of these sterling efforts is the Israeli Cultural Institute, located on the fringes of the former Jewish quarter of the Hungarian capital.
The ICI – Europe’s first Israeli cultural center – was founded in 2010 by the Jewish Agency together with Hungarian and Israeli donors, with the intent of promoting Israeli and Jewish culture in Hungary. The institute’s expressed goal is “to provide an inspiring framework that is open to all, for both learning and leisure.”
The former of the aforesaid activities was clearly in full swing when I visited the ICI last month. Together with Israeli-born ICI director Dr. Vered Glickman and co-chair Gabor Rona, I popped into a class taking place at the Hebrew Language Center on the upper floor of the spacious ICI building, as a lively workshop run by Israeli artist Shai Dayan was in full swing in a room just down the corridor. The Hebrew students’ efforts to master the language are enhanced by various strategically positioned vocabulary prompts. I walked by the word ritzpa (floor) in the corridor; the handle to a nearby door had the Hebrew equivalent yadit next to it.
Meanwhile, on a lower floor, last-minute preparations were being made ahead of the opening of a new art exhibition which, as Glickman explains, provides not only a space for artists to display their creative fare to the public, but also acts as an interface between Jewish and non-Jewish Hungarians. “The show includes a significant number of works by local artists, including by non-Jews,” she says. “The curator is not Jewish.”
That beckons the question about the place of the Jewish community in Hungary, and whether the ordinary Gyorgy or Margit on the street is aware of the existence of the community – let alone has some knowledge of Jewish and/or Israeli culture. Presumably, the fact that there was plenty of state-supported activity throughout 2014 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary helped raise awareness.
“All the cultural institutions ran relevant events, and school students now learn about the Holocaust as part of the official curriculum,” notes Glickman. “My kids’ [Jewish] school [in Budapest] had a lovely project on the theme of memory and commemoration, and they put together a show with klezmer music, which was very moving. We had the show here at the center, too, and they took it to all sorts of towns around Hungary, and to Slovakia.”
Rona adds, “The state also encourages schools to take children to the Holocaust museum and all sorts of activities outside the school.”
The center, naturally, features strongly in such extramural school events, and groups of students come to the ICI on a regular basis. All told, the center attracts around 4,000 visitors a year, who enjoy a guided tour of the place that includes a visit to the Herzl Center – which opened in December 2013 with the support of the Budapest Municipality. It was modeled on the Herzl Museum in Jerusalem and celebrates the life and Zionistic pioneering endeavor of Theodor Herzl, who was born in Budapest in 1860.
Glickman has been at the ICI since its inception, and says that was the result of a serendipitous event.
“One day, my husband ran into the man who was responsible for conceiving of the idea of the center, Jewish Agency shaliah [emissary] Eran Elbar,” she recalls. “At the time, the Jewish Agency was thinking of shutting down all its operations in Eastern Europe due to budget difficulties, but Eran persuaded them to open the ICI.”
It took a while to get the wherewithal together, but when that eventually happened, Elbar was able to ask Glickman to initially teach Hebrew at the new institute, following that fortuitous confluence with Glickman’s husband.
In addition to getting the Israeli word out there to Hungarians in general, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, the ICI also invests great effort in keeping local Jewish youngsters on board. Despite having a sizable Jewish community – at 100,000, it is Europe’s fourth-largest – Hungarian Jewish leaders face a constant struggle to prevent the younger generation from slipping off the religious-cultural radar.
“The idea of the ICI was to present Israeli culture to the public as a whole,” explains Glickman. “Israeli embassies have cultural attachés, but what they can do is naturally more limited compared with what a cultural center can do. The other objective was to access the younger generation of the Jewish community, and to connect them with their Jewish identity through Israeli culture.”
Glickman says there is a void which needs to be addressed.
“Here, young Jews discover their Jewish identity at a relatively late age, around bar or bat mitzva. Hungarian Jews have always had a tendency to integrate with the local surroundings.”
Glickman notes that the situation was further exacerbated by the fact that Holocaust survivors who stayed in Hungary tended to keep their painful past under wraps. Communist constraints didn’t help either. “So you have the members of the Holocaust generation who repress their past, and the next generation who grew up at a time when it was impossible to openly live a religious lifestyle.”
“Hungary has always been assimilationist,” notes Rona. “My great-grandmother didn’t speak Yiddish, although her parents only spoke Yiddish at home.
She was born at the end of the 19th century; she came from somewhere in Slovakia, and my family has been Hungarian for three or four generations. The side of the family that survived the Shoah were all Hungarian speakers.”
Rona says he feels very Jewish and that he grew up in a strongly Jewish environment, Communist regime notwithstanding. “I graduated from high school in 1989, just when political transition was taking place, but as a kid I remember we went to the theological institute every Friday night.”
Glickman says that Rona’s background is not typical of the Hungarian Jewish community. “Most young Jews discover their religious-cultural roots, say, when their grandmother dies and then they find out she was a Holocaust survivor. They wouldn’t have known about that, because no one talked about it at home and they grew up in an entirely Hungarian environment.”
Rona can identify with that. “I had three grandparents who survived the concentration camps and they didn’t talk about it; they cut their [tattooed] numbers out.”
Part of the ICI’s purview is to redress that religious- cultural identity shortfall, which takes place in a variety of ways. “It is too big a step for a young Hungarian Jew to suddenly start going to synagogue,” says Glickman. “What we do is send them for a visit to Israel with Taglit-Birthright; they spend nine wonderful days in Israel.”
What then? This conundrum supplied part of the motivation to establish the ICI. “Eran [Elbar] said: ‘I arranged all sorts of projects and programs; let’s set up a cultural center to maintain the Israeli-Jewish connection.’ Eran did a great job.”
Today, participation in an ICI trip to Israel incorporates four mandatory pre-Taglit sessions at which the youngsters receive basic information about Judaism and Israel, and are prepared emotionally for a visit over here. They also get a basic handle on Israeli politics, attend Kabbalat Shabbat services and experience other religious rituals, and are taken on a guided tour of the former Jewish quarter of Budapest. The ICI also attempts to keep the post-Taglit level of enthusiasm bubbling healthily, by offering trip alumni Hebrew courses and two-year MiNYanim study programs, during which participants also engage in their local community.
The ICI also supports participation in the Jewish Agency’s post-Taglit Onward Israel program, with young Jews spending six to 10 weeks in Israel as interns at various organizations, and in the longer Masa Israel program. And those are just some of the Israel-oriented services on offer.
Glickman says she and her colleagues at the ICI are just as keen to keep Jewish culture at the forefront of the Hungarian mind-set. The creation of the institute’s Herzl Center certainly does it bit in that regard.
“Thanks to [Israeli] Ambassador [Ilan Mor] and others in the local community, learning about Herzl has become part of the state school curriculum. We are going to prepare material for teachers who teach classes about Herzl and, of course, the students will come to the Herzl Center, too. It is a good way to connect Hungarians with Herzl’s legacy.”
And, if one is feeling a bit peckish after taking in all the ICI’s multifarious cultural and educational offerings, it is advised to pop by the suitably titled Café Kishon in the building. For some reason – satirical or otherwise – hummus often tastes better abroad.
For more information about the Israeli Cultural Institute: