Today I head out to explore my neighborhood. The apartment I’m renting is about two blocks from the Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe, and the second largest in the world (Temple Emmanuel in New York is the largest). While I stopped by the Dohány Street Synagogue when I first arrived, it was just about to close, and then Angela Merkel came to town and messed up my visit the next day so today, I’m a committed Jew hoping to, not only see and understand the Synagogue, but much of the Jewish Quarter.
I approach the sales booth in front of the synagogue and purchase a ticket for the Jewish Quarter Walking tour which includes a tour of important locations in the Jewish Quarter, as well as the Dohány Street Synagogue, and admission to the rest of the synagogue complex
I shove down a kebab while waiting on the park bench in front of the Synagogue for the tour to begin. While waiting, I meet two young, blond, English girls who have also bought tickets for the tour. After about ten minutes, our guide Ruben, from Brooklyn, introduces himself and we begin our walk. Ruben tells us that, with 100,000 Jews, Hungary has the fourth largest Jewish population in Europe. Of these, 80,000 Jews live in Budapest with another 20,000 scattered throughout the rest of the country. The Jewish community was always a big part of Hungary as, prior to World War II, a million Jews lived here. Ruben points out some of his favorite Jewish-Hungarian restaurants before leading us into the Rumbach Street Synagogue.
Built in 1872, the Rumbach Street Synagogue is a Moorish Revival style which incorporates Asian and Islamic influences. The synagogue hasn’t been functional since 1945, after it was damaged at the end of World War II. In fact, that’s true of many places in Budapest. Many buildings or areas in the city, which were damaged during World War II weren’t repaired or rebuilt as the Soviets took over following World War II. Funding for building wasn’t a priority. The great news is that the Rumbach Street Synagogue is now being renovated and is scheduled to reopen in about two years.
As we pass in front of one building, Ruben points out two bronze plaques in the ground. These can be found in front of various buildings in the Jewish Quarter. The names inscribed are of those killed during the Holocaust and the buildings they stand in front of are their last known addresses.
While strolling through the streets we meet the local Rabbi and his son and later, his wife. Ruben mentions that they have six kids with another on the way. We also pass Szexturakáló or, the sex shop. As Ruben points out, “We Jews like sex too.”
We stop at the Carl Lutz memorial. A sculpture honoring the man, a diplomat, who saved tens of thousands of lives during World War II by issuing protective documents for Jews as well as declaring seventy-two houses as diplomatic properties of other nations in order to prevent officials from going in and removing and killing the people who were inside. It’s estimated that, in total, Carl Lutz saved 62,000 people. He has been recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem institute in Jerusalem.
We continue back to the Dohány Street Synagogue where Ruben instructs us to go inside where the tour will be continued by a colleague. We head inside where we’re joined by about ten other people and a new guide, who instructs us to take a seat. While just as beautiful, it looks a bit different than when I stopped by the other day. Apparently, it was a bit more lit up then as they were preparing for Angela Merkel’s visit. Sort of when a woman dresses for work versus when she dresses for an evening out. Apparently the synagogue put on its fancy lingerie for Merkel’s visit.
The Dohány Street Synagogue opened on September 6, 1859 and holds 3,000 people. It’s an incredible structure that remains in use today though, as it isn’t heated, services are only held here during the warmer months. There are some unique elements that aren’t found in most synagogues. These include pulpits along the sides, a long aisle with arches leading up to the front and an organ. These are said to honor traditional cathedrals.
After learning more about the synagogue and the Budapest Jewish population, our guide bids farewell and turns us loose to enjoy the rest of the synagogue complex. Myself and the two blonds head out towards the courtyard which holds the graveyard. While it isn’t customary to have a cemetery next to a synagogue, the establishment of the cemetery was the result of historical circumstances. In 1944, as a part of the “Eichmann-plan,” 70,000 Jews were relocated to these few blocks which became the Jewish Ghetto. On January 18, 1945, the Russians liberated the ghetto. By then 8,000-10,000 people had died from exposure, starvation, disease and murder. Some of the deceased were transferred to the Kozma Street Cemetery, but 2281 people were buried in mass graves (95 per grave) in the makeshift cemetery here in the courtyard. Tombstones with names of those identified surround the twenty-four mass graves. The blond girls choose to take photos of themselves in front of this area. I have no words.
Also in the courtyard is the Raul Wallenberg Memorial Park which honors the man who, like Carl Lutz, endangered his own life to save Jews during the Holocaust. In it, I find the Tree of Life sculpture, a weeping willow designed by Inre Varga. The names of the dead and missing are engraved on the leaves. Funding for this came from American actor Tony Curtis. Also in the Memorial Park is a memorial to the Righteous Among the Nations which honors Wallenberg, Lutz and other heroes.
Please note that I work hard describe the sights, sounds and smells of locations in order to help you feel as if you’re experiencing it with me. For this spot, no words or photos do it justice.
Lastly, I visit the Hungarian Jewish Museum. While not a large museum, it holds some beautiful, general historical objects organized by use – shofars which are blown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a Passover table, Chanukkah menorahs and dreidels, and Talleisim (prayer shawls). It shows that European Jewish history is so much more than the Holocaust.
I walk the two blocks back to my apartment, change my clothes and head out again. I’ve found a yoga class I want to try as I haven’t been to one since Berlin. Having practiced yoga for about fourteen-years, this is one activity which makes me feel at home wherever I am. Budapest seems to offer quite a few yoga classes and I’ve chosen one that’s about a half-mile from where I’m staying and says it’s based on traditional yoga with some modern rehabilitation techniques mixed in.
I enter a second-floor room, actually two rooms, which are warm and dimly lit. I pay my minimal fee Ft900 (about $3.32) and am invited to enter and grab a cup of tea. I take a seat on a mat and, after a few minutes the instructor gathers everyone and speaks for five minutes in Hungarian. I have no idea what is said, but it’s yoga and my Hungarian is about as good as my Sanskrit, so I’ll wing it.
Before long, we’re standing, breathing deeply and making a lot of noise doing it. We lift our arms and swivel our hips; we lean to the side and swivel our hips; we rub our hands together and swivel our hips, all the time breathing loudly. This is like no yoga I’ve done before and, after seventy-five minutes, I’m left feeling like I got my $3.32 worth, and not much more. This was just not the yoga class for me.
After class, we’re again offered tea. I leave the warmth of the yoga studio and head home for a glass of wine, which is more relaxing and fulfilling than the yoga class.
Tomorrow, a visit to Parliament and worshiping “The Hand.”
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