Sometimes life truly surprises you. Having left Romania (see posts), I decided I needed somewhere nearby, more gay-friendly and with more *living* Jews. So I headed to Hungary, another one of my ancestral homelands.
I am a quarter Hungarian. My great-grandparents were from Pacza, which today is either Pacsa, Tornyospálca, or the (formerly Hungarian) Slovakian village Pača. I’m still doing extensive research- finding Jewish genealogy here is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. Due to both the time passed (130 years) and the killer job Nazis did in burning our archives, it can be quite hard. An entire continent uprooted us over ages, so it’s hard to feel rooted here, even as we’re the oldest religion on the continent and our empty houses of worship dot the landscape. Sometimes turned into trendy cafes or Italian restaurants, without so much as a word of our consent.
Budapest is an interesting place. Gorgeous scenery, grand buildings, and a surprising calm for a city of its size. The screaming and chaos of Tel Aviv this is not. Cute cafes (including one that has cats in it!), affordable prices, and phenomenal safety make it a good place to spend a few days. Not to mention Hungary’s 1700-year-old Jewish community that I’m a part of. Before the frickin Huns even arrived.
As a Jew, some things stood out to me. First off, there are actual Jews here. Most parts of Romania I visited had almost no Jews left, or a very old (as in gray hair) community. In a place that was once home to over 700,000 Jews, dating back to Roman times.
Secondly, the people here are really…brusque. Maybe that’s not the word- I’ll be blunt: they’re assholes. No, not everyone. But most people. There is a deep politeness to Hungarian society. At first, this was refreshing, having experienced so much rudeness in Tel Aviv. But you soon start to see that it’s a big facade. People here have literally thrown my change at me in stores, they stare a lot (until I stare back), a woman I was paying for genealogical research berated me for taking water from a water cooler. In the office I was paying her to sit in. To quote: “in our country, you ask for water first.” Message understood.
While this brusqueness is pretty much thrown at everyone (especially if you’re a foreigner), it has at times manifested itself towards me as a Jew.
I visited a beautiful library the other day. It was so peaceful- quiet, relaxing, a great place to think and reflect. The architecture here is marvelous and the tranquility truly, aggressively silent. There is no neighbor blaring Beyonce at 3am on a Wednesday. Yes, that has happened to me in Israel.
It’s in fact a branch of the Hungarian National Library. Hoping to find some books to relax (I love books!), I went exploring. I found most books were in Magyar, the local language. But some were in French, German, Romanian, English, and other languages. I even found a small book on Judaism.
I approached a young man working behind the information desk.
In my best American-polite voice, I asked: “excuse me, sir, do you have any books in Yiddish? Or on Hungarian Jews?”
His answer: “this is the Hungarian National Library. We only have books about Hungarians. In Hungarian. You can try one of these other libraries to try to find what you’re looking for.”
As he handed me a scrap of paper.
This is Hungary. A place so reminiscent of the nationalism that plagues the Middle East, it might as well live there.
The fact that the city he lives in was a quarter Jewish just 70 years ago didn’t seem to factor into his commentary. Or maybe it did. After all, the Jewish quarter today is a bunch of bars and hipster cafes. This kind of appropriation and abuse happens a lot with nationalism- it’s just that in America, you don’t often *see* the Native American ruins turned into a nightclub. Perhaps it would sensitize Americans to how they achieved their great wealth. Or perhaps they’d end up bland and desensitized like far too many Hungarians. Despite having nearly cleared their country of Jews (in collaboration with Nazis), an astonishing 41% of the country is anti-Semitic. The highest number in all of Eastern Europe. A region famed for hating me.
The other day I heard an American voice. A woman was taking a picture of a synagogue, I thought she might be Jewish. “It’s beautiful,” I said. She said back: “indeed! Where are you from?” I said: “I’m originally from Washington, D.C., and going back 130 years I’m Hungarian.”
She laughed: “well yeah, if that’s how we’re counting, I’d be speaking Irish right now.” Chuckle, chuckle. Completely unaware that maybe one of my ancestors worshiped in this synagogue.
I said: “my ancestors were kicked out of this country for being Jews.”
A dead silence. “Oh, ok.” She then stepped inside, maybe 10% embarrassed, 90% too focused on the lens on her camera. Never to be seen again.
Feeling decidedly unconnected to most locals, I used the Couch Surfing app to find some internationals to hang with.
I’m really here to get away from the Middle East for now- to get some space. But to my surprise, I found a young Jordanian woman (let’s call her Amira for privacy’s sake). Who wanted to go to a gay bar!
Thank God, I really wanted to see some cute guys and connect to that other community I’m a part of- the fun one 🙂 .
A little nervous that politics might come up (it says that I’m Israeli on the app), I didn’t know what to expect.
But instead of a long drawn out conversation about the region’s ongoing PTSD, we ended up sitting down with two queer Macedonian girls. And dancing with some British people. And giggling. And singing. And frankly having a fantastic time. It gave me a little hope that especially when we’re away from the mess, we can have a little more fun.
I met a few nice Americans here as well. It was kind of refreshing to speak English and to share the same culture. I can’t pretend Israeli culture hasn’t impacted my life- it has. In a lot of ways, traumatically. In some ways, kind of cool. At heart, I’m still pretty American- more than you might expect. And it was nice sharing that with people on kind of a neat neutral ground here somewhere in between corn bread and challah.
Friday night I went to Reform services. I do not believe in God. It’s something I’ve fully realized lately, and my experiences in Israel have convinced me of. But I really miss community. And when you’re traveling, Jews are better than anyone else at being nomads. We’ve been doing it for 2,000 years. And we find each other everywhere 🙂 .
I went to the services and found myself liking some of the same melodies (for those who don’t know, I’m really, really Jewish- I’ve led Reform services in varying locations since I was 14). I especially love the old tunes- the ones from this part of the world.
And I found myself unable to mouth the word “God”. I found some of the words I could kind of reinterpret or recreate with my meaning. But the God piece- it really angered me. I don’t believe in God- and the concept makes me furious. I feel it’s an abusive one- not that all people who believe in it are abusive, but the idea of an invisible being telling us what to do- often to the detriment of our self-worth- really irritates me. Especially when you see that conflict up close literally killing people.
I excused myself for the latter half of the service and came back for the meal.
The meal was great- a potluck, with some Hungarian surprises. Hungarians love paprika. I don’t know why, but they do. And to be honest, it was found in nearly every dish I ate as a child. So I guess my family brought it with us across the ocean.
The rabbi taught me all about Hungarian Jewish food. And her congregant told me all about Hungarian Jews. Apparently 19 out of 20 Nobel Prize-winning Hungarians were Jewish. No wonder so many of them can’t stand us 😛 .
The rabbi has a fascinating story. Her parents hid in the forests near Budapest during the Holocaust. While her grandfather was deported to Buchenwald, her parents buried a suitcase under a tree each night. And pretended to go to work each day. Sleeping in the dirt under the moonlight. Until the war ended. And 565,000 out of 800,000 Hungarian Jews were evaporated. An entire civilization, a race, loving parents with their little children- burnt to a crisp. To supply a bunch of Germans with BMW’s. And to satisfy Hungarian blood lust with the active participation of their fascist government.
What was so astonishing was how normal the rabbi was. How kind, how gentle, how welcoming. How easy it was to talk with her about one of the hardest things to talk about.
A deep note to my Israeli friends- losing loved ones in the Holocaust is not an excuse to be abusive yourself. Not to other peoples or to other people. This rabbi proves that. If anything, it is a reason to work extra hard not to be that way. This is an incredibly difficult hurdle- as someone who has been abused for decades myself, I know that. And in the end, we’re responsible for our behavior, even as we know what has caused it. And we can choose to pass that abuse on or to break the chain and strive to treat others better than we were treated. Stop weaponizing the Holocaust to excuse bad behavior and instead, let’s heal. Evidently, without the help of many countries that caused our pain.
In the end, while I don’t believe in God, I loved the Shabbat dinner. Not for religious reasons, but for culture. For history. For conversation. Yes, for continuity and change. A Reform service- a tradition deeply rooted in Central Europe. Where Neolog synagogues still stand. And where, despite the best efforts of more than a few miserable neighbors, we still exist. We are here. I think I’ll keep seeking out, maybe creating, Jewish culture because I like some of it. It’s mine, and I’m proud of our survival and our thriving in the midst of sometimes unbelievable pressure. Perhaps something we share in common.
For ages upon ages, Christian Europeans denied us the right to own land. To practice everyday professions. Forced into banking and jobs that goyim didn’t want. So more people would hate us than the actual governments oppressing them. To then pay taxes to go to church and learn why we’re awful- and burn us on Christmas Eve as tradition. No Christmas tree for me, I think.
Jews were stereotyped as “rootless”- a people wandering miserably, punished for killing Jesus. When in reality, it was Christians themselves who regularly uprooted us. Stealing our homes, killing us, even enslaving us at times. Which is how a bunch of people with Mediterranean features and DNA ended up in bitter-cold Poland instead of on a beach on the Dead Sea.
We’re not rootless. We are from here- me too. My tradition, my very blood is Middle Eastern, it has stained the soil of Hungary, and I am no guest. Do not throw plastic bags at me in your grocery stores or tell me your libraries are “just for Hungarians”. And stop complaining about how hard it is for you. Communism sucked, you’ve been through a lot. The economy isn’t great. But I’ve literally met Darfur genocide survivors more cheerful than you. Have a little perspective. At least you’re here to complain unlike the rabbi’s grandfather. Turned to dust.
Now a word to my Palestinian friends. Through a mutual friend, I had been dialoguing some with a Palestinian woman from Hebron online. One of the most violent and chaotic focal points where Israeli extremism and Islamic fanaticism meet in utter despair. Where settlers bemoan the existence of Arabs- and sometimes physically attack them. And not a small number of practically caged-in Palestinians throw bombs, stab babies, and shoot Jewish civilians. If you want to really feel bad about humanity, this is a good place to take a peek at the darkness.
This woman, let’s call her Fatima, is religious. I tried dialoguing and it went well for a while until she starting erupting at me- kind of out of nowhere. Having seen some of the conditions in the West Bank, I displayed a lot of empathy. Including sharing about the documentation I’ve done about Palestinian villages destroyed in Israel. My empathy was several times thrown viciously back in my face. Which really hurt. Sometimes she managed to listen and acknowledge.
Fatima shared she was excited to go to Austria to teach Palestinian culture. I told her my family was Austrian- in fact, all of Hungary once was. And she said “oh, that’s random, you’re American and Israeli though.” And I said: “yes, they were kicked out for being Jews- and the ones who remained were mostly massacred in the Holocaust.”
She said: “I hate Hitler and all his ilk.” The “ilk” part floating softly in the air, its full meaning to this day not entirely clear to me. Did she mean me? Did she mean Israel?
Despite a lot of hateful rhetoric she spewed at me without even knowing me- despite me frankly trying to be an ally for a better future for her and her people in ways that gets me into trouble with a lot of Jews. I told her this: “if you really want to understand why Jews feel we need a state, ask the Austrians what happened to the Jews there. Why there are barely any Austrian Jews left. You might not want to learn Jewish history now- that’s OK, maybe you’re not ready. But you won’t understand a thing about us if you don’t understand why we left the wealthiest continent on the globe to colonize a conflict-ridden strip of desert.”
To the Palestinians desperate for support and solidarity- you deserve humanity and you deserve a better life. In peace. And watch out who you ally yourselves with. Just as I bemoan Bibi becoming friends with anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim nationalists in Europe (that’s a thing), I encourage Palestinians to think twice before cheering our former oppressors. In some cases, our current ones. You may think they’re coming to show you solidarity- some of they may be. And some might be coming to help you just because they hate us. And if you’re really smart, you’ll realize they helped create the very conflict you live in. By smashing us for generations and by colonizing you too. Not a small number of them and their families and friends are just as happy to hate Muslims in Europe as they are to see you and I go head to head to realize their anti-Semitic blood fantasies. Even if you think they’re on “your team.” Every time you bring your case against Israel to the E.U., even if you don’t mean to, you’re revitalizing our trauma. I don’t have a lot of great alternatives, but you might want to think about how you do what you do if you’re really serious about successfully solving things.
I don’t believe in God, I believe in accountability. Not theoretical after-death accountability from above. Accountability in the here and now. That we must take into our hands if it is to happen at all.
As a survivor of abuse, I often wondered to what degree that abuse- widespread in my family across generations- was caused by anti-Semites. Every individual is responsible for his behavior- and that includes my family members. No amount of systemic or individual oppression justifies heaping that hurt on someone else. Over and over. And that’s why I have worked so amazingly hard to be a better person than the people who abused me. And why I’ve cut toxic people out of my life, at great cost that has brought me impressive progress.
I do notice a lot of abuse in Jewish families. And I wonder to what degree this pattern, if it is one, is tied to our less-than-generous neighbors who belittled us and uprooted us for generations. It has to have had an effect. I wonder if similar toxins have infected African American and Native American communities for the same reasons. I’m not sure, but I’ve heard some arguments that it has.
I have skin in the game. I want to know why I had to suffer for so long- with so many horrendous consequences for my health and well-being. And while I can hold my family and my fellow Jews accountable (especially Israelis, whose society has turned a lot of abusive behavior into social norms- a scary development), I want to know why so many bigots here in Europe demeaned us. And I want to call them to account.
I’m grateful for the brave non-Jews here who are allies to us and other minorities. And I ask you to realize just how bad it can be here. That it is still one of the most anti-Semitic regions of the world despite being practically Judenrein. That large percentages of almost every country hate Gypsies, gay people, and increasingly Syrian refugees. A problem admittedly complex (a number of them have perpetrated violent anti-Semitic attacks), but hardly one that justifies hatred and racism towards suffering people.
While taking a break tonight from genealogical research and writing this blog, I stepped outside for some food.
I found myself in front of a kebab store. With the famous spinning shwarma machine. Just the kind of culture I was trying to get some space from, to rest.
I found myself walking and re-walking the block debating whether to buy it.
And feeling so angry at Hungarians (the only other options around) and really hungry, I went in.
Turns out, the owner is a Syrian refugee. And I told him I’m American and Israeli and we had an awesome conversation. He told me my Arabic is as sweet as baklava.
As I bid him a warm goodbye, I couldn’t help but think to myself that the best people I’ve met on this trip are not Romanians and they’re not Hungarians. Even though I am “from” these places- and they do have some fun stuff to offer in addition to the hardships.
The people who made me smile the most were a queer Jordanian girl who had never been to a gay club and a Syrian refugee.
Dear Europe- you may have gotten rid of us Jews. But like a racist Israeli cab driver once told me: “you killed 6 million Jews and got 50 million Muslims.”
To which I say: “if you won’t show us the kindness we deserve, then I will help every refugee I can. Because you uprooted us- but you will not uproot them. My pain- the way I see life- my job is to turn it into honey. Or at least not bitterness and bile. So if it helps a Syrian refugee feel a little happier to chat, I’ll do it. And I support their right to a safe life. If it causes you a little pain to live with the ‘other’, then I’ll be blunt with you: you’ve earned it. Grow up. The grand Hungarian Empire is never coming back. And it’s your turn to show a little kindness where you showed indifference towards my family. An indifference I feel I continue to pay for to this day.”
You kicked me out 130 years ago. I’m the first of my bloodline back. With an American and Israeli passport- something you could envy. You can choose to live in misery wailing about the communism that was, quivering about “Muslim invasions” that do not exist outside of your TV screen. There hasn’t been a Turkish soldier here since the 1600s. Or you can do something Jews have had to do for a long time in the shadow of your pitchfork: adapt. If you don’t want to change, at least give me mine with a smile.
p.s.- the picture is of the Great Neolog Synagogue on Dohany Street. If there’s one reason to come to Hungary besides great affordable food- it’s this.