Natalie ~ *In the spirit of Shabbat, this blog will not be written from sundown, Friday evening, until I collapsed and fell asleep Saturday evening.*
We spent our second Shabbat in the beautiful city of Budapest, where our hotel was located only a few blocks away from the Great Synagogue where we would be celebrating Kabbalat Shabbat. Services began at six, which greatly surprised the majority of us, because for us wandering Americans, services at six is very very early. But we went along with it. We got dressed and ready to go to the most elaborately designed synagogue I have ever seen in my entire life, and what I’ve noticed throughout Romania, Ukraine and Hungary is that all the synagogues here are much more beautifully built than most of the synagogues back home in Maryland. I’m not saying that our synagogues are not beautiful, but architecturally speaking, Eastern European synagogues are much more interesting. All of the synagogues we’ve visited had high ceilings in the shape of a dome. Painted on the ceilings are elaborate designs that incorporate the star of David and other designs which are impossible to explain in words, but are so complex and amazing that they inspire me to draw my own designs in my sketchbook. I’m always very impressed by the artists who can lie on their backs and paint on the ceilings and I know for a fact that not only does it take a ridiculously long time to create these marvelous patterns but it is also life threatening too. What also amazes me about these paintings on the ceilings and walls is that the artist manages to make each pattern exactly alike and the proportions are so perfect. The designs are not so overwhelming, but they manage to capture your attention in a mind-blowing manner. And now I’ve ranted art for a good half a paragraph. Some things just don’t change.
Because our group has a little bit of time-management issues (we’re working on it, and we’re getting better) we were not there for all of Kabbalat Shabbat. In fact we were probably sitting in shul for only fifteen minutes, we were that late. We had been dilly-dallying while taking pictures because we all looked so dashing in our Shabbat clothes and some of us got lost on the way to the synagogue. Our group was not particularly bothered by our tardiness, because in all fairness, praying at six is extremely early for us and Shabbat didn’t even really start until two hours later. Praying in the Great Synagogue is quite an experience, not only because you are sitting in the most famous synagogue in Europe, but also because of the sound of an organ and an all male choir that sings along with the chazzan. I was not entirely sure what to expect when I was told the the community prays with an organ, but then I sat down in the pews and realized that praying with an organ is exactly like it sounds like: it sounds like an organ. As strange as it was for us Americans to be praying with an organ, the Hungarian Jews did not seem to mind it; it was completely normal in their community.
It seemed just like we sat down we had to stand up again, because within fifteen minutes of praying, we were finished. The girls walked onto the beema and through a “hidden” doorway and all of a sudden we were behind the synagogue, going through several doors until we were outside. Kitty, the rabbi’s daughter, guided us to a separate building where tables were set up for dinner. After washing up, we all sat down and ate a delicious meal prepared by the Rabbi’s wife. We ate a fantastic meal and benched really heartily which seemed to surprise all the Hungarians in the room. The Rabbi’s son in particular was very impressed with our benching and tried to join in on our loud praying. It was most enjoyable. Friday night was finished with a lovely walk back to our hotel.
Saturday morning we awoke and ran downstairs dressed properly for synagogue before nine o’clock in the morning because we had to meet the new American Szarvas recruits who were just about to start their two weeks at Szarvas. Our group walked to a synagogue twenty minutes away, but the walk was worth it because the synagogue was yet again another architecturally beautiful building. Although I don’t remember a lot of the service because Sydney, Romi and I fell asleep… a few times, but we always woke up at the proper moments and never really slept through anything. A kid from the Szarvas group read Haftarah which greatly surprised me. It made me happy to know that an American camper volunteered to read Haftarah. After services, we went upstairs for kiddush even though we were not eating lunch at the synagogue.
We ate lunch at a kosher restaurant back in the Great Synagogue’s neighborhood. The food was delicious, as most of our meals in Hungary were. This kosher restaurant in particular was open on Shabbat but the customers would pay for their meal before Shabbat started. I asked the Rabbi later, and it turns out that the waiters and the chefs were not Jewish because they were working on Shabbat. Lunch was a good two hours and after benching we were made a visit from a local Rebbitsen. It was strange that the Rebbitsen gave us a speech instead of the Rabbi and we got a glimpse at the woman behind the curtain. A lot of people don’t know that the Rebbitsen has a lot of responsibility and plays a major part in helping the Rabbi with everything he needs. I think Aviva shows a great example of that. She gave a D’var Torah about the importance of returning to Israel, which happened to be a common theme on our trip. It also fit the mood since we were flying to Israel Sunday night.
After lunch we ran back to the hotel in order to take a Shabbos nap which was very much needed. I fell right asleep. Two hours later, I awoke to the sound of Adam slamming on our bedroom door telling us that we had to leave in five minutes. My roommates and I hastily got dressed and rushed down three flights of stairs to meet up with the rest of our group.
Rather than have Havdallah at a synagogue, we decided to go take a walk around Pest. We learned in the beginning of our stay in Pest that this side of the city was meant to look like a mix of Paris and Vienna. Whoever was the architect for this city got it right. This city has swept me off it’s feet with it’s architecture. All the buildings are built so intricately and craftily. I decided to walk around the city with my head up looking at the top of the buildings rather than at the ground. There was definitely a hazard of walking into a pole but I decided to take that chance and it was definitely well worth the risk. Every building you look at has its own story. And even if you don’t know it’s own historical story, you can only imagine the kinds of stories that happen inside the buildings or out on the streets.
On our way to Havdallah, we stopped outside a very plain building. At first I was skeptical about going inside, it wasn’t a very striking building and in fact it looked more like a garage than any kind of beautiful building. I was hoping we weren’t going to stay there for long because I wanted to see more of the amazing city. We walked through the main door and it opened to a courtyard. This is a very common design in Europe, the main entrance opening into a large courtyard. I normally am fascinated by this design, but in this building, because the outside was so plain and boring, I wasn’t very moved by the inside. The courtyard looked like any other courtyard, but with a lot of overgrown trees. Esther, our tour guide who had been with us for several days showing off the beauty of the city, took us to a fairly small room. That was when I learned we were in the Glass House. The Glass House is now a museum, but during the Holocaust it was used as a safe haven for Jews. Carl Lutz was a government worker from Switzerland who just happened to be working in Budapest, Hungary when the war broke out. He was not Jewish, but he saw many Jews disappear from their homes and taken to be slaughtered. He then had the idea to save Jews by giving them papers in order for them to leave the country. The Jews would then stay inside the house before leaving, or even just to stay while they waited out the war, and they would be safe. Nobody told him to help the Jews, he just wanted to save as many people as possible. He did a selfless act and saved many people. Our group took our chairs out to the courtyard and we sat in a circle and ate snacks. Rabbi Tessler led a random conversation that started with the question “Would we be allowed to take our chairs out into the courtyard and sit under the sky?” Normally, we would not be able to because Budapest does not have an eruv but because the courtyard was surrounded by four walls, we were allowed and did not break Shabbat. Rabbi Tessler then took the time to answer any Shabbat related questions (including my restaurant question) and even told us several funny anecdotes. As the sun began to set, we learned a little more about antisemitism in Hungary. Antisemitism is not illegal in Hungary and they also do not recognize that the Hungarians played a major role in the deportation of Hungarian Jews. Did you know that there is a Neo-Nazi party in the Hungarian parliament that gains 18% of the vote? Apparently the vice president of the party recently found out that his grandmother was Jewish, meaning that he is also Jewish. This man then went to a very famous Rabbi and asked him to teach him what it meant to be Jewish. He tried to apologize for his deeds, but a few Hungarians don’t believe him. Would you believe a man who one day despised the Jews and then the very next day wanted to understand the meaning behind Judaism?
The Glass House was a great example of how you can’t judge a book by it’s cover and it also proves that each building in Budapest has an interesting story. I must admit, when I left the Glass House I felt guilty about thinking that the plain, boring building would be uninteresting and not have a good story. But when we walked through the door, I discovered an incredible hidden story. Now that I think back, I realize that what SOS is doing is uncovering these hidden stories in every person we visit, or every grave we clean off. Everybody has their own personal story and after we die, it is up to the next generation to discover it and pass it on to to the following generation.
We continued our walk and passed many magnificent buildings, including the biggest bank in Budapest. The bank looked like a gold carving and on the outside there were sculptures of the different types of trade. There was also a museum inside the bank, but we were unable to go inside. Again, the architecture… it just makes me swoon. *Sigh* We also passed the incredible Parliament building which looked even more majestic in person. We ended our tour on the waterfront where there was a memorial for the people who died during the Holocaust. On the sidewalk next to the waterfront there are a bunch of metal shoes. During the Holocaust, Hungarian soldiers who allied with the Nazis rounded up Jews and made them take off their shoes and stand in a line, facing the river. The Hungarian soldiers shot them one by one and they fell into the river. The metal shoes symbolize the shoes that the Jews took off before they were killed. We said Havdallah in front of the shoes and said Shavuah Tov to everybody in our group. It is truly remarkable that our SOS group is able to stand in front of the metal shoes and prove that the Jews were not destroyed.
Our night in Budapest ended with a boat ride on the Danube River that divides Buda and Pest. Our lovely travel agent, Tibor, rented out a boat for all of us to enjoy. We sat in a circle and watched the Budapest skyline pass before us. Ben described the city as a kind of Disney World. We all went around the circle and stated the highlight of our trip so far. Reminiscing about the trip made me excited about our time in Israel.
As I reflect back on our last night in Budapest I would just like to bring up the concept of not judging a book by its cover. For example, when I first saw the Glass House I was not impressed at all. I didn’t want to go inside because I wasn’t expecting it to be so interesting. But behind those ordinary looking walls, incredible actions took place during the Holocaust. Lives were saved and you would never have even guessed that such a boring building had such amazing history. Another example is related to Israel. A lot of people don’t want to go to Israel because they only hear about the terrorist attacks and they don’t see the beautiful part of the country. And it’s only when you come to Israel that you realize that it is such an incredible place and only now do I understand why a lot of people make aliyah to the country. Budapest has taught me a lot not only about my personal choices, but it has also made me understand a lot about other people and their stories. I look forward to revisiting Budapest sometime soon.