Rachel Bergstein – Jewish History

Day 6

On Saturday morning, I went to the Dohany Synagogue for services.  We had toured the synagogue earlier in the week, but this was my first experience at a Jewish prayer service in Budapest.  The Dohany Synagogue follows the Neolog tradition of Judaism which is similar to the Positive-Historical school that developed in Germany in the mid-19th century (shout-out to my Modern Jewish History students who just studied this!) and to early American Conservative Judaism.  The shul uses a traditional Ashkenazi liturgy and is completely non-egalitarian.  Men and women sit separately, although there is no mechitza separating them.  The beginning of shacharit was dramatically marked by an organ melody that filled the room, and most of the parts of the service that the congregation answers the cantor were sung by a male choir.  Ashrei and Ein Keloheinu were two particularly lovely and signature cantorial duets accompanied by the organ.  The effect was a solemn and dramatic performance, but it didn’t stop the congregants from chatting and socializing throughout.  The whole service with a traditional liturgy and a full torah reading AND the cantorial pieces lasted less than two hours, shocking to my American sensibilities.

Later that day, we toured the Jewish quarter with its mix of active-use synagogues, kosher restaurants, and mikvah, and old synagogues and Jewish institutions that are currently empty and looking for repurposing.  In reality, this isn’t much different from the experience of driving around DC, but most people don’t think of their own communities in this way.  We also learned of the internal tensions between the Neolog communities and Chabad, as well as tensions between the Jewish community’s and the government’s ways of commemorating the Holocaust and Communism.  We ended our tour at the Shoe Memorial which commemorates the murder of 3500 Hungarians, many of them Jews, when the Arrow Cross shot them into the Danube River in 1944-45.  The memorial includes sixty pairs of period shoes which represent the different types of people who were killed there.

It’s been such an amazing week of teaching, learning, and living here in Budapest.  I can’t wait to return next year.

Day 5

Today was our last day teaching at Lauder, and I had a great class of 10th graders, who are the equivalent age of American 11th graders.  I began with my introduction to modern Jewish history and specifically, American Jewish history.  Because I had a double period with the same class, I had a chance to go into more depth with them.  I showed them the image of a 1909 Rosh Hashana greeting card that was published in the US by Russian Jewish immigrants and was sent back home to their families in the Old Country to wish them a Shana Tova, a Happy New Year.  The image allowed the students to see, think, and wonder about the experience of Jewish immigration to America, and allowed them to analyze the challenges and repercussions of that experience.  Later that day, a student approached me during lunch and told me how much she had enjoyed my class.  As a teacher, there is no greater compliment.

On Friday night, we went to the local Moishe House for Shabbat dinner.  Started ten years ago, Moishe Houses are groups of twenty-somethings who live together and host informal Jewish programming in their homes.  There are Moishe Houses all over the world, including in DC.  We heard from several Hungarian Jewish young adults about their backgrounds.  Many of them only found out that they were Jewish when they were teenagers.  For others, they always knew that they were Jewish, but they didn’t really know what that meant or what to do with that information.  They all spoke glowingly about Moishe House, how comfortable they are there, and why they keep coming back.  I can see why.  It was so much fun that I wish I could go back next week too.

Day 4

There are four Jewish schools in Budapest.  In addition to the Lauder school where we spent each morning, there is an Orthodox school, a Chabad school, and the Scheiber school.  On Thursday we had an opportunity to visit Scheiber and to teach a class there.

When we arrived in the afternoon, an administrator filled us in on the history of the school which has gone through several iterations throughout the last century.  Scheiber is smaller than Lauder, and it is a public school while Lauder is a private school.  I taught a class of twelfth graders who ranged in age from 18-20, much older than my American twelfth graders.  Similar to the students at Lauder, the Scheiber students assumed that my CESJDS students are not all Jewish.  The norms are so different for Jewish schools in the US versus Jewish schools in Europe!

I taught a lesson on Jewish immigration to America, and the students seemed interested and engaged in the material.  In teaching Jewish history, I always emphasize the interconnectedness of the Jewish experience and the narrative arc of global patterns of Jewish migration.  My Hungarian students seemed taken with this idea, as they had not much considered the international ethnic, religious, and cultural connections between Jews.

After a visit to the Jewish hospital and a tour of the Pest side of the city, we had dinner with Linda Vero who, along with her husband, leads a synagogue, a Jewish camp, and a Jewish youth group in Budapest.  Plus, she is a parent of a Lauder student.  We had a wonderfully rich and humorous conversation with her about growing up Jewish in Budapest, her work with Jewish youth, Hungarian Zionism, and Jewish education at Lauder.  Linda was warm and welcoming, encouraging our questions and answering quite frankly.  The conversation gave us a clear window into the excitement and the challenges of leading an actively Jewish life in Budapest today.

Day 3

Today I asked my class at Lauder Javne Iskola to write letters to my students at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.  Here is a selection from their letters:

“I am too an American Jew.  My father came to Hungary about 20 years ago and started a company….  There are many political reasons for why it would be much better to live in America (like racism, etc.), but this country tends to grow on you.

“Being a Jew in Hungary is definitely harder than it is in America.  If you’re gonna use public transportation, it is advised to hide your david star necklace or if you wear a kippah, put a hat on it.  I feel like the majority of non-Jews in Hungary are racist.  If you are orthodox and only buy groceries from the kosher store, it is even more difficult.  There are about 3-4 kosher stores in all of Hungary.”

“I think you should know about Hungary that this is a poor country filled with slightly depressed people.  Budapest is not quite modern city but we are trying to make it better….  In Hungary there’s some racist people who don’t know much about history so they hate the Jews.  But this is a very beautiful place….  You have to try Hungarian food, they are really delicious.”

“We should be writing about Jewish life here if we consider ourselves Jewish.  Well, I do…  It’s not the same though as in America, it’s pretty hard here, not a lot of people will accept you, we do have our problems, but it’s getting better.  Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t care about religion.  I have plenty of friends, but being Jewish isn’t such a common thing here…  We really do feel special.  🙂

“Hungary is a beautiful place though with beautiful buildings.  🙂  The best part is probably the long walks.  It’s fun being a teenager here, of course our school gives us a community that really can’t hurt us, you can really have fun!  You can get to know very awesome people and have a lot of fun.  This place is really worth to visit.  🙂

“I consider myself a jew, but not even close to the orthodox…  I wear my necklace, I have a big part of my family in Israel, family eats together during every Shabat, you know, like religious, but not brutally. It’s always fun to find out how other jewish kids live around the world. 🙂  I’d love to go to a school once, where everyone’s Jewish (don’t think I don’t love my school, it’s amazing, with amazing teachers and people) but it’s different.  :)”

“I’m not jewish and neither is anyone in my family yet I was very pleasantly accepted in this school.  I think that being jewish in Hungary is no different than being jewish in the states….  This school is amazing and it gives you many great opportunities.  And even though we have judaism, different breaks and programs in the school it isn’t very strict with being jewish.  My point being that it’s very liberal in every way.  Budapest is a gorgeous city that is very worth to see.”

Day 2

With each new class I teach in Budapest, I begin with an opening exercise where I ask each student to write down whatever comes to mind when I mention the following: America or Americans and then Jews in America.  Of their responses, some I had anticipated and some were surprising.

Among the more common answers for America: football (not soccer), baseball, films, McDonald’s, hamburgers, fat, ethnic groups, Trump, Native Americans, White House, flag, freedom, rich.

Among the more common answers for Jews in America: Orthodox, New York, Jewish comedians (Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen), Abraham Lincoln (the student thought he looked Jewish… I assured them he wasn’t), George Soros.

What became very clear to me was that, while they all have impressions of America, few of them had given much thought to Jews in America.  Which of course made sense to me.  If I did this exercise at home with my students at CESJDS, I doubt they would have much to say about Hungarian Jews.  So how do I foster a connection between the two groups?

In my classroom at CESJDS, I have a world map hanging on the wall.  I refer to this map often in my Modern Jewish History classes as we discuss the world-wide migration patterns of Jews throughout history.  I always begin my Modern Jewish History course by handing my students pins and asking them to place their pins on the spot from where their families came.  The vast majority of pins end up clustered in Eastern Europe, the former Pale of Settlement.  When I asked my Hungarian students where they thought my American students placed their pins, the consensus was that they had placed them in America.  I had uncovered an interesting discrepancy.  Every Jew in America, and perhaps every American, has a sense of himself as both American and simultaneously “from” somewhere else (for Jews, this is mostly Europe).  America is a nation of immigrants, and we are keenly aware of that fact.  However, for Hungarian students, this is not necessarily obvious.  If their families have always been from Hungary, they assume that American Jews have always been from America.

In my future classes, I will build off of these assumptions and focus on the theme of immigration as a core element of the American Jewish experience and identity.

Day 1

We had such a busy first day: meeting with the US ambassador to Hungary, meeting our partner teachers, teaching our first classes, and touring through Buda.  The meeting with the ambassador in the morning was both informative and inspiring.  She shared her impressions of Hungary and of the current political situation in the US quite candidly.  The opportunity to meet with a member of Obama’s team within a week of Trump’s election allowed us an eye into the inner workings of foreign diplomacy as well as the art of domestic diplomacy.  The ambassador remained positive and upbeat as she spoke of her accomplishments in her current role as well as the plan for the transfer of power to the new administration.  In her talk, she mentioned that part of her role was to support Holocaust education in Hungary and to support the government in pursuing their prosecution of Holocaust deniers.  I asked about the potential conflict between supporting Hungary’s laws on this issue and our own American understanding of freedom of speech, a topic that my students and I have discussed often.  The ambassador explained that her role was to support Hungary’s efforts to commemorate the Holocaust and the laws they have in place to do so.

Meeting my first Hungarian students in the classroom felt very comfortable.  Their English was excellent, and they all seemed warm and eager for discussion.  One of the most striking things for me was that when I asked what brought each of them to the Lauder school, they mentioned many of the same things that my own students at CESJDS would say: strong academics, excellent art and music, as well as the bonds between teachers and students.  I am looking forward to forming some of those bonds as I get to know more of the Lauder students this week.

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