The history of the Jews in Budapest is a bit complicated and tortuous. Like many places in Europe, the Jews were alternatively invited or banished based on the mood and economic desires of the rulers of the time. In 1279, the Jews of Buda (one of three cities eventually united into Budapest) were forced into a ghetto and required to wear a red badge. The Jews were expelled from Buda in 1349 and 1360, and allowed back in 1364. In 1526 when the Ottomans captured the city, they expelled the Jews, but then they were allowed back in 1541, and they became quite prosperous, active in banking and international trade.
In 1686, when the Austrians conquered the city, they murdered and ransacked the Jewish community. In 1746, Empress Maria Theresa of the Hapsburg dynasty expelled the Jews, and we have records of the 1768 census which quite clearly states, “Jews do not live in Buda,” and “Jews do not live in Pest.” In 1783 Emperor Josef II allowed them to return.
The ping pong action finally stopped in 1840, when the Hungarian National Diet (Diet refers to a Parliament, not a way of eating) officially allowed the Jews to settle in Pest. From 20,000 Jews in 1850, the Jewish population of Budapest exploded for the next seventy years, reaching over 200,000 by the early 1900’s. Many of the Jews living in Budapest were fabulously wealthy, and in 1854 they began building the Dohaney Street Synagogue, at the time the largest and most beautiful synagogue in the world.
The twentieth century was not a great one for Jews in Budapest. Despite many of them serving with distinction in WWI, the atmosphere clouded for the Jews soon after the Great War. Admiral Miklos Horthy, a noted Anti-Semite, was the leader of Hungary from 1920-1944. Despite his official title being, “His Serene Highness the Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary,” he wasn’t very serene to the Jews. Viewing them all as communist collaborators, he created a “Purification” campaign mostly aimed at purging the Jews. Jews were not allowed into many professions and educational institutions, and state-sponsored Anti-Semitism was a regular occurrence.
As the Nazis rose to power in Germany, a new group called the Hungarian Arrow Cross arose that was so violent in their Anti-Semitism that they almost made Horthy look serene. Jews began being beaten in the streets. When WWII began, Hungary was officially part of the Axis Powers, but when Hitler YS”V found out that Horthy was secretly opening talks with the Allies in 1944, the Germans invaded Hungary, taking control of the entire country, where they were often welcomed with open arms.
The darkest moments of Hungary’s history occurred in 1944. On the day that the Nazis assumed control of the country, Adolf Eichman arrived with one goal, exterminate the 800,000 Jews of Hungary as soon as possible. Nowhere was the Nazi beast more efficient than in Hungary. From Mid-May to Early-July, over 437,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Aushwitz-Birkenau, the vast majority of them marched directly from the trains to the gas chambers, their lifespan in Birkenau less than a few hours. The Jews of Budapest were supposed to be the last to be deported and because the Germans were forced to halt the deportations in July, the majority of the survivors from Hungary were those that lived in Budapest.
Even though the Germans had stopped killing the Jews en masse, the Hungarians were not done. The Hungarian Arrow Cross picked up where the Nazis left off. Every night hundreds of Jews were marched to the banks of the Danube, forced to undress and then machine gunned into the river. The Danube flowed red for months.
Here’s the problem. Budapest is a beautiful city. Really Beautiful. Named the world’s second best city by Conde Nast Traveler, and Europe’s seventh most idyllic place to live by Forbe’s, the city abounds with beautiful buildings, monuments, and parks. Andrassy Boulevard, the Champs-Elysees of Budapest is wide, tree lined, and filled with magnificent buildings and shops, crowned by the Opera House, a building of impossible grandeur both inside and outside. Andrassy Boulevard leads into Heroes Square, a massive open plaza filled with statues and monuments to Hungary’s various heroes and flanked by the equally impressive Palace of the Arts on one side and the Museum of Fine Arts on the other. Behind it lurks the fairy-tale like Vajdahunyad Castle.
The many bridges over the Danube are majestic and beautifully lit at night, and the building that flank it are magnificent. The Hungarian Parliament on the Danube puts the British Parliament on the Thames to shame. Buda Castle looks down at the river with smug nobility. Fisherman’s Bastion, the Neo-Gothic terrace overlooking the river, was definitely made for the most upper crust of fisherman.
Besides for all the specific notable sites, the general random variety buildings are mostly beautifully done, ornate architecture and detail springing up on practically half the buildings in the city. It’s a beautiful city and I so wanted to enjoy it!
My wife and I were in Budapest last week, as part of Partners Detroit’s phenomenal couples mission to Poland, Bratislava and Budapest. The mission, with couples from every part of the Jewish community in Detroit, was an incredible success. We toured the darkest corners of Poland, Maidanek and Aushwitz-Birkenau, but we did it in an empowering way. We sang of our faith while standing next to a mountain of ash and bone in Maidanek, and we sang and danced Am Yisrael Chai and Shema Yisrael while standing next to the blown up gas chambers and crematoria of Birkenau. We grew closer as a group, and closer to our spouses, the instinctive response to so much evil being to reach out to others and draw them closer. We were inspired by so many amazing speakers and a tour guide who somehow helped us feel a fraction of what it was like to experience those horrible places. But by the end of the week, we wanted to get out of the darkness and into the light, out of Poland and into beautiful Budapest.
I wanted to let go and enjoy Budapest, but I failed. I simply couldn’t. There was still too much Jewish blood in the ground for me to really be able to enjoy the beauty of the city. There is a monument on the side of the Danube river with sixty pairs of shoes, there to mark the spot where thousands of Jews were forced to undress and shot into the river. Any city that has that type of monument is not one where I can totally relax and allow myself to enjoy the city.
So for three days of touring in the beautiful city of Budapest, I never could really allow myself to fully enjoy the moment. But as I’m writing this and remembering our trip, it’s not entirely true. There were some moments that I enjoyed thoroughly in Budapest, and those were the ones spent with our group. The Kabbalat Shabbat we sang together under a beautiful arch of concrete, glass, and hanging vines in our hotel, the inspiring lectures given by Rabbi David and Debbie Greenblatt, the Shabbos meals and singing with our group in one of the conference rooms, the question and answer session with a panel of educators, the final banquet where so many great people got up and spoke about how the trip deeply affected them, and how they hope it will change their lives on their return. Ironically, in a city with so much beauty in art and architecture, the only beauty I could fully feel was the beauty in the great people I was with.
But I’m not done yet. As I pondered my whole experience, a verse came to mind. For years I’ve been teaching a class on Jewish history talking about how our entire history was laid out for us before it happened in the Torah. Part of that is the very clear descriptions of the exiles that we would go through and the horrible things we would endure. There is one verse that always caught my mind, talking about what would happen to the Jewish people in exile (Deut 28:65-67), “Among those nations you shall find no repose, not a foot of ground to stand upon, for there the L-rd will give you an anguished heart and wasted eyes and a dismayed spirit. You will live in constant suspense and stand in dread both day and night, never sure of your existence.”
Obviously, if you were a Jew living in Pest, Buda or Obuda in 1559, you felt this. You were either about to be expelled, pogromed, blood libeled, or beaten just for being Jewish pretty much your entire life. Even when there was relative peace and quiet you never knew how long it would last. But for me, an American who Thank G-d, grew up in a country that our Rabbis call a Medina Shel Chessed, a Nation of Kindness that has been very friendly to the Jews, and who only experienced mild Anti-Semitism in my life what did this mean? The verse seems so extreme?
Part of it, is that as I travel the world, there are very few places I can feel comfortable. Too many peoples and places have been horrible to us, and even now when they are friendly to us, the memory lingers. England threw us out, France threw us out, Russian agents put out the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Vatican and Italians instigated massive blood libels, the Spanish and Portuguese kicked us out, many South American governments hid the Nazis after WWII, and the Germans exterminated over six million of our people with the help of the Poles, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Romanians, Ukrainians, and many others. Where is a Jew supposed to feel comfortable?
Even the US of A is not exactly free and clear of sin. We saw pictures of American bombers over Birkenau in 1944, when Eichmann was running the most efficient killing machine mankind had ever devised. Bombing the train tracks to Birkenau could have saved hundreds of thousands of Jews, but the US response was that it was not the focus of the war effort of the time. It was funny that I wrote that I grew up with only mild Anti-Semitism. Maybe only ten times in my life have people hurled Anti-Semetic insults at me, and maybe only once I was actually smashed in the head by someone yelling at me and telling me to get my Jewish body out of his neighborhood (true story), but that should make me a bit uncomfortable even here, in the Nation of Kindness. And today, it seems like the Jews may have overstayed our welcome. Anti-Semitism always grows slowly, but we see it on the rise on the Left and the Right in America today. From the rise of white supremacist groups on the Right, to the college campuses on the Left where Jews are being harassed and occasionally attacked, either for being a Jew or for being a Zionist. Many Jews aren’t comfortable displaying signs of their Judaism on campus today, kippahs are being traded for baseball caps, Stars of David are being kept under the shirt or taken off entirely. Where is a Jew supposed to feel comfortable?
But maybe that’s the point. Maybe I’m not supposed to feel too comfortable in exile. Maybe I’m supposed to be yearning more intensely for the Messianic Era, when we can all go back to the Holy Land as One Nation under G-d… Maybe the reason we are supposed to be “never sure of your existence,” is because this is not the natural homeland of the Jew. Maybe when I do feel most comfortable is when I’m doing the types of things that will bring us back to our Homeland, uniting with Jews from all across the spectrum and growing closer to each other and closer to G-d…
This week we started the Three Weeks, a period of mourning commemorating the destruction of the Second Temple and the beginning of a long and dark exile we are still living through. The Sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among the Jews. We won’t be getting out of it until we learn to replace that hatred with baseless love. The Jews in pre-war Budapest were separated into three distinct groups, the Neologs, the Status Quo Jews, and the Orthodox. Here in the US, we still haven’t gotten our unity up to where it needs to be (although I do have to say that Detroit’s Jewish community happens to be a standout among American Jewish communities for our openness and unity).
Perhaps the reason that the one place I felt completely comfortable in Budapest was in a dining room with Jews from every part of the spectrum all joined together in growth and inspiration. Because it is activities like those that will reverse the pain, activities of love and unity that will stop the Danube from ever flowing red again.
For the next Three Weeks, let’s all put in the extra effort to reach out to the “other Jew,” the Jew not like us. Let’s build those bridges, let’s fill our community with baseless love, and let’s do everything we can to ensure that this is the last year that we feel uncomfortable again.
Parsha Dvar Torah
Last week’s Parsha ended with the Midianites sending their women to seduce the Jews into immoral relationships, and from there swaying them to worship the gods of Midian. The prince of the tribe of Shimon led the way, publicly defiling himself with a princess from Midian. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron (and great nephew of Moshe), saves the day in an act of zealousness for G-d’s honor, and puts the two of them to death. This shocks the people out of their temporary blindness and the sinning stops, as does (or did, depending on the tense you have chosen) the plague Hash-m had sent as punishment for their immorality and idol worship.
This week’s parsha opens with G-d rewarding Pinchas. “Therefore say: Behold I have given him my covenant of peace.” (Numbers 25:12) Why does Pinchas get a covenant of peace specifically in reward for this act? (I probably would have just asked for a Corvette! No, no. That’s not going to look good. I probably would have asked for a Sefer Torah!) This question is strengthened by the fact that the Torah introduces his reward with “Therefore,” as if the reward is directly linked to the act. What is the link between the two?
There is much debate about how one defines him or her self. Some say, “You are what you wear.” Now, I know this is going to be controversial, but I believe that to a certain degree that is true. We do choose our clothing, and often we elect to wear certain clothing because we want to send a message of how we see ourselves in the hope that others will begin to see us in that way as well. Other people will tell you, “You are what you eat.” There is a little less truth to that statement, because if it were true I would be half wheat and half cow hooves (I just had a hot dog in a bun).
In Judaism we believe that you are what you do. By nature, we may be languid, lazy, lackluster, languorous, and lethargic, but if we energize ourselves and become active people, then we have changed who we are and we are now vigorous, vibrant and vivacious people brimming with vim and vitality. This is due to our actions entering our psyche, and transforming our very essence.
Using this line of reasoning, Pinchas, who had just committed a violent act, would become a more violent and aggressive person, no matter how noble his intentions. But G-d would never allow a negative result to be the outcome of a virtuous act,; therefore, G-d gave him a special covenant of peace to protect him from any character defects he may have acquired through his violent action.
This idea is very empowering, as it allows us out of any box we may have placed ourselves in. So often, we live our lives believing that we are selfish, lazy, or disorderly. But we learn from here that all we have to do is to act selflessly, energetically, and in an orderly fashion and we will become different people! Most of you are probably thinking, “Sure, easier said than done!” but that is just the lazy part of you speaking. Instead, we must simply follow the Pinchas strategy, and get up and do, because that is what changes us.
This week begins with the reward given to Pinchas for his glorification of G-d by eradicating one of the leaders of the tribe of Shimon who was publicly committing adultery with a princess from Midian. The Midianite people had sent their daughters to seduce the Jews. At the moment of their highest vulnerability, the women would entice the Jewish men to serve the Midianite Gods. Pinchas, with his quick action, brought the people back to their senses. The reward Pinchas received was the ability to join the ranks of the Kohanim, the people whose entire raison d’etre is to bring people closer to G-d by cleansing them of the negative effects of their sins. After this incident, the Jews went to war with the Midianites, in retribution for the spiritual war the Midianites waged against the Jews.
As you probably recall, in the beginning of the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers), there was a major census taken of all the Jews. That was at the beginning of the Jews’ forty years in the desert. Now, at the end of their 40 year journey, G-d commands Moshe to take another census. Why was another census necessary? A number of 585reasons are given. First, just as a shepherd counts his sheep after a wolf attacks, so too, G-d, after forty years and a number of punitive plagues, counts the Jews to see how many remain. In addition, just as Moshe counted the people at the beginning of his leadership, now that his watch is about to end, he counts them again before returning his flock to their master.
Another purpose of the census was to count the people by family, as this would determine their portions of land when they entered Israel. At this point, the daughters of Tzelafchad came before Moshe to make a request. They were from a family with only women, five of them to be exact. Their father had died, and they were concerned that with no men to represent them, their family would get no portion in Israel. Moshe, after a quick consultation with G-d, told them not to worry, as they would get a portion of the Land of Israel in lieu of their father.
(Here is an interesting note: 2000 years ago, Jews were the most liberal nation in the world in regards to women’s rights. They gave women land, offered them many forms of protection in the case of divorce or death of a spouse, and gave them equal protection under law. Today, people look at Orthodoxy and claim that it represses women. It is important to try to understand the Orthodox position before judging them, in light of their record of being the foremost champion of women’s rights for thousands of years.) Once dealing with laws of inheritance, the Torah here summarizes the Jewish laws of bequest and inheritance.
The Torah, now close to wrapping up the narrative of the Jews’ desert experience, tells of G-d informing Moshe that he will die imminently and he therefore has to pass the mantle of leadership onto his principal pupil, Joshua. The Parsha then concludes with a list of the sacrifices brought on all the various festivals. That’s all, Folks!
Quote of the Week: Time is what we want most, but we all use worst. – William Penn
Random Fact of the Week: “Dreamt” is the only English word that ends in the letters “mt”.
Funny Line of the Week: Money talks, but all mine ever says is “goodbye.”
Have a Noteworthy Shabbos,
R” Leiby Burnham