I promised a follow-up and look, I’m actually delivering! I kept this separate from my general post as I knew it would likely be a long one and might not interest everyone as much.
I said in my previous Budapest post mom and I stayed in the Jewish Quarter while there, just down the street from the Grand Synagogue (and wow, the name certainly does fit). On our trip a couple years ago we started visiting the Jewish sites (whether they be Museum or Synagogue) in whatever city we happened to be in and doing our best to attend Friday night services while there as well.
Due to our busy schedules I never got the chance to introduce my mom to my Jewish community in Aix. The next Friday was spent commuting from Naples to Sorrento and trying to sort out that whole gantzeh megilla that was my wallet and the Airbnb and such. So yeah, no services again. In between was Bari which, although having an ancient Jewish history has, from what I found at least, no modern Jewish community to visit. Croatia had a much more interesting Jewish History for us to explore, although unfortunately the synagogue was no longer active in Dubrovnik where we spent the next Friday.
And so our trip was making slow but sure progress by the time we arrived in Budapest. I had intentionally found us an apartment near the synagogue, having heard from others that it was a great location and knowing that we would want to visit it ourselves. Even arriving after dark, we recognized the synagogue immediately as we lugged out bags down the street to our Airbnb (the location was, in fact, perfect even if you’re not interested in the synagogue). The next morning we stopped by to see what they had to offer. 10 am and the line was already to the sidewalk. We asked what time services were and booked a synagogue and walking tour for Sunday (always a good day to do the Jew-stuff as in much of Europe the majority of places are closed Sunday).
That night we dressed ourselves up and walked down the street to go to synagogue. It was a little awkward getting in – apparently Fridays are usually just for the local community and they prefer visitors on Saturdays, but it has always been our tradition to go Friday evenings to start the Sabbath. We were awed when we walked in, however. The outside of the building, although large and impressive, does not do justice to the gorgeous interior. It is a unique synagogue for several reasons, the architecture being one as it adopts many different styles, including some Christian aspects.
The community is not strictly any particular flavor, (my mother’s term) as we generally consider them in the states. It is clearly more Ashkenazi than Sephardic, but while it had some more orthodox traditions it also had a fair bit of more reform customs. The service, although a little hard to follow at times, was beautiful, we just enjoyed the opportunity to sit in such an amazing building. Men and women sat separately, although the women simply sat to the side instead of up in the balconies (yes plural balconies – this is the second largest synagogue in the world). The organ music is unusual in orthodox communities, but beautiful (they often invite a volunteer from the general community to play an instrument. is considered work and not allowed on Shabbat in the orthodox community). Although led in what I found more of a conservative or orthodox style the service itself was only a short 45-minutes. I’ve been to many that claim to be this short, but it rarely holds true. So I applaud you Grand Synagogue – before I could even believe it everyone was wishing each other Shabbat Shalom; the service was over!
Our tours on Sunday were magnificent. Although we had already seen the synagogue at services, we got a bit more history on the community and a more complete understanding of the unique architecture of the building. The Grand Synagogue is one of the only synagogues that has a cemetery next door, and it, along with the Tree of Life sculpture, are very moving parts of the Holocaust Memorial of Budapest. For the walking tour, we had a wonderful guide and the opportunity to see some of the other synagogues in the neighborhood. Both highly recommended by this traveler to anyone who is interested in Jewish history, a member of the tribe or not. I still, however, recommend strolling the neighborhood on your own as we also came across some interesting places such as the Sunday art market and other memorial sites on our evening strolls.
One of the places we came across was the Jewish restaurant Spinoza, named after the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Looking for a drink and a small bite one night we heard the live piano music from across the street and decided to check it out. With a live pianist every evening (and a Klezmer performance on Friday nights) we were able to relax, enjoy some wine and an appetizer, and then try a traditional Hungarian-Jewish (Jewish-Hungarian? there’s a religious school question for you) dessert. So good we even went back the next night!
In general, however, it is always so wonderful to connect with the Jewish culture and history in a new place, a new city, a new culture. It is always the same and yet different. Always a very interesting experience. I love attending services especially (even if it feels like such an effort and hassle beforehand I never regret it) and finding these little tidbits and nuances, seeing how it is to truly be a part of the community for that one hour. After all, wherever you go there’s always someone Jewish! (-Wherever you go, by Rabbi Larry Milder)