Behind the Headlines the Jews of Hungary

– Budapest today could be described as the “Jerusalem of Eastern Europe.” Hungarian Jews enjoy the fullest Jewish life of any community behind the Iron Curtain, and their vibrance nurtures Jewry in other Communist lands. The Budapest rabbinical seminary trains rabbis for other countries, kosher food is exported, and shochets and rabbis are “loaned” to such neighbors as the German Democratic Republic.

But it would be impolitic to describe Budapest as “Jerusalem,” because Zionism is forbidden there. Hungary, the birthplace of Theodor Herzl, father of political Zionism, and his fellow-Zionist, Max Nordau, adheres to the Soviet anti-Israel (and pro-PLO) line.

Hungarian Jewry’s inability to relate openly to Israel and Zionism may ultimately be a greater deterrent to a viable future than the demographic disaster of the loss of an entire generation in the Holocaust. Despite the fact that virtually every religious necessity is now available in Hungary, Judaism is, in many ways, a religion of the dead, the dying and the past – not of the living and the future.

The religious programs and products in Hungary today generally benefit the survivors of the Holocaust, and not future generations. The American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) representative in Hungary described that organization’s $1 million social welfare program there as “helping an entire generation die in dignity.” The post-war generation is a small percentage of the Hungarian Jewish population.

Officials of the Central Board for Hungarian Jewry (MIOK) said they could not give a break-down of the Jewish population according to age when asked by participants on a recent United Jewish Appeal-American Jewish Press Association Mission. A reliable source told this correspondent that there are some 2000 deaths and 100 births per year.

When pressed about the number of children attending talmud torahs, again officials balked. In the one classroom visited, some 20 children’s ages spanned several years. This “one-room schoolhouse” approach usually is indicative of too few children for separate classes.

THE FUTURE OF JUDAISM

To assess the future of Judaism in Hungary, it is necessary to evaluate what incentives and inspiration the community can offer to children and young people who stay within “the fold.” In Hungary, Judaism is linked with the sorrow of the Holocaust, but the joy of Israel is officially denied to the children (and adults). While Israel provides a basis for lively and exciting curricula in Western Hebrew schools and day schools, the children of Hungary learn pre-Israel “cheder-type” lessons.

On the day of our visit, in addition to the aleph-bes (in Ashkenazi), the students were discussing Tu B’Shevat. But they could not learn of the accomplishments of Israeli pioneers, the work of the Jewish National Fund, or the agricultural products of modern Israel. Nor could they experience the joy of purchasing trees, planted in their names in Israel. What can Tu B’Shevat mean to them? The holiday, like the Jewish religion, becomes a sterile anachronism.

There are no youth groups with a cultural or ethnic Jewish approach to augment talmud torah education. Such groups are illegal, according to a reliable source. Nor are there any independent Jewish leaders to serve as mentors for Hungary’s Jewish youth. The community leadership is paid by the state.

In a Communist atheist country dedicated to the ultimate disappearance of all religion, it is of no advantage to belong to any religious group–especially a small minority such as Judaism. While Hungary tolerates all religions, there is subtle pressure away from religious affiliation. Many Jews in Hungary today are not part of the Jewish community, and consider themselves “Communists of Jewish descent. “MIOK and JDC claim there are 80,000 to 100,000 Jews in Hungary, but the number of practicing Jews is probably closer to 15,000.

CO-OPTING RELIGION

“The government has come to the conclusion that religion can be co-opted into their plan, so that religion will die naturally over a long period of time, “an expert on Hungary explained. “If the churches are deprived of real political power, they are not dangerous. The government uses a strategy of co-opting the churches, while allowing freedom of religion.”

This theory seemed borne out by the fact that no member of the Jewish community is a high government official. Jews who are not members of the community, however, do hold such positions. (The exception is Chief Rabbi Laszlo Salgo, who is a member of Parliament. His dual capacity seems to benefit the state as much as it does the Jewish community.)

Will the Jewish children of Hungary choose to remain in the community, or is the future of Hungarian Jewry doomed? MIOK officials spoke of the future glowingly, but knowledgeable individuals admitted privately that the future is grim.

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