Behind the Headlines” the Holy Pitcher, or Living the Good Life Along the Danube

“Tossing the Challah” is an unforgettable highlight of the Oneg Shabbat following Friday evening services at the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest. The tosser is Rabbi Alexander Scheiber, the eminent scholar, historian, and head of the seminary, which is famous throughout Europe.

“This is my holy sport,” he recently declared to this reporter, as he distributed pieces of challah to each of the 300 Jews crowding the room, often pitching the Sabbath bread with unerring accuracy to those some distance from him.

The atmosphere was charged with warm fellowship and religious communion; the effect was that of a large close-knit family rather than an assemblage of hundreds of individuals.

The Jews of Hungary indeed seem to be living the good life in a Socialist state, and they are the envy of their co-religionists in the other Eastern European countries. It is estimated that there are 80,000 Jews in Hungary with more than three-quarters residing in Budapest; there are more rabbis and more active synagogues here than in all the other Soviet-dominated nations combined.

Several yeshivas and talmud torahs, kosher butchers, old-age homes, a hospital and an orphanage attest to the devotion to Judaism within the country. There are reports, however, that many of the small synagogues in the countryside are neglected, or have been sold and turned into libraries or warehouses, with their contents of priceless Judaica lost or destroyed.

THE SPECIAL PRIDE OF HUNGARIAN JEWS

But, above all, the seminary is the special pride of Jewish Hungary. It was founded in 1877 by Emperor Franz Josef I, and is the only state rabbinical seminary in the world, according to Scheiber, who has been its director since 1950. There are currently students from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and, of course, from Hungary itself, who are trained to become rabbis, cantors, or teachers throughout Eastern Europe.

Besides the secondary school, there is a center of adult education and well-known choir. It receives financial support from the government, the Jewish community, and the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture founded by Nahum Goldmann to maintain intellectual life in the Eastern Jewish world.

BUDAPEST JEWS WERE RELATIVELY FORTUNATE

Scheiber stated that the Jews of Budapest were relatively fortunate during World War II, for the ghetto in the center of town, containing 200,000 Jews, was not blown up. Before 1944, he said there were 250,000 Jews out of the total Hungarian population of one million in Budapest and anti-Semites called it “Judapest.”

By a quirk of fate, the ghetto, which the Nazis planned to destroy on January 20, 1945, was liberated by Russian forces just two days earlier and many of the inhabitants were so grateful that they turned Communist. And yet, some 2,300 Jews were killed in the ghetto, many by Hungarian fascists.

Scheiber indicated that relations with the government were “excellent” and that he deals most amicably with its Bureau of Religious Affairs. He revealed that next year, on the 40th anniversary of the deportation of Hungarian Jews, the government will for the first time, permit many thousands to visit Israel and will also welcome Israelis of Hungarian descent.

‘LIFE HERE IS GOOD FOR JEWS’

One of the largest synagogues in the world is the Dohany Synagogue in the very center of town, which has a seating capacity of 3,300 and attracts, on major holidays, an overflow audience of more than 5,000. The 124-year-old edifice is flanked by a smaller synagogue which attracts some 200 congregants for the regular Sabbath services.

Chief Rabbi of the Dohany Synagogue and also Chief Rabbi of Hungary, Dr. Shalgo has been a member of the Hungarian Parliament since 1980 (according to Shalgo, there are other Jews in Parliament, but these are unaffiliated with the community) and has been closely identified with government leaders.

He informed this reporter that he hopes to visit Israel, for the first time, in 1984 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the deportation. “Life here is good for Jews, they are not beggars, but make good livings in all kinds of enterprises,” he insisted. It appears that relations between Dohany Street and the rabbinical seminary are rather formal and that the two operate as separate and distinct fiefdoms.

MEMORIAL TO THE HOLOCAUST VICTIMS

A visit to the Jewish cemetery in the suburbs revealed an impressive memorial to the Holocaust victims, 75 feet high and 40 feet broad and flanked by a stone pergola with nine columns listing the names of Hungarian Jews exterminated during World War II.

The memorial bears the inscription, “They were killed with hate, they will be remembered with love.” Apparently, this tribute to the martyred has not been visited by government leaders, but foreign dignitaries like Helmut Schmidt have come to pay their respects.

Despite the restrictions imposed by an atheist government and the daily deploring of Israel and Zionism in the media, it appears that the average Hungarian Jew has made the best of it, and that the Jewish community, as an entity and primarily through its unique rabbinical seminary, plays a role of central and far-reaching significance throughout the entire Eastern bloc.

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