Young Hungarian Jews Discover Their Jewishness for First Time

Wherever the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture delegation went in Budapest, the refrain was the same: “I didn’t know I was Jewish until …”

The ages varied, but the words were the same. Their discovery was startling, unexpected. Now, these people say, the recognition that they are Jewish gives them pride, a sense of responsibility and special feeling toward Israel.

In Hungary, Jews are beginning to adjust, not only to a widely acknowledged acceleration of freedoms that include religious expression, but to the mere ability to openly say the word “Jew.”

Laszlo Siklos, 35, a member of the Goldmark Choir, Budapest’s accomplished Jewish chorus, said he didn’t know he was 13, when his father said he was needed to say prayers at a Jewish funeral.

Lajos Diosi, 38, another choir member, admitted that until recently his Jewish background was something he dodged. “You have to know that in our press, the word ‘Jewish’ was avoided.”

On a trip where Jewish journalists and filmmakers seemed to abound, several admitted that only as young adults did they learn of their Jewishness. Asked to discuss this, most said, “Ah, but that is a long story for another time.”

One man who wanted to talk was Endre Rosza, a radio producer who broadcasts programs unabashedly Jewish.

Until recently, said Rosza, “One didn’t pronounce the word ‘Jew’ out loud.” He emulated the effect twice, lowering his face, to bring home his point. “It was an insecurity.”

Rosza lived in Paris for several years but decided to return because “I had something to do,” namely, to “reaffirm that I am Hungarian and Jewish.”

GRAVITATIONAL CENTER

He said he “absolutely believe(s) in Israel. It is our gravitational center.”

In September, Rosza began the Federation to Maintain Hungarian Jewish Culture. The group of about 70 has no formalized structure, and meetings, including Torah study, take place in member’s apartments.

Estimates of how many Jews live in Hungary vary, with official tallies between 80,000 and 100,000. Most agree that only between 20,000 and 30,000 fully participate in Jewish life.

But all agree an accurate count is impossible because of the large number of Jews who for years have not practiced Judaism, and the indeterminate number of those who don’t know they’re Jews.

Professor Geza Komoroczy, a professor of Near East Studies at the University of Budapest, is now director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the university.

The center was established — in a public ceremony last year — between the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the New York-based Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Komoroczy, who teaches Assyrian, Arabic and cuneiform, was allowed to include the study of classical Hebrew at the school — the first such program in all Eastern Europe, he said.

This year the department offered a “trial balloon” — beginners’ Hebrew — to determine the demand for Hebrew classes.

Usually, 10 students of Near Eastern studies enrolled in his Biblical text-reading class. But in the beginner’s class, where 20 enrolled, Komoroczy said, “I looked at the faces in the first class, and they were regular Hungarian Jewish students.”

Then, he said, the students started coming to him in his office, saying, “I am only a Jew Can I take this class?”

Komoroczy said they got permission to add a Hebrew major.

SUCCESS OF HEBREW PROGRAM

Komoroczy, sporting a long, Hasidic-style bear and faded jeans, brimmed with anecdotes about Hungarian Jews and the success of the Hebrew program.

His favorite incident took place in June, when he participated in the Scheiber Memorial Lectures at the Budapest Rabbinical Seminary, named for its late director, Rabbi Sandor Scheiber.

As he finished speaking, an old lady approached him, smiling. He did not recognize her but noted her fine dress and the presence of a “chai” on a chain around her neck.

“Do you not remember me, Dr. Komoroczy?” the woman asked.

He re-created how he looked carefully at the woman, obviously a member of the upper middle class, “very fine. And I looked and looked, but I couldn’t place her.”

“Don’t you know me, professor?” she asked again, and then he realized that “she was the women who has cleaned my room for 15 years at the university.”

Never in all that time had it ever occurred to him that she was Jewish, and never has she let on that she was educated.

Suddenly, Komoroczy understood this woman’s story, that she must have been the wife of a man of some stature, or perhaps she herself had once held an impressive position, and had lost it in the strain of the Communist government. “And she never said a word.”

CHRISTIAN PHILO-SEMITE

The absolute stunner, however, came when a reporter asked Komoroczy about his personal story. “But I am not Jewish,” he said. His statement was met with disbelief.

Thus it has taken the strength of a Christian philo-Semite to inaugurate the class that will teach Hungarians to converse with their coreligionists and learn their religion.

Most Hungarian male Jews still do not feel comfortable publicly sporting a yarmulke — what they call a “koppel” — in public.

Little David Doman, 10, son of the Jewish newspaper’s editor, looked like any religious Israeli, or American or French Jewish, boy in his knitted blue and white kippa and his “Jerusalem” T-shirt as he waited backstage at the Vigado concert hall during the program of Jewish music.

David said he carries his koppel to wear when he is “with Jews.” Asked if he would like to as wear it all the time, he replied simply, “It would be nice.”

As he left the concert, Siklos changed his koppel to the black one he wears “frequently.” But why not always?

“For us in Hungary, to be a Jew is not a shame — but it is not a glory, either.”

(Next: Learning to be Jewish)

NEXT STORY