High Holidays Feature: Jewish Expatriates Find a Way to Celebrate New Year in Budapest

This is not your parent’s Rosh Hashanah meal. That’s on the mind of many American Jews in Budapest as they prepare for holidays spent away from home.

Turning to Hungarian Jewry is rarely an option.

The community overall is deeply assimilated. If Hungarian Jews celebrate holidays at all, they do so with their own family. Besides, there are sometimes verbal and cultural obstacles.

So American Jews — a significant portion of the estimated 16,000 Americans living in Hungary — tend to gravitate toward their own during the holidays, to “hang out” with friends who become a surrogate family.

Then the network kicks into gear.

“I knew three Jews here and those people knew some” people, said Anita Altman, a three-year resident of Budapest and the lifestyle editor of the English- language weekly Budapest Sun. “Before long, you have a group of 12 with nowhere else to go, but wanting to celebrate the holidays in a meaningful way.”

Often they gather at the Dohany Street Synagogue.

Inside and outside, it’s a social scene for both Hungarians and expatriates. The Moorish-style synagogue, Europe’s largest, packs more than 3,000 people into the ground floor and two balconies. Men sit downstairs; women sit upstairs. After passing through the metal detectors at the entrance, the chatting continues even through the service.

But mostly, holidays here for Americans are about food. That’s when the work begins.

It starts with the ordeal of finding a host. It might be the only person with an actual dining room.

Most apartments are modest and fairly cramped. The prospective host sometimes needs coercion, guilt or blackmail to seal the deal.

There is no free ride in Budapest. To ease the burden, holiday meals are typically potluck affairs.

Often with the help of a friend, the host delegates responsibility and determines who brings which supplies.

And it is not only about honey cake. There are also logistical problems.

Hosts routinely send out SOS’s for more folding chairs, an extra table or added silverware — even photocopies of the prayers.

It takes quite a bit of effort, but there’s no alternative. “No one else will do it for you,” said Alison Rose, who has also lived here for three years.

“At home it’s something your parents usually do,” said Rose, a native of Tempe, Ariz., and the managing editor of the East European Constitutional Review. “But here I’ve had to take a little initiative and be more active.”

Rose, 26, said she rarely celebrated holidays when living in the United States. Now she’s even hosted her first Passover Seder.

“It was more like a dinner party,” Rose conceded.

Yet the effort that comes with participation prompts some expatriates to rethink and, perhaps, reconnect with their Jewish identity.

Living 5,000 miles from home, many effectively shed most familial obligations.

“You can’t say, `Oh, my parents are making dinner, so I have to go.’ Here you don’t have to go,” said Pearl Gluck, 25, who grew up in Brooklyn’s Chasidic community and now coordinates a Jewish-studies lecture series here at Central European University.

The meal itself is often laid-back. Hungarian girlfriends, boyfriends and even curious non-Jewish friends are often invited.

Through the meal, participants search for shared friends and swap holiday stories. Later, after the meal is finished, a self-congratulatory mood sets in.

“Weren’t we clever?” Altman, 43, from Roslyn, N.Y., explains the mood. “An event we’d always relied on someone else to do for us, we’d done ourselves. At least we did something.”

And that’s the point: to do something, says Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, a Lubavitcher believed to be the only American rabbi in Hungary.

His services in Hungarian and Hebrew during the High Holy Days draw just a small handful of Americans, anywhere from two to seven. But he still inserts a few minutes in English.

“A Jew should always feel at home in synagogue, wherever he is in the world,” said Oberlander, 31, a Brooklyn native who arrived in Budapest in 1989 just before the collapse of Communism. “And on the holidays, they need that feeling of community, that they’re not alone in the world.”

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