BUDAPEST, Jan. 10 (JTA) — In the complex cultural world of Budapest café society, there are coffee houses you go to — and coffee houses you don’t go to. For young Jews in the Hungarian capital, a cluster of hip new pubs and cafes forms a network of downtown venues that definitely are the right places to hang out. Crowded every night and open until the wee hours, they form the physical hub of an alternative Jewish youth scene that is eons removed from synagogue services or organized JCC events. “It’s all very cool and informal; grassroots reality rather than programmed activity,” says Mircea Cernov, a deputy director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Budapest office. Young Jews list five or six new places where they tend to congregate. Opened over the past two years or so, they range from several smoky coffee houses to Kuplung, a vast bar, dance hall and concert space in a former car mechanic’s workshop — “kuplung” means “clutch” in Hungarian. “The scene grew up while I was away,” says Tamas, a 30-year-old with a trim beard and knitted yarmulke who recently returned to Budapest after studying abroad for four years. “I really noticed the difference.” As many as 100,000 Jews are believed to live in Budapest, including thousands of young people. The vast majority of Budapest Jews are unaffiliated, however. The new youth scene attracts Jews from across the spectrum. The new venues all are located in or on the edge of Budapest’s historic Jewish quarter, the Seventh District, a rundown inner-city neighborhood that is just beginning to show signs of renewal, and at least two of them are Jewish-owned. But, unlike the nostalgic “Jewish-style” cafes that cater to tourists in Krakow, Poland, and other Eastern and Central European cities where few Jews live, there is nothing overtly Jewish about any of the new Budapest places. The clientele also includes non-Jews. “They are not Jewish places per se, but I would call them ‘Jewish-friendly,’ ” said Adam Schoenberger, 25, a rabbi’s son who plays in a Jewish hip-hop fusion band and organizes concerts and Jewish youth events. Last month, Schoenberger helped organize a pair of Chanukah parties at Kuplung. They were advertised by word of mouth, on youth-oriented Jewish Web sites and on colorful posters put up around the neighborhood. Hoping to attract unaffiliated young Jews as well as young Jews active in communal life, the posters featured a bright blue spinning dreidel and hip-hop style design. “We didn’t use a Star of David or menorah or other symbols that could be understood as religious,” Schoenberger said. The first party took place on Dec. 25, the first night of Chanukah, and lasted from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. Hundreds of people turned up. There were no Chanukah decorations, but three Jewish music bands performed, including Schonberger’s band, HaGesher. Partygoers ranged from traditional Orthodox 20-somethings in yarmulkes, beards and ritual fringes, to secular, assimilated Jews and even some non-Jews. “It was Christmas, and on Christmas gentile Hungarians tend to stay home with their families,” said Bob Cohen, whose band Srajim was one of the acts. “I’d say that 80 percent of the crowd was Jewish.” Szoda, located around the corner from several synagogues as well as the offices of the Hungarian Jewish Federation, is one of the most popular of the new venues. Szoda describes itself as a “coffee house and fun place.” It features 1960s retro furniture, a dimly lit orange color scheme and free wireless Internet, as well as a basement dance floor. The café’s logo is a seltzer — soda — bottle, and dozens of old seltzer bottles line shelves. “Szoda’s a normal, public place, but the feeling is Jewish,” said former Jewish Federation president Andras Heisler, who said his son is a frequent patron. Szoda is owned by Peter Stern and David Kautezky, Budapest-born Jews in their early 30s who lived in Israel and speak Hebrew. “We don’t consider ourselves a ‘Jewish’ place, and we didn’t open the place with the idea that it would be a ‘Jewish’ café,” Stern said. “But both of us are Jews, we have a lot of Jewish friends and clients and we are in the Jewish district.” “Everyone is welcome — Chinese, Christian, Jewish, whatever,” he said. “But we hate neo-Nazis, racists, weird people. If we hear anyone saying anything racist, we kick them out.”
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Ruth Ellen Gruber is JTA’s senior European correspondent. Based in Rome, she travels and writes extensively on Jewish affairs in Italy, Central and Eastern Europe and other European countries. A former UPI reporter, she has also written for The New York Times and the Encyclopaedia Judaica. She is also the author of several books: Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe and Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today.