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Cantorial Concerts in Hungary Spark Flame in Jewish Soul

July 5, 1988
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Two concerts of cantorial music and Yiddish song which took place here last week appear to have sparked a smoldering flame in the heart of the Jewish people of Hungary.

The concerts were organized by the New York-based Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture, which was formed two years ago to restore Jewish life in Hungary.

The foundation is leading a delegation of Jews of Hungarian descent from the United States, Europe, Australia and Israel, who are here visiting Jewish sites in this country.

The week’s events have been sponsored by the Hungarian national tourist board.

On Wednesday night, about 800 people filled to capacity the Vigado, Budapest’s philharmonic hall, to hear traditional cantorial pieces sung by American and Hungarian cantors, as well as Budapest’s Goldmark choir, an accomplished chorus of 45 Jewish singers that has become increasingly well-known and respected in Europe and Israel.

Thursday night, several thousand people filled the cavernous Dohany Street Synagogue, Budapest’s 130-year-old house of worship.

The audience crowded under the lofty ceiling, which is obstructed by a protective plastic shield. Restoration of the synagogue, which now stands in need of major renovation, sits high on the Emanuel Foundation’s list of priorities.


On both Tuesday and Wednesday nights, tribute was paid to American actor Tony Curtis, himself a Hungarian Jew, who has lent his support to the endeavors of the group, named for his father, Emanuel Schwartz.

Curtis spoke both evenings of his desire to foster renewed Jewish life in Hungary.

The concerts featured what in modern terms would be described as presentations of "chazanut," the Sephardic pronunciation of the word for cantorial art, but it would be far more apt to use the Ashkenazic pronunciation "chazunis."

The aging Hungarian community has held on to the older, Galicianer pronunciation of Hebrew and Yiddish. It is, perhaps, their way of retaining the traditional Jewish soul that has long appeared doomed in Europe.

In fact, what seemed to pervade the strong, emotional atmosphere of the two musical concerts was the sense that here in Budapest, tradition is headed for a revival.

Like the synagogue that awaits restoration, the Jewish community of Budapest seems bent on a course of intensified renewal.

Young people, who for the first years of their lives did not even know they were Jewish, much less have any awareness of their Jewish religion and culture, have taken up the mantle of traditional Jewish life with intense determination.

Backstage after the concert Wednesday night, members of the Goldmark Choir told a tale of remarkable persistence in continuing the Jewish tradition.

Laszlo Siklos, a choir member, has for several years been engaged in an unusual personal endeavor to help foster Jewish unity, by writing to pen pals worldwide.

Siklos sent copies of the concert program to these friends to let them know what was happening with the Jews of Budapest. This concert, he said with pride, had been sold out three weeks in advance.

Siklos, 35, lives in a village outside Budapest, maintaining an observant Jewish life despite his singularity as a Jew in the village.


Siklos, a piano tuner by profession, expressed optimism for Jewish life in Hungary, but said he was very concerned about "many events of anti-Semitism."

He spoke with fear of the Skinheads, the violent gangs of racist youth who have cropped up in America as well as Europe.

Siklos recounted how the shaven-head youth threw stones, and how they had violently disrupted a football game where about 20,000 people were in attendance.

The youth mouthed fascist slogans while bearing swastikas.

Another chorus member, 38-year-old Lajos Diosi, said, "Something has changed in our life in Hungary."

Diosi saw this as a continuing process over the last four years, that began with the observance of the 40th anniversary of the murder of the Hungarian Jews by the Nazis.

"In Hungary, when we celebrated the 40th anniversary of our tragedy here, I suppose that about that time, our press became more open than before. You have to know that in our press, the word Jewish was avoided."

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