D’var Shabbat Shuvah 5778 (2017) 

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Hungarian Jews and the Dangerous Allure of Assimilation

As many of you know, from past divrei Torah, I travel each summer with Centropa – an organization that is dedicated to documenting the Jewish history of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans in the 20th century. This history is then used by teachers, like me, in classrooms all over Europe, Israel and the US – we use it to show how one person can make a difference, what happens when Civil Society falls apart, and the lessons of some of the darkest hours of history so that our students know to work to assure that they are not repeated. This summer I traveled to Budapest, Hungary and Belgrade, Serbia.

Hungary was different than Poland or Germany or Austria – other places I have visited and spoken about. Hungarian Jews had a very different experience – and I learned that this just didn’t start with World War 2. There is much about Hungarian Jewry that is a bit different than other Jewish communities in Europe. And it really begins with emancipation in 1867. Jews in Hungary were expected to say thank you for their rights by fully assimilating into Hungarian culture and pretty much ceasing to be recognizably Jewish. Within 40 years, the percent of Jews who spoke Hungarian as their mother tongue was 20% higher than among Catholic Hungarians. By the end of World War I, Jews were fully accepted as Hungarian – they were “Jewish Hungarians” or “Hungarians of the Mosaic Faith”. Intermarriage was rampant and a unique brand of Hungarian Judaism – Neologism – had surpassed Orthodoxy in number of adherents.

After World War I and the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – the government of Hungary moved ever rightward and this collapse of liberalism was felt by the Jewish community. Jewish veterans of the war – who considered themselves Hungarian patriots and heroes – were not shielded from the rising anti-Semitism and increasing difficulty for Jews in finding work. Previously prejudice was directed at the Orthodox Jews from Galicia who retained traditional practices and attire and were easy to spot and harass. Modern, assimilated Hungarians of the Mosaic Faith were not used to feeling its sting. Those in the upper classes of power and wealth foolishly continued, past 1938’s Anti-Jewish laws, to believe that their Hungarian patriotism and clear assimilation would protect them. In the Centropa film “The Mayor Who Worked in Hell” there is an amazing photo of Hungarian Jewish WWI Veterans in their uniforms and medals in the Dohany Synagogue on Rosh HaShana in 1943. It was their belief that these uniforms would save them.

And for some time, even after Hungary joined Nazi Germany in the battle against the Soviet Union, Hungary did protect “her” Jews – foreign Jews were deported, but Hungarian Jews were not. The men were rounded up for labor and many perished in the harsh conditions – but they were not in camps or being shot in large numbers or gassed. But even this ended when Nazi Germany invaded in 1944. Eichmann found, in the Arrow Cross fascists, Hungarians even more eager than his Nazis to deal with the Jews. One lecturer I heard this summer said that if the Hungarians had just done nothing – dragged their heels, refused to cooperate, stalled a bit – that the Jews of Budapest in particular would have survived. But, unfortunately, the Hungarian fascists were eager to be rid of their Jews.

Hungarian Jews felt they were fully Hungarian – they spoke the language, they Magyarized their names, they sent their children to state schools and they served proudly in the Hungarian Army. They embraced being Hungarian and minimized what made them Jewish. This was particularly true in Budapest. As a reward for this loyalty, synagogues in Budapest – unlike in other European cities – are large, on main streets, and are clearly Jewish. This equality with churches made Jews feel fully accepted. Dohany Synagogue is a massive structure on a Main Street with many Jewish symbols on the outside. Interestingly, this monument to the assimilation and full acceptance of Hungarian Jews is built on the property where the family of Theodore Herzl lived and where he was born. The man who dreamt of a state for the Jews was born into a community that felt it did not need one – it had one – Hungary. This may explain why I was shocked to find out he was from Budapest as he is always described as Austrian!

Neolog Judaism exists nowhere else and is a uniquely Hungarian expression of Judaism – it is a response to their history and patriotism as Hungarians. It was created by those Jews who said “We are Hungarians who are Jewish.” These Jews did not need a homeland. They were home – this really made me think about American Jews – and that of Budapest made me think particularly of Seattle Jews. As I toured Budapest and listened to a man in his 30s talk about growing up Jewish in Budapest and describe the Jewish community in Budapest today – I was struck by how similar it sounded to Seattle – low affiliation rate, cultural focus not religious, intermarriage, Jewish values being important and social action being a focus – the struggle to fill synagogues and schools – the lack of cohesion in the various parts of the community and the relatively young age of the community. Hearing about their current right wing government and rise in anti-Semitism as well as anti-refugee sentiment, made me think about the changing winds of our own country and my worries that our assimilation isn’t going to save us either. It made me think about how major political protests are all on Shabbat and the posts I have read begging the progressive community to have just one protest on a Sunday so observant Jews could attend. It made me think about having to choose between my Judaism and the rest of my identity and values when confronted with issues like this. I personally would most likely choose to participate, but what about those whose Jewish observance does not allow them to feel that they can make that choice? It made me think about the anti-Israel stream that runs through the progressive community and do i decide to participate despite this or do I remove myself? Do I break Shabbat to protest with those who then ask me to not include my Jewishness in my expression of outrage?

Truth is I don’t want to divide myself up – human/Jew/American/woman – it’s all me and I want to be able to act in way that is reflective of this. But it often leaves me adrift from true community, a fellowship of likeminded people, a place I feel fully myself but also fully a part of a larger whole. I find myself withdrawing from groups where I feel that some part of me isn’t welcome or accepted. And following the recent events in our nation, withdrawing from feeling welcome here at all. I know that we are a long way from where I should be panicking, but I also know that that distance can be travelled very quickly. A recent discussion online about whether or not violence against Nazis or Fascists was always ok reminded me how many people just don’t get how quickly. I was told that I should “wait till they are rounding you up to get violent.” I pointed out that if they were actually rounding Jews up, it would be far too late for a preventative violent response to be useful. That would mean there was a plan, and a place to send us. That this would not be the “beginning” as the person seemed to imply, but the “beginning of the end.”

I study and teach the history of the Holocaust and other genocides. I spend a lot, probably too much, of my time reading and discussing these events and the forces that allow them to happen. I know that the elimination of genocide is far more difficult than the saying “Never Again” seems to imply.We say that over and over as genocide continues to occur in multiple places. To end atrocities such as these, to end racism and homophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia, sexism and on and on – requires us to all be fully aware of our humanity and that of others. To be fully aware that we are – in the ways that truly matter – all the same – and that the differences are what makes life interesting and makes us each a unique gift.

Judaism teaches we are all made in the image of God – b’tzelem Elohim – and each contain a spark of the Divine. The Rabbi shared a midrash where the angels decided to hide that spark in each person because they would not find it there – but I think in reality we have a harder time finding it in others than in ourselves. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks defines a mensch as someone who looks for and connects to that spark of the Divine in each and every person they meet. This similarity is what we need to see in all others – but without discounting what makes them unique.

By giving up our differences we would lose what makes us special and makes the world beautiful. But, by seeing only the differences, we will destroy our world. History shows – in Germany where Jews were highly assimilated, in Austria, and in Hungary – that you giving up what makes you different will not protect you from those who refuse to quit seeing that difference even when you have quit showing it. By being fully human, fully ourselves -by maximizing the uniqueness in each one of us – while also recognizing the vital sameness of us all – we can make a world where acceptance and love replace bias and hate. Working for this world is the t’shuvah (return to God/godliness) I am resolving to work on in the coming year. I hope you will join me.

About nancesea

I live in Seattle with my husband Steve. I work as a Jewish educator, primarily teaching middle schoolers. My hobbies, when I have time, are reading, writing, music, and photography. I am passionate about teaching the lessons of the darkest periods history to help inspire my students to assure our future is brighter. I am a Museum Teacher Fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Memorial. I travel yearly to Central and Eastern Europe to continue to learn about this history and make connections with educators there doing similar work. I hope you enjoy my writing on my travels, my learning and Jewish thought and practice. B'vrachot - with blessings - Nance

3 responses »

  1. Thank you for writing this, Nance.

    I’ve felt for many years that we are just a heartbeat from a return to the days of burning witches at the stake, of targeting “the Other”. I decided in January this year that I cannot keep my mouth shut any longer. As you say, to wait till the knock on the door comes is way too late.

    Wake up, stand up, show up, speak up. We can’t allow fear to rule.

    Thank you Nance.

    Blessed be.

    Dawn

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