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Exploring Jewish Budapest: part two

Signing off the first of this two-part series on Jewish Budapest, I wrote “In part two, I’ll take a look at modern Jewish life in Budapest. I’ll attempt to find out what means to be Jewish and Hungarian in the city today. This will also involve introducing you to some Jewish restaurants, bars and cafes which are rather more off the beaten track.” It turns out that being Jewish and Hungarian in Budapest today can mean a number of different things.

Inside Fröhlich Kóser Cukrászda on Dob utca.

When I spoke to Péter Deutsch, Rabbi of the Bethlen tér Synagogue – originally built for the National Israelite Institute for the Deaf and Dumb in 1876 – he told me that, for him, it was all about being part of the Budapest Jewish community, and MAZSIHISZ, the Hungarian Federation of Jewish Communities. 

“Here in Budapest,” Deutsch says, “we have everything for our everyday life. There are many synagogues, Maccabi sports teams, kosher restaurants, a mikveh ritual bath, Jewish schools, universities and old age homes. We also have a kosher social kitchen and these are becoming a big thing in Europe. It’s all about being part of the community, not taking advantage of it.” Maccabi, by the way, is a Jewish organization whose mission is to “Promote Jewish identity through sport”.

For writer and musician Bob Cohen, it’s a little more complicated. “There are actually a number of competing identities,” he says, “which can be religious – Neolog or Modern Orthodox, Orthodox itself or Hasidic, for instance – social and political. And, out of the Hungarian Jewish population of around 100,000 only 25-50,000 identify as Jews. Also, don’t forget that being Hungarian is extremely important for Jewish people here too. Many Jews describe themselves as ‘Hungarians of the Mosaic Faith’. This can manifest itself in interesting ways. The kosher butcher I go to offers bacon substitutes made using goose because Hungarians must have their smoked meats. Most Hungarian Jews wouldn’t dream of not celebrating Christmas.”

Mazel Tov cafe & cultural space at Akácfa utca.

Budapest-born entrepreneur Pál Temesvári, suggests that the Budapest Jewish identity “is a secular one. Jews are over-represented in Budapest’s intellectual scene and that’s been the case for ages. And as Budapest Jews are traditionally not that religious, they often marry out of the faith, so there are a tremendous amount of mixed families carrying with them the intellectual heritage of our ancestors. If you walk around Budapest, you see traces of this healthy level of coexistence in the city’s architecture. Nowhere else in Europe is the Jewish presence represented so visibly. Personally, I’m defined by the liberal standards of my family. If I had to describe the Budapest Jewish identity, I would just call it the cradle of liberal intellectualism in Budapest.”

I asked Cohen, who lives in the seventh district, what he thought about the concept of what’s been called the “Jewish hipster revival” of old Budapest.

“I wouldn’t say this is particularly Jewish,” he says. “It’s simply that this is a traditional Jewish neighborhood and, back in 2008, some of the first ruin pubs were opened by young Jewish people, who had good connections in the area. They were often people who’d gone to Israel in the 1990s and got some business sense. The Seventh is really about commercialized drinking.”

The 2008 financial crisis hit at the time of a boom in construction in Budapest. After the money run out, half-built structures were left empty and the first ruin pubs sprung up. Apparently, inspiration came from the pop up bars of Tel Aviv.

Temesvári is one of the generation that feels close ties to Israel. “I was born in Budapest and lived here until I was 17. I then moved to Israel, spent some time in Berlin and came back in 2005. I consider myself Israeli just as much as Hungarian. I came back because I love Pest and love to live here.”

There’s nothing new there, of course: Theodor Herzl, one of the fathers of modern Zionism, was born in Budapest in 1860.

A new spirit, a proud tradition

Today the seventh district is a fascinating mix of old and new Jewish culture. According to some commentators, the Israeli influence, brought back by people like Temesvári, has led to a sense that it’s all about acknowledging the past while creating a new Jewish spirit of Budapest.

Rabbi Deutsch, whose synagogue is also in the seventh district, shares this vision. When I asked him what his favorite thing to do in Budapest was, he said “Sport. I think it brings young people and the different religions together, which is important. I hope that in future we’ll have the World Maccabiah Games, the Jewish sporting event, here.”

My first exposure to Budapest was wandering around that same district. I was fascinated by the way in which surviving outposts of traditional Jewish culture sit alongside restaurants and bars serving what you might call “Jewveau” or “Jewsion” cuisine.

One of the first meals I ever ate in Budapest was at Yiddishe Mamma Mia in Gozsdu udvar Passage ‘D’ that runs between Király utca and Dob utca. I had some kind of pasta, chicken liver dish that was delicious, even if it felt like fat was being injected directly into my veins.

A short walk from Yiddishe Mamma Mia is Fröhlich Kóser Cukrászda on Dob utca, where everything is kosher, made without milk or eggs. Fröhlich’s is a particular favorite of Bob Cohen.

Waxing lyrical about Fröhlich’s on his blog, Cohen writes: “Every now and then the baker, an elderly gent, emerges from the back room, covered head to toe in flour, to kibbitz a bit with the patrons until he is shooed back into the kitchen by his wife. Not everybody comes because Fröhlich Cukrászda is kosher. Most come because Fröhlich is the social hub of the neighborhood. And also the home of the world’s best flodni.”

Now that I’m a mission to find the best flodni in Budapest, my next stop will have to be Fröhlich’s. Incidentally, ‘fröhlich’ means happy in Yiddish. I’m sure I will be.

Mazel Tov cafe & cultural space at Akácfa utca.