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Hills of Buda, Streets of Pesht

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After the Soviets left but before the economic downturn right wing take over, Jewish community prospered in Budapest. But as usual, when Jews prosper and non-Jews do not, it is not long before the Jews wear out their welcome. Little do most know, that in many ways, it has been a very good welcome, considering it is Hungary.
   Hungary is a strange European country. It’s language is closer to Turkish and Finish but really unlike an other and notoriously tough to learn: a family friend lived in Budapest for two years without learning the language. It is a country where a battle lost meant five hundred years of abstaining from colliding your cups during a toast. They are fighters, they are independent and they are different.
   This independence meant that lives of Jews depended heavily on where in the country they lived and which politics they sided with. Over the years as empires conquered Hungary, continuous revolts meant Jews were forced to side with one side or another and it often meant in the end, short-term expulsion and death to many regardless of the side taken.
   But this fighting nature and independence and nationhood rubbed off on the Jews, so it should not be a surprise that Zionism was born in Hungary. Herzl himself, the founder of Zionism was born on Dohany Street in downtown Pesht.
    The old quarter of Pesht used to be 23% Jewish. They lived there since first century AD and fought with the Slavs against Rome. It is home to several synagogues including the Dohany Street, world’s second largest synagogue. It is home to kosher shops, bars, antique stores with Judaica and Budapest’s swanky Chabad. Walking at night through bars, it is easy to strike up a conversation with someone and they are likely to be Jewish. The new, developing part of the city is also home to the young, hip Jews venturing out of inner Pesht and moving to new Pesht on the banks of the Danube. In Buda on the other side of the river, the wealthy live on the rolling green hills. Contrasting the Pesht wide streets, tall old buildings and criss-crossing trolleys and sun reflecting pavement bakes pedestrians with heat in the summer. Buda is like Central Park and Pesht is like lower East side. In Pesht nude statues hang from the buildings observing the barely clothed people in the streets and hedonistic naked tourists and students in the town’s Roman baths.
   Naturally, Pesht is where the Jews organized their businesses and built the Jewish University. In an attempt to blend in during times of turmoil, many hid their Jewishness like other Jews around the world. For that they were often even more disliked as it is impossible to truly hide who you are and hiding from hate never erases hate. 
   The synagogues are beautiful inside some dating from the Jewish renaissance when times were good and the unmarked synagogues hidden inside inauspicious buildings, built when times were bad. They practice a Hungarian form of Judaism: a mix of reform and conservative with male Rabbi, singing cantor and mixed seating. At the Dohany Street Synagogue, like a church, without a beemah, the tenor Chazan sings near the arch as if each Shabbat is a Puccini opera, his voice soaring to the high painted ceilings, resonating from the gold painted columns and rails, shining like the blond curls of the five-year old girl running around the synagogue, hiding behind the gold intricate rails near the ark.
    Jewish students from around the world come to study all subjects at the Jewish University with its own synagogue. People flock to bakeries at night where some serve Hungarian Jewish dishes. Ruin bars inside dilapidated Soviet era buildings serve Hungarian liquor to revelous students and young professionals. Every four years, Hungarians gathered to watch the Olympics at various bars and as Ireland’s team enters the stadium, TVs turn off and Israel team is absent from the eyes of Hungarians in spite of all the history of the Jews, and all the Israeli politicians with Hungarian background. History is repeating, the right and antisemitism are on the rise, Jews are leaving, another Jewish culture in Europe is disappearing. And as Jews of Hungary disappear, so do the future Hungarian-Jewish minds like Dennis Gabor, inventor of the Hologram, moving to other places and becoming future celebrities in places not afraid to give people freedom creating capitalists like George Soros, Intel founder and CEO Andras Grove, actors like Rachel Weiz and Adrien Brody.
In the 1940s, 50% of professionals were Jewish and Jews thought this was great. However, sharing the pie would not have hurt the Jewish people either. As Jews got the bigger pie at the end of soviet rule, without making sure others were lifted as well, helping more people to some of the opportunities, they ended up loosing it entirely. I believe it is not too late for both to start working together rather than against each other under the guise of antisemitism to make a better Hungary.

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