Archive for September, 2010

Herzl and a High Holiday in Hungary

I spent Yom Kippur in the beautiful Hungarian capital Budapest.

Coming from the northern part of the European Diaspora, I was struck by two things. First of all, I hadn’t really realized how many Jews still live in Hungary. Apparently, there were twenty different minyanim in Budapest on the Day of Atonement. Secondly, the security level was almost non-existent. So, not only are there tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest, but they feel safe and act accordingly.

For Kol Nidrei I went to the Great Synagogue on Dohány Street, the biggest Jewish house of worship in Europe and second only to Temple Emanuel in New York. The gilded, three-story synagogue has 2,964 seats and on the eve of Yom Kippur it was filled to capacity. Of course I’m not sure that there was a minyan of people who were actually following the service, but that’s not the point.

I, who actually did follow, can say that it was a fascinating experience – something of a combination of a Roman Catholic mass and an evening at the opera. Admittedly, it would be easy to make fun of the Neolog rite with its choir, organ and theatrical choreography, but one has to admit that it was a splendid spectacle and I would recommend it to anyone.

And all those party-poopers who tut disapprovingly and complain that what went down in Dohány isn’t Judaism, should remember that we actually have this kind of Habsburg baroque extravaganza to thank for the existence of the state of Israel.

Theodore Herzl, the Budapest-born father of political Zionism, was obsessed with finding a solution to the Jewish Question. One of his first ideas was conversion en masse of all the Jews, and he had even decided to lead by example and undergo baptism. (Yes, I know, that particular tidbit is usually left out of his biography at Bnei Akiva summer camp.)

However, Herzl decided that he would attend Kol Nidrei services one last time, and he was so overwhelmed by its beauty and grandeur that he decided to remain Jewish and find another solution to the predicament of his coreligionists.

The rest is history.

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September 23, 2010 at 19:14 Leave a comment

Monkey Business

I’ve just returned from Sweden, where I stocked up on books published since my last visit, and now during Rosh Hashanah I started to work on the stack of Swedish literature whenever I had a moment over between the davening, eating and shnatzing.

One of the books I read was Stephan Mendel-Enk’s Tre Apor (“Three Monkeys”). The story is about a Jewish boy growing up in Gothenburg in the 1980s, and what happens when his mother leaves his father for her non-Jewish boss.

Thematically, the book is more or less a version of A Serious Man, but related from the perspective of the son, but the Swedish 1980s setting creates a few unique literary gems. Mendel-Enk’s description of the cut-out Per Ahlmark columns on the fridge, his War-traumatized grandfather who divides the whole world into Jews and antisemites and the sporadic upholding of religious customs that no-one seems to understand anymore is priceless.

Another priceless scene is when the whole family is gathered in front of the television in 1979 to watch the Eurovision Song Contest hosted by Israel. Mendel-Enk describes how everyone where both immensely proud and deeply nervous that the idealized Jewish state would make a fool of itself – and of them – on live television before the whole world. Maybe, they asked themselves, she isn’t ready yet and should still keep to easier chores, such as winning wars in the desert, and not be entrusted with truly important tasks, like entertainment.

Tre Apor is a short novel. Maybe even a little too short, to my taste. It wouldn’t have hurt to add a little more meat to the bones, flesh out the characters and – to stretch a metaphor beyond breaking point – to give the reader a little more to chew on.

Or maybe that’s just me being greedy.

September 12, 2010 at 08:21 Leave a comment


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