Herzl and a High Holiday in Hungary

September 23, 2010 at 19:14 Leave a comment

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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Entry filed under: Judaism.

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