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.


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

The Hardest Word

Israel has now received its own, admittedly watered-down, version of the Abu Ghraib scandal. In the original, American service men and women posed next to naked and humiliated Iraqi soldiers. In the Israeli version, a female ex-soldier from Ashdod has posted pictures of herself on Facebook next to blindfolded Palestinian prisoners.

The pictures have caused outrage more or less everywhere, from the IDF to the international media, and the girl is met with universal condemnation. What, then, is her response now in the month of slikhot?

According to Israel Hayom, she says: “I’m sorry if I hurt anyone.”

If you hurt anyone? If?

It would seem that the ability to accept responsibility displayed by the Chief of Staff Ashkenazi the other day doesn’t extend all the way down through the organization.

August 17, 2010 at 14:24 Leave a comment

Führer of the Hill

According to Swedish custom, the climber who first reaches a new peak gets the privilege to name it. Haaretz reports that some climbers with a highly developed interest in the Second World War and a somewhat less developed sense for decorum have used this privilege to give mountains they’ve conquered in Järfälla, not far from Stockholm, names such as “Little Hitler”, “Zyklon”, “Crematorium” and “Third Reich”.

I’m not sure what surprises me the most about this story. I guess it must be the news that there are mountains in the Järfälla area.

UPDATE: The report in Haaretz seems to be based on this article in Dagens Nyheter. At least that clears up the mountain issue.

August 16, 2010 at 10:09 1 comment

Zuabi, Lies and Videotape

Knesset member Hanin Zuabi (Balad) participated in the Flotilla to Gaza, and was present onboard Mavi Marmara when the Israeli marines boarded the ship. Immediately after she was brought ashore, she gave interviews to just about anyone who was willing to listen where she adamantly claimed that she hadn’t seen any armed activists. Beyond that, she also claimed that she had pleaded with the IDF begging them to help the wounded Turkish activists afterward, but the Israeli soldiers refused.

Yesterday, Galei Tzahal published footage that shows MK Zuabi before the boarding, milling about next to activists onboard Mavi Marmara preparing to attack the Israeli commandos. Worse than that, there’s also footage of her arguing with Israeli marines. But unfortunately for Zuabi, the film doesn’t exactly back up her version of the events. It doesn’t show her pleading for the IDF medical staff to treat the wounded Turkish activists. Instead, mind bogglingly enough, she can be seen arguing with the marines trying to stop them from treating the wounded Turks.

I’m afraid Hanin Zuabi has been caught with her pants down, and – as the saying goes – they’re on fire.

The footage can be viewed here.

August 12, 2010 at 04:54 Leave a comment

On Political and Real Responsibility

The Tirkel Committee investigating the events surrounding the boarding of the Flotilla to Gaza in the end of May has started to hear testimonies this week.

The first one to give testimony was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Monday, he declared that he was ultimately responsible since he’s the Prime Minister. But, he added, he was abroad after all, so in practical terms Ehud Barak made all the decisions.

Yesterday, Minister of Defense Ehud Barak was summoned to the committee. He, too, took full responsibility for the events. That is, full political responsibility. In practical terms, he stressed, it was the army that made all the practical decisions.

Today it’s Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi’s turn to testify before the Tirkel Committee. Let’s see if someone will finally assume some real responsibility, or if he too will pass it on to someone else lower down in the political food chain.

UPDATE: Ashkenazi did indeed assume full responsibility without hinting that it really lies elsewhere. More interestingly, perhaps, was his statement that the IDF didn’t know that IHH was a hostile organization. Can that really be? Is there no one in all of the intelligence establishment in this country who speaks Turkish? Not a single one?

August 11, 2010 at 05:17 3 comments

Nuclear Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

An Iranian official calls for a crack-down against cigarettes smuggled into the Islamic Republic. The reason is not – as someone might foolishly believe – that cigarettes cause bad breath, yellow teeth, lung cancer and other unpleasantness. No, the Iranian official warned that “the Zionists” behind the international tobacco company Philip Morris (no, not Phillip Morris) fill their cigarettes with radioactive waste and pigs’ blood – thus rendering them not only extra lethal but also haram.

Nordic Dervish points out how fortunate it is that the perfidious Jews at least haven’t been able to get their hands on the locally produced Iranian cigarettes. Pious Iranian smokers can safely continue with their nasty habits as long as they stay away from the foreign brands.

August 8, 2010 at 11:01 1 comment

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