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31 Days in the Jewish Quarter Day 1 – What’s “The Jewish Quarter”?

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31daysWalking in the historic streets of many a European city, the tourist will run into the the Jewish Quarter. Many times people think of them as a “ghetto”, which the given area might or might not have been.

The  Historic Jewish Quarter of Budapest, Hungary was partially turned into the Budapest Ghetto during the Shoah (Holocaust), but it wasn’t a ghetto before it. It was an area settled by many Jews, and it has an abundance of still functioning and now defunct synagogues: Orthodox, Neologue and Chassid alike. The old Jewish schools stood here, and some of the new ones are also located in this area. The Historic Jewish Quarter is also the center of today’s Jewish life, as the survivours settled in their old neighbourhoods upon their return. The Bálint Ház, a Jewish community centre, the kosher butcher, grocer and restaurants are all within a few blocks from each other. Walking tours are organized for locals and tourists alike, and events of the Jewish Summer Festival are usually concentrated in this section of Budapest.

In Cracow, Poland, the historic Jewish Quarter is even better defined: it’s the whole district of Kazimierz, a formerly independent town, settled by Jews. Walking into the area one is greeted by a string of kosher restaurants and Judaica shops, much more public–and tourist aimed–than their counterparts in Budapest. My favourite restaurant and the best café in the city are found here. They, too, have working synagogues, and they, tooPolska 422 have a wonderful Jewish festival each year. Did I mention the best coffee in time? (It can’t get enough mention. If you are in town, you have to try the Cheder.) The market in the New Square sells some of the typical local fast food (huge, one sided heated sandwiches), vegetables, clothes, meat, antiques and Judaica. It’s a must see for anyone, who visits there.  Adding a few hours to the Kazimierz tour one can also visit Oskar Schindler’s factory, made famous in the book and film “Schindler’s List“.

The capital city of the Czech Republic, Prague, also has a beautiful Jewish district, with several functional synagogues, a cultural centre and a historic cemetery. I bought one of my favourite kipot there. It’s also home to the Golem.

What’s common in all three areas, and many others throughout the world, is that as soon as someone enters the area, they can see the past, the footprints of the generations of Jews who lived there, and the memento of a community (mostly) wiped out by the Shoah. Obvious and less obvious signs that they were there, they lived there, and loved there. The signs of the faith, the hope are there. In this way, my life as a secular Jew resembles the old Jewish Quarters: I carry the subtle reminders of my ancestors’ faith, heritage and hopes.

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©Bogár Ferenc 2007

The Dohány Synagogue in Budapest. Photo from http://kepeim.net

Back to Budapest

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So I’m back in Budapest, the city I called my home for a total of 9 years. It’s lovely, to tell you the truth. It’s good to be in a place where I know the names of the streets and understand the language. After over three years in Israel I still feel like a stranger. After three decades in Israel I’ll still get lost, watch my words!

While I don’t have much time here, be prepared for part two of my comfort food post coming, because I’ll go visit a grocery shop…. or two while here.

1% – Children's Railway

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This is about taxes. 2011 was the last year when I actually had to pay income taxes in Hungary, and in Hungary you can offer 1% of your income to a church and another 1% to a non-profit. The first 1% is a no-brainer, it goes to the MAZSIHISZ. The second 1% is, however, a tougher choice. There are so many competing non-profits who want my meager 1%!

I definitely know who won’t get my 1%. It won’t be any of the animal shelters, because first I’m not that much of an animal lover, second, I hate all the shock tactics they use in their advertising. Definitely won’t be offering my 1% to kids with cancer funds, because there are just so many of them I can’t choose. It won’t go to Jewish charities or schools either, because then I feel like I just want to benefit from my own 1% a little too much.

After ruling out dozens if not hundreds of options, I once again end up with the same option as in the last few years: the Children’s Railway! In case you didn’t know, there is an 11 km long narrow gauge railway in the Buda hills that is operated by children ages 10 through 14. It was called Pioneer Railway in times past. The engines are driven by adults, and adults do supervise the children, but they remain mostly invisible. The Pioneer Railway opened in 1948, and I remember traveling with them on their 50th birthday, when the stations got their socialist era names back for a year, and former pioneer railway staff–now adults–took the kids’ place for a day, wearing the classic pioneer uniform. It was a fun day in a very not fun summer for me!

The Children’s Railway was also the place of one of the twins’ birthday parties, and we hope to do a belated birthday party for them this summer at the same place. Except now just taking our family will fill up the party car we rented back then! So I guess we’ll have to go with the larger one! It should be fun to do again, and still cheaper than renting a play place. Considering that many of oour kids are train fanatics, this would be the most perfect place for them all.

Till then, I will just offer my 1%. It will hopefully help keeping alive the largest such establishment, a great tradition of Budapest and Hungary. One that survived the fall of Socialism, the crisis of the Hungarian railways, the economic recession of the last half decade, and will probably survice the present Hungarian government, too.

Just a photo

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I found this photo on my phone. Taken during my last trip to Budapest, it reminded me of how happy I was when I caught a tram that went to the depot, because it took me a lot closer to my flat than the regular ones. Simple joys of life.

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