Eastern approaches Budapest’s Jewish festival
THIRTEEN is a significant age in Jewish life. When boy reaches his 13th birthday he is called to read the Torah in the synagogue, and from then on is considered to be responsible for his actions. He becomes a Bar Mitzvah, meaning a son of the commandments. Strictly speaking of course, a cultural extravaganza cannot have a Bar Mitzvah, but this year’s Budapest Jewish Summer Festival, an eclectic mixture of concerts, performances and art and cultural events which runs until September 6th, is proudly celebrating its 13th birthday and the ever-growing audiences who flock to its impressive events.
The festival opened last night with a magnificent concert by the Boban Markovic Orchestra, the world’s best known Serbian gypsy brass band ensemble, in the Great Synagogue on Dohany Street in downtown Pest. The synagogue, which holds 3,000 people, is the centre of Jewish life in Hungary. The synagogue was built in the mid-19th century in a neo-Moorish style and has been beautifully restored to its former glory. Playing to a packed house the orchestra kicked off with a rousing rendition of „Hava Nagila„, probably the best known traditional Jewish song. The thumping Balkan beat soon had even dowager grandmas clapping along. The Boban Markovic Orchestra is the latest in a long line of renowned musicians to perform here: a century ago both Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saëns played the synagogue’s organ.
It was an interesting choice to open a Jewish cultural festival with a Serbian gypsy band. Partly because of their shared history of persecution, Jews and Roma often feel a kind of kinship. But despite the glorious life-affirming emotion of hearing „Hava Nagila” inside the synagogue, there was a poignant aspect to the concert, for this corner of Dohany street is a haunted place. The small Jewish cemetery behind the main hall houses the remains of perhaps 2,000 people who died of sickness and starvation during the winter of 1944-45 as the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross ran wild and the Red army steadily advanced, until the ghetto was finally liberated in January 1945.
Despite the Holocaust and subsequent waves of Jewish emigration, Hungary is still home to around 80,000 Jews, the third largest community in mainland Europe after Paris and Berlin. Most live in Budapest, which is enjoying a revival of Jewish culture. The Jewish quarter, the maze of narrow streets and alleys behind the Great Synagogue, is now the trendiest part of town, home to a myriad of cool bars, outdoor cafés and gardens.
The Jewish summer festival, which is heavily promoted across the city, is the latest sign of a growing confidence in Hungarian Jewish public life. Last winter the capital hosted its largest ever Hannukah festival. The Quarter6Quarter7 festival—named for Budapest’s historic Jewish areas—more bohemian than its big summer brother, saw more than 130 events from street art to jazz. Despite the ravages of property developers (many of whom, ironically, are Israeli) keen to snap up cheap, dilapidated downtown buildings, districts 6 and 7 retain a unique atmosphere. A walk here at night, if you can wish away the cars, is a kind of time-travel back to pre-war Mitteleuropa. As Hungary’s Jews and their friends prepare to celebrate the new year next month, the Jewish Summer Festival is a spirited reminder of the Hebrew toast, one especially resonant in Budapest: L’chaim („To life”)!