Whether you are a strictly observant Jew or not, it is reassuring to know that during a visit to Budapest you can eat at a kosher restaurant. Not only that, if you want snacks during long walks in the Budapest Jewish District, you can buy those at the local shop. There is the Oblath Kosher Shop on Dob Utca and Hannah’s Kosher Restaurant just up the street. In fact, most shops and cafes catering for kosher visitors are in the same area so as long as you are in the city center you will never be far from a kosher shop or restaurant.
This thriving community gave famous people like media mogul Josef Pulitzer, scientists Edward Teller and Leo Szilard, conductor George Solti and George Szell, actor Tony Curtis, actress Zsazsa Gabor, director George Cukor and philantropist George Soros to the world.
The Budapest Jewish Community is the largest in eastern Europe. If you come from far away as a tourist or business visitor, you will have plenty of things to do and see in the Budapest Jewish district. There are kosher restaurants in Budapest, shops and cafes to cater for any needs. On a recent visit to Budapest’s Jewish district I struck gold when, by total chance, I met the wife of an Orthodox Synagogue’s caretaker and she gave me a tour of the Budapest Jewish District.
I was showing a Jewish friend around in Budapest when we decided to take a break in a café. It was full but, as it turned out later, it was to our advantage. I asked a woman if we could share her table and she answered: “Yes, of course, I got my seat the same way an hour earlier!”
After a short chat, Katalin revealed she was Jewish and she offered to guide us around the district for two days. She showed us the synagogue her husband looks after, as well as the largest and smallest synagogues in Europe. She took us to recently opened local Jewish restaurants, bars and pastry shops and she also introduced us to Rabbi Moshe T. Weiszberger, who was the Rav of the Budapest Orthodox community at the time.
Hanna Orthodox Glatt Kosher Restaurant in Budapest
The shop and the restaurant was at the time administered by Zev Paskesz, Grand Secretary of the Hungarian Autonom Orthodox Israelite Council.
The Hungarian Autonom Orthodox Israelite Council’s building is next door, overlooking the local kosher restaurant and a large, functioning Orthodox synagogue.
“We supply the community with kosher food through our own kosher butcher shop and restaurant downstairs,” the orthodox rabbi told me when we met. “Until we opened the shop, religious Jews had to pre-order kosher food from a trusted butcher. Since we opened, more and more people use us as their local store,” the rabbi said.
“We started selling milk and dairy products in 2011 and our sales have gone up considerably. There has been an increased interest in traditional kosher food stuff in recent years.”
The Oblath Kosher Shop in Budapest
“When I graduated from high school I wanted to learn about myself and my religion so I took up yeshiva classes,” said Andras Oblath, owner of a kosher shop in Dob utca.
Oblath said he opened the shop to help his community. Now his shop has hundreds of customers and it supplies the local kosher restaurants. They also export to Poland, Romania and the Ukraine.
Since the fall of the iron curtain in Hungary in 1989 Jewish people have been able to practice their religion freely. As a result, many of the younger generation now want to learn about their past and traditions and shop kosher food. Also, there are a lot of young people who do not know how to identify themselves as they were born in mixed marriages and now want to discover their roots.
“Before I opened this shop we had to go to Vienna, 200 miles from here, to buy kosher food. Now we export to neighboring countries,” added Oblath. The community’s future now depends on the younger generation which, the elders hope, will carry on the Jewish traditions for generations to come.
Attending a Synagogue During a Visit to Budapest
“It is very hard to fill prayer rooms and synagogues during the week but at least on Saturdays young ones come too,” said elders present at an evening minyan I visited during my stay in Budapest. “Nowadays there are definitely more youngsters attending prayers on Saturdays than 30 or 40 years ago.”
The Budapest Jewish community is trying to lure the younger generations closer to the religion by organising free events with food and drink and weekend religious activities where young Jews can meet other people of their age.
There are also religious classroom activities and extracurricular projects where young Jews can learn more about their roots and the religion.
A place where there is a large emphasis on religious activities is the Wesselenyi Utcai Iskola. It is an Orthodox kindergarten, primary and high school in one building.
Here, there is morning prayer and classes are taught in Hebrew, English and Hungarian. The school in 2011 had 70 students, mostly from Orthodox families.
“We aim to provide the kids with an education that helps them develop strong ties to the Jewish community and religion. Only the young ones can carry on our traditions,” said Dov Levy, religious director of the school in 2011.
The Aftermath of War
Hungary was ravaged by World War II and it lost more than three-quarters of its Jewish population. In 1941 Hungary had a population of 725,000 Jews, 400,000 within the current borders, of which 185,000 lived in the capital city Budapest.
In the aftermath of the war a lot of the surviving religious Jews left Hungary. The remaining families did not encourage their children to get involved with anything that could identify them as Jewish for fear of discrimination. As a result, the third and fourth generations since the war have become greatly distanced from the religion and traditions.
The Newly Thriving Budapest Jewish Community
Today, even with only 100,000 residents, most of whom reside in Budapest, Hungary has the largest Jewish population in Central-Eastern Europe. There is a Jewish hospital with kosher food and Jewish doctors, three schools with 1,000 students, a Jewish university to train rabbis and teachers and 26 active synagogues.
There is also a bi-weekly called Uj Elet (New Life), many cultural and youth organizations and a world renowned Jewish Summer Festival.
“The youth holds the key to preserving our traditions, so we must ensure they receive a strong religious education. The fruit of our labour may not be visible tomorrow – that’s why we think in generations,” Levy said.
“If we succeed in bringing at least some children back to the synagogues there is hope that they may pass on our teachings to their kids too,” Levy said.