Sunday, September 18, 2016

First Impressions


Being in Budapest has been a fascinating experience on many levels, and also challenging in the ways I expected. The way the fellowship works, you sort of just get plopped down in a foreign land. Of course, Linda and Tomi have been incredible hosts, helping both personally and logistically as I settle in. However, at the end of the day, I am here without knowing the common tongue, without any of my close friends or family, and without a whole lot to do. Coming to Budapest as a tourist would be great, because I would go right to the most fun attractions, see the most beautiful sights, have fun, and be on my way. I do not feel like a tourist. Walking around, I think to myself about how foreign I feel in the place that I live. Of course, I still am taking in the beauty of the city and the culture. The city has a pretty consistent feel to it. The streets are lined with all sorts of shops and cafes, and above those are apartments. The whole city seems like a pretty even 5 stories in height, which I think is because buildings aren’t allowed (or weren’t allowed) to be taller than the main church here. Most of the buildings have the same late 19th/early 20th century look to them, which has a sort of elegant feel to it. Some of the architecture is truly extraordinary. The Parliament building, resting regally aside the Danube, is the most obvious piece of breathtaking architectural genius. 

My first few days were filled with some handling of logistics (RE: apartment), some aimless wandering, and some getting acclimated with the help of Linda, Rabbi Tomi, and their family. 

I would say my first exciting (and blog-worthy) happenings surrounded preparing for my first Shabbat. My Shabbat routine has usually been pretty consistent, and it occurred to me that I was pretty unprepared for what to do here. 

Before Shabbat, I had a few hours of free time. There is a Kosher market about 40 min away walking, and I decided to go for it. I haven’t tried public transportation on my own, being a suburban kid in a foreign country, but I will overcome that fear and hop on soon. The walk was nice and I arrived at a small market with mostly Israeli brands. I bought hummus and a pack of deli meat. At the checkout, I met an Israeli med student who said there are lots of Israeli students studying here, and he added me on Facebook. He was going to Chabad for his meal. I walked back home feeling pretty accomplished holding my kosher deli meat in my bag.

Rabbi Tomi’s shul is Neolog, which is the biggest denomination here. I promised that I would try and find out more about it, so here are my first impressions/initial understandings. Neolog shuls seem to have vibes of very traditional Judaism. The prayer service basically mirrors an Orthodox one, it is not egalitarian, and men and women sit separately, although without a mechitzah. Further, almost all Neologs do not actually practice halachic Judaism in their homes. Outside of Orthodoxy, it is incredibly rare to find someone who keeps Shabbat and Kashrut.*** Friday night is the big night for Shabbat, because the tunes are easier to pick up and the service is shorter. After shul, people go out to dinner or out for some weekend entertainment. I noticed that mi sheberach for cholim and for the State of Israel and the IDF were all said on Friday night. I’m guessing that was because people connect to those and want to hear them, but they only come to shul on Fridays. 

(***Side note on Kashrut. There are a couple kosher supermarkets here, but when you go to an ordinary market, ordinary products like chips or cookies will not have a hechsher like they do in the States. Keeping kosher here (besides the very machmir religious people, of which I’m sure there are few) means not eating milk and meat together, and only buying kosher meat. It is a waste of time and money to try and find only hechshered dairy products. On my first day here, I went to Linda’s parents house because she needed to stop by. Her mother offered me chicken and Linda said it’s not kosher (enough for me), and Linda’s mom responded, “it’s chicken! it’s chicken!”, the implication being “Son, you are going to starve if you are this picky about these things.” )

Rabbi Tomi’s shul is on the Buda side of the river, so my walk to shul included a walk across a gorgeous bridge with the Parliament and Castle decorating the periphery along the shores. It seems like all apartment buildings have a central courtyard. The synagogue was built in the late 1800s, and about 30 years later, an apartment complex was built around it. The apartments were filled with Jews, and the apartment complex helped to conceal the synagogue. During WWII, almost all of those Jews were murdered. To this day, the synagogue doesn’t have a great relationship with some of the apartment residents, because they are the children and grandchildren of the people who moved in to the “vacant” apartments during the war.

I appreciated the warm welcome that Tomi offered me before his congregation, and the welcomes that people offered me. Walking up to the shul, I noticed a guy not-so-inconspicuously standing around the gate, who I understood was the security man. Every synagogue has one outside the doors. I walked up sheepishly and pointed to the shul and said to him “is that the synagogue” and he said “why are you asking me?” I said, I’m Jewish and pointed to my kippah and I told him my name, and he knew who I was and let me in. Once in shul, some people came up to welcome me. One guy about my age said he lives with some other Jewish guys and would love to have me over at some point. That meant a lot to me. Some people pointed out with great pride how gently and kindly Rabbi Tomi and Linda treat the children of the shul, and I could tell that they really do show such love towards all of the kids there. 

Finding me a Kosher Shabbat seudah was not so easy. In the end, Linda set me up with Gabor, the head of Jewish studies at the Lauder School, the large Jewish school in Budapest (with over 700 kids from preschool through high school). I managed to find his apartment without my phone thanks to maps that Linda drew for me. Gabor had his friend over who had made aliyah and spent time studying at the CY and Pardes, and we bonded over some mutual friends and experiences. The seudah was really lovely, and it felt great to have a cozy and familiar Shabbat experience my first week there. Turns out that when Rebecca Schorsch did her year with the JDC in Budapest in 1989, she and Gabor were close friends. He even pointed out her old apartment to me, just a block or two down my same street!

Gabor told me I could come to shul the next morning if I wanted. I managed to sleep past 9AM (my best yet!), but still had plenty of time to kill before Shabbat ended, so I went because it was close by. It was an orthodox shul, and an older crowd. I had first aliyah (levi bimkom cohen), which was nice. An old man came up to me and was saying things in a harsh whisper in Hungarian. I think he didn’t like my blue tallit. Oh well.. Afterwards, there was a little kiddush highlighted by a vast alcohol collection, and I had a little cup of whisky and some cake and pretzels. 

I went home and napped for a few hours (no relation to that one cup of whisky), but still had a lot of time to kill until Shabbat ended. It was also raining a little, and it felt like time was moving very slowly without much to do. The rain subsided and I decided to go for a run. Off the bridge that I crossed to go into Buda for shul, there is the Margaret Island, which is like Budapest’s Central Park. The Danube is maybe as wide as the Mississippi, and this island runs narrowly down it, probably about a mile long. There are parks, and zoos, and pools, and all sorts of things happening there. There is a 5K track along the perimeter, so I ran one lap, with the Danube always on my right side. 

After showering, eating a sandwich with my kosher deli, and reading a little, Shabbat had ended.

After Shabbat, I met up with the BBYO madrichim, with whom I’ll be working closely this year. Szófi met me near my apartment to help walk me over to meet the rest. She is a 24 year old grad student who is very involved in “the community” (which is the way people describe their involvement in the Jewish community). I loved the chance to talk to her and hear about her life, and have her point things out to me along the walk. We met up with Noemi and her sister first. Noemi’s dad is American and she was born there and has lived there for a number of years. She is a senior in high school now. She has perfect English, but Szófi's English is also at an incredibly high level.*** We walked to a ruins bar, which is a Hungarian specialty. Many decrepit buildings were transformed into really cool pubs in the area that was once the Jewish ghetto. We found a table at one pub, and we were ultimately joined by David (who is a junior in high school) and Imola (who is almost 21). Also, Vera joined us, who works with the BBYO JR group. It was really a great time just hanging out with them. They are all incredibly nice, and we carried good conversation throughout the evening. They asked me “So… are you like really really Jewish?” and I said that my answer differs slightly when an American and a Hungarian asks me, but I suppose the answer is yes, being a shomer shabbat and kashrut person. But I shared that many of my Jewish views are considered quite progressive, and that I am also generally comfortable at least trying out all sorts of Jewish spaces.
***Side note on language: I'm pretty sure most kids learn English in school. Between middle school and high school, I think that students take a year just to learn foreign languages. I think either most include English, or English might be required. 

We also talked about BBYO here, and where I fit in to the picture. They have a lot of fun, and their membership is pretty incredible considering they are just one year old, but none of them are trained in how to give real structure to their chapter. They want to know more about how to create a calendar with diverse events, how to adapt some of the broader BBYO initiatives and program models (in terms of Israel advocacy and awareness, tikkun olam, and social events), and just kind of generally give more direction to their program. I think I can definitely help try and give them a sense of direction and structure. They and Linda all shared with me that they had a hard time choosing between me and another candidate whose forte is that he brings much more pure fun to the table. Ultimately, they decided that my sort of professional outlook and familiarity with the youth group model was what they needed most during this infancy period for their chapter.

So that's where I am now! I'm finishing this post from my new apartment, which is beautiful, and it just feels so nice to finally settle in to my home. Overall, it's been a great adventure so far! Moving to a new country has all sorts of interesting challenges which I could devote a whole blog post to, but I don't want to sound unhappy, because I am truly not. But all things considered, it has been interesting, exciting, and successful in many different ways.

Looking forward to what this next week brings!!!!

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