Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Grand Benjypest Hotel / AirBnBenjy -- Pt. 2

Guests 4, 5, & 6:
Aaron and Ellie had an early morning flight on Christmas Day (the 25th), and in the early evening, my mom, dad, and sister Shira landed in Budapest. I surprised them at the airport and had a super out-of-body experience walking them around my neighborhood on the streets I know so well but are so far from home.
View of the Danube and Parliament from the Margaret Bridge. I walk past this magnificent overlook every time I go to synagogue or BBYO.

Our journeys together were fairly well documented on social media, but we really don't travel as a family, nor do we get to spend much time as a family these days, so we were just so excited to be on this adventure together. Of course, we missed my older sister Rena, who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam this year, but her visit wasn't far off (just a few blog posts away).

I prepared a pretty thorough Google Doc filled with activities for each day. The first day was Dec 26 and most things were still closed for the holiday, so I planned a grand walking tour of the city. It ended up being unseasonably gorgeous (low 50s! Not a very white Christmas...), so we ended up walking over 10 miles throughout the day to many many sites. From that first day, important thoughts about identity arose, including our national identities, our Jewish identities, and how those intersect historically and personally.

During another day of the trip, a wonderful tour guide showed us through some of the Jewish Quarter's important sites, highlighted of course by the Dohany Street Synagogue, a massive 3-story synagogue right in the heart of town. We saw other historic synagogues, a mass grave from WWII, Herzl's birthplace, and various monuments. It's hard to explain how special it was to have my family with me to explore Judaism's rich and complicated history in this city where I now live.

The same guide took us the next day to the Buda Castle and other sites on Castle Hill like Matthias Church and Fisherman's Bastion. Again, the layers of history in this city really humbled us and made us realize that while we love Chicago, its history feigns in comparison to Budapest and most major European cities. It's not a statement about which city is better, but we just aren't used to cities having identities emerge because of millennia of political upheaval, interactions between various cultures, official religious affiliation, and wars.

We spent Friday morning at the Szechenyi Bath House, one of Budapest's famous thermal baths, where we lounged in the heated pools both inside and outside. After feeling refreshed, we raced home to prepare a Shabbat dinner before Shabbat started at around 3:45 PM. Mom had pretty incredible vision and delegated tasks to Shira and me, and we managed to prepare a wonderful meal just as it was time to light Chanukah and Shabbat candles. After attending the Frankel Synagogue, where my family got to see where I go for shul almost every week, we returned for dinner with my friends Zsófi and Juci who are sisters. I work with Zsófi in BBYO, and with Juci in other Jewish community capacities. Especially since the Jewish exploration of Budapest carries with it a dark legacy, it was so wonderful that we also celebrated the vibrant and special Jewish community of Budapest today through experiences like Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat dinner. We also attended a family Chanukah party at the JCC and a BBYO candle lighting at someone's house. Altogether, it was a pretty comprehensive glimpse into the history and present day Jewish landscape of this city.

From Budapest, we took a New Years Day AM train to Vienna. Taking trains between most European countries is as simple as the train from Chicago to St. Louis. No security, no customs. Just get to your assigned seat, hang out for a couple hours, and step off into a whole new country with a different language, different currency, and its own very unique history. Vienna is gorgeous. Its architecture is similar to Budapest, but much of it was rebuilt and renovated after WWII.

When my maternal grandfather was growing up in upstate New York with his 3 brothers, his family decided to host an Austrian foreign exchange student, and Gerda and her family have remained an integral part of the extended family ever since. I had never met Gerda, but when my mom was 15, she stayed with Gerda's family in Vienna and went on a little road trip with them. Decades later, our family stayed at the very same beautiful house in Vienna with Gerda. Staying with Gerda was an absolute gift. She could not have been a more wonderful hostess, offering us beautiful and delicious meals, excellent conversation, and deep wisdom. We knew Gerda had spent some of her youth in Budapest, but I didn't find out until that visit that she and her family miraculously survived the Shoah in Budapest, and spent 9 months in hiding in an apartment not far from mine, on a street that I have walked numerous times.

Saying goodbye to family is never easily, but I felt so enriched and fulfilled by their visit that I carried with me only contentment once they departed. Coming from a family that prioritized Jewish education over travel, it was gratifying beyond words to have this once-in-a-lifetime travel experience that naturally had such important focus on Jewish identity. It felt like so much of my life had led up to an experience like this with my family, and I'm so excited that this experience is but another chapter in my life that I will be able to carry with me onward.

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