Is there a Hungarian Jewish identity and does it have a future?

Gábor Fináli, a rabbi in Budapest, wrote a fascinating essay in Szombat, a weekly Jewish community magazine, about what he sees as both the lack of a clearly defined Hungarian Jewish identity and the decline in progressive thought within Hungary’s Jewish community. It’s an insightful piece, considering that often the starting point for any discussion of Hungarian Jews is their historically high level of integration and assimilation into broader Hungarian society, and their connection to the Hungarian national identity. Rábbi Fináli believes that the problem is the lack of clarity in terms of what it means to be both Hungarian and Jewish–the inconspicuous nature of this hyphenated identity. This poses existential questions about the future of the Neolog Jewish community in Hungary.

According to Rabbi Fináli, Hungarian Jewish identity is not self-evident:

“It is built on the legacy of the Holocaust or on the successes of Israel. In other words, it does not relate directly to our home and to the present. We did not create our own origins and the Israeli success story does not belong to us–we did not contribute to it, we do not live it and we do not live there. We are here. It is not connected to our everyday, we don’t know much about it. We simply idealise it. (…) As for the Holocaust: unfortunately even among the third and fourth generation, it was more of a force in community-building than the morals, richness or beauty of the Torah. Auschwitz has a greater impact on us than Mount Sinai.”

Rabbi Fináli notes that Hungarians of Jewish origins are very often more drawn to newer religious communities than to the synagogues or communities of their parents and grandparents. Hungarians with Jewish family backgrounds are found in relatively large numbers in faith communities such Hungary’s Pentecostal Faith Church (Hit Gyülekezete), known for its vocal support of Israel and especially Christian Zionism. But Hungarians of Jewish backgrounds have also been present in proportionally significant numbers in Buddhist communities and the Hare Krishna movement.

One thing that the Jewish community in Hungary could do better, according to Rabbi Fináli, is accept the fact that 80% of Hungarian Jews live in, or are the products of mixed marriages. According to the rabbi this does not have to be a loss for the minority community, but rather an opportunity to provide a spiritual home to the non-Jewish spouse.

Rabbi Fináli writes:

“Mixed marriages show with certainty that the tribal Jewish identity in Hungary, built on the Holocaust and on the strength of Israel, has no future. Something else is needed. Jews possessing an ‘Auschwitz identity’ are also living in mixed marriages, since they have received nothing from us that would have bearing on decisions in their everyday lives…We relate to Israel as though it were superior and thus we sometimes desert the Hungarian Jewry, as if the only future for Hungarian Jews is abroad. Israel lives like a kind of dream world in our minds. This was also shown by Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Budapest…At the moment, the alternative to total assimilation is emigration. There really is no example to follow when it comes to living as a Hungarian Jew.”

Rabbi Gábor Fináli. Photo: Szabolcs Oláh. Gyulai Hírlap.

Beyond a greater acceptance of, and outreach to the large majority of Jews living in mixed marriages, the rabbi of the Hunyadi Square synagogue in Budapest also emphasises the importance of developing a more prolific cultural community life for Hungarian Jews, more active and vocal NGOs, rather than promoting Aliyah among younger Hungarian Jews. Moreover, Rabbi Fináli believes that the future of the Hungarian Neolog Jewish community is tied to building connections to Masorti Judaism or Conservative Judaism–which is closest in outlook to what is referred to as Neolog in Hungary. This, according to the rabbi, would better integrate the somewhat “isolated” or internationally “misunderstood” Neolog Jews of Hungary to a broader international Jewish culture and community.

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