02.07.2013 - 02.07.2013 28 °C
It is hard to give each country we visit equal consideration. Our impressions of each country are not only subject to the amount of time we have available, but also to the weather conditions when we visit, the status of our health, our mental stamina for that day and perhaps most importantly, what we have seen in the weeks and months previous. A country could have some spectacular castles or art galleries that are worth visiting but we may have overdosed on such venues in the several weeks before so we will pass over these gems. If anyone is reading our blog for travel ideas we are humbled that you value our opinion and taste, but just be warned, our choices are not always decided by what the travel literature and websites say are most visit worthy; it may be just as dependent on whether it affords the opportunity of heading home for an afternoon nap or doesn’t again require one to decipher and memorize the family tree of several monarchs to understand.
Today we chose to visit the Great Synagogue of Budapest and the Opera House because they were different from anything else we have seen so far on this trip. As it turns out, they were also on most tour guide’s lists as significant venues to take in.
The Dohany Street Synagogue is the fifth largest synagogue in the world and the largest in Europe. It was constructed in 1859 and completely restored in the late 1990s. The fact that this structure and some of its religious community survives is a wonder. It was hit by nearly 30 bombs during WW II and was the scene of countless Nazi atrocities. The Jewish population in Hungary at the beginning of the 1900s was nearly a million and today it is just a little over a 100,000 with a little more than a tenth of that number describing themselves as religious. Over 400,000 Hungarian Jews perished under a Nazi occupation that lasted less than two years.
The synagogue is unusual and striking in a variety of ways. It is indeed large, seating nearly 3000 people comfortably, and has been known to have 7000 people packed in it on a few occasions. Perhaps much more notable is the architectural footprint of the synagogue. The layout parallels that of a Christian church, with the bema for the Torah reading being where a church altar is typically located and the ark for the Torah located where a church’s sacristy would be. The pews are strikingly church-like and one is taken aback by the presence of an enormous pipe organ (over 4000 pipes). There are two pulpits that look exactly like they come from a Catholic cathedral; it is just the star of David on the ceiling of each box that sets it apart from its Christian counterpart. The architectural finish is where similarities to a Christian church end and resemblance to a mosque begins. A Moorish motif is present in all the interior finishing and decoration. It is a truly unique blend of religious architecture.
We learned that in the 1800s, services were in both Hungarian and German rather than Yiddish and this necessitated the construction of two identical pulpits which were placed on either side of the synagogue so the rabbi’s message could be given simultaneously in both languages. In many ways the religious community that worshipped in the common language, embraced new architecture and even incorporated a pipe organ to make worship more attractive for its congregants seemed quite modern. We were told that this middle of the road approach of the Neolog Jews in the mid 1800s is nowadays considered a fairly conservative tradition which is closer to Orthodox Judaism than any of the more liberal branches of today’s Judaism. The present congregation is so diminished in size that in the winter months they use a much smaller synagogue on the same grounds that seats a little over 100 people. Despite this decline, it doesn’t sound like they will be joining forces with any Orthodox Jews anytime soon, since their counterparts still think the presence of a pipe organ makes worship into a circus show.
Behind the synagogue is the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs which is a stainless steel sculpture in the shape of weeping willow. Each leaf is engraved with the name of a Hungarian Jew that died during the Holocaust. This memorial overwhelms the viewer with the scale of human suffering and loss under the Nazis. Next to this weeping willow is a monument with a contrasting message. The Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park pays tribute to the Righteous Among the Nations (gentiles) who acted heroically and sacrificially in saving the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, for whom the memorial is named, is counted among one of the Righteous for his self-sacrificing efforts. A memorial grave that is bordered with stones in the fashion dramatized at the end of the movie Schindler’s List is poignant and hopeful.
After our synagogue tour we needed some time to recuperate. We found ourselves close to the Hungarian restaurant we visited the day before last so headed there for sustenance. We were not disappointed and each enjoyed our hearty lunches which featured variations of cheese, mushroom and garlic soup followed with beef goulash wrapped in pancakes for Muriel and me, chicken goulash with langos balls for Hannah, and paprika beef goulash with a Hungarian form of gnocchi for Abby. We found that our high opinion of this restaurant was shared by a couple of other Canadians we met at the restaurant the day before. We were only part way through our meal when they also showed up for a second try of the restaurant. Talk about coincidences.
After lunch we headed to the opulent Budapest Opera House. There are only two tours a day of this facility which makes it a bit of a production since they offer each in six languages. We are subdivided according to language, each troop with their own guide, and set off on a tour at the same time as all the other language groups which results in a ballet of sorts with groups crossing paths on stairways and balconies at frequent intervals. The competing babble of the guides was a bit comical if not distracting at first.
The building is a real architectural gem and we are happy we got to see its opulence. We just found the admission price, as with that of the synagogue, quite expensive. A tour that lasted less than an hour cost $50.00 for our family and a few dollars was charged on top of that for the privilege of taking pictures. We thought twice about whether to tour either edifice. We truly hope that all these funds go towards supporting the preservation and maintenance of these wonderful structures. We know that the average Hungarian would find these prices prohibitive. It is unconscionable that here, as elsewhere in the world, the local population is not cut a special rate to give them access to their own cultural heritage.
We walked home feeling culturally enriched, if not a little tired mentally. We attended to our laundry without needing to resort to a Swiss army knife (see our Ljubljana blog) although the machine did create a puddle on the bathroom floor. All in all, a pretty good day!