Once burdened with dilapidation and a bad reputation, the Jewish Quarter in downtown Budapest has risen from the ashes as a hipster phoenix revived by ruin bars, flanked by design shops and trendy cafés. Today, the Jewish Quarter has earned a new nickname the “Party District” for its numerous bars and the invasion of beer bikes, British stag parties and Australian backpackers.
Living in Budapest, I have many memories set in the VII District – and even more memories that have been lost and found in the back of a ruin bar after few too many shots of pálinka (a clear Hungarian fruit brandy that satisfyingly burns down your throat in each shot). However, beyond the bars there is a socio-cultural tapestry waiting to be explored.
The history of the Jewish Quarter is filled with painful memories. At the end of 1944, this inner part of the VII District became a walled-in ghetto. Measuring one third of a square kilometre, housing at least 50,000 Jews at the time, the living conditions were diabolical. After the war, much of the area fell into ruin and disrepair, until its gentrification, cashing in on the dilapidation and turned it into the trendiest neighbourhood in the city.
Exploring Budapest’s Jewish past and present, I joined Context Travel’s Hungarian Jewish Food tour the “Authentic Flavors of Jewish Budapest” in conjunction with Taste Hungary. The tour, lasting almost a day, captured the spirit of the city’s Jewish heritage, from synagogues and tracing the intricacies of the neighbourhood, ending with a traditional Jewish dinner in an apartment in the nearby V District.
We began at the famous synagogue on Dohány street, which is the oldest and by far the grandest. It’s also the largest synagogue in Europe, sometimes even being cited as the second largest in the world. With grand architectural declarations featured both inside and out, a mix of neo-orientalist eclectic design by German-Austrian architect Ludwig Förster with inspiration drawn from churches, where the gold-accented interior with its pews and pulpit echo a more Christian form of worship, the synagogue symbolises the Neolog Jews’ interest in integrating into the local community. The two towers, topped with golden dotted onion domes in Moorish style, stem from the concept of the church tower, something unseen in traditional synagogues.
In the garden, poignant reminders lie scattered among the graves remembering those who died in the ghetto during WWII. Traditionally, cemeteries are not built the ground of the synagogues, but historical circumstances necessitated it. Around 2,000 people were buried in this makeshift cemetery. Some names are carved onto the graves, but in Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park in the plaza behind, the inscriptions of all names and tattoo numbers glint on individual metallic leaves dangling from a weeping willow sculpture.
Exiting the metallic turnstiles and down Rumbach Sebestyén Street, another synagogue hides behind a wall of street art depicting a Rubik’s cube. The two towers here resemble minarets and the domed interior decorated in ornate friezes resemble a mosque rather than a church.
Once used as a centre for deportation during the Holocaust, the Rumbach Synagogue fell into disuse for decades, where even the ceiling caved in. It was eventually sold off to a private corporation, which went bankrupt, fortunately after the roof had been repaired, and eventually made its way back into Jewish hands. No longer in use, this beautiful synagogue is a concert hall and a museum, and recently received funding for its reconstruction.
Inside the old ghetto, we wandered through the interconnecting lanes making up Gozsdu Passage, which once sat on the border behind the quarantined ghetto. Today, it’s an array of trendy bars, street food stalls and coffee roasteries, surrounded by renovated, pricey condos, but our next stop gave us a glimpse into its recent past.
Turning right on Király street, I catch a glimpse of the reconstructed ghetto wall I’ve passed numerous of times. I once snuck into the apartment complex after someone left the gate ajar, taking a few photos before running out for fear of getting caught. Today, our guide punches in the code and it’s finally kosher for me to visit the wall close up.
The memorial wall is a reconstruction made from the original stone used in the original. The crumbling apartment complex is a throwback to the state of the inner VII District decades ago – before its gentrification – with flaking walls, laundry hanging on rusty balconies and a few broken windows.
Our guide tells us the wall’s construction, built between apartment complexes and not divided by the street, had a strategic purpose. It made it impossible for anyone to get in or out without being unnoticed. A segment of barbed wire placed upon the top shows intent to stop anyone from getting out. The ghetto wall surrounded the small area, but not like a traditional fortress, since it was made up of apartment walls, wooden panels and bits reinforced with stone.
While the quarter appears to have lost its original community, where even the grand synagogue on Dohány Street only fills its 3000 seats on the main Jewish holidays, on Kazinczy Street, down the road from Szimpla, the original ruin bar, the Orthodox synagogue here presents signs of today’s Jewish life.
The interior of this secessionist-style synagogue is surprising, adorned with ornate influences from Hungarian folk art, such as Transylvanian wood carvings used in the “pews” and motifs originating from Hungarian symbols, like the Tulip.
In the courtyard, we pass the only strictly kosher restaurant permitted for Orthodox Jews, as well as a kosher shop in the complex, where meat cuts are pre-ordered on a waiting list. The division between the Jewish community here not only lies in which synagogue you go to, but also which kosher shop you frequent. If you shop in one, you won’t shop in another.
Four hours walking the quarter on an empty stomach worked up an appetite, when our guide bid farewell and our guide from Taste Hungary took over, taking us to part two of our tour – the full Jewish culinary experience in the home of Maja, the wife of the late Rabbi Tamás Raj who cooked us a feast.
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A Taste of Jewish Budapest is part one of my account of Context Travel’s “Authentic Flavors of Jewish Budapest, with Taste Hungary” tour. Part 1 of the tour took us through the history of the Jewish Quarter and the Jewish Community, where part 2 was a traditional Jewish dinner. Find out next month about the flavours of Hungarian Jewish life in the next installment.
All photos by the author.