Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Budapest Coffee House and the Making of "Jewish Modernity" at the Fin De Siècle

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Budapest Coffee House and the Making of "Jewish Modernity" at the Fin De Siècle

Article excerpt

The decades between 1867 and 1895 witnessed not only the emergence of Budapest as a modern, cosmopolitan city, but also the political emancipation of "Hungarian Jewry." Modern Budapest came into existence in 1873 when three cities, Pest, Buda and Obuda, were unified. The Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy were granted political rights in 1867, and Judaism was declared equal with other religious denominations in 1895. These events were symbiotically linked and inconceivable in isolation from each other. Jewish capital helped finance the monumental urban renewal projects that transformed Budapest into a Central European metropolis. Urban culture, in turn, provided new social and cultural identities for Jews, who recast themselves as performers and spectators in the public spaces of the city. As "Budapesters," Jews identified with, and were defined by, the institutions of urban culture they helped create. They celebrated the imposing boulevards, the teeming coffee houses, the lively music halls and the witty cabarets of the city, in which they saw embodiments of their own, as well as of their city's, modernity.

Despite the continuing resonance of this uniquely Jewish urban culture, it has remained surprisingly resistant to historical definition. The very concept of a "Jewish Budapest" is surrounded by methodological uncertainty and political anxiety. Part of the problem of defining the topic lies in the nature of metropolitan life, which erases ethnic distinctions, individualizes collective identities, and ultimately renders all external markers of differenee invisible or illegible in the new environment.1 A recent account of the historical landmarks of Jewish Budapest pointed to this phenomenon when it remarked on the impossibility of defining Jewish contributions to the city in the modern period. "How," asked the author, "can one describe that which is not visible and write about that which is not Jewish; and yet which . . . still is Jewish, although those who built, shaped and formed it did not do so as Jews?"2

The empirical difficulty of identifying the content of a specifically "Jewish modernity" does not, however, fully explain the problematic status of the term. The deeper reason for its elision from scholarly discussions has to do with its troubling political connotations. As Scott Spector has pointed out, in Central Europe the idea of a "Jewish modernism" was first put forth by antisemitic ideologues, who linked the cultural decadence of the modern age with the inherent racial characteristics of Jews.3 Antisemitic and even conservative nationalist spokesmen came to identify modernism in general, and urban culture in particular, with insidious Jewish influences that were seen to be fundamentally hostile to national values and traditions. Antimodernist antisemitism was particularly lethal in Budapest, where Jews made up nearly 25% of the population by 1900 and controlled many aspects of the economic and cultural infrastructure of the city. The widely shared perception that Jews had somehow gained illegitimate hegemony over Budapest found its most famous expression in a quip by Karl Lueger, the antisemitic mayor of Vienna, who renamed the Monarchy's sister city "Judapest." After the First World War, the right-conservative regime of Admiral Miklós Horthy instigated a more aggressive and ominous campaign against "Jewish Budapest," which he labeled the "sinful city" [bünös varos] and vowed to cleanse of its Jewish elements.

Given its politically charged history, it is not surprising that the concept of a "Jewish Budapest" has been more or less banned from official and scholarly discourses. Yet, as István Szabó's film Sunshine suggests, the phenomenon refuses to be put to rest and resists all attempts at erasure. The return of the repressed requires acknowledgment and public articulation. But what kind of narrative would be adequate to the task? How is one to talk about the cultural project of "Jewish Budapest," without inadvertently recapitulating the toxic ideology of "Judapest"? …

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