Academic journal article Shofar

Matzo Hussars & Creative (Anti)semitism: Jewishness & Popular Culture in Post-Comm Unist Hungary

Academic journal article Shofar

Matzo Hussars & Creative (Anti)semitism: Jewishness & Popular Culture in Post-Comm Unist Hungary

Article excerpt

Budapest is home to the largest continuous Jewish community in Europe. In contrast with Berlin and Paris, which have large Jewish communities made up principally of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and North Africa, respectively, most Hungarian Jews come from families that have lived in Hungary as Hungarian citizens for many generations. Before the First World War, Hungary had a Jewish population of 800,000 and a quarter of Budapest's residents were Jewish. Close to 200,000 Hungarian Jews survived the Holocaust, and a majority remained in Hungary in its aftermath. Although the communist state made certain allowances for Jewish religious life, including the only Jewish Theological Seminary in Eastern Europe, kosher butcheries, and a ritual bath, and it banned public antisemitism, most Hungarian Jews were secular and reluctant to discuss their Jewishness in public.

Postcommunist difficulties including an increase in antisemitic public discourse and political rhetoric notwithstanding, Budapest continues to have a lively Jewish cultural life, mainly secular, but also religious. Even so, for reasons rooted in the history of Hungarian Jewish assimilation, which I briefly discuss below, the ideas of "Jewish culture" and "Jewish ethnicity" still elicit deep discomfort in Hungary (See, for example, Gero, "Zsidó Kérdések"). This essay argues that Hungarian Jewish (and non-Jewish) reluctance to address "Jewish culture" is slowly changing, and that this change is most visible and widespread in popular culture. Global images of "Jewishness" and their local interpretations, which have become part of public culture since the fall of communism and especially with wider access to the internet, have shaped both popular cultural discussions of "Jewishness" and Hungarian Jewish self-representations. These, in turn, are challenging traditional Hungarian understandings of the meaning and place of "Jewishness" in postcommunist Hungarian public life.

Following a brief historical outline to help situate the current debate on "Jewishness" in Hungary, I analyze four interpretations of "Jewishness" in contemporary Hungarian popular culture-an animated film, a blog, and two restaurants-arguing that they break with long-standing Hungarian discursive and political traditions and suggest a new, more open, playful and apolitical interpretation of Jewishness based on the notion of "ethnic culture."

"Jews" and "Hungarians" before wwii

The challenges of discussing "Jewishness" as culture and ethnicity in Hungary can be understood only with reference to Hungarian Jewish history. Until the First World War, Hungarian Jews were seen as uniquely and exceptionally successful in light of their rapid and thorough integration and assimilation and their economic and cultural prominence (Mendelsohn, Jews of East Central Europe; Miron, "Between"). Considered part of the Hungarian nation since the second half of the nineteenth century, Hungarian Jews gained formal citizenship rights in 1867. By the early twentieth century, the majority of Hungary's Jews spoke Hungarian as their first language and participated in national culture and public life as Hungarians. (Konrád, "Orpheum," 7, 12). In official terms and in liberal public discourse, Jews, unlike most other minority groups in the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire, were not considered an ethnic or national minority, but rather as Hungarians different in religion only, part of the Hungarian nation both culturally and ethnically. The reasons behind this lay in the challenges Hungary faced in the empire, fraying at the seams not least because of budding separatist movements by national minorities. To gain an absolute majority in the Hungarian part of the dual monarchy, Hungary needed the Jews to declare themselves Hungarian in the census. It was primarily for this reason that the state encouraged Jews to assimilate, though nineteenth-century liberal nationalists also saw the Jewish minority's skills and capital as crucial for Hungary's urgent economic modernization (Konrád, "Jews and Politics"). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.