In June 2017, my wife was invited to attend a conference in Budapest, Hungary. Since I had never visited the famed bohemian city known as the Little Paris of Middle Europe, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and tag along. Over the next few posts on the Strange & Ordinary, you can read about some of my highlights from our 4-night stay.
Day 1 – The Great Synagogue
Consulting Google Maps after a hefty continental breakfast, I was happy to discover that Budapest’s Great Synagogue located in Dohány Street was a mere twenty minutes’ walk from my hotel. Fantastic, I thought. No need to catch a bus or taxi. I’ll have a leisurely stroll, take in the sights, enjoy the clear blue skies and early summer vibes of this beautiful city. Not only will I arrive in time for the first guided tour of the day, I’ll even have time to get myself a coffee. Unbeknownst to me, this short walk would turn into a mini pilgrimage.
The first clue that I was lost was when twenty minutes later I found myself in what was clearly a no-attractions-zone residential area. There was no synagogue in sight. And given that the building has two distinctive onion domes set on high octagonal towers, I was evidently way off track. I re-opened Google Maps and re-entered my destination to be shown the same route again. Stranger still, I could see from where my location point was pinned on the map that it had taken me twenty minutes to walk approximately one-third of what was meant to be a twenty-minute journey. What fresh mind-boggling hell was this!
To back up for a second, I have what some may call directional dyslexia. It’s not overly severe in that I tend to eventually get to where I need to go, but not without a fair share of detours and wrong turns first, even if I am following a GPS. I have, on more occasions than I care to admit, even got lost on journeys I have done countless times before. I’ll be travelling along on autopilot when a mind-gremlin will suddenly decide to delete my memory maps there and then, leaving me in the middle of a vaguely recognizable somewhere. So, as you can see, I get lost easily enough when its familiar territory …
Meanwhile in Budapest, I was still trying to figure out how I had got side-tracked by actually following clear, simple directions. It took me a good five minutes of gawping at Google Maps until I realised what you’ve probably sussed out in seconds. I had left the app on the Driving option instead of Walking, meaning I was taking a circuitous route towards a motor way. This takes no time at all if you’re whizzing by on a moped, but for this biped my destination remained quite a ways away. Doggedly determined to make it to the synagogue on foot, I altered my course and plodded onward.
An hour-and-a-couple-of-burst-foot-blisters later I finally arrived in Dohány Street, a little sweaty and short-winded but, all in all, none the worse for wear. Even from the outside the synagogue did not disappoint. The building, with its soft yellow and red brick exterior and Moorish ornamental details, stood out from the surrounding Eastern European city architecture and low-key bistros and cafés. The length of the front is perforated with a row of arched arcades and above the main door is an impressive star-patterned rose window bordered in red curlicued brick-work.
The onion domes themselves were also particularly beautiful that day; the golden gilded motifs decorating the black circumferences shimmered in the morning sun. And maybe it was because I had just been walking along a noisy motorway, but there was a breezy tranquil quality to this side of Dohány Street, with its open front pavement and urban trees, that made you want to linger a little and soak in the atmosphere. Spotting the admission booth, I purchased my guided tour ticket and entered the temple. In the narthex, an oldish gentleman in an oversized blazer handed me a cardboard kippah (the small cap Jewish men are required to wear to cover their heads) and indicated that I should put it on. I duly obliged.
Having never set foot in a synagogue before, I was not sure what to expect. The first impression was one of overwhelming warmth and splendour. The inside of the synagogue positively glowed like a cosy hearth fire. Golden light spilled out of the chandeliers onto the deep mahogany of the pews and mosaic floor.
I was surprised to see how much the layout of the inside resembled an average Catholic church. There was a nave lined with pews separated by a central aisle which led up to a small altar-like table from where the Torah is read. Towards the front were two raised spiral pulpits on either side of the aisles. The most notable difference was the seated galleries which rose up high on either side of the main body. Having been brought up Catholic, I have attended many feast day masses where the church was crowded. I still recall that overwhelming feeling of congregation on such days. I can only imagine how on special Jewish occasions, when the synagogue is packed to the rafters, these galleries must create an even greater sense of community. To be seated in the aisles, to look around and not only see fellow worshipers in front and behind you, but also raised above you, must be quite a sight.
I was soon to learn from our guide (a bearded, Panama hat-clad Hungarian named Daniel) that my sense of architectural familiarity was no coincidence. Constructed in the mid-19th century, the design of the synagogue was purposefully devised by a community of Neolog Jews who wished to preserve their conservative values but also show they were an integrated part of Hungarian society. Therefore, they sought to build a house of worship that didn’t stick out like a sore thumb when compared to the typical Christian churches of their adoptive home. So they borrowed design features of such churches whilst incorporating more Eastern influenced decorative elements. Incidentally, the Great Synagogue isn’t called great for nothing. Aside from its inner and outer grandeur, it is also regarded as the largest synagogue in Europe. The only larger Jewish temple in the world is the Central Synagogue in New York, which was actually constructed in imitation of the Budapest original.
After a brief talk about the history and beginnings of Hungarian Jews and the construction of the synagogue, our group was led outside to the mass grave cemetery of mostly unnamed Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. The Hungarian Jewish community has been greatly reduced since WWII. It is estimated that one-sixth of Holocaust casualties were executed in Hungary. Outside the synagogue is also a striking metal memorial called the Holocaust Tree of Life, the leaves of which are inscribed with just a few of the family names of the thousands of victims. Finally, there is also a stained glass installation of a fire consuming a snake, representing the goodness of God overcoming the evil of the Nazis.
The tour had come to an end. It seemed ridiculous after all that to then go visit the gift shop and buy a souvenir fridge magnet depicting cartoon rabbis circumcising wailing babies. Instead I sat in silence on a bench in the back garden and reflected upon all I had seen that morning.