As Jews around the world prepare to celebrate the festival of Hannukah tonight, the Hungarian capital is hosting its biggest-ever Hannukah festival. The Quarter6Quarter7 sees 130 events across 30 venues, including synagogues, theatres, bars, cafés, galleries, Jewish centres and the city’s Jewish museum. The festival opens with the lighting of the Hannukah candles and includes guided walks and tours, fire-eating, street-art, jazz concerts, parties and performances.
The eight-day event heralds the rebirth of both the city’s Jewish quarter and a unique revival of Budapest’s Jewish culture and heritage. Before the Second World War perhaps one in four of Budapest’s population was Jewish. The Great Synagogue, on Dohàny Street, is the largest Jewish house of worship in Europe. Budapest is still home to mainland Europe’s third-largest Jewish community after Paris and Berlin, estimated at around 80,000. Most Budapest Jews were not deported to concentration camps and while many thousands perished, the city’s ghettos were finally liberated by the Soviet army.
“The festival is something for the whole area, for everyone who lives, works and visits here, which can showcase its potential,” says Adam Schonburger, one of the organisers. “It shows a living culture where the district itself becomes a showcase, where everything is happening. There is a new audience of people, Jews and non-Jews who are much more open to Jewish culture.”
Under Communism, public expressions of Jewish culture were discouraged. But since the change of system in the early 1990s a new generation of young Jews has rediscovered its heritage and identity. The traditionally Jewish District 6 and 7 are now the hippest parts of a capital increasingly renowned for its nightlife and buzzing cultural scene. Despite the depredations of property developers – many of whom, ironically are Israeli – who have demolished perhaps a third of the area, and gentrification, Districts 6 and 7 still retain a unique atmosphere and Jewish character.
“Budapest’s Hannukah festival is the latest step in a transformation from a district of empty and dilapidated buildings to a place that is full of life,” says Ruth Ellen Gruber, author of The National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel Guide to Eastern Europe. “This is organised by a young grass-roots movement, not part of the established Jewish leadership. It’s a generation that is much more confident.”
The festival of Hannukah celebrates the victory of Jewish rebels more than 2,000 years ago against the Greek king Antiochus IV. When the rebels’ leader, Judah Maccabee, recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, there was only enough oil for one day, but it burned for eight, until enough new oil had been consecrated. Hannukah is not a time to diet – as well as lighting candles each night, Jews eat fried foods, such as latkes – potato pancakes – to commemorate the miracle of the oil.
The growing interest in Jewish culture is one of numerous paradoxes in post-Communist Hungary. The country’s parlous economic state, which necessitated a $25.1bn (€17bn) bail-out from the IMF, EU and World Bank in 2008, has fed the growth of the far-right. The radical nationalist Jobbik party, which openly campaigns against what it calls “Roma crime” and Israeli investors, received 15 per cent of the vote in the EU elections in May. Xenophobia and anti-foreigner sentiment are rising.
Yet at the same time, as in neighbouring countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic, there is an increasing curiosity about Jewish culture and Judaism. When Budapest’s museums stayed open until the early hours this June locals queued for 45 minutes to enter the Great Synagogue.