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Conveying Jewish culture

August 31, 2011

With cash-strapped Hungary surviving on aid from the EU, less money is available for Europe's largest Jewish festival. But organizers hope the event still draws large crowds to help fight growing anti-Semitism.

The Great Synagogue in Budapest is the largest active synagogue in Europe
The Great Synagogue in Budapest is the largest active synagogue in EuropeImage: picture-alliance/Godong

Hungary's Jewish Summer Festival takes place this year in the shadow of economic gloom and extremism plaguing this EU nation of some 10 million people.

Under the current center-right government, the festival's budget was slashed and the city of Budapest reduced its financial support by 70 percent to five million forints (about 18,500 euros or $26,700).

"Despite the economic difficulties, we tried to organize the festival," explained Gusztav Zoltai, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary. He pledged the program would be so good "that the public does not notice we have financial problems."

The festival even managed to re-open Budapest's historical Goldmark Hall Theater last Sunday for the first time since the Holocaust.

"This was the only place where Jewish artists could perform in the 1930s and part of World War II because of anti-Jewish laws. It was later closed for decades," said festival director Vera Vadas, after a ceremony attended by government officials.

In addition, the elaborate Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest, the festival's main venue, hosted mega-concerts over opening weekend. They included a performance by the brass section of the New York Metropolitan Orchestra, with French pianist Francoise de Clossey as a guest.

World music on stage

Organizers also promise that Europe's largest synagogue, with its 3,000 seats and famous Moorish decorations, will reverberate with music by "Eastern European stars of world music" during the festival.

Among them is the Budapest Klezmer Band, who carry a message: Band member Ferenc Javori hopes music and culture will ease tensions in Hungary's troubled society.

That seems necessary since Hungary has been rocked by anti-Semitism. Several festival posters were painted over with swastikas and slogans such as "Jews go home," for example.

Earlier in August, the Sziget Music Festival saw scores of neo-Nazi and far-right activists trying to storm the Budapest event, which they viewed as organized by Jews and anti-Hungarian investors.

Police detained several demonstrators, including a prominent parliamentarian of the rightist Movement for a Better Hungary, or Jobbik. Earlier, thousands of neo-Nazis from across Europe gathered at their own Magyar Sziget, or Hungarian Island festival in the village of Veroce, just north of Hungary's capital.

Among those performing there was far-right Swedish singer Saga, singing for neo-Nazi and other extremists, who were waving flags and giving the Hitler salute.

Panorama view over Budapest
Budapest is split down the middle by the Danube RiverImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

In a positive light

The Jewish Summer Festival wants to place Jews, along with their long-cherished culture and faith, in a more positive spotlight, according to organizers. "Our mission is to fight anti-Semitism," Vadas told Deutsche Welle.

Vadas, 66, has her own reasons for tackling hatred. Her parents narrowly survived the Holocaust, in which 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed. "I was born on the beautiful day of May 9, 1945, when World War II ended for Europe," she said, adding that she wanted to convey that post-war freedom during the festival.

"Before, Hungarians were afraid to openly say the word Zsido, or 'Jew.'" This festival has helped to change attitudes," she said. "What we found is that once people enter the Jewish synagogue, they come out as different people. None of them must walk on the opposite side of the street."

Besides music and other theater performances, there are events for exploring Jewish life, food, handicrafts and humor. Additionally, Budapest's famous Puskin Cinema shows a week-long series of popular Israeli films, in cooperation with the Israeli Film and Television Academy.

The festival's guest of honor this year is Giorgio Pressburger, a Hungarian-born writer and director living in Italy. His film, "Behind the Darkness," based on the book by Claudio Magris, premieres in the Puskin Cinema.

Bringing people together

"This festival is for Jewish and non-Jewish artists expressing Jewish culture. It does not wish to close its gates, but intends to open them to others," Vadas said." We want to unite rather than divide."

Since its humble beginnings in 1998, with just 5,000 people attending, the festival has meanwhile grown into a huge happening attracting over 100,000 visitors annually, mainly from the United States.

Memorial stone in Budapest
In Budapest, copper cubes in the sidewalk honor those murdered in the HolocaustImage: AP

Last year, the festival celebrated its Bar Mitzvah - the age of 13 that marks "the threshold between childhood and adulthood," Vadas said.

Now, it has to face the challenge of having fewer resources from a financially troubled state. Vadas doesn't appear pessimistic, however. She said it helps that with about 100,000 people, Hungary has Eastern Europe's largest Jewish community outside Russia.

Artist Javori also wants to reach non-Jews with his music. He says klezmer music is one of the greatest treasures of Yiddish culture, enjoying a strong comeback in recent years in Central and Eastern Europe.

"Sometimes we go to places where we aren't sure whether people will be interested in Jewish culture," he commented. And apparently not without success.

"I have written a song in memory of about 600,000 Hungarian Jewish people who were killed in the Holocaust," he told Deutsche Welle, confirming that he will perform the song during the festival. "We always play that song and audiences respond with a long silence, and later a great ovation. It gives me hope that this happens wherever we go.

"Music does have an effect on the human soul."

The festival runs through Monday, September 5.

Author: Stefan J. Bos, Budapest
Editor: Louisa Schaefer