Really, It’s A Synagogue

Far too quickly, this trip is wrapping up. Today was my last full day, and I started the morning with a quick breakfast and a return train to Budapest. I finally understood something that happened on my outward trip. On that trip, the conductor came through and checked my ticket, and later in the trip another man came through and did the same thing. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. 


This time, when the second conductor came through, he explained that the first gentleman had been Slovakian, but he was Hungarian. We had crossed the border. Cool.


At about that time two soldiers entered the car and spent a great deal of time looking threatening in the vicinity of a passenger 5 rows behind me. I periodically tried to peek at what was happening (nothing) but opted not to take photos of this.


Upon arrival in Budapest I took the metro to my hotel in the heart of the old Jewish quarter. It is an elegant old hotel that stands, with stately honor, at the corner of a busy intersection. I was efficiently checked in and offered my choice of rooms. I could have room on the street or in the back of the hotel. The clerk explained that the room at the back would be quieter.


I chose the room overlooking the street, with a small balcony from which I could look out at the centuries-old neighborhood around me. Sitting in the room I could hear the cars, scooters, and trams as they sped through the streets and rumbled along the tracks below. I love the energy of a real city and this was perfect.


I dropped off my things and quickly headed out. I had a few things on the day’s agenda, one of which was a visit to the Great Synagogue. Another confession: I’ve never actually been in a synagogue. There’s no particular reason behind this – it’s just never happened before today. As I think of it, my primary opportunity would have been during a trip to Europe, and most of the synagogues here were destroyed during Kristallnacht. 



But this synagogue was a recommended sight in numerous guidebooks, and with good reason. Turning the corner onto Dohany Utca, it is impossible to miss her, standing in Moorish revival splendor. She doesn’t look quite like anything I’ve ever seen before, but she is spectacular.



The full building in the first image shows both the synagogue, to the right, and the attached museum to the left. This photo more specifically shows the synagogue herself, set off as she is by the towers at her corners. Are they minarets? Steeples? I don’t know that there is really a term. She has a rosette ornamented with numerous Stars of David.

She, I am told, is apparently not a typical synagogue.


I paid the entrance fee, passed through security, and entered the building, donning a kippah in the process. They had tours in numerous languages, with guides explaining the history of the synagogue.


I took a seat under this grand chandelier to listen in.


First, as I have already noted (and the guide explained) this really isn’t a typical synagogue. She is laid out like a church, with a nave, aisles, and an apse. In the apse there is a pipe organ, which is highly unusual for a synagogue. He pointed out that on the Sabbath observant Jews can’t play the pipe organ, so they bring in a “Goy” for that.


The pulpits are also unusual.


He explained that this synagogue, like many in Hungary, actually survived the Holocaust because Kristallnacht didn’t occur here. 


Orthodox Jews, he noted, do not worship here. They go elsewhere. There is a different term for the Jews that worship here, which I haven’t heard before: Neolog Jews. They are a more liberal group, specific to Hungary.


Next door I stopped in at the museum, where they had a number of items of importance to the synagogue and her members. These spice jars were interesting. In a Shabbat ceremony called the Havdalah, blessings are recited over wine, candlelight, and fragrant spices. These pear-shaped spice jars were used for that blessing. The pear shape, according to the nearby sign, is more typically Polish than Hungarian.


Behind the Synagogue I found the Emmanuel Tree, a graceful, delicate, and heartbreaking memorial. 


Fittingly enough, the Emmanuel Tree, erected in 1989, takes the form of weeping willow. The names of Holocaust victims are engraved upon its leaves, and etched on the stone column in the center are names of the Just, who saved persecuted Jews.


Leaving the Synagogue, I had two more missions for the day. The first was in the central market.


I’ve been here already, but wanted to buy paprika. Last time I was unable to decide which paprika I should purchase. Looking online, the answer was basically “buy anything – it’ll all be better than we get at home.”


And so I ventured again into the grand old building, daring the crowds and almost randomly picked a stand. The vendor told me that some of her paprika was processed by hand and didn’t include seeds, so was a more intense product than that made by machine. It’s probably a line to make a sale, but I was convinced and went for it.


Numerous other stands sold anything from fruit and vegetables, to meats of all varieties, to random souvenirs, but I had accomplished my goal and was on my way.


I wanted one more unique Budapest experience, and two options lay before me. The first, and I seriously considered it, was to visit one of Budapests old thermal baths. I considered this for quite a while, but I’ve done the thermal bath thing before (in Bath!) and decided I didn’t want to just float around in warm water with a bunch of strangers.

Instead I ventured out to one of Budapest’s famed elegant cafes. This city was at one time known for her many great coffee houses, and some of them stand still as bastions of refinement in the hurly burly of the surrounding metropolis.

I found the New York Cafe, which was considered the most beautiful cafe in the world when it opened in 1894. And it is indeed dazzling, with a remarkable opulence that, in places, seems to want to challenge St. Peters in Rome, as some of the columns sprial in the same manner of those of Bernini’s Altar.

There, in the mid afternoon, I had a hot chocolate and chocolate cake, and sat for a time musing on my time here in Budapest and Bratislava. It has been a fabulous trip, but home beckons, and I must heed its call. With that, I left the cafe to wander this great city for a bit longer before finding dinner and packing my bags for the final leg of this journey.

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