70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

So, what happened there?

Israelis studying in Hungary

By Hadar Maymon - 2018-03-19

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

It is a well-known statistics that Israel has the highest number of graduates in the world relative to its population. Globalization, financial considerations, acceptance requirements, and the desire to learn about other cultures make many people go abroad to study. According to the latest data, currently nearly 18,000 Israeli students study at foreign universities; most of them choose the United States or countries that belong to the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development]; according to the Israeli Central Statistical Office, the most sought-after foreign diplomas are in the fields of medicine, biotechnology, dentistry and economics.


In Hungary, apart from the 300,000 Hungarian students, more than 26,000 foreigners study each year in higher education - among them we find a lot of Israelis. According to statistics, in the 2015/16 academic year, nearly six hundred Israeli students attended Hungarian universities. Like most foreign students, Israelis also choose English and German language medical education in Budapest and at other universities of the country, but veterinary and engineering studies are also very popular.


However, after having completed their studies, students from abroad will become richer, more so than just by a diploma - a piece of paper. During the years spent in the “foreign country”, in our case, in Hungary, students slowly begin to feel being at home, they understand, embrace and enjoy the local culture, its culinary and social life, and when they graduate, they return home with a diploma (and usually with a partner) to begin a new phase of their life, and they will become a bit Hungarian in Israel too. Hadar also had experienced something like that:



Whenever my darling Hungarian wife asks me for something, I usually do it, too. She had just asked me to write for the 70th anniversary project about how it was when I was an Israeli student in Hungary in the 1990s. Or, as my wife worded it: what did you take with you from Hungary, other than me? Without thinking, but somewhat jokingly, I immediately burst out singing the Arik Einstein's song “An old woman with a basket gets on the bus - watch how she is taking all the seats!”  Because a picture of such an old woman occurred to me at once as a typical Hungarian feature along the lines of “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” (Fathers 1: 12-13-14).


Of course, an additional attempt to summarize my memories was to mention the frontal collision of the two opposites; on the one hand, the cultured speech, that is, to address another per “maga” [similar to calling them Mr. or Ms. So-und-so, instead of by their first-name right away] which counts at best as archaic in Israel; but, on the other hand, the crass  swearing, the mere idea of which would make an average, I mean , even an average Israeli yokel blush; alas, all this did not meet my wife's needs, and as I had said when my wife asks for something ..


I believe that evening when we were being bussed from Ferihegy Airport 1 towards Budapest, we were shocked to find, not only a gray and old-fashioned town, with its old-fashioned cars marked by the 90’s; a town that had just escaped from the tight embrace of the Soviet Union; but ourselves also, bearing the colors and style of Israeli society - from where we had just arrived.


I remember twenty-five Israelis who were quite stunned by this first encounter with the run-down airport just left behind and the gray surroundings provided by the housing estates in Örs vezér square. They represented all kinds and types of Israelis; they gave a kind of representative sample of the place they came from. Different economic backgrounds, ethnicities and religions: Arab Bedouin from Lod, Druse, or Christian from Nazareth, and even some from the northern Israeli villages, as well as about twenty Israeli Jews - some of them with roots in / descendants of grandparents in Hungary, others were "plain" Israelis if there even exists this type of Israeli without any definition of ancestry; they had all completed  the military service, and the common trait of all of them was self-confidence - that it would work, whatever they would encounter here - all before they figured out that it was exactly why theirs was a startup-nation.


Already on the bus the organization began, alliances and camps were formed, religious / Masorti [traditional], secular, Arab, and, well, the exempted ones – for example the guy who, already on the plane, had picked up a Hungarian girl, leaving us alone there that night and moved in with her, despite our protests (primarily because of security reasons we worried about him, as the admonitions from back home had still been fresh on our minds that we should be careful in Eastern Europe!)


Our studying took place in the early '90s, we met with the most prominent professors coming to Hungary, some of the well-known American law academics, some of who were descendants of Hungarian emigrants who had come to Hungary for a few months and, for the purpose of making a livelihood, for prestige or simply out of being interested, they taught at universities. In the corridors of the university, the winds of change could be felt: English speaking lecturers, the West opening, English pub discussions, freedom, the blockade of taxi cabs, setting up new democratic institutions, constitutionalism – the system was changing.


Then, all at once, after one and a half years of studying, we were being convened and informed that the rector had decided that the program of the law school in its current form could not continue in English; most of the exams would only be offered in Hungarian - whoever wants to stay, should do so, if not, he should quit right now.


I would be lying if I said that it was easy to learn Hungarian at university level. We twisted our tongue, there were unpleasant situations. I remember, for example, when I found a wallet full of cash in the street and called the owner who came to my place to pick up his property. With great joy, thanking me profusely, he invited me into his shop, to have me choose a present from there and he said: “Do not call me Mr. when you are talking to me.” With my sketchy Hungarian skills I thought he was offended by my style, that, even if I had found his wallet, it did not mean I could address him by his first name – so, as soon as he left, I tore up his business card, in utter indignation.


But that was more of an exception. Life in Hungary was good, and the self-confidence mentioned above - at least for me - played an important role in my decision to remain, in spite of the difficulties in learning. I had already met the one who later became my wife, and I felt in my mind that this was my destiny and that I had someone to rely on, or in the spirit of the upcoming Pesach holidays and recalling our people’s thousands-of-years of history: “If we had survived the Pharaoh we’ll survive this, too.”


I’ve made many Hungarian friends and acquaintances; I had my car, my flat; and I became intimately familiar with Budapest's streets, residents, bars and restaurants; I loved the endless forests and mountains outside the city that we had discovered on weekend excursions. The irony of fate was that by then I could enjoy the social and cultural life much more profoundly, as I also spoke the language.


I really became very much fond of the majority of the Hungarians whom I considered a true “bookish folk,” especially because of their always impressive etiquette - especially when I tried to translate the words ”kezit csókolom” [kiss your hand] or “tessék parancsolni” [here you are; please if you may] in my mind, and the per “maga” conversation in the third person - while they were also able to love life, enjoy alcohol, eating, entertainment and relaxation – after four decades of communism, with its good and bad consequences.


In summary, this is what happened there. What I took from it after five years, is myself, my past, my present and my future; the love of my life: the mother of my beloved children; my ability to experience and accept other cultures; and to see how its fruits ripen and grow from me.


Picture above: Israeli graduates - ELTE ÁJTK [Eötvös Loránd Tudomány Egyetem: Eötvös Loránd University, Faculty of Law]1995

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