70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

The Hungarian houses of Mea Shearim

By Éva Grünhut - 2018-02-26

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

Parallel worlds. That's what I'm thinking about while trying to find a skirt and a shawl. Half an hour later an orthodox religious woman looks back at me from the mirror. My Hungarian tour guide, Elijahu, has asked me to try to adjust a bit to the environment to make it easier for everybody. How successful I am, is indicated by the fact that right there,  that there is a religious woman next to me at the bus stop of Mevaseret, and we begin to chat; she is sweetly prying trying to find out  who I am, because she has never seen me around  here.


I'm waiting at the Shabbat Square at the corner of Geula and Mea Shearim. By this time, I feel like a female Zwi Yehezkeli, and I sneak a peek at the busy street. Men in long caftans float past me; loud teenagers, women with prams, some curious tourists; no one takes notice of me. Elijahu arrives; he is my age and speaks Hungarian; he is wearing Tankcsapda [rock t-shirt – Hungarian design], kippah and tzitzit, and I just don’t know where to look. While I have millions of questions, we are walking towards the Hungarian Houses.


Elijahu grew up in Székesfehérvár, after busy teenage years and long searches he landed in Mea Shearim. It is hard to understand why someone, from a half Jewish, half Christian family from Hungary would come to one of the oldest parts of Jerusalem where life stopped progressing somewhere around the middle of the last century. Today, only ultra-Orthodox Jews live here, though the quarter was not designed for this purpose by Conrad Schick, a German Protestant missionary and self-taught architect in the 1860s. When life became totally crowded and dangerous because of epidemics and contaminated water in the Old Town of Jerusalem, some businessmen thought it a good idea to buy a piece of land next to Yaffo Road and set up a safe and green neighborhood surrounded by a wall. Mea Shearim was the first quarter of Jerusalem where public lighting existed. Now, besides shops selling many religious objects and pictures of rabbis, men in striped caftans are reading the news posted on the so-called pashkevilim, printed notices on house walls that report about the lives of the communities.

Elijahu is smiling, he is friendly; he is standing with his two feet firmly on the ground of reality. While he is arranging his shift for Purim, he tells me about the times when he went to rock concerts and parties with teenagers, and it was there that he first heard about the Jewish festivals. How it felt to attend the synagogue, where everybody welcomed him, for he became important when suddenly he became the tenth man. Because - he knows it well - this is what it is all about. Being accepted, belonging somewhere, to be loved. For him, the Jewish religion did all that, but Elijahu understands if someone finds these answers in Christianity. It is very likely that the majority would not share this opinion with us.


Meanwhile, we find ourselves in the area behind the Hungarian Houses, between broken-down workshops and shops, next to one of the largest yeshiva near Mir Yeshiva, which became first-page news a few years ago, when one of its rabbis called for the assassination of ministers. Elijahu also provides practical information such that it is easy to find a cheap glazer here and that naturally, both the religious and the non-religious come here.

For a simple mortal, all religious men wear black coats, hats and payes, and women long skirts and kerchiefs or wigs. Of course, the formula is not that simple. In Mea Shearim, there live mainly Hasidic Jews and they have quite different groups. The Hasidic movement began relatively late in the 18th century in Western Ukraine as a spiritual, somewhat mystical trend. It is organized around the dynasties and their leaders the rabbis, preserving the old Eastern European customs in dress code, traditions and language. Most often they get their name from the native town or the dynasty, such as Satmar, Munkács, Ger or Gur and many more. Needless to say, these are extremely closed communities with strict rules. And then, of course, there are the Mitnagdim or Prusim, who are significant members of the Vilnius rabbi's followers, and are simply called Litvaks. Their main activities are studying the Torah and other sacred books. Of course, the two groups are not too close to each other, kind of like the fans of Beitar Jerusalem vs. Maccabi Tel Aviv.


Meanwhile, as we reach the Hungarian Houses quarter, Elijahu tells me that he had arrived in Israel, landed at the airport and then moved to Tiberias, and from there to Tel-Aviv. After a couple of years he realized that if he did not change his way of life, it did not matter whether he lived here or in Hungary and then he became more aware of Judaism. The idea of ​​converting came up, and through its Hungarian connections he eventually arrived at the Hungarian Houses. The rabbi, who undertook his teaching, came here to the Kollel every day and asked him to join him here. We are now standing in the middle of the small square, opposite the Kollel, which back then was still a one-story, old building with a printed wall pattern in the halls. Now it is brand new and has two levels; men are coming and going in and out of it. Not far from the study hall is the office where the leader of the Hungarian religious community and the administrator of the Hungarian Houses are sitting.


Jehezkel Lefkovics' room is an old, small room, full of pictures and maps. When we arrive, he has a visitor; he is very busy because he had returned just yesterday from America. Much of the money needed to run the community life comes from foreign donations, mostly from rich American-Hungarian Jews. Then, back in Israel, Jehezkel Lefkovics evaluates the candidates and issues the donations. Any Jewish family of Hungarian origin can apply for this and it does so: the relief association provides relief to more than a thousand families, operates an old home, a religious school, and allocates extra allowances on special occasions.

Otherwise Jehezkel Lefkovics speaks Hungarian fluently: although he was born in Jerusalem, his family came from Hungary. During their long and adventurous life they started a lot of things, from wine shop to selling curtains, but they always preserved the traditions of their religion. And this is still true of the lean and friendly Mr. Lefkovics, who still devotes time to learning, before and after an eight-hour workday.  He apologizes for not having more time to spend with us, but he gives us his phone number so we can sit down and talk at another time. When we leave, I'm waiting in the stair case because Elijahu has to take care of a few more things.


While I'm out there, waiting, a busy life is happening around me. In a basement room you can order Purim gift baskets, women come and go, everybody with a stroller, and as long as they are looking at the baskets, they leave the strollers with me, for a while, outside. You can tell nobody here thinks you could come with a malicious intention here. No matter how alien this lifestyle is to me, there is something very moving in this sense of belonging. Far away is a voice announcer; as it comes closer, I recognize Yiddish words. Over my head dark robes are hung on a taut rope. An old man with a bent back, in a black coat arrives at the Relief Society, and begins chatting amicably with the Arab construction worker. Unfortunately, I know from experience that the situation is not always so idyllic, because two weeks ago, when I was forced to pass Mea Shearim as a stranger, I was barely able to avoid being spat on, having been taken for a Goy.


Meanwhile, Elijahu arrives, and tells me that while he was filling out the forms, everybody was asking him who I was, what I was, where I came from, whether I was married. I suppose if I were not, they would find a good shidduch right away. Being Hungarian matters a lot here. As fewer and fewer Hungarian Orthodox religious arrive, and most of the people who live here barely heard about their Hungarian ancestors and do not even speak a word in Hungarian, they try to keep every newly arrived Hungarian. For example, a few years ago, when religious Hungarian boys came to study here, they were provided with lodging, meals and learning for free.


The whole quarter is just a few squares and some two-story houses, the wells in the squares are closed. We stand in front of a small synagogue named after Hatam Sofer. The famous rabbi of Pozsony launched the Orthodox movement against the Reform Jews in the 19th century and became a spiritual leader of many rabbis and dynasties. The synagogue has hardly any real Hungarians, but there were times when it was the main language spoken here. Elijahu also tells me that most Hungarian families now belong to the Dushinsky Hasid trend, which is named after the founding rabbi and not its place of origin. But in addition to the Dushinsky, there are also many Toldot Aharon Hasidim in the Hungarian community, who can be recognized by their characteristic striped caftans. If the former are not, but the latter are certainly familiar to most Israelis, if for nothing else, but their strong and firm anti-Zionism and their recent flare-up of rhetoric, turned aggressive, against the military recruitment. This topic of course would be worth a separate article.

As we leave the Hungarian Houses, we are talking about the future of this disappearing Hungarian world.  A year ago Elijahu was still dreaming about writing a book about the stories he had heard around here. But, unfortunately, those who told these stories are no longer with us. There are many recorded materials and tales in the possession of Elijahu, and he hopes that something will become of them sometime later. Elijahu's aspirations are not only aimed at the dwindling community. A few years ago, young Hungarian boys were still coming together for a little Friday Torah reading, and then for a beer party similar to a Hungarian village disco, because whenever Hungarians do anything, good eats and drinks are part of it. But today these guys have families and life scattered them into different countries.


We are walking along Strauss Street towards Yaffo Street. After a couple of hours of detour I will return to my world. I take the shawl off my head. Elijahu starts to laugh, we imagine what the many people around us would think of the orthodox woman who just came out of Mea Shearim, and her first idea was to get rid of her head covering.


Parallel worlds. Eliyahu is going to pick up his kid before the evening shift, and I run to catch the bus. Behind us the ultra-Orthodox Hungarian Houses and the Tankcsapda and the VörösBorosKóla disco-nights.

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