I left home anticipating contributing to Jews in Budapest. The opposite happened.
[/pullquote]Nearly three years ago, I volunteered with Northwestern University’s Fiedler Hillel on an Alternative Spring Break trip to Budapest, Hungary. I left home anticipating contributing something valuable to the Jewish communities on the ground in Budapest. What came to be true was quite the opposite.
Prior to the trip, I familiarized with current events in Hungary. I read a slew of articles — everything from The New York Times to The Guardian to sites that had been translated from Hungarian to English, absorbing every bit of information I could get my hands on. I read about the far-right Jobbik party, infamous for its anti-Semitic platforms and for gaining increasing political influence in Hungary. Pictures enveloped my laptop screen of the anti-Semitic protesters against the World Jewish Congress holding its annual conference in Budapest. Headlines reported the Hungarian government’s request for a list of all of the Jewish names and leaders in Budapest. Discussion pieces and blog posts explored whether Hungary was on a downward spiral to pre-WWII conditions. I feared what the situation would feel like on the ground and wondered whether Jews in Budapest had a chance.
During my seven day experience within the city’s walls, I interacted with Jewish Budapest on a number of levels. I visited during Passover, a week-long Jewish holiday that commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. This holiday has grown to encompass themes of social justice and minority rights across various social and economic spectrums. In a basement accented with exposed-brick and steeped in progressive, optimistic energy, I toasted to life with nearly one hundred guests from different countries, different backgrounds and different futures. My hosts welcomed me with open arms, encouraging me to learn about others and inciting me to share about myself. I listened to a number of young Jewish adults describe their unexpected discovery of their Jewish roots in their teenage years and their revival of their Jewish identities in their twenties and thirties. In many cases, these individuals’ grandparents were either murdered in the Holocaust or survived the Holocaust and swore off Judaism upon their return to Hungary out of fear that something as horrible would again endanger their families. If their ancestors were open to embracing Judaism, they were hindered because of communism, the reigning political ideology in Hungary from post-WWII until 1989, which declared organized religion illegal. It wasn’t until this generation, my generation, that religion was a topic of conversation.
How could I build on the history of the Holocaust to tell a new story, rather than repeating tales of victimization and fear?
[/pullquote]Despite these individuals not knowing about their spiritual roots, they took it upon themselves to learn. They dove into educational and community-building programs. They experimented with religion and asked this crucial question: What does it mean to be Jewish?
Most of all, they yearned to fit this new element of their identity into their otherwise muddled sense of self. They emerged with bubbling answers to questions like: Who am I? and What is my place in this world?
The contrast between the joy and optimism of everyday Jewish Budapest and the frightening chaos portrayed in the news stirred my insides.
I wanted to spread the news.
Why was it that I had to physically visit Budapest to understand the life vibrating within and beyond its walls? Why do international communities assume Jewish Budapest, and the wider Jewish Eastern Europe, is a cemetery? How could I, and people like me, build on the history of the Holocaust to tell a new story, rather than repeating tales of victimization and fear?
This led to the narrative nonfiction anthology, Somehow I Am Different (www.somehowiamdifferent.com). This book chronicles my personal journey of discovery, perspective, and hope in Budapest, Hungary and introduces the life tales of an endearing circle of individuals. One such person is Ádám, a young non-Jewish man who grew from angsty anti-Semitic teen to spiritual adult. Here is Ádám’s story. You may meet the rest of the individuals in Somehow I Am Different on its release date: May 3, 2016.
— Alyssa Petersel
Exerpt from Somehow I Am Different
“I think if you feel something, do it. Never make compromises.”
I approached them hesitantly and said, “S-szia… do you speak English?”
[/pullquote]My first week in Budapest ended with my first Hungarian Shabbat, which is the Jewish day of rest that falls every Friday at sunset to Saturday at sunset. The only place I knew to go was Moishe House, or Mózes Ház in Hungarian. During my first trip to Budapest the previous year, my friends and I attended a Passover Seder at Moishe House, from which I maintained a few friendships and connections. Now that I was back in Budapest, I was eager to find stable ground and to meet new friends.
As the sun set, the night grew cool. I was dressed for the hot summer day in a cotton floral dress that fell just below my knees and barely covered my shoulders. A breeze brushed against my face, raising hairs on my arms. I paced down Király utca (King Street) in the Seventh District, past endless rows of restaurants and pubs, my eyes glued to the numbers on the buildings. Each building I passed—beautiful, authentic and eroding—was equally capable of housing the young passionate Jews I so desperately sought. I power-walked up and down the entirety of the street two times. No Mózes Ház.
Pivoting my right foot on the pavement, I prepared to turn around and return home when I noticed a young woman standing on the street corner. Another young woman was locking her bike across the street beneath a mural of a baby blue sky blanketed with stark white and grey clouds. The bike-rider approached her friend, kissed her once on each cheek and together they punched in a code at the front door of the building directly to my right.
I approached them hesitantly and said, “S-szia… do you speak English?” They smiled. Someone upstairs released the lock to the door, and the three of us walked together into Mózes Ház.
Ádám wore a black baseball cap and a fitted black t-shirt under a grey unzipped hoodie.
[/pullquote]We climbed two levels of wide, white marble stairs and the two girls galloped inside. I peered through the doorway with caution. The lights were out. I wondered if we were the first to arrive. Somewhere in the distance, I heard a soft plucking of a guitar and a man’s voice humming a familiar tune. I stood in the entryway of the apartment and looked in. To my right was a kitchen, a mess of stacked dirty pots piled in the pint-sized sink; glasses half-filled with wine and soda dispersed haphazardly across the counter. To my left, coats were piled atop a table with a poster above it that read Mózes Ház in neon block letters. Straight ahead, a room full of people surrounded round quarter-sized candles on the living room floor.
A young man sat on the floor with his eyes closed and his legs crossed, singing. He wore a tight red t-shirt and jeans. His dark blond hair was short on the sides but long on the top, flipped across the front of his forehead. He wore a round, hand-woven multi-colored cap on his head in place of a kippah, or traditional Jewish head cover. I crept into the living room and sat down, hugging my knees to my chest. I joined the service, humming ceremonial Shabbat tunes that ignited memories from my childhood. My mind danced around the notion that I had never met these people before, yet we had these songs in common.
As the service came to a close, the young singer closed his eyes and sat in silence for a brief meditation. Opening his eyes, he blessed the wine and the challah, as is custom before meals in the Jewish tradition. Finally, he stood, smiled, motioned toward the kitchen and encouraged his guests to eat.
Towering what seemed like two feet above me, he introduced himself as Ádám. As he welcomed me to Moishe House, his home and the heart of his community, he bent to meet me at my level and offered me a plate of pasta with garlic parmesan sauce. After ensuring that I had everything I needed, Ádám buzzed around the room, checking in and chatting with every single guest.
“My grandmother was more empathizing than my mother with my new and, let’s say, progressive ideas about identity.”
[/pullquote]A few weeks after that first Shabbat together, Ádám and I met for a drink on a weekday evening in the Seventh District at a pub called Fekete Kutya, or Black Dog – one of our mutual favorites. Fekete Kutya is known for its local regulars, wooden stools, dark lighting, and craft Belgian and Czech beers on draft. Our ears were bombarded with neighboring laughter and shouts of egészségedre (egg-eh-shegg-eh-dreh), or “cheers” in Hungarian.
Ádám wore a black baseball cap and a fitted black t-shirt under a grey unzipped hoodie. He sat across from me, shoulders hugging the air around his drink, clasping his right hand around the stein and slapping his left hand against his knee as he laughed. I explained to Ádám that I was living in Budapest to become more familiar with Jewish life and culture. More specifically, I was talking with and getting to know individuals that marked unique aspects of Hungarian Jewish life that I wanted to capture and share.
I asked Ádám to tell me a little background about his family. He said, “My name is Ádám Schrödl. Schrödl, actually, is a German name, which is a good starting point for the story.”
He smiled widely, but his smile faded as he continued, “Before I borned, my parents just divorced. My father left us and never visited me. Never visited us, actually, although he lived just couple of blocks from our apartment.”
Ádám said his father’s side of his family was always more interesting for him because he knew nothing about it. He knew they were German settlers from the 18th or 19th century, but that was common in Hungary at the time. He knew there were also some mixed marriages between his father’s family and Jewish families. This was the only thing he knew.
Ádám’s eyes darted along the surface of the table. He said he only knew one grandmother on his mother’s side. All of his other grandparents died before he was born. The one grandmother he knew was a “very, very Catholic person, but in a liberal way.” Ádám found Catholics in Hungary to be very open minded. He said, “Actually, I think my grandmother was more empathizing than my mother with my new and, let’s say, progressive ideas about identity. She was more accepting.”
He went to his youth group and suggested to the leader and to his peers that the group incorporate a series about Judaism.
[/pullquote]Ádám was born in 1987 and raised a Calvinist. A glimpse of mischief grew in his eyes as he said, “My mother was a very strict Calvinist person. The very, very strict kind. It was always hard for my mother.” For a woman who loved and embraced a strict, specific, regulated spiritual tradition, a rebellious, free-thinking son would be quite a challenge.
Following his mother’s tradition, Ádám had his confirmation as a child and was very active in the Calvinist youth club. He was a top member of his church and volunteered often with children of his neighborhood. “I believed in it,” he said. “Still, some core things remained in me.”
Ádám shook his head and said, “I remember though, when it hit me that something wasn’t right.” When Ádám was in primary school, his pastor told him and a group of his peers to put their words in light of the Bible. When Ádám heard that, he thought that judging his behavior by a book was too rational. He wanted to be more in tune with his feelings or intuition. He saw countless people arguing with each other in the church, though most times they didn’t voice their disagreements outright. “Different groups understanded the same Bible words quite different,” he said. Ádám emphasized, “It made me think, ‘How does this pastor mean this thing, to put everything in light of the Bible?’ If I put everything into the light of the Bible, then my understanding is equal to others, but my understanding wasn’t equal to others. So, I started to think different.”
When Ádám thought about the Trinity, again he felt different than the others. He speculated it may have been because he never knew his father. As he grew into a teenager, he began arguing about the Trinity in youth camp. His group leader said, “Oh, don’t think about it. It will make you crazy,” to which Ádám replied, “Then maybe I want to be crazy.” He needed answers.
Ádám attended Calvinist high school. “I think I was always a black sheep there,” he said. “I did not know it, I just felt it.” At the time, Ádám was conservative. He was known to say a few anti-Semitic things when he was fifteen. “I am not proud of that,” he said. “I didn’t say much, but I really thought that maybe the country was bad because of Jews. It was hard for me even then, but I tried to believe it, because to believe it would put me into the group.”
Ádám began to discover that many of his childhood friends, even from church, were Jewish.
[/pullquote]Later in high school, Ádám started to have incidents. He listened to punk rock music and yearned to be liberated. One day, he went to a memorial to the Peace Treaty of Trianon and the Revolution of 1956 wearing a handkerchief with Che Guevara on it. Ádám remembers that one of his teachers told him to take off the handkerchief because Che Guevara was “a genocider.” Ádám replied, “Yeah, who cares?” To me, he shrugged and said, “It was harsh, but I did it.”
Ádám’s first acquaintance with Judaism happened during his final year of high school. He went to his youth group and suggested to the leader and to his peers that the group incorporate a series about Judaism into their studies. He thought that Judaism was in the core of Christianity.
“There was a big silence after that,” Ádám said. “After no support, I felt like, ‘What the fuck, man? What are we talking about? I mean Jesus was Jewish, right? Then I realized for sure, like, fuck, something was wrong here.”
Ádám’s next encounter with Judaism came while he was attending university. His major was Hungarian literature. When he was confronted with choosing a minor, he was torn between Arabic and Hebrew. Originally, he wanted to choose Arabic because he thought it would help him in business. For one reason or another, Arabic conflicted with his schedule and goals at that time, so he enrolled in Hebrew for the next semester.
“That made me think a lot about myself,” Ádám said. He started to learn Hebrew and met his first Jewish friends in his Hebrew classes. Ádám explained, “I had a girlfriend at the time whose family was Holocaust survivors. She was Jewish. That changed me.” He said it wasn’t only his girlfriend that changed him, but also his studies and the whole of the academic environment caused Ádám to rethink his previous understandings.
They were talking about taboos like gay people, transsexuals…it was great. Even if I am in the ghetto, I am more free than outside of it.”
[/pullquote]Soon thereafter, Ádám began to discover that many of his childhood friends, even from church, were Jewish. Ádám’s generation is the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Often in Hungary, this generation did not learn of their Jewish roots until their teenage years or even into their twenties or thirties. Holocaust survivors often preferred for their children and grandchildren to be protected from their Jewish affiliation. At death’s door, however, they frequently voiced the truth. Reflecting on his relationships from his childhood, Ádám said, “Even before I knew, I liked that they were different. I did not know how they were different, but I liked the difference in them.”
Ádám’s introduction to Judaism and Jewish culture sparked his transformation. One day, the girl sitting next to Ádám in one of his university classes learned that he was studying Hebrew and started a conversation with him. “What is special in me?” Ádám wondered. He told her that he really wanted to experience a Jewish community. She painted a picture of a new informal community that she and her friends were trying to build up in Budapest. She offered Ádám to visit with her one day. Then, for the first time, Ádám visited Moishe House.
Ádám’s first night, he was almost late. He was used to being late, but the reaction by those he met at Moishe House was different than the reaction he was expecting. “The event just did not start,” he said. “Even if it was time to start, they did not start it. People were just hanging around. It was great! I was like, ‘This is awesome. I want this!’” Ádám craved a similarly relaxed, community-oriented experience in church, but his church community was quite strict. He explained, “I always thought that wasn’t the point. People just wanted to hang out. That’s why they were there.”
“No way. I am not Jewish, I cannot represent the community. I cannot be a leader.”
[/pullquote]Beyond the relaxed timeline of the evening at Moishe House, Ádám was surprised by the open nature of the conversation. He said, “They were talking about politics – even openly! They were talking about taboos like gay people, transsexuals…it was great. I felt like anarchism is here, it’s real here! Even if I am in the ghetto, I am more free than outside of it.”
From that moment on, Ádám visited Moishe House every Friday evening. He learned Hebrew liturgy. He met rabbis and had the chance to talk with rabbis about differences and similarities between a variety of spiritual traditions and spiritual paths. He also met Protestants and Christians who also thought that Judaism was an integral aspect of Christianity. He remembered, “I felt like, great, I’m not that creepy asshole anymore. What I say is valid.”
Two and a half years later, Ádám received his degree and went on to receive a Masters in History of Religion paired with a Masters in Literature. At that time, one of the girls living in Moishe House announced that she was moving out. The other roommates told Ádám that they felt he would be a great person to take her place. Ádám remembered his reaction. He said, “No way. I am not Jewish, I cannot represent the community. I cannot be a leader. I can do whatever you want, I can help you, but not in this way.” The others told Ádám that it didn’t matter what his religious label was. They encouraged him by saying he was already a hugely helpful member of the community. They insisted he join the apartment.
“I won’t say that I’m not Jewish,” Ádám said, “You need to discover it.”
[/pullquote]“So, after about a month, I moved in,” Ádám said. “I was really, really in. I felt much more in than in any other community.” As he described all of this for me, Ádám’s energy was contagious. He brushed a long piece of hair across his face and said that before Moishe House, he struggled to fit in. Sometimes, he felt that even if he identified with a principle, he felt frustrated by how the principle was overlooked in practice. When he visited Moishe House, however, he felt that not only did people talk about theories, but they also practiced those theories, which was more important for Ádám. “I came here and I learned,” he said.
Ádám has since lived in Moishe House for five years. For the first three years, Ádám wanted to formally convert to Judaism. He explained, “Whether or not to formally convert was a big decision inside me.”
Much of Ádám’s hesitation came from the notion that the Jewish tradition does not encourage conversion, which Ádám believed was more often than not a positive practice. After discussing with a series of rabbis the intricate details of his belief, Ádám decided that he did not need to convert to feel passionately about Jewish culture, tradition and people. Around March 2013, Ádám decided he would not convert. “But then who am I?” he questioned. Ádám looped his right hand around his stein and took a long sip of beer. He put his stein back on the table with a loud clank and said, “So, I started to search.”
For two years, Ádám visited a variety of churches to find a tradition that was right for him. He felt the Moishe House community was perfect, but he needed something that was him. “I won’t say that I’m not Jewish,” Ádám said, “You need to discover it.”
Somehow, on the Internet, Ádám found Unitarianism. “That is the first thing I read that I said, ‘Yeah, I can believe this,’” Ádám said. “Even if it is a liberal, very ongoing thing, and most of the Christians think, ‘Unitaristic go to hell,’ maybe, if that’s how I go, I’d rather go to hell.”
Though Ádám feels comfortable identifying himself as a non-Jew, he maintains passion and commitment to Judaism and Jewish culture
[/pullquote]Ádám swirled the inch of beer left in his stein around on the table. As the bubbles settled on the surface, he said, “Finally, I started to form my personality and identity.” Ádám felt like he did not have to decide between what he had to practice. He practiced many aspects of Jewish tradition. Sometimes, he prayed because he felt he needed to. Other times, he didn’t because he wasn’t in the mood. He felt no shame. He explained, “Sometimes I just do it. Sometimes I feel that I am very Jewish. Sometimes I feel I am Protestant. That’s me. It’s great.” Ádám laughed. “A Judaist Unitariast, or something like that. That can fit with me. This is what I am.”
In an even tone, Ádám said that in one week he would move out of Moishe House in order to move into a larger, nicer home with his girlfriend. He tapped the palm of his hand on the surface of the table and sighed. “I am going to miss this place. Many of my friends are at Moishe House. I don’t want to separate myself from it. I am a person who needs Jews around him. I think I will always go to synagogue on Friday night.”
Though Ádám feels comfortable identifying himself as a non-Jew, he maintains passion and commitment to Judaism and Jewish culture. After his final sip of beer, he described his admiration that Jewish people “are always trying to step over themselves.”
He elaborated that Judaism is unique in the way that it values debate and proving or disproving multiple perspectives and interpretations of a similar text or circumstance. He said, “Hungarians and Hungarian culture have a huge capacity to step over borderlines, but people are afraid to do it. I don’t know why. I never felt it. I did it. Just do it. Just choose wisely and never make prejudice. Just do it.”
“I think if you feel something, you gotta do it. Never make compromises.
[/pullquote]As Ádám stood to retrieve another round from the bar, he joked, “If I could speak with Moses, I think I would have some very good ideas.” He returned holding two tall glass steins tight by their thick rectangular handles. He said, “I think if you feel something, you gotta do it. Never make compromises. If you feel you are not comfortable with something, don’t do it. Just don’t. It doesn’t matter if your parents say that it’s right. Maybe it’s not. You should question that.”
Ádám placed one of the two beers in front of me. The small, circular stage light perched above the bar shined into the glass, turning what otherwise looked like a dark brown beer an illuminated bronze color. A group of three young men burst through the wooden door of the pub with their arms around each other’s shoulders. Ádám recognized the man in the middle as a friend of his who had recently gotten married. He stood from his stool, hugged the man in the middle and handed him his beer. Ádám pointed in my direction, guiding the group to our table as he returned into the darkness to replace his drink.
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Learn more about Somehow I Am Different at www.somehowiamdifferent.com. Full book release May 3, 2016.