Somehow I Am Different, profiles of Hungarian Jewry by Alyssa Petersel
Identity, Peoplehood

The Revival and Stereotypes of Hungarian Jewry

In winter 2012, I was lucky to travel to Hungary as part of the Dorot Fellowship in order to learn the dark, uplifting, and utterly unique history of Hungarian Jewry. Unlike either model for Jewish life — neither the Jewish minorities in stable western democracies nor the Jewish majority of the State of Israel — Hungarian Jewish life reflects and refutes both.
Some 300,000 people claim Jewish ancestry in Hungary, deeply intermarried after years of Communist suppression of religious identify. Real anti-Semitism reigns, including openly anti-Jewish political parties in the parliamentary coalition. Yet we found there similar struggles to American Jewry — a new generation of innovative leaders and Jewish groups bucking established institutions long grown stale and ineffective. Pride in one’s Jewish roots, however slim, is on the rise among the educated populace. Creative and new expressions of Jewish identity coming to fruition.
A year ago, young author Alyssa Petersel profiled Hungarian Jews and their fascinating, stereotype-defying truth in a book. She published one chapter here on our pages about a young man who identifies proudly as Jewish but defies every definition. And as the waves of marching Syrian refugees reached Hungary’s border, she opined for us about some Hungary Jews who offered their aid, even as Hungary closed its doors.
We caught back up with Alyssa to ask her about Hungarian Jewry, anti-Semitism in Europe, Syrian refugees, and her next projects.

How did you get interested in Hungarian Jewry?
In March 2013, during my senior year at Northwestern University, I participated in a week-long volunteer program in Budapest, Hungary. Volunteering abroad was a unique opportunity for me to get a taste of the personality of a community between the lines of the most popular attractions. The trip was organized through Fiedler Hillel, and thus, was operated through a Jewish lens. Best of all, we were visiting Budapest during Pesach, or Passover, an eight-day-and-night Jewish holiday that commemorates freedom and has come to incorporate dialogue around social justice. Planning for the trip, I began my research. You could say the rest is history.
What were your assumptions going there and what did you find instead?

Synagogue in Budapest Hungary, photo by Ben Murane
Synagogue in Budapest Hungary, photo by Ben Murane
At the onset of my research, I saw only the darkest sides of Hungarian Jewish experience. Articles from The New York Times, The Guardian, and various sites translated from Hungarian to English highlighted the far-right Jobbik party, infamous for its anti-Semitic platforms and for gaining increasing political influence in Hungary. I scrolled through pictures of anti-Semitic protestors against the World Jewish Congress, desecrated Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust memorials, and 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 on the ground would feel like and wondered whether Jews in Hungary had a chance.
During the volunteer program, I interacted with Jewish Budapest on a number of levels. In a basement accented with exposed-brick, I toasted “To Life!” with nearly one hundred guests from different countries, different backgrounds and different futures. I listened to 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 to protect their families. If the survivors’  children were open to embracing Judaism, they were forced to do so in private because of communism, the reigning political ideology in Hungary from post-WWII until 1989. It wasn’t until this generation – my generation – that religion was a topic of conversation.
Despite these individuals not knowing about their spiritual roots, they took it upon themselves to learn. They dove into educational and community-building programs. If they could not find a program they were looking for, they created it. They experimented with religion and asked the 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 budding answers to questions like Who am I? and What is my place in the world?
Though I traveled to Budapest with the intention of giving something to the community on the ground, instead, the communities in Budapest shared an invaluable gift with me. The contrast between the joy and optimism of everyday Jewish Budapest and the frightening chaos portrayed in the news struck a chord. From then on, I felt a need to learn more and to share what I was learning with others.
Why is this relevant to American Jews today? 
Public art dedcated to the fall of Communism in Budapest Hungary, photo by Ben Murane
Public art dedcated to the fall of Communism in Budapest Hungary, photo by Ben Murane
We are too quick to overlook stories of resilience and empowerment in light of headlines of terror and fear. This applies beyond Jewish Europe and bleeds into neighborhoods in our own country deemed “the underclass.” Every person and every neighborhood has vulnerabilities and strengths. I believe that the strengths can carry us into a positive, collaborative future. If we focus on the risks we will amplify stereotypes and discriminatory practices that hinder our society and those within it from being the best and most productive they can be.
We are also incredibly stubborn about clinging to past narratives. I do not believe that feeding paranoia and self-defense as a Jew in any country will prevent a second Holocaust. Instead, let’s zoom in on the social injustices that are occurring under our noses. Let’s take tangible, practical steps to ensure those injustices happen less often. One example: please register to vote and take time to educate yourself on how the candidate you support will impact our country and the world.
Hungary has a real anti-Semitism problem – and yet Jewish life is thriving. How do you explain that to American Jews who think that all of their European brethren should emigrate?
Holocaust memorial to Jewish victims shot on the shore of the Danube River in Budapest Hungary, photo by Ben Murane
Holocaust memorial to Jewish victims shot on the shore of the Danube River in Budapest Hungary, photo by Ben Murane
None of my interviewees deny that Hungary has a problem with anti-Semitism. Almost the opposite: Jewish Hungarians in Budapest would tell you that anti-Semitism is not the biggest problem facing Jewish Hungary. For example, funding obstacles threaten the end of some Jewish organizations. Rather than encouraging European Jews to emigrate, international Jewish individuals and communities ought to consider how they can empower European Jewish hubs to grow and foster their own self-sufficient permanence.
I believe a large reason Americans find it hard to understand why European Jews stay in their hometowns is because we are rarely told stories of their cultural revival, thriving Jewish life, or unique interpretation and practice of ritual and culture. Rather, much like my own introduction to Jewish Hungary, we read horrifying stories of government corruption, minority injustice, and discrimination against the Jews. While these endemics do exist, on a day-to-day level, Jewish programs and establishments are able to embody Jewish culture in a way that would be nearly impossible to create in any place other than where that culture was born. Beyond the unique manifestation of Judaism, these cities are home to countless individuals. The same ties to home that you and I feel — family, friends, food, that little coffee shop on the corner, for example — are the ties to home that European Jews feel. Leaving home is no easy feat, regardless of how ominous pending threats feel or appear.
As a young American Jew getting to know young Hungarian Jews, what did you find most similar between you?
When I introduced myself to Hungarian peers, I noticed that my fascination with Budapest was mirrored in their fascination with New York. We nurture an interest in what is different and maintain a curiosity about the other, which greatly enhances our interactions and friendships.
On a deeper level, we were bone-shakingly confused about the world and our place in it. Each person I talked with was recovering from or deeply immersed in a questioning that initially gave rise to great doubt, but ultimately established a rooted sense of self and purpose.
We published your chapter about Adam, who probably doesn’t fit a lot of people’s definition of a Jew. (We think he’s awesome). How do we define who “is” and “isn’t” Jewish in a world where we’re all intermarried with so many different spiritual influences?
I believe we ought to practice patience and empathy with the Jew who feels the need to walk away and we ought to practice compassion and hospitality for the individual who decides to join or participate in the Jewish world. If you ask me, whether a person is or isn’t Jewish is a decision for that person and that person alone.
The answer to this question is going to vary dramatically depending on who you ask, how he or she was raised, and the kind of Judaism he or she practices today. I believe — somewhat controversially — that anyone interested in committing to Jewish values and a Jewish practice ought to be welcome in the Jewish community.
As many of my interviewees would attest, Judaism is like a magnet that pulls you in or pushes you away. Many drawn to Judaism are not halachically Jewish, or Jewish by law, which generally means that their mother is not Jewish. However, their passion may lead them to start a spiritual circle, regularly attend synagogue, contribute financially to a Jewish community, or simply send notes of encouragement to Jewish practitioners. Simultaneously, someone with a Jewish mother may be struggling with self-identity or repressive external circumstances that convince that individual to walk away from Judaism entirely.
Do you think there’s a generational difference in how you relate to Europe than the previous generation (OR: mainstream Jewry)?
The Museum of Terror about the Communist dictatorship in Budapest Hungary, photo by Ben Murane
The Museum of Terror about the Communist dictatorship in Budapest Hungary, photo by Ben Murane
One hundred percent. I can say all I want about viewing the strengths and beauties of Jewish Hungary, but I did not live through the Holocaust. I am a young Jewish American who grew up in a community in New York that experiences very little anti-Semitism. My perspective is greatly biased in favor of the positive, safe sides of Judaism.
For Jews who lived through the Holocaust, the trauma of being singled out and targeted is a trauma that I cannot imagine overcoming.
I believe it is the responsibility of my generation, still touched by the Holocaust through our parents and grandparents but less directly impacted in our own individual lives, to refocus the conversation. We have the stories and exposure to highlight the Holocaust as a horror that must never be forgotten and never be repeated. However, we have the relative stability and insight to discover how we can grow from past periods of darkness and bring light to the Jewish narrative moving forward.
A year ago, wrote an op-ed for us about the situation of Syrian refugees in Hungary. In it, you mentioned the many Hungarians that are welcoming refugees despite their government’s hostility towards refugees. What’s the Jewish community’s response – or that of the people profiled in your book? 
Women and children among Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015. Courtsey of Wikipedia Commons user Mstyslav Chernov.
Women and children among Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015. Courtsey of Wikipedia Commons user Mstyslav Chernov.
Having experienced one of the darkest manifestations of the Holocaust, and continuing to experience systemic and social anti-Semitism on a regular basis, communities within Jewish Budapest recognize that to fight for Jewish rights is to fight for minority rights and to fight for threatened and marginalized communities of people worldwide. Beyond just Jewish Budapest, Hungarian activists prioritize defending people and communities that are most at risk, including Hungarian Jews, Hungarian Roma, and individuals coming into Hungary in search of safety.
Accordingly, Jewish Budapest, including but not limited to my interviewees in Somehow I Am Different, expressed frustration with their government’s stubborn and violent treatment of Syrian refugees. Those I interviewed were at the forefront of protests, holding signs, “#Refugees are welcome here.” In their respective community organizations, they dedicated candle lightings and action-oriented discussions to Syrian refugees. Regarding the attacks in Paris, Hungarian Jewish activists maintain that the integrity of a person is not based on their race or ethnicity. Rather, humans at the most basic level are deserving of a safe space to call home.
What is the most important thing that you’d like readers to get out of your book?
On the most literal level, I hope that readers better understand Jewish Budapest and all of the magic it offers the world, despite the darkness threatening its silence.
On a deeper level, I hope that Somehow I Am Different teaches readers that our preconceptions are often flawed. I hope that readers will opt to see the strength in their neighbors, whether close or far. Most of all, if a person or group is struggling, I hope Somehow I Am Different helps readers to offer advocacy, empowerment or assistance in whatever way possible.
What’s your favorite place in Hungary?
One of my favorite places is Teleki Tér Shtiebel, which is an apartment-style prayer hall in the Eighth District run by a small circle of individuals, two brothers of whom are included in Somehow I Am Different. Every Saturday, I attended Shabbat services and lunch at this shtiebel. Coming from an entirely different country, environment, and circle of friends, Teleki provided me a sense of home during a period where almost everything else was groundless.
What is your next book topic?
Right now, in conjunction with completing my second and final year as a Masters in Social Work student at New York University, I am conducting interviews that may contribute to one of three-to-five ideas for book number two.
You will have to stay tuned at or find me on Facebook or twitter @apetersel to see what comes of the experiments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.