A Nod to Budapest’s Future in a Grass-Roots Celebration of Its Past

New York Times
December 9, 2009
A Nod to Budapest’s Future in a Grass-Roots Celebration of Its Past

The old Jewish Quarter is the scene this month of an ambitious art, history, culture and culinary festival that runs throughout the eight days of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights.

Called “Quarter6Quarter7,” the festival, which starts Friday and is the first of its kind, features some 130 events in more than 30 different venues in and around the city’s Seventh District, central Budapest’s first and most important Jewish neighborhood.

“It\'s a Hanukkah festival, but it’s not just a Jewish event; it’s a festival of the Quarter, of everyone who lives here and visits here,” said Adam Schonberger, one of the organizers. “Living culture is the key, and the district itself becomes a house of culture, where it all is going on.”

Events include jazz, hip-hop, rock and fusion concerts, art shows, theater performances, lectures, street-art installations and even fire-juggling displays.

They take place in an assortment of what Mr. Schonberger called “community spaces” — restaurants, cafes, pubs, synagogues, shops, galleries , Jewish centers and the city’s Jewish museum.

“These places all add to the atmosphere of the district and form its history, too,” he said.

Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago, after Jewish rebels led by Judah Maccabee defeated the Hellenic King Antiochus IV. Only one day’s worth of ritually pure oil was found in the desecrated Temple, but it burned for eight days while fresh oil was pressed and consecrated.

Because of this, during the Hanukkah festival Jews eat fried foods, like doughnuts and potato pancakes, and light candles in Hanukkah lamps, or menorahs, on each of its eight nights.

During the festival, candle-lighting ceremonies are held nightly in the Jewish Museum and at Siraly, a cafe and alternative culture center co-managed by the Jewish youth group Marom.

Marom, which Mr. Schonberger heads, organized the festival’s structure and coordinated events and promotion, with support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish charity and aid organization.

The venues’ owners chose their own programming to fit their clientele and space. “It was grass roots rather than top down,” Mr. Schonberger said. “Each place has a certain style of audience.”

Marom has organized Hanukkah festivals for the past several years, but on a much smaller scale. Last year, for example, an eight-day program of events took place almost exclusively at Siraly and at one other venue, a music club.

This year’s expanded version marks a new step in the recent transformation of the Jewish quarter from a neglected inner-city neighborhood to the site of one of the city’s trendiest club and cafe scenes.

(Full disclosure: As the author of a Jewish travel guide who has also chronicled this process, I am scheduled to participate in a discussion on the subject.)

Though much of the Seventh District is still run-down, gentrification has brought sleek new shops, cafes, boutiques and galleries — and some questionable development schemes. Many buildings have been torn down and replaced by new structures; the district’s mayor, Gyorgy Hunvald, was jailed in February on suspicion of bribery and abuse of office related to property transactions. (He remains in custody.)

Members of Ovas! (Veto), a civic group founded in 2004 to lobby for the preservation of local architecture, will hold workshops on the district’s history and architecture during the festival.

A variety of walking tours is also on the program (a full schedule is at Some focus specifically on the district’s history and others on its architecture, including its three grand, central synagogues that form a so-called “Jewish triangle.” One of these, the twin-towered Dohany Street Synagogue, is the largest synagogue in Europe and a prominent city landmark. It celebrated its 150th anniversary this year.

“Most tours start with the synagogues, but the tour we are giving starts off by looking at the district’s urban structure, that is, places where Jews lived and worked,” said Mircea Cernov, who heads Haver, a foundation that promotes education and dialogue among Jews and non-Jews.

“This allows you to understand how Jews were living and also their relations with the non-Jewish world,” he added. “Buildings can talk; streets can talk about all this.”

The dozen restaurants and eateries taking part in the festival range from two kosher restaurants to a tiny hummus bar and to Kadar, a legendary lunchroom famous for its checkered tablecloths, seltzer water siphons and home cooking.

Most are offering special dishes, set meals or discounts for the festival period, and some are also hosting exhibitions, talks, concerts and other events.

The bistro-style Bar Ladino, for example, offers a three-course set dinner for 4,900 forints, or about $27, including wine. And Tuesday night, it will feature the Jewish cookbook author Eszter Fuszeres, who will demonstrate how to make fried doughnuts and lead a discussion about holiday foods.

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