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Jewish Social Studies 8.1 (2001) 88-125

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How Jewish Is Jewish Budapest?

Kati Vörös

The history of Hungarian Jewry has been a neglected and somewhat isolated chapter of the general history of Central and East European Jewry. 1 On the one hand, Western and Israeli historiography have predominantly focused either on the "assimilating" German-speaking Jews of Germany and Austria or on the "traditional" (Eastern) Jews of Poland and Russia. On the other hand, Jewish identity, culture, and history were taboo topics in socialist Hungary until the mid-1980s, when "Jewish topics" gradually reemerged from their clandestine or strictly controlled existence. The establishment of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1987 and the (re)starting of the Jewish cultural journal and publishing house Múlt és Jovo (Past and Future) in 1988 were especially momentous in this regard. 2

The past decade has witnessed a revival of Jewish history in Hungary with a growing number of publications each year. Nevertheless, as Marsha L. Rozenblit observed in relation to the renaissance of the history of the Jews in the Habsburg monarchy: "Virtually all scholarly works on Hungarian Jewry, with the exception of those dealing with the Holocaust period, appear in Hungary. One hopes that some of these books can be translated into English or German so as to gain a wider audience." 3 The publication of Jewish Budapest: Monuments, Rites, History, first published in Hungarian in 1995 by the Center for Jewish Studies, can be considered a considerable step in this direction. 4 The English edition is part of a series that aims at presenting a comprehensive survey of the multiple aspects of East and Central European society. This book is not a conventional historical monograph but, rather, a mixture of various genres: a richly documented and illustrated [End Page 88] literary and historical anthology, guidebook, and description of religious life. Nonetheless, it has been acknowledged as a significant scholarly work based on extensive research by historians in and outside of Hungary.

Hungarian Jewish history in modern times as well as the writing of that history have been determined by the political and social processes of emancipation and assimilation and their assessment since the nineteenth century. In the words of Nathaniel Katzburg:

It seems that Hungarian-Jewish historiography has had a certain political-social aim from the very beginning--that is, the dissemination of the positive aspects of Hungarian-Jewish relations in history both within the Jewish community and in the non-Jewish public. . . . It may not be an exaggeration to say that Hungarian-Jewish historiography has aimed not only at the description of historical events but at the underpinning of the ideology of assimilation. 5

The acculturation and assimilation of Hungarian Jewry started at the end of the eighteenth century when the decrees of Joseph II (r. 1780-90) brought considerable improvement to the situation of Jews. After decades of debates, the independent Hungarian parliament passed a bill on Jewish emancipation in 1849 acknowledging the Jews' participation in the revolution and war of independence of 1848-49. The law never came into effect because the revolution was defeated. After gradual acts of legislation during the era of neo-absolutism, Hungarian Jews were finally granted civic equality in 1867, the year of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Jewish population was steadily growing; there was considerable immigration, mostly from Moravia and Galicia. 6 Linguistic magyarization was also rather fast: by 1910, 75 percent of Hungarian Jews had declared Hungarian as their mother tongue.

Although the emancipation in 1867 was unconditional, the national liberal government expected religious reform in return, which resulted in the General Jewish Congress of 1868-69 and the subsequent institutional schism between the Neolog and Orthodox branches of Hungarian Judaism and the emergence of a third branch, the Status quo ante. 7 Although the Neologs dominated the most influential Budapest community, the Orthodox population exceeded that of the Neologs up to World War I. 8 Although Jews became equal citizens as individuals, the Jewish religion was officially recognized as one...


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