- Integration and Its DiscontentsHumorous Magazines and Music Halls as Reflections of the Ambiguous Transformation of Budapest Jews into Magyars of the Jewish Faith
In 1910 the Jews of Budapest constituted approximately 23 per cent of the 882,000 inhabitants of the town, making it the second largest Jewish city in Europe. Only Warsaw surpassed it, where in 1914 38 per cent of the town's population of 883,000 were Jews. Jews felt extremely comfortable in the Hungarian capital. Their collective identification with the city found ironic depiction in a caricature of 1883 published in the Jewish humorous magazine Borsszem Jankó ('Johnny Peppercorn'). The image showed an obviously Jewish figure on his sabbath walk, surveying with satisfaction the magnificent vistas presented by the recently constructed Andrássy Avenue. The caption reads 'How goodly are your tents, O Jacob!' the verse from the book of Numbers sung at the beginning of the morning service in the synagogue. The image was intended to convey Hungarian Jewry's unique sense of belonging and symbolic ownership in the city. The surprising juxtaposition of the ancient biblical text and the modern urban scene had complex resonances that conveyed more than mere urban pride. It suggested nothing less than a conceptual, if not historical, overlap between the biblical homeland and the contemporary city. Budapest appeared as the reincarnation of ancient Jerusalem, the site where the religious past and the secular future found a happy meeting ground. After centuries of wandering among strange lands and hostile people, commented a contemporary, the Jewish Ahasuerus discovered a home in modern Europe.1 [End Page 243]
This view of the city was shared by its non-Jewish inhabitants. Endre Ady, the great modernist poet who was also a self-declared liberal and philosemite, could assume a consensus on this subject when he characterized the modernity of the city in terms of its Jewish character. 'It is the Jews', he wrote in an article of 1917, 'who created for us Budapest, along with everything else that from the distance gives the appearance of being European but is nothing but gaudy illusion.'2 As this quotation suggests, there were many critics of the allegedly 'Jewish' character of the Hungarian capital. In the 1890s Vienna's antisemitic mayor, Karl Lueger, famously coined the term 'Judapest' to designate what he took to be overwhelming Jewish influence over the cultural life of the city. From the late nineteenth century Hungarian nationalists placed growing stress on the nomadic character of the original Magyars and their origin in central Asia, particularly in the celebrations in 1896 of the millennium of Magyar settlement in Pannonia. The unspoiled east was juxtaposed to a degenerate west, masculine self-reliance to modern effeminacy, healthy pragmatism to rampant subjectivity. Given the inherent logic of this cultural imaginary, the city could only be conceived of as the antithesis and, in time, the arch-enemy of national traditions. By the early 1920s the construction of Budapest as a 'modern Babylon' was complete. The severing of symbolic ties between modern Budapest and historic Hungary seemed inevitable. 'You may well ask', a conservative journalist queried in 1922, 'what possible claim this city might have on the nation's stormy, thousand-year-old past?'3 The concept of Judapest found full-blown ideological iteration under the conservative regime of Miklós Horthy, which labelled Budapest the 'sinful city' and vowed to cleanse it of its Jewish elements. The idea of a degenerate and rapacious Jewish modernity that had despoiled Hungarian national culture became the toxic inheritance of right-wing Hungarian politics. Its ambiguous afterlife continues to the present, inhibiting scholarly research or even serious conversation about the subject.
It is my view that the story of Jewish modernity is best studied not through the celebrated achievements of individuals and elite groups but through the everyday narratives, informal practices, and popular rituals of urban life. These were the informal spaces where new forms of Jewish sociability and self-identity were invented and made visible in defiance of official liberal ideology committed to rendering Jewish life as invisible as possible within the society.4 The Jews of Budapest were certainly deeply committed to Magyarization...