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A Passage to Hungary

I left Jerusalem with my wife and two children, 829 dollars worth of overweight luggage, and thirty thousand dollars of debt. We arrived six hours later in Budapest, Hungary, at an apartment stocked with two loaves of bread, a bag of apples, and a box of milk. We had no local money and didn’t know where to find a bank. We didn’t know our address or our phone number, either.

Presumably, things could only get better.

Having never quite adjusted to being an American in Israel, I still wonder at the rosy idealism with which I approached this current transmigration. It was the summer of 1993, only four years since the Iron Curtain had come down and, for the first time in decades, allowed Jewish institutions to open up in any Eastern bloc country.  In that time, the school was already on its third full contingent of Jewish faculty, and most of the students had only a rudimentary command of English. But Sara and I were first-year teachers, unindoctrinated in the ways of the real world and grateful just to have been offered positions that paid a living wage. When the job sprang up before us as our creditors closed in behind, we jumped.

At least the school’s name sounded hopeful: Mesoras Avos — “Tradition of the Patriarchs.” For nine years I had lived in Eretz Yisrael, studying the traditions and laws of my forefathers and training to teach them to others. Despite all that preparation, however, and despite all my years of attempted acculturation as an American in Eretz Yisrael, I found myself poorly braced for the shock of once again becoming a stranger in a strange land.

I needed almost two weeks just to learn my address, which became, in my own mind, a symbol of all things Hungarian: 68 Dozsa Gyorgy utca — pronounced DOE-zha D’YOR-d’yuh UT-sa hot-von-NYALTS. Sara carried it written on a note in her purse the whole ten months we lived there, after the first time she ventured into the city without it and almost didn’t find her way back home.

Indeed, the language barrier proved an even greater hurdle than we might have imagined. Although virtually anyone in Western Europe will respond to simplified English, the leaders of former Iron Curtain countries effectively sealed off their populations from the West by denying them even a rudimentary knowledge of the English language. Sara and I found ourselves suddenly dependent upon pantomime as our primary means of communication. But with the resourcefulness of all creatures whose survival is threatened, we soon discovered an English-speaking grocer down the street, the supermarket near the school, the butcher, the baker, and one of the few dry cleaners who asked whether we wanted all the buttons cut off our jackets rather than automatically assuming that we did. Gradually, the city of Budapest began to open up for us.

In the beginning, we took to our host country with cautious affection. Our Hungarian neighbors were possessed of an admirable social consciousness, which they displayed whenever Sara prepared to climb up through the back doors of the electric trolleys that shuttled us about the city. Almost invariably, as the trolley doors squeaked open before her, at least one stranger spontaneously seized the baby-stroller and heaved it and our son up inside the car. Often others joined in, snatching up shopping bags and sometimes even our daughter, Avigayil (who generally screamed and kicked in response), after which they promptly returned all of Sara’s possessions as she settled herself inside. And on those occasions when the driver shut the doors before Sara could ascend the steps into the passenger compartment, a chorus of impassioned cries and shouts rarely failed to bring the trolley shuddering to a halt before its wheels had completed a single revolution.

In the process of acclimating to this new society, Sara and I discovered that Hungarian gallantry was balanced by a certain nervous intensity, most notably on those occasions when our son, Yaakov, indulged his proclivity for kicking off one shoe while riding in his stroller. Rather than replace it only to have him kick it off again a minute later, Sara or I would stash the lost shoe away until it was needed.

That so small an act can have such dramatic repercussions served as one of the most profound lessons of our residency in Eastern Europe.

As we strolled down Vaci Utca — Budapest’s Fifth Avenue — hardly a single passerby who noticed our son’s missing footwear failed to sound the alarm. Nor were they offering merely calm, helpful, neighborly counsel. Oh no, those weathered Eastern European faces contorted in expressions of profound tragedy, their brows furrowed with pathos, and their eyes filled with sorrow as if each successive moment of human suffering since the Almighty had expelled man from Eden was contained in the lost shoe of a one-year-old child.

But as much as the eccentric charm of Hungarian culture captivated us and endeared us to the people on the street — to storekeepers, to fellow bus passengers, and to the neighbors in our apartment building — those same idiosyncrasies, kept under pressure within the four walls of our school building, proved less than charming and anything but endearing.

Rookie teachers are notoriously inept at maintaining discipline in the classroom, and we did not consider ourselves exceptions to the rule. We were therefore relieved to learn that the disciplinary system of the Mesoras Avos school had been tried and proven in Eastern bloc countries for decades.

Then we learned how the system worked.

Every student carried with him at all times a three-by-four inch soft cover booklet. Any teacher witnessing any breech of decorum or school policy collected the offending student’s booklet and recorded the infraction therein. A second offense resulted in a second note, and so on. If, over the course of the academic year, a student collected enough notes in his little book, he was summoned to the office of the principal, from whom he received yet another note. Enough principal’s notes might, in theory, result in expulsion. In that event, the student would then have to go to his teachers on their private time, and they would be obliged to help him complete his course work for the remainder of the academic year.

Back when Hungary dwelt in the shadow of the former Soviet Union, the recording of one’s name implied the very real prospect of disappearing in the dark of night and not reappearing until a decade later after an extended tour of the gulag archipelago. Under those conditions, the school’s disciplinary system had functioned with unimpeachable efficacy. But once the students figured out, as they quickly had, that these little notes no longer went anywhere, the deterrent through which order had previously been preserved evaporated instantaneously.

Naive, democratic, and capitalist as we were, Sara and I assumed that the secular Hungarian administrators would be receptive to our suggestions for improving the running of their school. Indeed, our superiors listened politely to our observations, then informed us with equal politeness that this was the way things were done in Hungary. “But what is the educational principle behind it?” we asked. They smiled and repeated the answer, the only answer we ever received to any of our queries or to any of our arguments: This Is The Way We Do Things In Hungary.

Sara and I grew increasingly uneasy surrounded by educators who might graciously be described as passionate, but whom we felt ever more inclined to diagnose as pathological. And, as we wondered at the boundless range of emotions, wild mood swings, and professional tunnel vision that characterized our colleagues, we could scarcely help speculating as to the cause.

Perhaps Budapest’s moniker, “the Paris of the East,” reveals as much about the national psyche as it does about the position of the Hungarian capital at Europe’s cultural crossroads. On the surface, what could be grander than blending the sophistication of the West with the antiquity of the East, encompassing the urbanity and enlightenment of disparate societies, and synthesizing that which is most admirable across the spectrum of human civilization? In theory, nothing at all. In practice, East and West remain divided as surely as Buda and Pest lie on opposite sides of the Danube River.

Once the jewel of the East and the mistress of the West, Hungary courted two cultures, embracing both, absorbing neither. And so it became, like a jewel, treasured and revered, but not taken out very often, handled only with care, lovingly but without affection. Caught between two worlds, Hungary came to define itself in terms of a dual identity born of circumstance rather than of nature. Especially after the demise of the Soviet bloc, with the socialist East having collapsed around them and the capitalist West eager to exploit them, Hungarians found themselves bereft of two cultures with nothing to fill the void. Even their two national holidays reflect a cultural ambivalence, celebrating failed revolutions both of them.

As Americans in Israel, Sara and I had often felt ourselves volleyed between opposing cultures — Eastern and Western, traditional and modern, religious and secular. To find ourselves now buffeted by the same kind of cultural contentiousness so far from home threatened to emotionally unhinge us not only from our jobs but from one another. We needed a sanctuary, and needed one desperately. We found one.


After three generations of assimilation, forty years of Soviet totalitarianism, and the brief but efficient Nazi extermination of Hungarian Jews at the end of the war, few of our students retained any sensitivity for the thousands of years of Jewish tradition that had been the legacy of their grandparents. Even the school administration and faculty flapped in an inconstant breeze, alternately venerating us as custodians of the past and reviling us for resurrecting old ghosts. But if Sara and I butted up against an unyielding battlefront of bureaucratic and nationalistic obstinacy at school, within our home the lines were ours to draw. And so, week after week, month after month, with as many as half a dozen students at a time crowded into the nook of our kitchen for every Sabbath meal, the songs we sang and the stories we told transported these children to a place suspended between the physical and the spiritual, between their world and the world of their ancestors.

Surprisingly, the children came. High school teenagers eagerly passed up the Friday night and Saturday afternoon company of their peers in favor of keeping company with us, their teachers. Unvaryingly they came in modest dresses or coats and ties, well-groomed and well-mannered, sometimes even uninvited. Hungarian inconstancyalone seemed inadequate to explain the phenomenon, especially considering the personalities of the kids who came. There was Zsuzsa, whose sister had gone off to seminary in Montreal. Zsuzsa was trying to make up her mind whether to follow her sister or dive head-first into the waters of unchecked social liberty that had recently washed over Eastern Europe. There was Gabor, who had spent a year and a half in an American yeshiva but whose interest in religion had since been eclipsed by typical secular pastimes. And there was Viktor, with his punk haircut, counterculture wardrobe, and nihilistic expression. Lacking any other rational explanation for their presence, Sara and I began to hope that we were rekindling within them the unextinguished spark of their ancient heritage.

But hope began to wane as the short, cold days of winter reminded us of the harsh reality that lay waiting to pounce whenever we ventured outside our front door. The passing of time seemed to wear away the novelty of our Sabbath meals, and by February the students’ enthusiasm appeared to have dwindled. Our Shabbos table had begun to feel empty, not always in numbers but often in spirit. We began to wonder if indeed we were really accomplishing anything, and we began to doubt whether we had succeeded in creating a haven for our students to sample the true flavor of their lost legacy.

Originally, we had planned to stay a second year; but as winter gave way to spring, the prospect of twelve more months being out of tune and out of touch with the surrounding culture kept our hearts frozen before the thaw. Sara and I were only halfway out of debt, but even money wasn’t enough to hold us for another year, and we had begun looking into positions elsewhere. We had so little tangible success to show for our year’s labor that it felt pointless to subject ourselves to more of the same. But just before we had quite convinced ourselves that all our efforts had been entirely in vain, that baffling Hungarian duality took us for yet another turn.

About half-past dessert one Shabbos afternoon, our four guests took Avigayil and Yaakov out to play on the balcony. Kids will be kids, especially while in the care of indulgent teenage girls, and within minutes the whole crew found themselves on the receiving end of a neighbor’s tirade as she complained about the noise, insisted that her children had never behaved so wildly, and suggested that we showed contempt for their Sabbath by hanging our laundry out on Sunday.

The students stood up for us, the neighbor grew more belligerent, and the girls became more animated and defensive. Seeing a full blown international incident in the making, Sara summoned the girls inside and started giving them a speech about respecting others, promoting Godliness, and not opening the door to anti-Semitism.

Two-thirds of the way through her sermon, Sara stopped in mid-sentence. “Where’s Zsuzsa?”

Everyone looked around, as if the missing girl might be hiding in a corner or under the table. A short trip to the front door confirmed the obvious: Zsuzsa was still outside, still confronting the neighbor.

The neighbor, however, was now smiling and laughing and chattering away. “What did you say to her?” we asked Zsuzsa as she returned to the apartment.

“I told her that you both worked all week and hardly had any time for your kids,” Zsuzsa said, “and that in America everyone has big yards where their children can play, but here you’re stuck in this little apartment.”

“And that calmed her down?” I asked, momentarily forgetting that Hungarians live in two hemispheres at one time.

“Yeah,” said Zsuzsa, as if it were self-evident. “She said that everyone in the building adores your children, they’re so cute and sweet. They also love the Sabbath songs you sing, and they wish you would leave the windows open to let them hear better.”

Zsuzsa joined her sister at seminary in Montreal the next year. Our daughter ran into her at summer camp ten years later, and we recently received an invitation to her wedding.

Gabor, whose father had pulled him out of the school fearing that he might become too religious, started coming to an evening class I gave for adults. Last I heard he was learning at Ner Israel Talmudic Academy part time and working toward his business degree at Johns Hopkins.

Viktor looked as if his cat had died when I told him we would not be staying another year.

“All the teachers who came before you taught us songs and told us stories,” he said. “You’re the first on who ever told us what it means to be Jewish. Why are you leaving?”

How should I answer? I couldn’t tell him that the administrators of his educational institution ought to be institutionalized themselves; neither could I begin describing to a teenager the inconsonant clash of cultures, a phenomenon I had yet to fully comprehend myself.

“I’m not sure I can explain it to you,” I told him, not sure even as I began what I was going to say. “We live balanced between two worlds: a physical world and a spiritual world. Sometimes when we turn our attention to one we end up neglecting the other.”

He looked at me blankly. “It’s kind of like Buda and Pest,” I said. “Together they make one city, but each is still very different from the other. And you can’t be in both at the same time. There were a lot of reasons for us to stay, and a lot for us to go. But we could only make one choice.”

I still think of Viktor, of his haircut, his motorcycle, his attitude. I wonder whether I broke through that hardened exterior sufficiently to stir him to follow the voice of his people, whether I ignited behind his cold eyes the fires of hope. But I do know that I gave Viktor all that was mine to give him: a leg up onto the first rung of his ancestor Yaakov’s ladder, which, with its feet resting on the earth and its top stretching up into the heavens, provides us our only hope of finding a bridge between two worlds.


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