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Budapest's Great Synagogue


Commonly called the Dohanyi Street Synagogue, Budapest's biggest Jewish house of worship is also the largest synagogue in Europe, and one of the half-dozen largest in the world. But its significance goes well beyond its seating capacity (1500 men at floor level and 1500 women in balconies). Its existence and its style have many and varied connections to world and Hungarian Jewish history. 


It was built, starting in 1854, on the edge of what had been until 1840 a ghetto in which all of the city's Jews lived. Its building reflected a split within the Jewish community: modernize Judaism in the wake of the Enlightenment and integrate with the rest of the population, or maintain a close community that appreciated a lessening of oppression but would prefer not to take much part in civil society.



The builders of the Great Synagogue were proponents of the first idea, and it was no accident that the impressive structure turns its face to the city, rather than to the ghetto. The nearby Orthodox synagogue, much smaller, faces away.


All that took place against a background of Hungarian nationalism, with many Hungarians eager to be free of Austrian domination, even after the 1848 rebellion that led to Hungary having an "equal" status in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A bit of that can be seen in references at the beginning to the Tabakgasse Synagogue; that's the German equivalent of Dohanyi Street, as it's now called.




Before our visit in 2003, we knew nothing of this history (isn't learning it part of why we travel?) but we are constant visitors to cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, not because we are religious but because of the role they played in their time. But this time, there was an extra personal note: in the 1890s, before emigrating to America, my wife's paternal grandparents were married in the Great Synagogue. It appears to have been a big social step up for the groom to the bride's family synagogue. 


The wealthy founders turned to Ludwig Forster, a Viennese architect popular at the time. He concluded that there was no distinctively Jewish architectural language he could use, and chose instead "architectural forms that have been used by oriental ethnic groups that are related to the Israelite people, and in particular the Arabs." So, if you though you were seeing Moorish Revival styles, you weren't far off! By the way, if you're on the upper East Side of Manhattan, you can see its "little brother," the Central Synagogue at E. 56th Street and Lexington Avenue.



Here are some interior views; unfortunately because no flash was allowed inside and my camera of the time was having technical issues, color quality varies more than I like. But the richness of the decoration certainly shows!









The ark shown above serves as a repository for numbers of Torahs originally belonging to synagogues destroyed by the Nazis. More than 400,000 Hungarian Jews, more than 50% of the pre-war population, were systematically deported to Auschwitz. By the end of the war, only 200,000 remained. Today's estimates range from 35,000 to 120,000; in any case the largest Jewish population in East Central Europe.


During the war, the synagogue was first used for German radio broadcasts and then as a stable, and was damaged both by pre-war attacks by the fascist Arrow Cross movement and by fighting during the siege of Budapest in 1945. During the Communist era, it returned to use as a synagogue, and got a full restoration in the 1990s.


In a more optimistic era, the early 1930s, the Dohanyi Street congregation was able to expand on its block; the next-door house in which Zionist founder Theodor Herzl was born the same year the synagogue opened was torn down and a Jewish Museum built on its site. Behind that, a smaller Temple of Heroes, honoring Hungarian Jewish soldiers of World War I was built. It now serves as a community house. The picture above shows the whole complex; the picture below is the rear of the synagogue seen from the garden.



During the war, when the old ghetto was re-established and Jews forced to move there from other neighborhoods, the Museum's gate was the only escape route. After World War II, the museum was restored, and more recently has had a thorough renovation. It houses one of the richest collections of objects for Jewish festivals and services anywhere, including these. The bottom picture is a Seder plate for Passover on the top, with three trays underneath to hold matzohs.








A few streets away, and only limitedly open to visitors, is another still-active synagogue, this one belonging to the Orthodox community. Even though clearly not as wealthy or magnificent, it is still quite ornate, and speaks of a once-flourishing community.





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