Rabbi Jared Saks’s sermon
February 3, 2017 – 8 Shevat 5777
Congregation Bet Ha’am
A week and a half ago, Kirk and I found ourselves sitting in the sanctuary of the Stadttempel, Vienna’s oldest synagogue. Built in the first quarter of the 19th century, it is the only 19th century synagogue still in existence in Austria. Built based upon laws for non-Catholic churches at the time, its façade is indistinguishable from the other rows of buildings on the block, but in the center of a residential courtyard sits an elaborate three-story sanctuary built in the style of the French Empire. Sky blue paint adorns the walls and ceiling, the Ark is covered with a velvet tapestry, and the oval room feels regal. Its style was a statement on the part of the Jewish community of Vienna that the freedoms of the French Revolution and Emancipation would extend to the Jewish community. It happened, but not for another 40 years.
For two reasons, the Stadttempel escaped destruction by the Nazis during the Second World War. First, it was situated in a residential courtyard. Had it been set ablaze, there would have been no means of preventing the fire from spreading to the neighboring, non-Jewish homes. Second, its archives contained the registry of all of Vienna’s Jewish residents, a useful database for the Nazis. The Stadttempel, however, has other claims to fame. It was the synagogue of composer Salomon Sulzer, whose melodies permeate Jewish worship even today. In fact, the Sh’ma that we sing just about every time we worship together is his melody. I learned that in the Stadttempel; I thought it was a mi-Sinai melody, a melody that’s always been with our people. But it isn’t; it was written in that Vienna community. Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Sulzer, who composed in the 19th century, associated with other composers of his day in a city renowned for its classical music history. In fact, Franz Schubert, who was not Jewish, composed a melody for Psalm 92, Mizmor Shir l’Yom HaShabbat, in Hebrew for that community.
Thinking ahead about our travel to Vienna and Budapest with my colleagues and their spouses, these were the aspects that I expected, and perhaps Kirk did, too: a vibrant Jewish past and the Holocaust. I anticipated learning about Vienna’s vibrant Jewish community of the past. Though I didn’t know about Sulzer’s Sh’ma – perhaps I should have – I knew of Vienna’s rich musical history and expected its impact on Jewish life. I knew that Vienna was a center of Jewish learning and knew there were significant Jewish texts that came out of that Jewish community. I knew, as well, of Austria’s role in the Holocaust and was warned by one member of our congregation about the Judaica I would see in antique shop windows, and not to forget how those antique shops had come to acquire it.
There was one aspect, though, that I either didn’t anticipate or drastically underestimated. A Jewish trip to Europe is more than studying a vibrant Jewish past or paying tribute to the Holocaust. A Jewish trip to Europe is a three-legged stool: the vibrant Jewish past, the Holocaust, but also the vibrant Jewish present. In Vienna, in Budapest, even in Warsaw, Krakow, Kiev, and Berlin, there is a vibrant Jewish present. That was the aspect of our travel that I had not anticipated.
Vienna’s progressive Jewish community, Or Chadasch, was founded over 25 years ago, and is a dynamic liberal Jewish community. Their rabbi, Lior Bar-Ami, was very recently ordained by Abraham Geiger College, the new Reform seminary in Berlin, where Jewish life is flourishing, as well. This small, vibrant progressive community is only a part of Vienna’s vibrant Jewish present.
In Budapest, the story is even more powerful. Many Jewish tourists come to Budapest for three or four days, visit the Dohány Street Synagogue, the Kazinczy Street Synagogue, visit a few Holocaust memorials, and never interact with a living Jew. Judaism is alive in Budapest. Flourishing communities in Hungary don’t fit into the American narrative or the Israeli narrative. As Tomi, one member of the Hungarian Jewish community told us, “It’s as though they don’t think we’re here, that we shouldn’t even be alive.” Hungarian Jews are deeply impacted by Israel is as much as they realize that they can have more of a Jewish identity than simply having Holocaust survivors as grandparents or through victimhood. Linda Vero-Ban, the wife of the rabbi at the neolog Frankel Synagogue in Budapest reflected on her experience having made aliyah to Israel only to return to Hungary: “I prefer to be a Jew in Hungary than a Hungarian in Israel. I go to Israel and all of a sudden, I’m a Hungarian, which I’ve never been. I couldn’t find myself in Israel.”
The story of the Hungarian Jewish community is powerful. The rise of Communism after the Holocaust left a generation of survivors who didn’t tell their children they were Jewish. Then, that generation of children raised the next generation, under Communism, without any means to live Jewish lives or learn about Judaism. Now, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the survivors are rediscovering their Jewish identities and teaching their parents and grandparents what it means to be Jewish. My next Chadashot article will explore the inspiring story of Hungary’s young Jews and their role as leaders in not only their Jewish communities, but also in their own families.
In America, we often take our Judaism for granted. We live fairly assimilated lives, but we know that we are Jewish. For a generation, Hungarian Jews didn’t know they were Jewish, but are rediscovering who they are and their journey is inspiring. In Austria, where in many ways the Holocaust really began, Judaism thrives in spite of everything that would seem to have made it impossible. The vibrant Jewish past of Europe and its memory of the Holocaust are powerful, but even more powerful than each of these narratives is what it means to be Jewish today in a place where we might assume that being Jewish is impossible. If it’s possible there, it’s possible anywhere. Shabbat Shalom.