The Star of David necklace in this photo could belong to anyone. There is nothing outwardly special about the necklace or the hands that are holding it. However, after hearing the story of Gabor, the owner of the necklace, I was reminded of the importance of asking questions and taking a closer look at the everyday objects that we encounter.
I met Gabor two weeks ago in Zalaegerszeg, a southern Hungarian town where approximately 60 Jews now live (1,300 Jews lived there before the Holocaust). I was in Zalaegerszeg with the Social Action Exchange, a fellowship that allows Israelis, NYU graduate students, and young Hungarian Jews to come together and learn about social justice. Our group of Hungarians, Americans, and Israelis met for two exchange missions: in January we gathered in Israel and this past May, we reconnected in Hungary.
Part of our time in Hungary was spent in Zalaegerszeg, where our task was to photograph and document the Jewish cemetery that lies within the town. Working as a team with Hungarians and Israelis, we translated the Hebrew and Hungarian epitaphs on the graves and recorded them in English so that future visitors would be able to understand what is written.
We encountered ubiquitous Jewish cemetery symbols like the double hands of the Cohen, which show that a descendent of the ancient priestly tribe was buried in the plot. There was a special feeling in the air as we explored the cemetery. It was a humbling experience to help record Hungarian Jewish history, carefully removing overgrown vines and working hard to respect the memories of all the Jews that had been buried in that cemetery–and all the Jews who were denied the right of proper burial.
A local Jew named Gabor lived a short walk from the cemetery. He invited a few members of our group to visit his house and hear his story. He wanted us to know that there are still Jews in the town and that they are working to keep some semblance of Judaism alive in their community. We sat on his couch, ate chocolate cake, and tried to put together the pieces of his family’s story. He told us of his father’s years of forced labor during the war and his eventual internment in Mauthausen, a labor camp in Austria. We learned that his mother survived the war in Budapest’s Jewish ghetto.
The years of Communism following the war made it difficult for many Hungarian Jews to connect with their religion. Gabor had no Jewish education, but he still feels proud of his Hungarian Jewish ancestry. One of the only Jewish objects that he has in his house is the Magen David necklace shown above. The Star of David can mean different things to different people, but it is generally recognized as a Jewish symbol. Interestingly, Gabor made the necklace himself by melting the gold from his parents’ weddings bands after they passed away, creating a Jewish necklace that he could keep for himself. For Gabor, the necklace is symbolic of both his family’s past and his own complex Jewish identity.
The rest of our trip was spent in Budapest, where we learned about the young, progressive Jewish community that is budding there. The Jews I met in Hungary inspired me to think differently about Judaism. They are working to redefine their Judaism, while they carry the burden of memory with them wherever they go. As a result of Communism, many Hungarians have only recently discovered their Jewish ancestry. By necessity, the community we met in Budapest employs a very broad definition of what it means to be Jewish, allowing for many different voices to be heard as they work to create an inclusive Jewish community for themselves.
One of the many outstanding programs our Hungarian friends planned for us included an “Invisible Theatre” tour of the Jewish quarter of Budapest where they used mime, improvisation, interpretive dance and even paper airplanes to challenge us to think about what it means to walk the streets of one’s neighborhood with the awareness that it used to be a Jewish ghetto. Some of the other social justice aspects of the trip included a visit to an outpatient mental health clinic to learn about the institutionalization problem that still exists in Hungary, a guided tour of Budapest led by a woman who is homeless, and an introduction to Muszi, a new community space for alternative and marginal artists.
Back in New York, there are signs of Judaism everywhere I look. And yet, I am trying to challenge myself to look more closely at the objects and people around me, to ask questions and listen to more stories. Fortunately, if you are in the New York area, you can join the conversation about Jewish identity at the upcoming Pursue event on June 17th where we will be “sifting for stories” at the Brooklyn Flea Market in Williamsburg. I hope you will come out and share your thoughts about what makes an object Jewish and how our Jewish identities are (or are not) connected to the objects we inherit, own, and buy.
Jodie Honigman is a member of the Pursue City Team. Click here to read her full bio.