Searching for a Hungarian Jewish Identity Based on More Than Trauma

This year has gifted me a lot of time to do some soul searching, and I have decided to spend it figuring out my Jewish identity.

I write these words in the Budapest home of my parents, where I, at the ripe old age of 31, have recently moved back in after resigning from my interesting but stressful job in the UK. I suspect that moving back with your parents at this age should cause some kind of existential crisis, but frankly, I am stressed out and need a break — and I actually quite like my family.

Family has always been important to me. There is an invisible tie of history, both personal and generational, holding us together. I don’t remember who told me that we are Jewish; I’ve simply always known. This is different from my father and aunt, who weren’t told and were baptized out of fear that the events of the 1940s could happen again. They only found out at age 8, when they came home and complained about the dirty Jews in their school, followed by — I can only imagine — an awkward conversation with my grandmother. This story isn’t unusual for second-generation Holocaust survivors in Hungary (and I suspect around the world).

Jews in Hungary are known to have been well-integrated with a strong Hungarian identity. My grandparents formally converted to Catholicism in the late 1930s; why, I do not know. I suspect it had something to do with a premonition, one that ended up being true, but becoming Catholic didn’t help. In Auschwitz, they recorded the following about my grandmother: Nationality: Hungarian / Religion: Catholic / Race: Jewish.

I don’t need to tell the rest of that story — we all know what happened. I set off this article not wanting to write about it and yet here I am. The stories of the Holocaust have been told many times and I am ashamed to admit that I am saturated with them. It feels like I am continually encroaching on the survivors’ and victims’ privacy. I still believe that it is incredibly important to talk about the topic and to never forget. But I just can’t do it anymore; I do not want to keep reopening this family wound and relive the trauma. I want a way to tell the story of my Jewishness without mentioning the transgenerational trauma that plays such a large part in my identity.

To further complicate matters, I am the child of an interfaith marriage — the “bad kind,” according to those who only believe in matrilineal descent. My dear non-Jewish Mámele is a wonderful woman, but even after they married, my Jewish grandmother still spoke to my mother of her regret that my father didn’t marry the nice Jewish girls she tried to set him up with. Interfaith marriage is a funny expression for two fundamentally agnostic individuals, and I guess it didn’t help that practicing any kind of religion was a struggle in communist Hungary. The consequence is that today, at least half of all Jews in Hungary are not religious and even the religious ones are often from interfaith marriages.

As for my family, we celebrate Christmas and Easter in the most secular way possible: with presents, lots of food, my overly intellectual extended Jewish family getting together; a chaotic medley of everyone talking over each other; sometimes bickering; telling jokes in our weirdly dark sense of humor; asking inappropriate questions about each other’s private lives and then switching to another topic before the answer comes, which is contrasted with the polite and quiet conversations around the dinner table when I visit the non-Jewish side of the family. I love the chaos of it. For Easter, we eat the best of Hungarian Jewish cuisine, sólet — our family version is made with pork and lots of sour cream. Not exactly kóser.

Where does this leave me? Besides doing a few stereotypical things like going on Birthright and learning Hebrew for a semester, I wasn’t raised with any Jewish religious traditions. On the other hand, I did grow up in one of the traditionally Jewish districts of Budapest (Újlipótváros) and most of our Hungarian friends have Jewish heritage. I have experienced antisemitism but I have also experienced Jews and non-Jews telling me that I’m not really Jewish. Being a patrilineal Jew is complicated and painful — being denied my deeply held identity by others hurts on so many levels. I cannot say how much others’ writing about this topic has helped me. If you are in a similar situation: I see you and I feel your pain.

This year has gifted me a lot of time to do some soul searching and I have decided that the time has come to figure out my Jewish identity. I’ve been reading all the articles and books that I can get my hands on, including this Hungarian sociological study. Reading a dry scientific study rarely makes me repeatedly cry out, “Yes, that’s exactly it!” but this one did — and now I know that I am not an outlier with my experiences.

When Hungarian Jews were asked to rate elements of their own Jewish identity, the most important factor was preserving the memory of our Jewish past, our ancestors, and the Holocaust. Other key elements were the subjective feeling of belonging to Jewry and preserving Jewish culture (whatever that means, call me if you have a working definition!). Interestingly, the least important elements were having a Jewish spouse and practicing Judaism. Maybe other Hungarian Jews put pork in their sólet as well?

While this knowledge has helped, it hasn’t quite settled the matter for me. I realized that my biggest problem is that I feel untethered without a community to belong to. I cried tears of joy the first time I attended a very accepting online Havdalah and I am slowly discovering the proud Jewish community on social media. I feel like I’ve finally found my people and I am so excited to submerge myself into a world that feels deeply familiar and yet where so much is unknown to me.

I am also considering doing a formal conversion because I feel a calling, a spiritual longing to know more about my ancestors’ traditions. I am, however, afraid that subconsciously, I would only be doing this so that my Jewishness doesn’t get questioned anymore — converting would to a large extent remove the stigma attached to being a patrilineal Jew. But I do not want my internal definition of who I am to be set by others.

In the meantime, you can find me making flódni, a Hungarian Jewish treasure and the best cake ever (don’t @ me). With layers of dough with poppy seed, apple, and walnut fillings, I’d like to think that flódni is as rich and complex as my Jewish identity.

Szonja Berger

Szonja Berger (she/her) is a writer based in Budapest, Glasgow, or wherever she’ll move next. Her day job alter ego is a psychologist and she dreams of one day becoming a famous writer. Until then, you can find her trying to figure out her identity, debating the world with friends, trying to be a good feminist, battling her smartphone addiction, and creating very cool Excel spreadsheets.

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