In our monthly Family Service shtick back at the beginning of August, I packed a suitcase with tanning lotion and a tennis racket while Rabbi Scheff packed his siddur and a traveling Shabbat kit. The takeaway of our skit was that while we might go on vacation from work or school, we do not ever go on vacation from being Jewish. Jewish is what we are, not what we do.
I find myself thinking of the playful skit now when Jon and I are on vacation in Budapest, Hungary, visiting Sarah and her fiancé Sagi.
We are enjoying typical tourist experiences like visiting Buda Castle, cycling in the countryside, and taking a boat cruise on the Danube River. But identifying as a Jewish person is part of my vacation at every turn, and sometimes in surprising ways.
There has been, of course, the very Jewish experience of being bageled. If you are Jewish and think that you’ve never been bageled, let me assure you that you have indeed been bageled. It goes like this: Nice research scientist from California on our Budapest bike tour asks, “What do you and your husband do?” I answer, “He’s a lawyer and I’m a rabbi.” “Oh,” he lights up. “My bar mitzvah was back in Englewood where I grew up!” When someone uses a funny non sequitur to let you know that he too is Jewish, that’s called getting bageled.
In a more serious vein, being Jewish on vacation informs choices I make about places to see. A walking tour of the Jewish Quarter, a lecture in the famous Dohany Synagogue, seeing the Wallenberg Memorial Weeping Willow sculpture and a solemn visit to the Shoe Sculpture on the Danube are obvious choices.
Sometimes, I experience being Jewish on vacation in unexpected ways. In the basement of the Art Nouveau Museum, featuring a collection of furniture, artwork and ornaments from the first half of the 20th Century, I stumbled across a strange wall of round stained glass windows and realized with a start that the symbols are all Jewish: Shabbat candles, the Ten Commandments, the High Priest’s hands.
The curator tells me that these were windows found in a Budapest church. “In a synagogue, yes?” I encourage her, knowing that English is very difficult for most Hungarians. “No, a church.” She gestures with her hands to show me that they were high up on a wall, placed side by side. “Yes, in a Jewish church,” I try to explain. Her eyes light up with understanding, “Yes, Israel. Church for Israel.” After our visit, Jon gave voice to what I had been thinking. “How much of all that furniture and artwork was stolen from Jewish homes during WWII?” It was a chilling thought. It was probably a correct thought. And it is a thought that occurs when Jewish is what you are, not just what you do. Such are the thoughts you think when you travel Jewish.
Traveling Jewish means that the tempo of vacation shifts a bit on Friday. Turning down several streets in the Jewish Quarter, we at last find the kosher market where we buy two challot (and Israeli Bamba for Sagi) to take with us to Siofok on Lake Balaton. As we exit, two old men playing chess by the door look up and smile, “Shabbat shalom.” I smile with warmth, “Shabbat shalom to you.” Later we make Shabbat on the terrace of our hotel room. Sarah and I light Shabbat candles together and Jon and I bless her and Sagi. Such are the special moments of traveling Jewish.
After dinner, Sagi showed us a map of the town of Siofok with a Jewish star and the word zsinagoga. We walked into town, past pubs and cafes, down a dark side street to a small, carefully maintained synagogue. In the front of the building, we found a Holocaust memorial in the shape of an angelic harp with train tracks below. A plaque stated that it was donated by Tom Lantos, the Hungarian Holocaust survivor who went on to become a California Senator and a champion of human rights. Walking back to our hotel, we wondered how the Nazis managed a sweep of tiny, out of the way towns all over Europe. On this past Shabbat evening, without intending to do so, we paid tribute to the tragic history of the Jewish people in the 1940s. We were hushed by the power of the place and the power of the moment — such are the powerful moments of traveling Jewish.
I look forward to greeting my OJC community before Rosh HaShana when I return from traveling Jewish!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill