My family (on my mother’s side) came from Hungary. Some have attributed my love of food from this family lineage. Others have said it is the source of my short temper. Regardless of what character traits may have found their way into my personality from my Hungarian heritage, this lineage continues to be a source of great pride for my family, and whenever we meet Hungarian Jews long discussions about pastry and goulash are sure to follow.
The Jewish presence in the region now known as Hungary is very old. Like the Jews of most parts of the diaspora, early Jewish communities in Hungary were the result of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. Some sources suggest that several communities within the early Hungarian tribes practiced Jewish religion.
These early Jewish communities began to blossom during the second half of the 11th century due to large numbers of immigrants from Germany, Bohemia and Moravia. These Jews settled in the towns of Buda, Esztergom, Sopron, Tata and Old Buda. While life may have been better for Hungarian Jews than in other parts of Europe, restrictions were placed on Jews by Christian clergy and institutions which shaped the community in very specific ways. In 1092, the Church forbade Jews from intermarrying Christians, working on Sundays and Christian holidays and purchasing slaves. Despite these prohibitions, Hungary served as a haven, and by the end of the 11th century, life for the Jews of Hungary was relatively good.
During the 12th century, Jews came to hold positions of leadership in many economic institutions. These positions elevated the Jewish community in Hungarian society. During this period, Jews were afforded many legal rights which they did not have elsewhere in Europe, and they were welcomed and supported by the king. Yet, despite this support from the throne, the Jewish population suffered from many anti-Jewish policies from the church and the nobility. In these anti-Jewish circles, Jews were banned from holding particular offices in the government, prohibited from leasing land and were forced to wear badges. Luckily, many of these anti-Jewish measures were not carried out because of the king’s objections.
For centuries life for Hungarian Jews shifted from acceptance to rejection depending on who was in power. In the 1300’s, Jews were blamed for the Black Death and expelled from Hungary, but returned in great numbers a century later. These tensions existed for generations, but by the First World War, the Jews of Hungary were fairly well integrated into Hungarian society. By the early 20th century, the community had grown to constitute 5% of Hungary’s total population and 23% of the population of the capital, Budapest. Jews became prominent in science, the arts and business.
With the rise of nationalism in Europe, Anti-Jewish policies grew more repressive. Hungary’s decision to align itself with the governments of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, became a death blow to the Jewish community in Hungary. It was during this period that my family, like so many others, found its way to the United States. Sadly, most of the Jews who remained in Hungary after 1938 were murdered.
The heritage of Hungarian Jewry is long and beautiful, and those who share these ethnic roots find kinship whenever they meet. Among the many Hungarian Jews I have met in Houston, the most famous is Ziggy Gruber of Kenny and Ziggy’s Deli. Ziggy will be our guest “rabbi” once again at our Fourth Annual Deli Shabbos (see details below). We hope you can join us for a fabulous culinary and spiritual exploration into the world of Hungarian Jewry.