September 23, 2019

Hip for Hungary

Inside a rundown courtyard apartment building on Kiraly Street lies a remnant of dark times past. A brick wall has been reconstructed to mark the point where the wall to the 1944 Jewish ghetto of Budapest once stood. 

But just a few buildings down, a different type of courtyard exists — the Gozsdu Courtyard — restored years ago by an Israeli-owned development company to become a nightlife compound where beautiful young people enjoy hip bars and restaurants one would expect to find in cities such as Tel Aviv, Berlin and London.

Today, when a Hungarian millennial says the “Jewish Quarter,” they don’t mean the ornate Great Synagogue, the Holocaust memorials or the few kosher eateries. They mean the cool cafes, vanguard pubs, wine bars and boutique shops.

When they refer to the ruins, they don’t mean the ruins of Jewish life. They mean the ruin pubs, such as the popular bars Szimpla Kert or Instant, both located in the former Jewish ghetto in decrepit courtyard buildings made totally chic with funky décor and graffiti art that would make Tel Aviv hot spots envious.

In the past few years, the former Jewish Quarter on the east side of the Danube River has become the hub for young Hungarians and tourists. Dozens of Israelis go to medical school at Semmelweiss University in Budapest, raising the city’s profile among young Israelis and refilling the Jewish quarter with Jews seeking not history, but cool, modern life.

“Budapest is super popular,” said Lani Matsil, a Tel Aviv-based travel agent who took her first trip to Budapest a few weeks ago. On average, she books several Budapest packages a day from Israel.

“First of all, it’s comfortable. The flights are not long flights. It’s very good value for money. They can afford to stay in a much nicer hotel than in London or Paris for a cheaper price. You get nice restaurants, a beautiful city and culture — like in other parts of Europe.”

Her favorite part of Budapest — aside from the thermal baths located throughout the city — was the Jewish Quarter,to which she plans to return.

“Once you see all the touristy stuff, you just go to the areas that you liked the best, and that was the area I liked the best. I think it has the best bars in the whole area; it’s the most alternative.”

It’s also most akin to Tel Aviv — a fact that, in addition to the Jewish landmarks (and for Israeli businessmen, real estate opportunities) — creates a contemporary affinity between Israelis and the Hungarian capital.

The Jewish Quarter also provides a respite from the melancholy, unambitious, Eastern European, post-communist vibe still felt in the streets and especially in the lackluster customer service. But even that seems to be changing. 

“I went for a visit five years after I graduated, and it definitely changed for the better,” said Naama Elisha, an American-Israeli who completed medical school in Budapest in 2006. She said her six years in Budapest was an amazing experience.

These days, after young Jewish tourists perform the perfunctory tour of Jewish landmarks, including the Jewish Museum that sits on the grounds of the home where Theodor Herzl was born (and adjacent to the Great Synagogue), they walk down a few blocks, past 19th-century buildings, to Gozsdu or to trendy cafes like Goamama Cafe or Spinoza Cafe  — or whatever hangout catches their aesthetic eye.

Spinoza Cafe is one of the few modern (nonkosher) eateries proudly announcing Hungarian-Jewish food. Founded by a Jewish woman who lived in Holland (hence the nod to the Dutch-Jewish philosopher), Spinoza is a local institution, serving traditional Hungarian-Jewish food and Jewish-themed entertainment. 

“We make it like grandma used to make it,” said general manager Imre Takács, referring to the cafe’s flodni, the traditional three-layered Hungarian-Jewish cake. (The hummus recipe, on the other hand, was refined six years ago by the owner of Link Cafe in Jerusalem, a friend of the café.)

Since Spinoza opened about 12 years ago, Takács has noticed business gradually picking up and more Jews coming to experience “grandma’s” kitchen. These days, the Friday night klezmer performances are sold out in advance. 

“The whole area is developing. The community’s changing. It’s good for the municipality because they realized they had to pay attention to this part of the district,” he said.

The revival began 10 years ago, tour guide Nikki Kohán said. “Until then, it was a quite frightening, poor area. You couldn’t see people on the streets in the evening, only the locals, mostly poor people. It was even unsafe.”

According to Edina Schon, who used to run the community Jewish theater, the revival of the Jewish Quarter wasn’t triggered by any special interest in the area’s historic significance. Of the some 100,000 Jews living in Budapest, she believes only about 10 percent are Jewishly affiliated. She counts three Jewish-owned establishments in the district.

“What happened is that there were a lot of unused buildings in District 7,” she said via Skype. “It had no connection, and still there is no connection to the Jewish community. It’s just a coincidence.”

However, Matsil, the travel agent, is not so sure.

“It shows that wherever Jews are, they have an influence,” Matsil, the travel agent, said. “As much as there was hatred toward the Jews, there’s something Jews give to the place. The creative vibe that Jews bring — it stays.”