January 17, 2020

Budapest in L.A.

In the coming weeks I will spend many dreamy hours inside Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Two blocks east of Western on Wilshire, the landmark building is an imposing and awe-inspiring architectural gem that belongs to that school of temple architecture that says: We Jews are citizens, and our house of worship is as glorious as any non-Jewish one — maybe more so.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple was completed in 1929, the same year as New York’s Temple Emanu-El, the world’s largest synagogue. The world’s second-largest synagogue is the Dohany Utca Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, dedicated in 1859. I was in Budapest last week and spent time in the synagogue thinking about my own family’s deep connection to the city, wondering whether Los Angeles will be the Budapest of the 21st century.

One hundred years ago, Budapest was home to the wealthiest, most educated, most assimilated Jewish society since — to paraphrase JFK — Moses Maimonides dined alone. Hungarian Jews essentially formed the middle and upper class of Hungarian society, dominating business, science, arts and letters. They even had their own liberal variant of Judaism called “Neolog” of which the Dohany was its temple.

My connections to Budapest and to the Dohany synagogue run deep. My great-grandfather, Bela Hatschek, was married in the Dohany Temple, on July 4, 1886. His mother-in-law, Jeannette Reizer Back, attended the wedding and her grave marker still stands in the Salgotarjani Utca cemetery which I visited last week. Bela Hatschek owned Budapest’s first car, a 1894 Benz Velo which he brought in from Germany on a flatbed train in 1896. His daughter Adrienne (my grandmother) married Kornel Saar. She was a stage actress who performed at Budapest’s Opera House. Kornel Saar, my grandfather, was related to Theodore Herzl, who lived in the building next to the Dohany Temple and which now houses the Jewish Museum.

As a young girl my mother attended the Dohany Temple, looking out from the balcony to check out the young men downstairs. She too was an actress, and she performed small roles in films, including one I watched recently written by Erno Szep who would later write the Holocaust memoir, “The Smell of Humans.”

My father was born in Poland but spent part of the war years in Budapest. In 1988, a Holocaust memorial was dedicated in the courtyard of the Dohany Synagogue. I attended with my parents, at which time my father was given an award in the Dohany Utca Synagogue for his work on behalf of Hungarian Jewry. My father died 10 years ago. Since then a plaque was placed on the memorial in his honor, which I got to see for the first time last week. It reads “Bruce B. Teicholz, a leader of the Jewish Resistance, 1942-1945, he will be remembered for the lives he saved.”

At one time, one-third of all Budapest’s residents were Jewish. By the 1930s, many Hungarian Jews had changed their German-sounding names to Hungarian ones.

There are those who would see in the assimilation of Hungarian Jewry a morality tale, with the Nazis and the Holocaust being the price one pays. But the reality is that the Nazis were nondenominational in their anti-Semitism, murdering Chasids alongside converts to Christianity. The lesson, if there is one, is that assimilation affords no protection from anti-Semitism. But that does not mean that the success of Budapest’s Jewish community cannot inspire us today in Los Angeles.

When the first National Jewish Population Survey was published a decade ago, pundits and proselytizers argued that the only way to stem the loss of Jewish identity was to combat the dual sins of assimilation and intermarriage. Suddenly, Jewish day schools were opening as fast as coffee joints. Now a new survey has been published, and it once again begs the question: What is the best way to cultivate a vibrant Jewish population?

I say we focus on the majority of Jews who view their Judaism as one item on a list of characteristics that begins with American. Let us celebrate Jewish values, Jewish culture, Jewish achievement. Let us not be afraid to have Judaism be a part of who we are, but also a part of being American. Let us make Los Angeles the Budapest of the 21st century, a place where Judaism is part and parcel of the city’s cultural landscape.

Southern California influences TV, movies, fashion, sports and science.

Los Angeles is where the world’s Jewish communities are migrating. We have one of the oldest exile communities, the Persian Jews, right here. The European exiles of the 1930s as well as plenty of New Yorkers and a healthy dose of Israelis and citizens from the former Soviet Republics travel down the same freeways. All are potent ingredients for a 21st Century goulash that speaks of our strengths as a people and as a community. That’s food for thought — or at least what I’ll be thinking about as I gaze upon the gorgeous murals inside the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.