How would you introduce yourself?
In Pozsony – Bratislava – where I lived as a child, there were always huge boxes of Matzos at the local store and granny always bought some. I never understood why but these boxes of Matzos filled half of the pantry. Whenever we visited my aunt Paula, my granny’s sister downtown, I always asked for Matzos and there they tasted even better. Granny had a cookbook that I loved to read. I read the recipe for Matzo ball soup with ginger and goose fat several times and I loved the smell of ginger. On Sundays the bouillon was always a source of conflict whether it should be served with Matzo balls or with lumache pasta. Granny also had a bag of Julius Meinl coffee and she often mentioned that Julius Meinl sold the best spices in Vienna, where there was a direct tram line from her house. And then there was my father, who was a folk dancer, and I spent most weekends among underskirts, on folklore festivals, and behind theater borders. Bartók, Kodály, Lajta, and the other well-known collectors of folk music were everyday guests in our household.
What does Jewish identity mean to you and what role does active participation in the Jewish community have in your life?
I would like to believe that I am European. Being intercultural is basic for me. I would not highlight Judaism as I rather look at it as part of a melting pot. It is an important, yet not the only part of my life.
What are the biggest challenges of the Hungarian Jewish community today?
The Hungarian Jewry cannot leave the ‘Hungarian Hortobágy’, this narrow-minded, sour mindset behind. In order to live and work on a world class level, it has to get rid of its nepotism.
What kind of Jewish community would you like to see in 18 years? What steps would be necessary in your opinion to have this vision realized?
I would like to see a Jewry that is capable of constructive dialogue, capable of giving answers to the challenges of the 21st century, and capable of processing the traumas of the Holocaust. The latter is a very difficult task but we have to try it.
What do you think about the coexistence between Jews and non-Jews in Hungary? How successful do you consider the dialogue between Jews and non-Jews?
As long as the Hungarian society looks at the Jewry as a group of aliens, I do not see a chance for dialogue, while they are also Hungarian, which should be emphasized. Before World War II, in every Hungarian village and town there was a Jewish community. It was more natural for the non-Jews to live with them. Since the Holocaust, this is not possible. And as I see it, the 70 years since the events resulted in complete oblivion. When an average citizen hears the word Jewish, all they can think of is the Holocaust and the stereotypical images of the skeletons in Auschwitz; of the Jewish culture or the flourishing communities that used to live here hardly anything. What people need to understand is that the Jewish culture is also a part of the Hungarian culture.
A dialogue can be initiated by nongovernmental organizations, and we can see the several results of such initiatives. Sometimes I feel like they are tilting at windmills. Other times, however, I think it makes sense.
What are the biggest challenges of the Hungarian society today?
The vast majority of the Hungarian people, Jews and non-Jews, have financial issues today. The low standard of living results in mental and physical ailments as we can see its negative effects. In this regard, Hungary is last according to all statistics. We are terrible at conflict resolution, there is no healthy debate culture. The usual response is violence and people always look for scapegoats and enemies. Without any improvement of our standard of living, I cannot see any mental development either. Although such a world class, progressive thinking would be most welcome, and not only in some closed circles as such world class, Hungarian initiatives, like Prezi, Upstream, or the movie Son of Saul, have shown us. I miss the humor and sarcasm from the Hungarian society and I truly believe in these two.
In order to overcome these challenges, what do you think is the role of each individual, and what is the role of the Jewish and the non-Jewish communities?
Obviously, people can only react to these serious issues on a micro level by initiating dialogue with a world-class, progressive, open mentality. This requires a dialogue that is continuous. Moreover, there also have to be solutions.
What does Israel mean to you and how do you look at Israel?
I know very little about Israel. As an ethnographer, I find it an intriguing place where a lot of elements of the Jewish folk culture from before the Holocaust can be found. Folklorists say you can trace more archaic material visiting the Hungarians who moved to the United States than in the homeland. Well, that is what I think about Israel; it is a great field for research.
What matters do you speak out about and what matters do you support within and outside the community?
Child poverty and starvation are unacceptable for me. I make donations to the groups Narancsliget, Heti Betevő and Adománytaxi.
Szilvia Czingel is an ethnographer and cultural anthropologist; working as a reasearcher at Centropa Hungary