Jewish Budapest: Finding Herzl in Hungary

Our writer travels back to the beginnings of the Jewish state – to Budapest


In August 120 years ago, the man called a "modern Moses" changed the Jewish world by convening the First World Zionist Congress, where the political movement that created the Jewish state was born. So where better to travel this summer than on the trail of the man behind this remarkable historic event, Theodor Herzl?

To discover more about the founder of political Zionism, whose legacy is likely to be on everyone’s lips, the ideal place is the city that he came from — Budapest, where Benjamin Netanyahu found a piece of his own history, as he became the first sitting Israeli Prime Minister to make an official visit to Hungary since the fall of communism.

And Hungary was, in a sense, the start point of the history of modern Zionism, he said, “because in Hungary was born our modern Moses, Theodore Herzl”. 

Visitors can still see the building where Herzl was born on Dohany Street, marked with a smart black plaque with gold lettering. But more interesting is the four-year-old Theodor Herzl Centre, which takes you back through to history in a creative high-tech way, investigating how one man's life has helped to shape today.

From his early childhood through to his assimilated adulthood, the exhibition moves to the encounter with antisemitism that sparked his Zionism. A video explores what Zionism means today, explaining that Herzl wanted the movement to work for the bettering of the Jewish state once it was established.

The picture of David Ben Gurion declaring Israel’s independence with a huge portrait of Herzl behind him, drives home exactly how important he has proved to be.

While the Zionist anniversary may be a good spur to visit the city, Budapest is packed with Jewish history beyond Herzl with a community here since at least the 13th century. It tells a story of a long struggle for Jewish emancipation, and the tragedy that emancipation came was so quickly followed by the deportations of the Holocaust.

Today it is a city of moving and remarkable Jewish sites, including the Dohány Street Synagogue, one of the grandest Jewish houses of prayer ever built in the Diaspora and the largest still functioning in Europe. Constructed in a Moorish Revival style in the 1850s, the size, scale and design of this 3,000-seat synagogue with its ornate frescoes is a marvel.

In its buildings and courtyards, you’ll find the Jewish Museum (itself on the site of Herzl’s birthplace) and Heroes Temple, as well as the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park and Jewish Cemetery. Other synagogues remain in the streets of the Jewish Quarter, Erzsébetváros, now better known to younger visitors for its nightlife including ‘ruin bars’ in the area’s old abandoned buildings.

Another lies in neighbouring Jozsefvaros, now housing the Holocaust Memorial Centre within its restored walls. Perhaps the best-known memorial, and one of the most moving, is the Shoes on the Danube along the banks of the river in Pest, honouring those killed by Arrow Cross fascists, who were shot at the edge of the water.

Today the majority of Hungary’s Jews still live in the capital, and while the city’s kosher dining options may be limited, the choices that do exist allow you to enjoy authentically Hungarian dining with a kosher stamp — not merely transplanted Israeli and international cuisine with certification. You can find familiar food too, useful for a quick lunch or light dinner, but in Budapest you get the local experience, including two supervised meat restaurants.

Walking in to Hanna’s on Dob Street is always exciting, so different from the restaurants I normally encounter. Something about it reminds me of Bloom’s back in the day. The food is hearty and full of flavour, and the restaurant does a good goulash, the signature of Hungarian cooking, as well as other local favourites like chicken prakash, a dish coloured a deep brick-red from its main flavouring, paprika plus items from other cuisines, including a popular hummus.

The other kosher restaurant, Carmel on Kazinczy Street, also serves local cuisine, including some interestingly-flavoured soups, as well as international offerings like schnitzels. Both of these establishments allow people to book in for Shabbat meals, which are paid for in advance.

Even the breads you find are a way to explore local food. Kosher Market , next door to Hanna’s, may have plenty of Israeli and American imports on the grocery shelves, but don’t miss the onion-stuffed bread among the local options in the bakery section. For more familiar kosher fare, Tel Aviv Pizza, also on Kazinczy, has salads, pasta, and shakshuka in addition to pizza.

As you eat, it’s easy to consider how Jewish history is woven with the city. At Hanna’s, it’s not merely the flavours you’ll discover; the restaurant itself is in one of the courtyard buildings of the Kazinczy Street Synagogue, the stronghold of Budapest Orthodoxy from its construction in 1912 until the Holocaust, and again today.

And eating there, voting with your knife and fork to keep kosher cuisine going in this important location — in a country where the rise of the far right worries Jews — you become, in a tiny way, part of history yourself.




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