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Jewish Journal

In Budapest, an entire neighborhood celebrates Chanukah

By Ruth Ellen Gruber, JTA

December 14, 2009 | 5:46 pm

Just call Budapest Chanukah Party Central.

This year, the Hungarian capital is host to an unprecedented number of events celebrating the Festival of Lights, ranging from the Jewish community’s annual gala Chanukah ball to Quarter6Quarter7—a first-of-its-kind eight-day festival celebrating the history, culture and community of the old Jewish quarter.

Chabad lights a public menorah each night, Chanukah parties are taking place in several of Budapest’s dozen or more synagogues, and mini-festivals of klezmer and classical music are being held in various locales.

Even the British Embassy is joining in, co-sponsoring a riverboat “music against racism” concert of Gypsy and klezmer music called “Hanukkah 5770/Christmas 2009.”

“There’s more going on here than ever,” said Michael Miller, a professor of Jewish studies at Central European University, “and it’s more varied.”

Quarter6Quarter7 is the most ambitious initiative of the lot. The festival, coordinated by the Jewish youth group Marom with financial support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, includes about 130 concerts, performances, guided tours, exhibitions, lectures and other events.

They are taking place in about 30 venues in the Sixth and Seventh districts, Budapest’s oldest and most important downtown Jewish quarter. Venues range from the Jewish Museum and three ornate synagogues to bars, clubs, shops, bistros and art galleries.

Festival organizers plastered the Jewish quarter with bright yellow, red and blue posters and handed out stacks of programs. Each venue chose programming tailored to its clientele. A bookstore hosted a 20th birthday party for the Jewish monthly Szombat. Participating restaurants offered discounts and special meals, and some also held exhibits.

On the second night of Chanukah, more than 400 people crowded into the downtown basement music club Take 5 for a Q6Q7 festival concert by RotFront, an ethno-fusion-klezmer-punk band from Berlin. They cheered and danced as the band played an anti-racist anthem. In recent years, Hungary has seen rising anti-Semitism, political gains by the extreme right and recent violent attacks against the Gypsy, or Roma, minority.

“Gay, Gypsy or Jew, Hungary is so proud of you,” they sang. “Gypsy, Jewish or gay, Budapest is the place to stay.”

Aniko Fenyvesi, the deputy editor of Time Out Budapest, said she heard about the festival from one of the magazine’s writers.

“I went to check out the RotFront concert at the Take5 club and was really amazed by the turnout,” Fenyvesi said. “It was packed.”

Organizers hope the festival will help develop general community spirit in the Jewish quarter and draw attention to efforts to preserve its architectural heritage, which has been threatened by gentrification and real estate development.

“If you ask me why we are taking part, the simplest answer is, why not?” said David Kautezky, one of the owners of Szoda, a popular Seventh District cafe.

During the Q6Q7 festival, Szoda, decorated with big manga cartoons, hosted an art exhibit and party.

“It is very important that the quarter cooperates as a community,” he said. “The cooperation between different spaces and places in this quarter are good and important, and they are definitely growing.”

Of course, he added, “We also have a Christmas party.”

Some events reflected Chanukah themes of miracles, light and rededication. Along these lines, one exhibition space featured a nightly fire juggler, and there was a cooking demonstration of holiday foods.

An exhibition of contemporary Hungarian photography at the Boulevard & Brezsnyev art gallery featured photographs dealing with light hanging in a gallery that was purposely kept dark; visitors had to use flashlights to see the works.

“Chanukah is about light, and for me, light is the celebration,” said gallery director Zsolt Victora.

Like other local businessmen involved in the Q6Q7 festival, Victora said it was important to take part.

“We are here, we are in this quarter,” he said.

Not long ago, the Seventh District was dilapidated. Though much of it is still rundown, in the past few years it has become one of the city’s trendiest downtown neighborhoods for youth-oriented cafes and clubs.

It also is a growing focus of entrepreneurial Jewish activity.

On a Q6Q7 festival walking tour of the district, guide Agi Antal showed a group the historic synagogues, the headquarters of the Jewish federation and Holocaust memorials. She also pointed out other Jewish sites.

“Here there is a kosher shop, and across the street is the cafe Spinoza, which also has a stage—and I would say that 90 percent of the actors who perform there are Jewish or Jewish friendly,” she said. “Around the corner there’s a building where a Jewish theater group holds its rehearsals, and down the street there is Froelich’s kosher pastry shop.”

During the festival, candlelighting ceremonies were held each night at several venues, including the Jewish Museum and the cafe Siraly, which is co-managed by Marom.

At Siraly, Robert Vajda lit candles set up on the bar. Business halted as Vajda, who heads an alternative Jewish theater group, chanted the blessings. Then, as the flames began to flicker, patrons turned back to their drinks and conversations—or headed out to catch a concert.

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