Real Jews

Last week, I met a real Jew. She sat alone, just outside Budapest’s Dohany Street Synagogue. I had come to marvel at the synagogue’s famed architectural grandeur, never suspecting that a more powerful grandeur of the spirit quietly awaited me nearby.

The Dohany Street Synagogue is listed as a “must see” in every Budapest tourist guidebook. Built in 1859, its Moorish revival style transports the visitor to a past that can never be recaptured, to a time before the Holocaust when Hungary’s nearly one million strong Jewish community was one of the most vibrant in the world.

As the cemetery just beyond the synagogue attests, the Holocaust brought that community to a crashing halt. The eye eerily takes in the date of death on each and every gravestone as 1944 or 1945, the years during which the Nazis occupied Hungary, and commandeered the Dohany Street Synagogue as a deportation center to Auschwitz and other camps. Adolph Eichmann engineered the destruction of Hungary’s Jews from an office behind the rose window in the women’s gallery.

Inside the Dohany Street Synagogue
Inside the Dohany Street Synagogue

Despite everything, Budapest’s much-diminished Jewish community struggles on even today, but is and will remain a fractured shell of its former self. The Dohany Street Synagogue, however, is as beautiful as ever, and with space for 3,000 worshippers, maintains its place as the world’s second largest synagogue, yielding in size only to the Belz Synagogue in Jerusalem.

Just outside the synagogue, Lucy presides over a modest kiosk crammed with handcrafted Judaica and souvenirs. Now an elderly Holocaust survivor, Lucy had a sister, once. But that was ages ago, when Lucy was a little girl. Lucy’s sister never stopped being a little girl. For the Nazis shot her.

But Lucy endures – despite the Nazis, despite the Communists who followed, despite every hardship that has fallen into her life. She comes to her kiosk outside the synagogue each day, surviving in her later years on the modest proceeds of whatever she manages to sell.

Knowing of Lucy’s precarious financial condition and her history, I made a point after visiting the synagogue to stop by her kiosk. I found an attractive, hand-painted Birkat Ha-Bayit (Blessing for the Home) that I was sure would make a nice gift for someone.

Entrance to the Dohany Street Synagogue - Lucy's kiosk is to the left
Entrance to the Dohany Street Synagogue – Lucy’s kiosk is to the left

I handed Lucy my Euros. Since she didn’t have Euros, she busily calculated how much change to return to me in Hungarian florints (about $3 worth, it turned out). She needs the money much more than I do, I thought. “Just keep the change,” I told her.

Lucy looked up at me, expressionless, and very deliberately placed the Hungarian Florints in my hand. “No. Please give it for tzedakah.”

Tzedakah – the Hebrew word that is commonly, and incorrectly, translated as “charity.” But tzedakah isn’t about charity. Deriving from the Hebrew word for “justice” or “righteousness,” tzedakah is not about spontaneous acts of generosity, but rather about the obligation to use our resources to make the world as it should be.

Lucy wouldn’t take my charity, as much as she could have used the money. Having witnessed and experienced far more injustice than should be endured in one lifetime, Lucy wouldn’t take a florint more from me than the price she had listed. Anyone would understand a person in Lucy’s position feeling sorry for herself. Instead, she asked that I take my money and go help others.

We live in a time when some in our community are handed Judaism on a silver platter with day school, Jewish summer camp and every Jewish convenience known to mankind, and at the end of it still can’t quite get why it all matters. We live in a time when others in our community are given little of Jewish value, but then devote their energies to whining about Judaism and making excuses rather than actually trying to grow as Jews. And tragically, we live in a time when even some who hold the title of “rabbi” and hold themselves up as pillars of the community have been caught in scandals ranging from identity impersonation to money laundering to sexual abuse.

When I see the headlines and read the studies and statistics, I sometimes want to weep. But then I meet someone like Lucy. Someone who has every right to be bitter and alienated and angry, and yet is none of those things – instead, simply a gentle Jewish soul who with the most humble of gestures is trying to right the world.

Beyond much of the nonsense that passes for serious conversation about Jewish issues, beyond our constant shouting at each other over trivialities, beyond the disappointments, the confusion, the scandals, even the criminal activity – beyond all of that, our role as Jews is no more and no less than to spend every waking moment trying to right the world. In every act. In every gesture. Even in the smallest of ways.

That is what real Jews do. That is what we all must do.

About the Author
Harold Berman is the co-author of "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope," the first true life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." Harold was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and has held senior positions throughout the Jewish communal world. His musings on Jewish life and spirituality have appeared in numerous print and online publications.