Becoming Kosher and Orthodox in Budapest and NYC

…And just like that, Budapest is past


We left Budapest this past Friday, July 30, and got “home” to New York that afternoon.  Now, as I write this on Wednesday morning, August 4, we are mostly unpacked, but still have a lot to do. We have not even given thought as to how and when to Kasher our New York City apartment. In Budapest, it took D. 5 days of heroic work to Kasher everything. It will take at least that long here, if not longer. But we will start. We are now looking to “interview” Rabbis in the area to see about D.’s conversion. More to come about that soon. But it is great to be back home, and to feel secure and comfortable. Even our dog C. loves it here! New sights, smells, and TONS of other dogs to sniff!

Things we will miss about Budapest:

-The city itself. Beautiful architecture and topology. Old and new mixed together in the neighborhoods, the houses and buildings, and the Squares.

-The trams, and the public transportation system in general: clean, fast, efficient.

-The people: MOSTLY nice and friendly; and they like and respect Americans

-The Danube –  it is beautiful, and flowing past the magnificent Parliament building is our favorite view.

Things we will NOT miss about Budapest:

-Above all, the poverty. People eating out of garbage cans; people sleeping in the streets; the beggars;  the hustlers; the prostitutes, some maybe as young as 14.

-The bars opening at 9am, and people waiting for them at 8:30am.

– The people: many of them are not very “socialized”-spitting in the streets; grumbling, cursing, aggressive.

-The political situation: The far-right party holds 18% of the Parliament. They campaigned against “foreign influences” and there were posters “Do you want to live in Judapest? The “moderate” right-wing party holds 52%. There is extreme bias towards Gypsies. Sound familiar?????

-The drunks

-The almost constant sirens of ambulances and/or maybe police cars.

-The pollution

-The lack of Kosher stores: only one Kosher butcher, and only one Kosher grocery store.

We now turn the page and the next posting will talk about New York, and becoming Kosher and Orthodox here.


Can I have a Kosher Dog?
2010/07/20, 7:48 pm
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Shalom! In another (slight) departure from the themes of this blog, this entry is about a dog. Our dog. We adopted our greyhound C. in January 2010, from  a local shelter here in Budapest. He was beautiful and we fell in love with him as soon as we saw the picture of him.

This dog has a Ruach (spirit) that is more human than most people. He has survived not only the surgeries but some bitter conditions. Here is a brief history, although no-one is really sure of many of the details:

Given his injuries the Doctors and the Shelter people thought he was hit by a car last year, and that he was wandering around for weeks with a leg broken in several places. Can you imagine? He was found in the town of Hegyeshalom (having nothing to do with peace) and rescued there and sent to Budapest for medical care. By that time it was too late to re-set the bones, so he cannot set that foot down on the ground. Those of you with a strong stomach can ask me for the xrays, to see what the poor guy went through.

Then, the Eastern European winter set in, and C. was sent to the municipal shelter in Budapest, where if nobody adopted him after several months, he would be put down.A rescue organization in Budapest, formed by several Norwegian Veterinary students, got C. out of the city kennel and found some foster parents for him. this way C. was fed and kept warm instead of freezing in the outdoor kennels.  That’s when we found and got him. His handicap has not limited him.  It has not prevented him from lunging after birds, or even running with other dogs (he is a greyhound)!  He is faster on three legs than most dogs on four.

He has given us infinite more love than we thought possible. Not only that, he has that spirit I mentioned before, that just lights up everybody around him. On our walks, people just gravitate to him to pet him and to speak to him. He loves people and goes up to familiar shopkeepers and vendors in the streets to say hello.

C. is coming to New York with us. He is such an important part of our lives that we consider him our child and will make some accommodations in our pattern of religious observance for him.

I am curious about Talmudic discussions regarding household pets. I don’t mean the pages devoted to a cow dying on a neighbor’s property, I mean a pet:

-If your pet is very sick on a Shabbat or Yom Tov, should you be allowed to drive to the vet? Given my comments above, what do you think I would do? 🙂

-Is picking up your dog’s poop on Shabbat considered working?

-If you train your dog to turn the light switches on and off, is that permissible on Shabbat? Don’t laugh; quad/paraplegics have dog helpers to do just that.

What do you think? Care to vote in the poll?

Like Sisyphus, Rollin’ that Kosher rock up a hill …
2010/07/07, 5:38 am
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D. and I did it again last week, with a kind-of last minute trip to Prague, taking along D.’s two sons who were visiting us.  And we got the same, young brother and sister pair to take care of our dog and birds while staying in our apartment. We went over the Kosher items and different plates and silverware with them, as previously, and explained about non-Kosher food and using paper plates, etc, etc.

Prague, like Krakow, is a city experiencing a re-birth of Judaism and Jewish heritage. There are the ancient artifacts here too, the Old-New Synagogue, for example (What a name!). Here is the reason for the name, from Wikipedia:

There are two explanations for the name “Alt-Neu.” The first is based on the German and Yiddish translation of Alt-Neu as “Old-New.” According to this explanation, the synagogue was originally called the New or Great Synagogue and later, when newer synagogues were built in the 16th century, it became known as the Old-New Synagogue. Another view says this may be a mistranslation. According to this version, the synagogue is believed to have been built from stones from the Temple in Jerusalem, and the synagogue was built “on condition”, in Hebrew: Al-Tnai, that the stones would be returned after the reconstruction of the Temple.

And there is the ancient cemetery, with headstones piled on top of each other, and stones so old the rock is smooth, and there is nothing to read about the person’s life. Truly gone. And the strangest thing? Many of the stones had pebbles on them! So, still, after hundreds of years, families do remember and honor their ancestors. Or, is a more rational answer that random visitors placed these stones on random sites???

There are several other Synagogues to visit, as well as poking around various buildings and museums in the Old Town and Jewish Quarter. And it was fun to pursue the Golem legend that originated with Rabbi Loew in Prague in the 1500s.

But the enjoyment of Prague was tempered by what we found upon return to Budapest: A Kosher apartment “unKoshered” by well-meaning, but still ignorant, kids. There were dairy dishes in the meat sink; mixed silverware in the dishwasher;  unKosher food left on Kosher plates; unKosher milk and other foods in the fridge. Simply put, all of D.’s hard work went down the drain (pun intended!).  Our Kosher apartment was no longer Kosher, and it was 5pm on Friday night, certainly too late to do anything remotely recapturing the Kashrut. Shabbat was not the same, and we felt, deeply the loss, as of a family member gone. It was uncomfortable and annoying, We did enjoy the time with D.s boys, but it was a definite step back on our path to Kashrut and Shomer Shabbos.

Nobody ever said it was easy being Jewish, and nobody ever said Orthodoxy conversion would be a Garden of Eden. But still, it hurt. We have no resentment for the kids that watched the animals, they could not know all the details and requirements, and perhaps we should have spent more time teaching them, or perhaps we should have stayed home. NOT! It was worth this aggravation seeing Prague, getting closer with the boys over the 6-hour ride each way, and still keeping in mind that we are getting closer to God, even with having to push that Kosher rock back up the hill.

On Seeing Auschwitz and Birkenau
2010/06/27, 3:49 pm
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As you can see, this is going to be a departure from the typical themes on this blog.

A week ago Thursday night, D. reminded me that we were  supposed to plan a visit to see Cracow, and the area where my father’s family lived, including Auschwitz. Given that our schedules were pretty much filled for the rest of July, we decided that we would plan a lightning trip to Poland, and leave the following Monday. Thus entailed a flurry of activity all day Friday, stopping for Shabbat, and resuming all day Sunday. There were moments of high drama and emotional roller coaster rides, for example:

-Find a dog sitter on 2 days notice, who will stay with our beloved Greyhound in our apartment.

-Find a hotel, preferably Kosher, in the old Jewish section of Cracow.

-Find a rental car with automatic transmission, as I haven’t driven a manual since the Flood; and 95% of all cars here are manual.

-Buy  Kosher snacks for the trip (5-6 hours each way).  (The snacks can always be enjoyed, even if the trip did not materialize!)

-Write up instructions for the dog sitters.

-Learn to use the new camera we bought!!!

But we did it all, and off we went, around Noon on Monday.

THE CONCENTRATION CAMP AUSCHWITZ sits on a small side street in Oswiecim. You come into town, follow the signs (they all say “Museum Auschwitz”, rather than “Death Camp Auschwitz” or “Concentration Camp Auschwitz” – I wonder why?? You pass  a row of small, neat houses, with lawns, and flower boxes, and then suddenly you are there – the  parking lot . My first impression was that we have entered Disneyland-on-the-Vistula.  Dozens of buses and hundreds of cars! Walking into the Visitor’s building (which was outside the the gates during the Holocaust, and served as the Administration building for the Nazis). I was impressed by the huge number of tourists, school and tour groups from all over the world. There was a very efficient system set up (by the Germans???) to handle ticket purchasing, guided tours, and introductory video. I will say that it was not commercial at all, but very businesslike, given the large numbers of visitors. The “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate is much smaller than one would think, maybe 15 feet across. Still, it was chilling to see it. The original sign was somehow stolen a few weeks ago, and a duplicate one was put up. Too bad they didn’t have this lax security during the Holocaust; the camp would have emptied overnight.

Many of the barracks contain exhibitions. All of the exhibitions are heartbreaking.  Half of a room taken up with a huge pile of women’s hair; a 6-foot high pile of glasses and spectacles; a room full of shoes; a collection of Talesim; a room filled with suitcases, all of them with neatly hand-printed names. addresses, contacts, etc., since the Germans told the inmates to make sure they print neatly so they can get their luggage back!

There are documents in glass cases showing how meticulous and detail-oriented the Germans were. There are pictures and maps and displays. One can easily spend two days in Auschwitz just going through these exhibits. You see and begin to understand what Hannah Arendt meant when she coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. The typewriters, files, cabinets, furniture, that all played a part in this. The ledger books, train schedules, receipts – so much documentation, but not enough. There can never be enough documentation. But there is nothing here to tell me where, when or how my grandparents, uncles, cousins, died. There is nothing to tell me about how they lived here; were they resigned to death or did they maintain their optimism? Were they strong or weak? Did they recite the Shema? The answers to these questions are not in the “Museum”.

THERE IS A CONSTANT COLD WIND that blows over Birkenau. You feel it as soon as you arrive, and it stays with you chilling you even when the temperature was in the 80s. Here are the famous train tracks and the gate. And soon you see the space where the selections were made, and then you walk the “left” path to the crematoria. We realize we are walking on the same ground as my relatives, and it is horrifying. We pick up some stones from the tracks, in a weird reversal. Instead of leaving stones on a gravesite, we are removing them. But it makes sense. We will keep these stones forever. (Click on images to enlarge).

Figure 1. Tracks going out from Birkenau - an infinity of freedom

Figure 2. Tracks going into Birkenau - an infinity of death

Among the tidal waves of emotions and sensory overload, one prevailing image arises: the ENORMITY of this place. It is huge. The barracks go on for acres, perfectly aligned, one after the other almost to the horizon. Each barrack (originally built for the German cavalry and designed to hold 52 horses) contained 800 people. And there were hundreds.  Here is a close-up of some of those barracks. Now imagine 200-300 of these layed out in a perfect rectangle over a couple of miles.

Figure 3. Barracks

And at the end, far back at the edge of the birch tree forest, far back at the edge of hell, the remains of the gas chambers and  crematorium, one of three. It is being “restored” and when I first heard that I wondered exactly what it is being restored for?

The steps are still well-preserved, but the rest of the building is being reconstructed. This was the final destination of my relatives.

Just a last thought. Maybe it’s still the gloom from this visit, but it can happen again. And when Al-Qaeda, or the Arrow Cross Party of Hungary, or some American Paramilitary Christian organization, or or some other group comes crashing through the door, we are all Jews, regardless of Conservative, Orthodox, Reform.

Yitzgadal V’Yitzkadash Shmei Raboh

What does it mean to Observe the Sabbath?
2010/06/18, 7:52 am
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Mike’s comment  to the blog yesterday caused a lot of discussion and questioning in this Budapest household of ours. In particular, D. had some pretty strong feelings and questions about being Shomer Shabbos and focusing on resting, study, and God.

-If we are commanded to honor and keep the Shabbat holy, should we really be looking for work-arounds and conveniences to make ourselves more comfortable?

-Are we being too clever, trying to “bend” the Law in order to make it easier to be Observant?

-Can’t people go 25 hours without a warm/hot meal? Cereal/fruit for breakfast; salad/sandwiches for lunch, etc?

-Women too, are commanded to rest on Shabbat; why must they still be expected to provide hot meals for the men?

-Is putting on the lights/stove/TV/Computer, etc.  on before Shabbat in order to make use of those appliances during Shabbat, cheating?

If, as in so many other areas of Judaism, these choices are left up to the individual, where does the Spiritual guidance come from, to help us decide the best way to keep Shabbat and to get closer to God?

Is the answer in all the hundreds (thousands?) of Talmudic arguments, logic, discussions, by all those wise Rabbis and Teachers?

Or is the answer very plain in Exodus Chapter 20, Verse 8: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”? It seems that’s easy enough to do without resorting to gimmicks. What do you think?

Well, it’s 8am Friday here in Budapest. we are going to start shopping and preparation for the Shabbat. Can’t wait! D. and I wish all readers a joyous, restful and holy Shabbat!

Eating and (Not) Cooking on The Sabbath
2010/06/11, 6:53 am
Filed under: Judaism


This post is written early Friday morning. It will take a look back to last week’s Shabbat and a look forward to tonight/tomorrow.

Last Shabbat was the first of our joint observance. It was wonderful! Although it took a real (and honestly, not always successful) effort to break the old habits of turning on/off lights, etc., we really did appreciate the difference!! No computers, no Blackberries, no tv. We read, talked, napped a bit and in simple terms, RESTED, as God commanded. And this was a rest that went deep, physically as well as mentally and emotionally. We both understood  the concept “Bein Chodesh L’Chol”, the difference between the sacred and the everyday.  We agreed that we could (relatively)easily get used to being Shomer Shabbos. (Although I will miss watching all those sports, especially my beloved Yankees, and European soccer, and College football in the Fall when we are back in the USA).

Although we stocked up on food last Friday afternoon, and although D. made a wonderful Erev Shabbat meal, we realized we would have to eat “cold” on Shabbat itself. We declared the stove “trefe” since we could not Kasher it. So we could not (and did not want to) light a burner and keep it on all Shabbat. We would not use the toaster oven for the obvious reason, and finally, in District V, Budapest, there were no central fires where we could warm up a meal!  Also, I may be wrong, but I don’t think there is an Eruv around the district either! 🙂

So this is going to be a question for us in the future, both for our remaining time in Budapest, and for when we return to the USA. How to have hot food on Shabbat without doing any work-arounds, or dubious tactics that take advantage of Talmudic loopholes.

Anybody got any suggestions?

Late Spring/early Summer are long days here in Central Europe.  We haven’t even gotten to the Summer Solstice (21 June) and Shabbat ended last week at 9:38pm!! So we had a warm meal late.  And we intend to do the same for this Shabbat.

So the plan for today is that we go back to District VII (the Jewish Quarter) and pick up meat from the Kosher Butcher, run over to the Kosher Supermarket (or more accurately, the Kosher hole-in-the-wall), and then run over to the bakery for that fresh Challah. We ordered a 1 kilo loaf (2.2 pounds). Think that will be enough for the two of us, plus a little for the dog???

By the way, a digression on the Bakery. It is called “Cari Pizzeria and Bakery” on Kazincky Street between Dob and Wesselenyi.  It is tiny, with just two tables and a kitchen with the oven! The smell of baked bread, pizza, and Challah is always there and is enticing. D. and I had some pizza there when we ordered our Challah and it was terrific!  A crust like Matzo (but much better!) and great toppings.  Those of you Kosher in Budapest surely know it. Those of you planning to visit Budapest must try it!

So, enough already for today! D. and I wish you a restful Guten Shabbos, Shabbat Shalom, and I will post again early in the week. Topic to be a surprise!

Buying and Eating Kosher in Budapest
2010/06/06, 7:57 am
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So here we were, fridge empty, shelves and pantry empty, stomachs empty. But the kitchen sparkly clean and freshly Koshered!  We knew there is a Kosher Grocery over in the old Jewish Quarter of Budapest, 3 stops away by tram or subway. ADVICE: Never go food shopping when hungry! We bought a ton! Even though both D. and I are on low-carb diets, there was still a lot to choose from.  Cheese, milk deli, wine, frozen veggies, etc., some good stuff! Then, a short walk over to the Kosher butcher, who spoke no English, and had more tattoos than a sailor. Finally, ground beef! Hungary is not noted for beef, so it was like July 4th and birthdays all rolled into one celebration. Hamburger tonight!! Yahooo! Stocked up on chicken wings and chicken for Friday night.

WARNING: Kosher chicken wings in Hungary are not plucked! Feathers are included in the price!  We love Buffalo-style wings, but we will pass on it for now, till we get back to the States!

Back from shopping. We could write a whole Midrash (def: a set of commentaries on Biblical/Rabbinic interpretations) on how to organize meat/dairy in the fridge. Wow! Was that a challenge! Meat and dairy on the same shelf? What about pareve stuff like mayo and eggs? If an egg touches meat is it no longer pareve? If some milk spills on a carrot, do we throw out the carrot or make a cake? And let’s not even get started on a can of dog food! Does it get its own shelf since it is obviously not Kosher but nice and meaty??? After researching some web sites, D. arranged things perfectly, until I started to re-arrange things – not intentionally! I would put something back in a different place than where I found it. I would forget what goes where. I would just throw things around without thinking!

And  that is one of the points of keeping Kosher, as my sister wrote us. Keeping Kosher forces us to think about  God and our religion all the time. It makes us THINK! We cannot just take things for granted, but we always have to think about what we are doing. How much better would our lives be if we really  thought before taking any action or making  any decision? That’s the lesson for today!

D. is the Marine Drill Sargeant of Kashruth! If she were leading the Children of Israel, the entire tribe would be completely Kosher in no time!

I have to say, Kosher food has come a long way from what I remember way back when! Much better and tastier! The variety has increased as well, so there is no lack of things: sausages, salsa, herb-infused olive oils, cream cheese with chives and vegetables, Mangalica pork (NOT).

Finally, we put Tradition ahead of diet and bought Challah for this past Friday night. We got to the bakery around Noon on Friday, and by then all they had left were a few small loaves that were frozen, But for us it was like Manna from heaven! Now we know, on Monday we will place an order for next Friday pickup. We saw and smelled the delicious fresh-baked loaves that people had ordered, and it was mouth-watering. Carb-0verload, here we come!  The thawed Challah was good, but not like fresh.

And one last lesson: When life hands you stale Challah, make French Toast!

Nest installment: Eating and (not) cooking on The Sabbath.