When I was in the 8th grade we had a graduation ceremony to mark the end of middle school. We called it junior high then. They lined us up by height, matching boys and girls, paired up and walking down the aisle arm-in-arm, headed to the stage, so we could repeat this process when we officially graduated. To my horror, there were no boys left by the time they got to the end of the line where I was. I was tall, even for my age, and I had to walk down the aisle arm-in-arm with Marie Fabian, a girl I really didn’t know then, and haven’t seen since, but I still remember her name. Not a day of blending.
I moved to South Korea in 2013 and lived there for 4 years. My height, which has diminished since my middle school days, another joy of aging, was still a factor in not blending. That, along with my age, my hair color, which I had stopped coloring a few years earlier, and my skin color, all contributed to being stared at for simply being different. In some ways I got used to it, but in other ways it was always present in my inability to be anonymous. I did not blend.
In August, I moved to Budapest and immediately felt like I belonged here. These were my people. I looked like everyone and there was a comfort that I couldn’t quite understand at first. Last year, I spit into a tube and had my DNA tested through one of the many companies now doing this. It came back with unsurprising results. I am 98% Eastern and Central European. No wonder I felt something here in Budapest. I blend. There are lots of similarities between the cultures, customs and food of central and eastern Europe and what I grew up eating and knowing. For example, the word for almond in Hungarian is mandala. When I was a little girl, my grandmother made a cookie called mandel bread. It was a crispy almond cookie that looked like a biscotti. Other foods like stuffed cabbage and soups are all familiar to me. In addition to the fact that no one is staring at me until I speak English, I could otherwise be Hungarian. But, there is one huge exception. I am Jewish. During the very last months of World War II, 600,000 Hungarian Jews were given up to the Nazis and murdered. That, along with a long communist rule, has caused most Jews here to go underground. Many Jews here discovered their backgrounds when they were adults, since I suspect they were desperately trying to blend into a culture that came with a big dose of antisemitism and fear. Steve and I are fascinated by the phenomenon and experience it directly. When we ask someone if they‘re Jewish, there is an unmistakable hesitation. The response is often, a confusing explanation of “not really” or “it’s complicated.” Steve is attempting some research to write a blog about this very thing. We joined a group of about 40 Jews living in Budapest, some expats, some students studying here, and others who are Hungarian, for a Shabbat dinner in November and we are planning to join them again in January. The retired, American Rabbi leading the service and the evening event, told us there are 100,000 Jews currently living in Budapest. Hard to believe. My guess is that they have blended into the culture and have in many ways become invisible.
I ask myself if blending in is really what I want. I’m proud of my Jewish background, but I realize that my circumstances are different. I’m only here for a year, not a lifetime. I will continue to appreciate the similarities I share with the Hungarian people and resist blending in.
Stay in touch and I will too.
With love and gratitude,