Saving Budapest’s Jewish Quarter: Can It Be Done by Second Life?

2008. március 29. szombat, 14:46

Purim is the festival that commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from imminent danger in the Persian Diaspora. Of all the Jewish holidays, Purim is the most boisterous, and its focus on dressing up in colorful masks and costumes and holding public parades leads some to characterize it as the Jewish Mardi Gras. At the moment, Attila Seres, a Hungarian Jew, is using a “virtual Mardi Gras” to bring about the rescue of Budapest’s Jewish Quarter.

View of JQBP, a simulation in Second Life that is intended to call attention to the destruction of Budapest’s Jewish Quarter

Here we are referring to Second Life, a virtual world entirely created by its users, where there has also been an increasingly large Jewish community since late 2006. At the present time there are approximately 600 Javatars, or “Jewish avatars,” in Second Life, and for most of them Second Life is increasingly not just a place where you can meet Jews from all over the world, but above all a place where you can explore your own identity.

For Attila Seres, the discovery of Second Life came at exactly the right time. The grandparents of this Budapest native were largely assimilated and tried, after the Holocaust and during the Communist era, to leave their Jewish origins behind, probably out of fear of discrimination. Seven years ago, Seres started to come to grips with his Jewish identity. For him, the Jewish Quarter of Budapest is a central part of his own search for identity.

This quarter in the center of the city was neglected for a long time, but as a result of the real estate boom of the past few years there are many renovations under way here. There is also much destruction of old infrastructure, however.

In his search for new ways of calling the world’s attention to the destruction of the Jewish Quarter in Budapest, Seres discovered Second Life, created an avatar, and rented land in close proximity to the 2Life Building, the headquarters of the Jewish magazine in Second Life, a property of Jewish Media Corp. There, as Sofar Shepherd (the name of his avatar), he built JQBP (Jewish Quarter Budapest), a reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter, including synagogues. At the edge of JQBP stands a menacing backhoe, surrounded by warning signs that are reminiscent of a construction site. Visitors can use so-called notecards to get information about the situation in Budapest, and almost one thousand people have visited Seres’s virtual memorial since its creation.

After we’ve chatted online several times in the form of our avatars, I meet Seres in front of the Dohany Synagogue in Budapest. Even though he looks like his avatar, I’m surprised that Seres is substantially older than I had estimated him to be. Avatars are ageless beings, and I had expected Seres to be between 25 and 35, like the great majority of Second Lifers. But Attila Seres is 48, though he seems younger.

We exchange a friendly “nice to meet you” and, after a short pause, one of us adds, “in real life” (“yes, in real life”), and then Seres takes me on a tour of the Jewish Quarter of Budapest.

We walk around in the delta formed by the three synagogues: the Dohany Street Synagogue, Europe’s largest synagogue and the world’s second-largest (only New York’s Temple Emanu El can hold more people), the Kazinczy Street Synagogue, and the Rumbach Street Synagogue. All three are named for streets, and the three represent the three different streams of Judaism that once existed in Hungary: Dohany is a Neolog synagogue, representing Hungary’s own rather conservative reform movement; Kazinczy is Orthodox; and the Rumbach Street Synagogue, now a decrepit building, was associated with the “status quo” community, which was part of a kind of “back to Orthodoxy” movement, comparable to the Young Israel movement in the United States.

Within this triangle lies the former Jewish neighborhood of Budapest, which was used as a ghetto during World War II. Like New York’s Lower East Side or central Berlin, this area also was in decline in the 1980s, but in recent years it has experienced an unexpected renaissance, with hip cafés and bars and a construction boom as well. Many long-neglected art nouveau buildings are being demolished and replaced with concrete blocks that lack character.

And that is precisely what Attila Seres wants to prevent. “It would be nice to renovate many of the gorgeous art nouveau buildings, or at least to save their façades.”

Seres is part of an entire movement of Jews who are rediscovering the Jewish Quarter for themselves. Many trendy cafés and bars have Jewish themes, such as the Spinoza Restaurant, where the menu includes pork strips in sauce, or the highly popular Siraly, an alternative bar, where a Tu B’Shvat Seder may be going on at the same time as a rock concert and a Jewish book club meeting.

The old Jewish Quarter is in the process of being redefined as a new Jewish neighborhood, and there are a number of Jews like Seres who are coming to grips with their identity in intellectual and creative terms here, outside the limits of Budapests’s organized Jewish community.

Approximately 100,000 Jews live in Budapest today, but the number of active members of the Jewish community is probably closer to 20,000. Seres does not know exactly what brought him back to his Jewish roots. Places like Siraly give him an opportunity to find access to a Judaism that is not constrained and that allows him to give free rein to his creativity. His projects include a Jewish radio program, various online forums, and the present campaign to preserve the Jewish Quarter.

The creativity and commitment of Attila Seres are impressive, and in parting I ask him what his profession is in real life. Is he a computer scientist? An artist? “No,” he laughs with a dismissive wave, “I’m just a tax consultant with a lot of other hobbies.”

By Julian Voloj


Category: Tudózsidó, Zsidónegyed »