THE GREAT SYNAGOGUE OF BUDAPEST
A MEMOIR BY CHAZAN CHARLES LOWY
Budapest, once the second largest Jewish community in Europe, and the birthplace of Theodor Herzl and Max Norclau, today remains only a reflected splendour of her flourishing past as a great centre of Jewish life. A large proportion 0f the 250,000 Jews who lived in Budapest were deported by the Nazis, and many important synagogues and religious institutions were destroyed during the siege of the city. As if by a miracle, the magnificent Great Synagogue in the Tabakgasse remained undamaged, and stands in its place as a monument of the former glory and splendour of Hungarian Jewry.
Although regular choral Services are still being held at the Tabak-Temple, by which name it is better known all over the world, this strikingly beautiful edifice with its adjoining Jewish Museum and Memorial Chapel is not much more today than a showpiece for foreign visitors and tourists.
The Synagogue was built in 1859, and has a seating capacity of 3500, and two ladies’ galleries, one on top of the other; it is certainly one of the largest synagogues in the world. It stands between two streets: the “Dohany” and “Tabak”, and, only the famous Temple Emanuel in New York is larger. It is perhaps also unique as a synagogue with three pulpits, one, traditional, in front of the Ark, and one on each side, overlooking the pews, with a spiral staircase leading up to the beautifully ornate pulpit. Worshippers have always enjoyed a quiet ‘guessing-game’as to which of the three pulpits the preacher would choose on a particular occasion.
In the ’30s, and up to the outbreak of the Second World War, the “Tabak-Temple” was served by a host of officials – – there were three or four Rabbis, headed by the then Chief Rabbi, Dr. Simon Hevesi, a great personality and outstanding preacher, two first readers (Obercantors), one second reader, and at least three beadles.
The two Obercantors I can remember were Abrahamson and Linecky, the former a Hungarian, the latter a Russian. They both enjoyed equal status and salary, and officiated on alternate Saturdays and Festivals. Linecky, a dramatic tenor, was a first rate musician and choir conductor, a Chazan in the Russian style. He was a pupil of the great Chazan Rozumne in Odessa, and later became his successor, as he once proudly told me. Linecky was extremely good-looking and was always immaculately dressed. Anyone who saw him putting on his Canonicals, with all the trimmings, must have been amused at the meticulous care he exercised to make sure that everything was in its proper place before entering the synagogue.
Abrahamson, on the other hand, possessed a bass-baritone voice of rare quality; a rich, melodious, and disciplained voice which inspired all those who heard it. His Chazanut was more in the Hungarian style. In his private life, Abrahamson was a very jolly person with a delightful sense of humour.
What these two Obercantors had in common was a strong mutual dislike, aid it was common knowledge that they were usually not on speaking terms. Their equal status and salary were not conducive to cordial relations between them; bickerings were an everyday occurrence. Once I remember, a whole rumpus broke out over the question of whose turn it was to officiate on Shmini Atzeret; they both wanted to show off with their own rendering of the ‘Geshem’ Prayer, and the Secretary General, at Head Office was at great pains to solve the problem and to try to restore what could only be described as ‘peaceful co-existence’. Both Chazanim had their following, and it frequently happened that, for instance, a ‘chasid’ of Abrahamson’s would enter the Synagogue on a Shabbat morning during the reading of the Law, and ask a worshipper nearest to the entrance: “Wer davent heint?” If the answer was “Linecky”, he would contemptuously lower the corners of his mouth, say “Gut Shabbes”, turn round and leave the Synagogue.
The Great Synagogue, these days, is only in use at the High Festivals, when about five thousand worshippers flock to pray at several services which are held all over the building.
Throughout the year, on Friday Evenings and Shabbat Mornings, services are held in a small hall, where about two to three hundred people come to worship. A specially devised iron grille protects the Ark, and can only be removed by an electrical device when services take place. Tourists can ask the porter or the beadle in charge, for a view of the interior of the Ark. When the grille is moved, its noise reverberates over the vast empty edifice.
In the courtyard of the Synagogue there is a small garden in which the ashes of Nazi Martyrs are interred in a special tomb. Also in this
garden there is a commemorative plaque to the heroism of HANNA SHENESH (who came from Palestine as a guerilla by parachute to help refugees escape from the Nazis); she was subsequently executed by the Hungarians. Within the Synagogue building are the offices of the local K’hilla, in use even today. During the German Occupation, these offices were occupied by the arch- murderer Eichmann, who had his headquarters there.
Today the Jewish population of Budapest numbers barely 60,000 and although Jews are comparatively free to practice their religion, there are many small synagogues and prayer houses open for worship. The Tabak-Temple, this majestic building of hugh dimensions belongs to the past, and is gradually more and more an object for sightseers.