Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An American Jew in Europe

New York, at times the center of the modern universe, seems to have a unique disconnect from the rest of the world, as if crossing the Brooklyn Bridge or the Midtown Tunnel changes the laws of science, or more topically, Halacha.

Since my very Hungarian family and I travel to our old Motherland an average of once a year to visit relatives and get reacquainted, I have front row seats to watch the disconnect. Most of the time it consists of my sister and I joking about how our spoiled American butts can’t handle European toilet paper (but this is okay, because we present-day Americans aren’t the most pampered people history has seen). 

The more fascinating, and sometimes deeply frustrating, version of the disconnect, though, is this strange Halachic language barrier between New York Jews and their foreign brethren.

You see, there is one system of Halacha, but many social standards based on it. These vary in practice and strictness depending on where you come from. Take, for example, Shomer Negiyah. I certainly see the reasoning behind keeping repressed and twitchy pubescent boys and girls from touching, whether or not I agree with it in every situation.  The kicker is that while we Relig-Jews in New York have been trained obsessively in this rule, we don’t realize that it is by no means standard globally, even among the Orthodox.

In Hungary, for example, even our most observant friends aren’t Shomer. I grew up getting polite cheek-kiss greetings from a family friend who wears a black hat. And sure, New York versus Europe is clearly a case of "Potato, Po-tah-to" (with a rolled ‘r’ or two), but it isn’t the difference that bothers me. Sometimes those who were brought up with the rule are not prepared to deal with those who weren't. My problem comes when the emphasis on keeping the rules (or our inability to deal with those who don’t) gets in the way of us acting like human beings, when it causes us to degrade and embarrass people on the other end.

A friend of mine who arrived “fresh off the boat,” so to speak, a few years ago (who grew up and remains Orthodox) told me about the first time he was introduced to a few religious, good, American, college girls.

Yes. They actually ran away.

What these tactless and clearly confused girls failed to realize is that they’d effectively tainted his view of American Jewry for a long time to come. Before I’d heard this story, I’d been surprised at what I saw as my friend’s unnecessarily careful way of tiptoeing around every movement and word when meeting new people. Nobody likes to be judged and made a fool, especially not the new guy. The girls were lucky he’s secure enough in his faith not to let their behavior turn him off from it. 

But the New York/Europe detachment stretches far beyond the borders of social standards, into the realm of serious, unarguable Halacha: Kashrut.

We New Yorkers may complain that more things aren’t available Kosher, or when Starbucks arbitrarily changes its drink base to apparently include slugs, but the truth is that we are incredibly lucky to even have those little OU and OK symbols to guide us, to have our pick of good (if insanely expensive) restaurants at our disposal. Most countries don’t have a system of Kashrut certification at all, or if they do, it is used on only a fraction of food items, due to lack of either demand or cooperation from food factory owners.

These countries handle Kashrut by their own methods. In Hungary, Kashrut “certification” goes by word of mouth. True, Budapest boasts three (really good) Kosher restaurants, an un-freaking-believable Kosher Café, and two or three grocery stores/butcher shops, but the selection of staple items are severely limited. And that’s in the biggest city in a country with one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. Forget the little towns in countries like Luxembourg.

If you want to keep kosher in Budapest (and few Hungarians do), you’re going to have to cough up an arm and a leg for a package of salami, and travel to the former Ghetto to pick it up. There’s simply no way to only eat certified-kosher products.  Many European countries work the same way, if they have any Kosher restaurants at all. Going back to Europe means I get to live this interesting sort of double-life, relying on unofficial lists and friends’ recommendations instead of a convenient label for two or three weeks a year. It also means I get to see many variations on this discussion once I get back:

What truly cracks me up is when those products which are available Kosher in Europe and Israel, which are made in one factory and distributed globally, are denied in only one place, and that’s the one with the largest Jewish population in the world: the USA. The perfect example of such an item is the old favorite: Bailey’s Irish Cream Liquor.

Bailey’s is “not recommended” as Kosher by the Orthodox Authorities in the United States. It is, however, used in such delicious food items as Ben & Jerry’s Dublin Mudslide ice-cream and Bailey's-Flavored Haagen Dazs, which bear Kashrut certification. It is also certified Kosher in places such as England, Australia, and Israel. The mysterious case of Bailey’s has confused me for years, and I’ve heard every answer from “it’s actually perfectly alright” to “there’s a separate bottling plant in the US which is not Halachically acceptable.”  I’ve asked around and researched online, discovering along the way that yes, there is just one recipe and one bottling plant, and yes, the stuff I get in Budapest is fine. But it’s not fine here. I truly don’t get how this works.

Anyone who has known me for about five minutes knows of my interest in the varying standards of social and Halachic law across the globe. I enjoy my chance to see both worlds. I adore the Hungarian Kosher Café and love my time in Budapest (which I highly recommend as a beautiful and culturally rich travel option). I often complain about how closed-minded and cliquey New York Jews are.

But of course, there’s a reason my parents left the place, the same reason all of my European friends left their hometowns, and it isn’t because they were bored. This summer, I finally got to see it firsthand.

Things in Hungary (and Europe in general) are not great for Jews right now. With the economy the way it is and with an ultra-right wing party in parliament, it’s becoming increasingly acceptable to be a full-blown xenophobe, Gypsy-hater, and anti-Semite. I’ve been told about graffiti in France and rocks through windows in Greece. I know my parents’ stories of hiding their religion during communism and of their escape to the US. I remember when my sister got called “a dirty Jew.”  But a week ago (finally, it seems), I got to see it myself.

My parents took me to the south of Hungary, to a beautiful little city where cobblestones line the streets and porcelain fountains make the town square interesting. We had an awesome time touring, and at the end of the day, we sat down in the town square for a snack, and my father realized he had to daven Mincha.

He walked to the edge of the square and stood behind a tree, as any davener might do in public, and started to pray while my mom and I dug into the sandwiches we’d brought from our Budapest apartment.

As we ate, we began to notice the huge, apparently steroid-popping guys sitting near us, joking amongst themselves. I thought amusingly about how one of them bore an uncanny resemblance to a character from my neighbor’s old Street Fighter 2 video game (the other one looked like a fat hobo). But the farther along we got in our sandwiches, the more my mom, and then I, began to hear what they were laughing about.


Eventually, my dad finished praying and joined us. And the Street-Fighter guys got louder.

That was about as far as they got before my mom said “That’s it!” and told my dad (who hadn’t heard or noticed anything) that she needed to find a bathroom in a building across town NOW. She ushered us out of the town square before telling my dad what happened. He shrugged and said, “We’re here. What do you expect?”

The truth is, I love going to Hungary anyway, and this little incident wouldn’t keep me from it. After all, I’ve been travelling back and forth since I was born, and this is the first time I ever got “Jewed” (in Europe, anyway). But at that moment, I couldn’t help my sudden longing for New York, for my friends, for Kosher-Certified pizza, even for speeches on sleeve length technicalities to roll my eyes at.  

We New York kids, who grew up in the States, who have never been beaten up for wearing a kippah, who have clicked our tongues at the awful anti-Semitic things they do somewhere else… we are so lucky that we can complain about Bailey’s lack of a label. As we sped-walked away from the town square, all I could think was man, am I spoiled. Am I lucky to live where I do, when I do. Well, that and Steroid Man, someone really ought to kick your butt. 


  1. It doesn't make a difference to me now, but back when it was applicable, the whole Bailey's thing drove me nuts too. It's one of the greatest examples of hypocrisy in the whole kashrut in general and political nonsense.

  2. not the laws, just the system of certification.

  3. i know what you mean , I was "jewed" in poland , we really are spoiled. love the post though , p.s ur wearing that sweater u bought with me in the last cartoon :)

  4. Growing up as a religious Jew, we learned to be discreet. In my lifetime Hungary never been a free country like the USA. There is an old proverb: “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I go to Hungary often; I never had any issues being a Jew. True I do not ware kippot (baseball cap is ok), go to my local shul - Hegedüs Gy (Csáki), go to many Jewish events. Why I am going? I still like the culture (opera, operetta, theater, spas, etc)


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