How a ‘wonder rabbi’ is stirring up a Hungarian village

Category: News

The Hungarian hamlet of Bodrogkeresztúr is fast becoming a major pilgrimage site for Jews around the world who want to pray at the grave of a rabbi in hopes of miraculous intervention.

But their presence in the village – which had a significant Jewish population until its deportation in 1944 – has sparked a delicate debate among the locals. Some would like them gone, viewing them as foreigners as well as Jews. Others argue that they have a right to return.

Yeshaya Steiner, also known as Rebbe Shaya’la, lived in Bodrogkeresztúr in the early 20th century. His former home and his nearby grave have become a key stop for pilgrims. On a busy weekend, more than 20,000 religious visitors may tour this village of just 1,000 residents.

Some villagers are unhappy with the Jewish visitors’ arrival. “They should go back to where they came from. I do not care that they used to live here,” says Timea, a woman in her thirties.

But others see their return as only fair. “They have the right to be here as their ancestors were unjustly taken away and killed in 1944,” says Tibor Földesi, a villager.

Bodrogkeresztúr, Hungary

This Hungarian hamlet offers many attractions to visitors from abroad: a picturesque landscape, historical sights. The region in which it lies is even recognized as part of UNESCO’s world heritage program for its centuries-long culture of winemaking.

But the latest influx of visitors to Bodrogkeresztúr are coming for a very different reason – and are shining a light on the village’s history.

Bodrogkeresztúr is fast becoming a major pilgrimage site for Jews around the world who want to pray at the grave of a rabbi in hopes of miraculous intervention. Their presence in the village – which had a significant Jewish population until its deportation in 1944 – has sparked a delicate debate among the locals. Some would like them gone, viewing them as foreigners as well as Jews. Others argue that they have a right to return.

The debate is particularly loaded in Hungary, where far-right politicians often say that Jews have no place. Such views resonate strongly in poorer, rural communities. Estimates of the prevalence of anti-Semitism among Hungarians vary: András Kovács, a professor at Central European University in Budapest says about 30% hold such views, while the New York-based Anti-Defamation League puts the rate at 42%.

Judit Kuknyó, a mother of four who regularly crosses paths with the religious Jewish groups at the local food store, is not concerned by the newcomers. “They have their traditions and holidays, we have ours,” she says. She is baffled by peers who cast them as “strangers.”

“I think they are afraid of the unknown and forget that this used to be a Jewish village,” she says. “[The villagers] just want to come back to what used to be theirs.”

The draw of the wonder rabbi

Yeshaya Steiner, also known as Rebbe Shaya’la, lived in Bodrogkeresztúr in the early 20th century. The Jews of Kerestir – the Yiddish name of this verdant village – were ardent believers in his wisdom. Rebbe Shaya’la gained fame as a miracle worker; tens of thousands of Central European Hasidic Jews visited his court regularly until his death in 1925. Miracles ascribed to him fill three books: They range from curing sick children to saving marriages.

“The soul lives forever, whoever will come to me to pray after my death, I will help,” he predicted.

The revival of Judaism in Hungary, increasingly digitally savvy believers, and the designation of religious sites on Google Maps and Waze have given him fresh fame. Many here link the publication of a book on Rebbe Shaya’la’s miracles in English to the increase in visitors.

A key stop for pilgrims is the former house of Rebbe Shaya’la on Kossuth Street, which American descendants bought in the 1970s. Since then, relatives have come to pray at the house and his nearby grave.

“My father was born in this house, survived the war, and fled to the States after 1949,” says Ms. Ruben, a great granddaughter of Rebbe Shaya’la who declined to give her first name. “The older I get, the more it hurts to think about what happened to my family here.”

Dorottya Czuk

This 18th-century Jewish cemetery contains the grave of Rebbe Shaya’la, as well as other rabbis. Rebbe Shaya’la is buried in a traditional tabernacle along with his wife and an unknown rabbi.

During the Cold War, visits by religious relatives to communist Hungary tended to be short. Discussing the disappearance of the Jewish community was taboo.

But that has changed. Four years ago, the rebbe’s descendants expanded to the house next door to cater to a growing number of visitors.

On a busy weekend, more than 20,000 religious visitors may tour this village of just 1,000 residents. The Jewish shelter offers lodging, free meals, and places to pray. The owners say these are not business ventures and that they pay for costs that run as high as $5,000 a day. They believe this is a mitzvah, or good deed, from the Hebrew word for commandment.

Female members of the Kerestir community come to Hungary three to four times per year. They split their time between praying and ensuring the smooth administration of the rebbe’s former home and the free kitchen.

An American Hasidic cook and his Hungarian non-Jewish helpers work in perfect harmony despite the language barrier. Together they whip up kosher Hungarian dishes for up to 100 people per day. The food is provided free of charge although donations are accepted.

“It is spiritually uplifting to be here,” says Chayala Hecht-Lasky, mother of four boys. “I have known about this place for quite some time. More and more people hear about the miracles. … We know some people whom he helped already.”

Jewish pilgrims to Hungary typically follow a 90-plus-mile-long route spanning 10 villages which is known as the “footsteps of the wonder rabbis.” It cuts across small cemeteries, run-down synagogues, ritual baths, houses of famous Jewish families, and former yeshivas (Orthodox Jewish seminaries).

Rebbe Shaya’la is the most famous of five wonder rabbis who lived on this path. Mariann Frank, director of the Hasidic visitors center, says she also receives Christian priests with their congregations. “We are happy to receive people here because it helps to understand the life and the role of the Jewish people in former rural Hungary,” she says.

“They have the right to be here”

Some villagers are unhappy with the Jewish visitors’ arrival though, and their focus on Rebbe Shaya’la’s grave over other local features. Many want them gone.

“They should go back to where they came from. I do not care that they used to live here,” says Timea, a woman in her thirties. “They are coming back and buying up the whole village. They have already bought at least 25 family houses and they don’t want to stop.”

Some worry this influx is affecting property prices and the demographic makeup of the community. Houses are for sale all along the trail. Around 10 buildings in Bodrogkeresztúr have been purchased by Jews who came from abroad. Villagers say that real estate prices went up by 10 to 15 times since large scale arrivals began in 2015.

But some say that’s not the newcomers’ fault. “They have the right to be here as their ancestors were unjustly taken away and killed in 1944,” says Tibor Földesi, a villager. “Hungarians who managed to do business with them like them. Those who couldn’t, don’t.”

He adds that some locals seem to be approaching house sales with Jewish stereotypes in mind. “Most people try to sell their house at very high prices to them, and if they fail, they say it is [the Jews’] fault.”

Moshe Friedlander, a rabbi who supervises a Jewish guesthouse in Bodrogkeresztúr, says that religious Jewish tourism is creating jobs in the village, which could help build bridges. Religious Jews in the village employ non-Jewish people on the Sabbath, the day when they are forbidden to work. And Hungarians work as cooks, waiters, cleaners, drivers, and errand runners even beyond the one holy day of the week. At least a dozen villagers are working for the Hasidic Jews who run guesthouses. Jewish visitors rent cars, pay drivers, sleep at the various hotels, buy local goods, and visit local private doctors.

“I hope that coming back here helps the locals getting to know us again,” says Rabbi Friedlander. “They can see that Jewish people are not like what the Nazis said they were.”

https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2020/0123/How-a-wonder-rabbi-is-stirring-up-a-Hungarian-village?icid=rss