I was born in Budapest's 6th district, right next to the 7th, where I went to school for eight years. Every day I would wonder around the area known as the historical Jewish Quarter today. I would also frequent Klauzál square by the virtue of the playground there, which is what it primarily was for much of the 80s and 90s. I grew up in that neighborhood; its rhythm defined me and my life as well. I used to have a chat with the grocer in the corner store, stopped in Nagymező Street at the travel agent to collect photos of exotic lands which I then glued into my school notebooks. The walk with its stations was a ritual for me when I was a kid.
I attended high school a bit farther away from home, in one of the most liberal and academically strongest institutions in the city, but I would still come home to the area every evening. I have been a witness and a subject to the changes that have taken place in the Quarter, feeling both a sense of belonging and freedom when I am there. While I was in college, Spinoza, a restaurant and coffee shop opened up in Dob Street. The owner's son was an old friend so we would meet there several times a week with high school companions to talk about our novel experiences at university. The place later came to include a basement jazz club, Lámpás (Lantern), which still showcases some of the most exciting figures of the Budapest jazz scene today. Not to mention that another old friend is in charge of programming there.
As the first bars and clubs were opening up, we got lost in the finally and excitingly dazzling nightlife of Budapest. Szimpla was the district's first ruin bar, a big institution re-inhabiting an abandoned building. Szóda (Soda) was the only bar open on Christmas Eve for a while, and quickly became a meeting place for Jewish and non-Jewish liberals and intellectuals. Coffee shops and bars were popping up all over the place in the area and there was ample opportunity to take in culture or save the world over a wine spritzer. Beyond Lámpás, Spinoza, Szimpla and Szóda my former high school English teacher opened Mika Tivadar, a major bar and a Kosher-style restaurant named Kőleves (Stone Soup) a little while later. Another friend created Ladino, a restaurant that directly referenced Jewish traditions, but unfortunately it closed in a couple years. The guests of the original Eckermann Coffeeshop mingled with students, artists and liberal thinkers at Sirály (Seagull) in Király Street, the main street of the Quarter. Sirály became cult, for me anyways. Created in part by Marom, a Jewish youth organization of which I had been a member since 2003, I was involved artistically, mainly in their visual arts projects, but more importantly I strongly believed that what we were doing was important and influential for the community. I believed in the idea that the community really needed an organization which showcases the Jewish dimension of the city's history and at the same time it enriches the city's culture, relying on the fact that since 1989 you were finally free to do so. Sirály was really a hub, where you could go just for the drinks, but you also could listen to talks, see theater performances, exhibitions and even join study groups. Then a group of Marom people established the Dor Hadas religious movement and opened up Moise House a few blocks away, where Jewish youth ran a cultural and religious event series welcoming all who cared. Marom and Dor Hadas have left their original locations and moved over into the 8th district since, but many galleries, art spaces and instant art fora have opened up all over the place in the name of free self expression. The area is alive and kicking, but has recently also been influenced by newcomers: tourists who seek to enjoy every remaining minute of the party district. The Jewish Quarter today carries the legacy of the past, showcases culture and the arts while also being the home to discos and beerbikes. They are moving somewhere as I watch to find out if yet more energy remains that can be unleashed.
In my creative work I have mainly dealt with Jewish themes, my videos and films all touch on one or the other aspect of the topic. In the past three years, I created Who We Are, Hungarian Jews after the Holocaust: The Third Generation, a documentary that introduces the stories of six Hungarian Jews, living in Budapest. This video was screened at the Center for Jewish History in NYC, as well as in Budapest, Bánkitó Festival, Prague and Venice. I joined seven other directors to co-create a sketch film about Miklós Radnóti, a poet of Jewish origin which is currently on its festival circuit. In another work I chronicled a nun, who had saved Jewish children during the Holocaust. This work is shown during city walks at a former monastery in the Buda Hills. A European project involved six one-minute videos I created, about six different geographical locations, evoking their stories and dilemmas relating to the Holocaust and contemporary Jewish identity. (Warsaw, Berlin, Hohenems, Amsterdam I, Amsterdam II, Budapest.)
I wrote my two theses at university about portrayals of the Holocaust in feature films and about the activities of Jewish youth organizations in Hungary with regard to their role in identity politics. Currently I do work on the comparative study of US and European Jewish museums, to investigate the innovative and accessible models of exhibitions, showcasing contemporary Jewish culture and art. I focus on the social contexts and the social dialogue implicit in contemporary art both as an artist and in my research. For this reason, I was especially happy to accept the invitation to co-curate this show, since it gives me the opportunity to do in practice what I am dealing with in my dissertation.
We did not want to go with the obvious while putting together this exhibition. Some of the buildings are bearing well-known, some of them have unknown stories, but our aim was to showcase buildings that are exciting from a contemporary perspective and which are easily interpretable in a foreign and international milieu. Inviting the artists was the same process. We wanted this group of artists to be as diverse as the Quarter itself. All of them have their own strong artistic style, in the genre they are mainly working and creating in. Through this exhibition I am able to present the world of the Quarter that I know intimately, the world where I spend my days on end, adding a contemporary layer to the many others that lurk underneath with the presented video installations, photos and music.
Zita Mara Vadasz
The show we chose to call 585,000 m2 was inspired by the synagogue in Rumbach Sebestyén Street. The building which would be all too simple to call my favorite piece of architecture in Budapest. The Rumbach Street Synagogue is to me the Heart. Of the city, of the Quarter but also of a generation to which I belong. This heart gave me the idea to introduce the Jewish Quarter of Budapest, with the synagogue at its epicenter with its alive and captivating history. Yet its story is only one among the many that animate the 7th district. These stories surround us in the streets where we live now in peace. Jews and non-Jews, Christians and non-Christians, Hungarians and non-Hungarians - the people of Budapest, us.
The story of the Jewish Quarter in Budapest is what we sought to tell with the show, a part of which resists narration, but other parts we are representing, the part and parcel of being from Budapest, from Hungary and of the culture and identities we share. Stories behind these walls, secrets and fates can be revealed, both uplifting and tragic, and these stay with us and effect us even when we are not in Budapest.
These 585,000 m2 we call the Jewish Quarter was home to generations who lived and died here, whose labor and leisure marked the space, who studied and loved in the past as they do in the present. Communities evolving have left their mark on this Quarter which has remained a home to cultures, communities, creative initiatives, making this part of the city a part of our identity and perfect, in a way, with its many imperfections.
The exhibition focuses on 9 buildings. The Rumbach Street Synagogue and the Mikveh in Kazincy Street represent the spiritual; Wesselényi school and Fészek (Nest) Artists' Club represent community life; while Lumen, a greengrocer's, Kisüzem (Small Workshop) Bar and the former kosher butcher shop transformed into a restaurant under the name Kőleves (Stone Soup) are the loci where everyday life unfolds. Some near-mystical, revered icons complement the list, such as the Orczy House which used to be the entrance point to the old Jewish Quarter and passageways which, according to lore, were shortcuts to the synagogues.
The exhibition is the reflection or representation of a complex story which should be allowed to speak and relate itself. It will, if permitted, make the audience think and bring us closer to each other, provide help in understanding the present and face the past rather than trying to forget or deny it.