Love, Laughter and the Occasional Knish

by Steve Hoffsetter July 29, 2011


By Steve Hofstetter

I am traveling to Europe for the first time, and while it may be irrational, I’m a little afraid to be Jewish there.

I always keep a kipah in my backpack; with two Orthodox siblings who have six children between them, I never know when I’m going to be called to an event where I need a kipah. But while packing today, I had second thoughts about bringing it.

It was pointless to remove it just to make my bag an ounce lighter. So I must have been thinking of removing it to prevent perceived harassment from anyone who happens to see it.

Logically, I know that anti-Semitism isn’t rampant in Europe. It exists, yes, and it is certainly more pervasive than it is in New York. It is probably more pervasive than it is in small-town America, too. I haven’t run into much anti-Semitism here, and I travel America enough to have been to Paris, Versailles and Madrid (in Texas, Indiana and Iowa, respectively). In America, the anti-Semitism I do see is pretty easy to deal with. If anyone tells me they don’t like Jews (which happens occasionally, since I don’t look Jewish), I just laugh and tell them we own their basketballs teams, and they need to suck it up.

My knowledge of America comes from experience, but my knowledge of Europe comes from research and hearsay. As much as I travel the states, my one trip out of North America was to Israel last summer. That, like this trip, was my wife’s idea. We also went to Mexico last year. If a woman’s JDate profile says she loves to travel, she’s not kidding around.

But why should I fear the average European being anti-Semitic? It’s just as prejudiced for me to think they’ll be prejudiced as it is for them to actually be prejudiced. But the fear comes from a real place.

Our trip is to Vienna and Budapest, and our plans include some Jewish stops. My wife and I like to plan; I often find myself packing my pants a few days early rather than flying by the seat of them. But according to Google (and Google knows all), most of the best things to do in Vienna and Budapest involve sausages and churches, so those are out.

I know in Venice I’d want to see the canals. In London, Big Ben. In Athens, the ruins. Which these days could be the Parthenon or any bank. But in Budapest, there was nothing I automatically wanted to see. Aside from some Hungarian pastry, of course. If it’s this good in America, it’s got to be awesome in Hungary.

Google told us to spend a day looking at the old churches for their architecture. But after a few hours of flying buttresses, we will surely have enough. I can’t imagine two Jews spending more than a day staring at crosses and virgins. I could do that in any Catholic school in New York.

So we looked up some Jewish sights, and we will be visiting the Jewish quarter, a kosher pizza place and a rather large synagogue. But like any Jewish trip, it also involves a Holocaust memorial.

I have seen several Holocaust memorials and museums around America (and now Israel). They are always very somber and a stark reminder of the terrible things Jewish people went through while most of the world turned its back. But I am particularly apprehensive about visiting a Holocaust memorial in Hungary, where the Holocaust actually happened. I assume it will have a deeper effect than a memorial in Washington, D.C.

My other reminder of Europe’s history is the Austrian leg of our trip. My great-grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Austria more than 100 years ago. He came from a small town named Yashinitza, and I wanted to see if it was close enough to Vienna to visit. I tried Googling it and came up with nothing. It’d be easy for me to spell it wrong, so I tried several variations, and still nothing. When even Google can’t tell what you’re searching for, odds are you’re spelling it REALLY wrong.

I called my father and asked him where the town was. He told me the one thing I hadn’t known about my great-grandfather’s immigration: his town no longer exists.

Yashinitza was one of the towns completely destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. And while I don’t know what stands in its place today, I do know it doesn’t involve a town full of my cousins.

I know that my fear of anti-Semitism is both grounded in reality and blown out of proportion. So I left my kipah in my bag, hoping I will be welcomed by various Hungarians and Austrians, most of whom were born many years after the Holocaust.

And if I am not, well, I will deal with it. If I can’t stand up to a simple anti-Semitic customs agent, I wouldn’t be doing a very good job honoring my great-grandfather’s town. However you spell it.


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