To Be [a Jew] or Not to Be

by Judith Fein October 3, 2014
 

 

I have always wondered about Moses killing an abusive slave driver in Egypt because the latter was beating an Israelite. How did the future lawgiver know that he, himself, was an Israelite? Raised by Egyptian royals, did he somehow have knowledge in his bones about his true origins?

The same question arose during a port stop on a recent Viking River Grand European Cruise. My husband Paul and I were in Budapest, relishing our free time, when we walked across the Chain Bridge to see Carolyn, an American colleague of mine who is married to Gabor Banfalvi, a Hungarian. The duo’s expertise is in Hungarian food and wine; Carolyn writes cookbooks and Gabor takes people on wine and culture tours.

It was a cold, cloudless night, and the city dazzled with multicolored lights illuminating the evocative, romantic, historic buildings on the Buda side. Carolyn buzzed us in to their walk-up apartment, and greeted us with her newborn son Levi.

Hmm, I thought. That’s an odd name for a Catholic child.

We yakked for a while in the living room, and then Gabor asked if we wanted to see something very special. We followed him into an adjacent room and he pointed to several rows of books on a huge, built-in bookshelf. Surprisingly, they were all Jewish books: Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and history.

I raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Gabor, why all the Jewish books?”

“I don’t know. I studied Spanish medieval literature, but I keep gravitating to Jewish things. I take people on tours to Jewish sites now. And my brother converted to Judaism and joined a synagogue.”

“Why is your baby named Levi?”

Gabor shrugged. He had no answers.

The following day, I decided to go to an old Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of the city and, on a whim, invited Gabor and Carolyn to come with me. It was a dreary, rainy, cold day, and we opened our umbrellas, turned up our collars, and walked down row after row of headstones, admiring the unusual art nouveau tombs.

The rain intensified, and we accelerated our pace, heading toward the exit. Suddenly Gabor stopped, and his mouth fell open.

“I can’t believe it!” he exclaimed.

He was staring at two tombstones that bore the name “Kaszab.”

“I am a guide. I have been all over my country. But I have never seen my mother’s maiden name on a tomb before. And here it is…in a Jewish cemetery. How can that be?” said a stunned Gabor.

“Perhaps this is why you are always drawn to Jewish things,” I postulated. “Maybe it’s…knowledge in your bones. I mean, how did Moses know he was an Israelite?”

Gabor dialed a number on his cellphone and spoke in Hungarian. When he got off, he said: “That was my brother. He said it was time for me to join a synagogue. But I’m not convinced. I’m not sure at all.”

We walked in silence and boarded a trolley that was heading back to town. I suddenly remembered that Katsav – which I thought was the equivalent of Kaszab – was the last name of the last President of Israel, and I told Carolyn and Gabor. She immediately pulled out her smartphone and googled Katsav.

“Wow,” she said. “His family came from Persia. And the only thing we know for sure about his mother’s origins is that they, too, came from Persia a long time ago.”

Gabor was not convinced. “Two tombstones and a name. But that doesn’t prove anything. I need to go to the synagogue. I need to find family records,” he said, and sat pensively for the rest of the ride. When we reached Budapest, I said goodbye, since our ship was sailing that night.

“I will ask my mother, but I have to do it at the right time,” Gabor offered. “She is a religious Catholic. I don’t know how she’ll respond.”

Several weeks went by, and I heard nothing from Gabor, so I wrote to him. This was his reply:

“I talked to my mom. Surprisingly, she doesn’t seem to mind my questions. She has no clue about the family, though. She would know about the Jewish background if there was one and she’d be the biggest Jew if she found out. She was raised by her mom (one of the Kaszab girls) alone in the middle of WWII and then during the worst days of Communism, so it was not an environment for encouraging anybody to talk about something like this. She does remember that her uncle was named Emanuél Kaszab. Not the most Catholic name, right?”

I read slowly, wanting to absorb every word of the email.

“On the other hand, we did find a bunch of Kaszab or Cassab or Quassabs who are Jewish, Gabor continued. “But there are a bunch of other ones that don’t seem to have anything to do with Judaism. I’ll keep looking, but this is really frustrating…”

I wrote back, giving Gabor links to sites where he could find out more about his ancestry and, if he desired, do genetic testing. Weeks went by. Then, finally, this cryptic email: “Thanks for this great offer. I have mixed feelings about it though. I haven’t really followed up on the story and my mom does not seem to be able to help my case. She thinks it’s out of the question…no progress in my research has been made. So my mom’s last name Kaszab might just be a coincidence and not evidence, unfortunately.”

I wrote back impulsively: “This is just an opinion based on experiences with people finding out that they are Jewish around the world, but the fact that you are fascinated by Judaism and have acquired books about it; your brother’s conversion; naming your son Levi; taking people to Jewish sites; your mother’s maiden name having a Jewish link; the family name on the tombstones at the Jewish cemetery are as real as anything else. Is it possible the Jewish link was hidden, for obvious reasons?”

Gabor replied right away: “I’ll definitely get to the bottom of this. I’ll start with the DNA search you suggested. I do understand your thoughts about all the details in my life pointing toward the Jewish direction being as real as anything else. The fact that my brother and I don’t always get along very well doesn’t make things any easier.”

Chuckling at my keyboard, I wrote back: “That is further proof, LOL. Cain killed Abel, and Jewish siblings have been at each others’ throats ever since.”

 

Time passed. I contacted Gabor again, to tell him I wanted to write an article about his process of elucidating his religious and cultural origins, but I needed some more information. Also, I asked how he felt about things now.

The reply came quickly: “How do I feel? Reluctant, probably. Here are my reasons. I do have a passion for Jewish books, stories, history and Judaism in general. I have been reading and studying this for at least a decade now. So I have a living interest and connection there no matter what. When I saw that grave with my mom’s family name in the cemetery, that was really the first time I realized there might be a family connection and things clicked for an hour or two. I was very happy and excited for a while. Then I didn’t actually follow up. For one thing, it takes time and I have very little of that. Then there is the risk of getting a more or less definite answer about my background. If I don’t find the Jewish connection in the family, then I’ll probably be disappointed. If I do have a Jewish background then everything will change and I will have to reevaluate my position and life. I was and still am fascinated by medieval Spanish writers, philosophers, religious thinkers, mystics and that includes Jews, Arabs and Christians (many of them conversos of course) as well.

“Nevertheless,” he continued in the email, “I only developed a long-lasting passion for literature and Judaism as opposed to let’s say Islamic studies or Christian writers. I actually came to the conclusion that when it comes to religious questions, the only straightforward source is Judaism; this clean water is the backbone and inspiration for so many other religions. I also had to realize that those religions, to me, are just mazes that are there to swallow you and make you get lost forever in the end. This is a personal opinion and not a judgment on anybody.

“So if you go through understanding this, does it really matter where you come from? Today, religion, literature, and philosophy are not reserved by birth for anyone. The material is available in public libraries and anybody can open and study these books. You don’t have to be Jewish or even religious. (I read this from Elie Wiesel once.)

“Am I going to have a stronger interest in Judaism if I find out that I really have Jewish roots? Well, probably yes, but maybe that’s not right. Why can’t someone be interested in this without having the background? So, in this case, it would probably be better to just keep pursuing my personal interest and passion instead of looking into whether there is a family link or not. It really shouldn’t matter. I mean people study all kinds of stuff from Native American history to ancient Egyptian architecture.

“Ok,” he conceded eventually, “I admit that it would still be really cool to find the missing link. I’d be probably very happy, but what I wrote before is also true. I guess I am really afraid of being disappointed by not finding the link. So you see, it’s really confusing. But that’s the way I like it. Thanks for these great email exchanges and for making me go through this.

“P.S. I did hear rumors from my father’s side once that the family came from Spain at some point. They didn’t say they were Jews, though.”

I decided not to press Gabor further. Shortly thereafter, I posted several articles on Facebook about crypto Jews, a subject I have researched and written about for decades. I noticed that Gabor “liked” the articles, and wrote several comments. I “liked” his comments in return.

A few days ago, unexpectedly, this email came from Gabor:

“We just applied to one of the Budapest Jewish private schools for the kids. The school is open to all kinds of people, but they will be taught Jewish religion, traditions and even Hebrew. We’re hoping that they’ll accept the kids and they will be exposed to Judaism. I’m not able to personally teach them this, but Carolyn and I think  it is important for them. Then they can decide when they grow up. This is a big step for us.

“By the way, we are visiting Germany. We were in the Moselle valley and I was reading a book by Jorge Semprún about the concentration camps. And guess what? In the book, they were transported by train from France to a German camp across the valley of the Moselle. The train actually stopped just a few villages form where we were staying.”

With that, you, the reader, may be the end to the story. Perhaps you will go to Hungary and take one of Gabor’s Jewish or wine tours. And you will know the final chapter before I do.

IF YOU GO:

Gabor’s Jewish tours:

tastehungary.com/tour/tokaj-jewish-heritage-and-wine-tour/

tastehungary.com/tour/jewish-hungarian-dinner-at-home/

Gabor and Carolyn’s website: tastehungary.com/

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist, speaker, workshop leader, and the author of the much-acclaimed new book, “The Spoon from Minkowitz:: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands.” She will be in San Diego as part of the Jewish Book Fair on Nov. 11. Her website is: globaladventure.us.

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