Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Jewish travel writer extraordinaire Ben Frank featured

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

Ben G. Frank is one of the most prolific -- and well-traveled -- writers about Jewish sights, sites, communities, attractions and travels worldwide.

Huffington Post runs a lengthy interview/conversation with him, conducted by Bernard Starr, sparked Frank's most recent book, The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press, 2011).

Frank's curiosity about this extraordinary phenomenon of the Diaspora sparked his mission to find and visit remote and isolated -- sometimes forgotten -- Jewish communities in surprising locations. As a travel writer with a passion for Jewish history, Ben Frank is the perfect person to have undertaken the task. He eventually visited 89 Jewish communities. I interviewed him to learn more about his fascinating journey.
When did you first get the urge to undertake this demanding adventure? Did you have concerns about the difficulties you might face in remote locations?
It all began in 1964 on a trip to Algeria. As a reporter/journalist, I was fascinated by the emigration of Jews from that war-torn country to France, where they were guaranteed the rights and privileges of French citizens, since, according to the Cremieux Decree, they too were French. When I landed I met with the last few Jewish residents in Algiers. They called themselves "le Dernier Carre," the last unit in Napoleon's army to stand in battle and defend themselves in the form of a square.
How did you find out about these scattered wandering Jews?
In the case of Algeria, I contacted organizations, such as the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and others who follow and aid Jews in the Diaspora. I discovered that Jews were scattered globally, including concentrations in Asia and South America. Jews have lived in India, for instance, for 2,000 years and they are still there. With contacts and research tools, I located them. 

Read the full article

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Jewish Budapest's lively street corner

Kazinczy st. Synagogue. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal
When I was in Budapest last month, I took a look at some of the new cafe and restaurant offerings in the heart of the 7th District -- the city's historic downtown Jewish neighborhood, where I myself have a little apartment.

The district has become known in recent years for its new and growing crop of trendy boutiques and restaurants and funky clubs, bars and pubs, including the famous "ruin pubs" that mainly operate in the summer on the site of vacant lots and torn-down buildings.

The inner part of the 7th is also known as the "Jewish triangle" as it is anchored by three magnificent synagogues -- the Dohany St. synagogue, the largest in Europe and the Kazinczy street Orthodox synagogue, both of which have been beautifully restored and are used by active congregations, and the Rumbach st. synagogue, a beautiful building designed by Otto Wagner that is in dire need of restoration but is use now for occasional cultural events.

(I've posted a lot on these and other developments over the years -- click HERE to see some of the posts.)

Last month, though, I was interested to see that one street corner -- the corner of Dob and Kazinczy streets -- is becoming something of a hub for a rather more upscale (though still sort of funky), overtly Jewish restaurant and cafe scene.

Macesz Huszar. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Two (or really three) new places opened since I had last been there in the fall.

One is the Macesz Huszar -- a self-proclaimed "Jewish Bistro," right on the corner. It actually occupies the spot that used to be the very nice (and also "Jewishy" restaurant Koleves, which has now moved around the corner, on Kazinczy, nearer to its summer ruin garden.)

The Macesz Huszar is not kosher, but it doesn't serve pork. Its menu features a variety of traditional Jewish dishes -- including stuffed goose neck & barley, cholent (solet), borscht. Instead of a hamburger, it offers a "gooseburger" from smoked ground goose.

I wasn't terribly impressed with the borscht, and the service was spotty -- but all in all, it was worth going there to support the effort.

The owner of Macesz Huszar is David Popovits, who also runs the wonderful Doblo wine bar, a dimly lit place with bare brick walls, just a few steps away on Dob street. My friend Eszter and I went there one night to celebrate her receiving a major grant for a project she's working on about the Jewish district -- and we had far too much to eat, even though we only ordered a couple of antipasto dishes. Not to mention a fabulous Cabernet -- I wish I could remember what it was! The staff, though are very helpful in counseling you on which of the many Hungarian wines on the menu to choose..

Just a few steps further down Dob street is the Spinoza cafe and restaurant, owned by an energetic Israeli, Tal Lev. Spinoza offers bagels and other light dishes, some with an Israeli flavor, as well as heavier fare. There is also a theater which hosts concerts and other performances. And just a few steps from Spinoza is the Dob St. entry to Gozsdu Udvar, a series of connected courtyards that stretches from Dob all the way to Kiraly street. The courtyards were renovated and restored several years ago, and they are finally attracting enough bistros, cafes, boutiques and other businesses to make the unique setting lively. And I shouldn't forget the Frohlich kosher pastry shop, also on Dob street.....

But, back to the intersection of Dob and Kazinczy....

Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Catty-corner across the street from Macesz Huszar is a newly renovated old building that now houses theKazimir bistro and Info point. The name clearly refers to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, which has become a major Jewish tourist attraction and includes several nostalgia-tinged "Jewish style" cafes aimed at evoking pre-war times.

Budapest's Kazimir has an old-world look, but doesn't hype the Jewishness -- its menu includes pork dishes as well as cholent (which is, in fact, a staple at many Budapest restaurants and even sold in cans in supermarkets.) It also features some Asian dishes -- and has a program of mainstream music and other events.

Across the entry hall, the Info Point serves as a little tourist center for the 7th District, including its Jewish sites. The helpful young woman at the desk when I dropped by spoke good English, but it was clear that the operation was still not up to full speed. There were a few books about the city and Jewish quarter for sale, and some brochures were available. The Info point web site is packed with information, but so far is only in Hungarian.

Kazimir - Info Point is located directly across the street from the Kazinczy street Orthodox synagogue -- the photo at the top of this post was taken from the Kazimir doorway.

The synagogue was built in 1911-1913, as part of a complex designed by Béla and Sándor Loeffler: built in a sort of Byzantine-art Nouveau style, the complex includes a courtyard surrounded by other buildings, with entrances on both Kazinczy street and Dob street. The rather simple Hanna kosher restaurant is located in the courtyard. Next door on Kazinczy there is an upscale kosher restaurant, Carmel. And by the Dob st. entrance there is a kosher butcher and salami-maker.

Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber