Hungarians are not shy.
At least during the year I spent teaching in their capital, Budapest, I never observed the slightest reticence among the city’s residents. There was no question that I stood out a bit, riding the local trolley with my full beard and black fedora — a combination that had blended naturally into the scenery of Jerusalem, from where I had come.
I soon became accustomed to the gazes I drew from other passengers. Unlike most westerners who look quickly away when caught staring, the Hungarians just kept right on staring, as if I were a curiosity on display in the Castle Museum or, perhaps, the Budapest zoo. I tried returning their stares with a pleasant smile, but that just seemed to make their gazes harden, like silent admonitions for daring to draw so much attention to myself and not having the courtesy to instantly make myself vanish.
It was 1992, only four years after the iron curtain had come down, and although traditional Judaism hadn’t disappeared entirely in Hungary, it wasn’t thriving either. The three orthodox synagogues counted barely ten Sabbath-observant families among them. In the cavernous Kaszincky synagogue, founded in 1893, sunlight streamed through cracks in the ceiling on clear Sabbath mornings. On one occasion, my wife found her way up to the women’s balcony where the thick layer of dust she discovered convinced her that no woman had preceded her for at least a decade.
The state of Jewish life was hardly surprising. Although the Nazis had occupied Budapest for only six months before the end of the war, they succeeded in exterminating virtually all the Jews outside the capital. The years of Communist rule after the war brought even greater spiritual devastation, with most Jews forced into adopting gentile names and coerced into discarding the last vestiges of a Jewish identity already unraveling after three generations of widespread assimilation.
Any black-bearded, black-hatted Jew wearing his religion on his sleeve was bound to attract attention.
But one episode stands out from all the others.
I was waiting at the trolley stop when a man passed in front of me. I wouldn’t have noticed him at all if he hadn’t noticed me.
He might have been in his fifties, but the crevices etched into his face would have suited a man nearing a hundred. His flushed and ruddy complexion suggested an intimacy with alcohol; his clothing was soiled and threadbare. With downcast eyes and bleak expression, he shuffled along as if the strain of year after miserable year had wrung every ounce of resilience from his body and every scrap of purpose from his soul.
He glanced in my direction, and his gaze briefly met mine. He stopped. His eyes grew wide as looked me up and down. He raised his hand tentatively and uttered a few incomprehensible words.
I smiled and shook my head, spreading my arms to show that I didn’t understand.
Slowly, almost fearfully, he reached out his hand and touched my tzitzis, the ritual fringes that hang from my waist, then brought his fingers to his lips. He reached up and touched the brim of my hat, then kissed his fingers once again. Again he spoke, and again I shook my head.
By then, a remarkable transformation had come over him. The beaten-down expression had disappeared, replaced by a look of astonished exhilaration, as if he had just witnessed the resurrection of the dead.
He raised his hand above his head and shook it as he turned his eyes toward heaven and uttered what could only have been a benediction. He reached toward my face, stopped himself, tenderly touched the lapel of my jacket, kissed his fingers one last time, and, with a look of wonder and restored hope, shuffled on his way.
I can only imagine what prompted his reaction. Did he recall the days of his youth, before Communism cut him off from the faith of his people? Did he remember the trappings of a sainted grandfather or teacher?
No doubt, his astonishment was borne from his conviction that, at least in his homeland, people who looked like me were extinct. The discovery that some remnant of his past still survived lifted the weight of misery and hopelessness from his shoulders, if only for a moment.
Three decades later, I wonder why I didn’t reach out and take his hand, why I didn’t ask any of those waiting beside me if they could translate, so I could learn his story. Then I wonder whether I would do anything different today if the same thing happened again.
Discovery takes courage. And courage is an elusive companion.
On the other hand, not knowing the backstory of my brief encounter is part of what preserves its echo in the empty spaces of my imagination.
One man on the street, one minute of nonverbal rapport, left a more poignant impression upon my memory than an entire year in the “Paris of the East.”
One man on the street reflected all the despair and all the hopeful triumph of a people in exile.
One man on the street, who had all but forgotten who he was, not only found his hope reawakened, but reawakened my own hope in return — the hope that the countless lost souls who wander this world may one day remember who they are, may one day find their way home.