The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Culture in Unusual Places

Szalonna and his band performs Hungarian Jewish music at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival /photo taken by Rachel Mauro

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival takes place every summer, bringing amazing world cultural events to the National Mall! Every year has specific themes and in 2013 they are focusing on Hungarian Heritage, endangered languages and African American diversity, style and identity.

Doubtless the Festival will do a great job covering many aspects of these communities, including Jewish aspects as evidenced by this post. But allow me to expand on their efforts! It is a personal passion of mine to show the world that Jews are more than stereotypes of whiny, overbearing mothers, religious men with sidehair and bagels and lox. 😛 Jewish culture has touched almost every region in the world, and of course, vice versa. So let’s begin.

Jews in Hungary

Jewish Virtual Library cites the first Jews arriving in Hungary during the Roman Empire. Kings and clergy disputed over treatment of the Jews, with the church wanting to pass restrictions like wearing badges and being barred from leasing land, though the regals occasionally interceded. The Jews were expelled in 1349 after being blamed for the Black Death, though they were allowed to return 15 years later. Their numbers grew, though violent anti-Jewish pogroms remained a problem.

Conditions improved in central Hungary when it came under Ottoman control in 1541. Several Sephardim also settled in the area during that time. Subsequent reigns brought back state sponsored antisemitism by way of expulsion from cities, “toleration taxes” and other economic restrictions. They were granted full emancipation in December 1867. But during World War II Hungary joined the Axis powers and over two thirds of Hungarian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, largely from shooting squads that visited small towns, and later deportations from Budapest to Auschwitz.

The government officially recognized the Jewish community in 1948 and cultural institutions reopened for those who didn’t emigrate to Israel or elsewhere. A year later, when Hungary became Communist, many of those Jewish institutions were closed, and Zionism and Israeli emigration were disallowed. Those outwardly identifying as Jews faced economic and social restrictions, but the community remained one of the largest in Eastern Europe. The end of communism brought the end of state sanctioned restrictions and a reflourishing of Jewish life, but as ever, antisemitism remains a problem in Hungary. Just a couple days ago, the U.S. State Department implored Hungary’s government to do more to fight antisemitism, which includes political figures engaging in hate speech and citing that the country’s Jews are a “security risk” and lobbying for a list of Jewish public officials.

The Jewish population in the country is around 120,000 with most of the community inactive in religious and/or cultural life. The World Jewish Congress published a list of active Jewish institutions here.

Endangered Jewish Languages

The Festival is largely focusing on Yiddish, the German/Hebrew vernacular spoken by Ashkenazi, much of which has made it into the American lexicon. But this website maps out (literally) the languages spoken by most Jewish communities around the world.

The third most acknowledged Jewish language behind Hebrew and Yiddish is that of Ladino, a “Judeo-Spanish” spoken by Sephardi Jews. It multiplied into various dialects after the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492, which dispersed the community throughout much of Europe and the Ottoman Empire. It goes by several names other than “Ladino,” including “Spanoyl” and “Judezmo.” Most native speakers are of advanced age and living in Israel, though the Sephardi community has started to revive the music. Click here to listen to some samples!

Jewish events at the Festival
Performances by the An-Sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble and Hungarian Jewish melodies with Bob Cohen/Szalonna and his band. Check out the official schedule for more detailed information.

Previous Festival coverage on JewishDC
2011/ 2010

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One thought on “The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Culture in Unusual Places

  1. Pingback: The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Culture in Unusual Places | JewishDC

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