THE INVISIBLE JEWISH BUDAPEST: METROPOLITAN CULTURE AT THE FIN DE SIÈCLE
By Mary Gluck
The University of Wisconsin Press. 251 pages. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-029930-7707 (hardback)
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Budapest was not always the vibrant Central European city that it is sometimes shown to have been, at least not under that name. It was essentially three separate municipalities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the districts of Buda, Pest, and Obuda were combined in 1873. This, together with the earlier Compromise Agreement of 1867, which set up the joint monarchy, and the Emancipation Decree of the same year, which “granted Jews full political and civic equality in the Hapsburg lands,” led to the rapid development of Budapest as a rival to Vienna. Showcasing the city was meant to send a signal to the world that Hungary was a major power in the region. And the high percentage of Jews in Budapest (Mary Gluck gives a figure of 23% by 1900) indicated that they played a prominent part in the life of the city. Not everyone looked favourably on such a situation, and Gluck says that the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna referred to the Hungarian capital as Judapest.
There were also doubts among the Jewish establishment regarding what they saw as the increasing effects of modernity and secularisation on the Jewish community in general. There were tensions because of this: “Individual Jews may have been energised by the possibilities offered by the modern city, but the Jewish religious establishment remained profoundly ambivalent. Not surprisingly, orthodox Jews rejected many aspects of the secular urban world that surrounded them.” But the orthodox were in a minority: “Thus for the majority of Budapest Jews, organised religion became an occasional ritual practice relegated to the peripheries of life rather than a vital source of collective identity.”
It is Gluck’s contention that, “The challenge of defining how to live under modern conditions was met not by religious reformers but by the producers of urban popular culture.” It was “ordinary journalists. hack novelists, and producers of informal urban texts who shaped people’s experiences and expectations of the urban environment.” The 1874 potboiler, Mysteries of Budapest, “presented a scandalous portrait of modern Budapest, in which the seething life of a Jewish ethnic neighbourhood……was given pride of place as the incarnation of the essence of modernity in the city.”
Budapest had its bohemia, where beer halls, cafes, theatres, and other places of entertainment could be found, and raffish customers were catered for. Coffee houses abounded (“roughly 500” in 1900) but were not always looked on with approval. Some were seen as places of “corruption and disreputable behaviour,” where gambling and prostitution were in evidence. Another complaint was that they had an effect on family life. Women were said to frequent coffee houses and consequently neglected their “domestic duties and their roles as wives and mothers.” But other commentators spoke of the democratic nature of coffee-houses, where people of all classes could mix and a variety of topics could be discussed. And from a literary point of view, a coffee house provided material and opportunities for writers: “It was the place where novels and poems were written, where literary and artistic doctrines were debated, where magazines and newspapers were edited.”
It wasn’t always agreeable for Jews in Hungary, and as late as 1882 there was a so-called ritual murder trial when a young Hungarian girl disappeared and local Jews were accused of killing her. The old belief that Jews used the blood of non-Jews when making unleavened bread for the Passover festival still circulated in the small towns and villages outside Budapest. And anti-Jewish disturbances spread to Budapest itself. Anti-Semitic opinions were openly expressed, and there were demands for controls to be applied to the entry of Russian Jews into Hungary as they fled from pogroms in Russia. A representative of an organisation calling itself the Anti-Semitic League was of the opinion that “modern Jewry forms an internal Trojan horse within the European state, a distinct ethnicity with political and social power, not simply a religious denomination, as Jews would like to claim.” The Jewish question became central to Hungarian politics. There were demands for the repeal of the 1867 Emancipation Decree and for the expulsion of even native-born Jews from Hungary.
Gluck points out that Jews had a “dual status” in Hungarian society: “In official politics, in respectable society, in high culture, the formal principle of Jewish equality prevailed, and the presentation of Jewish differences, or even references to individuals as Jews, was considered bad form and strictly banned. In popular culture, however, especially in commercial entertainment and the realm of humour, Jewish difference was not only permitted but encouraged and given unchecked expression.” Judenwitz, or the Jewish joke, became a commonplace of the humorous magazines that were published, and of the stage performances of Jewish comedians. There was what Gluck refers to as collective self-parody: “It was identified with the nihilism of the Jewish spirit itself that found characteristic expression in irony and malicious laughter. Judenwitz was thought to be the creation of rootless outsiders who could never fully master the native idiom or contribute to the collective values of the nation.” And, in addition, “Judenwitz was the voice of the disengaged individual who saw the world in absurdist terms.”
Among the fictional characters who were featured in magazines was Itzig Spitzig, whose creator, Adolf Agai, wanted to establish a voice that “was both normative and utopian and motivated by the desire to bring into existence a new kind of Jewish identity capable of confronting with dignity and creativity the challenges of modern, secular life.” Spitzig didn’t look kindly on attempts by middle-class Jews to assimilate into Hungarian society. It was about this time that some Hungarian Jews petitioned to have the name “Jews” dropped and to be called “Israelites” instead. Spitzig quickly took them to task: “If we are called ten thousand times `Israelites,’ we will still remain nothing else than Jews.”
Interestingly, the tactics, if we can call them that, used to establish Spitzig as a kind of spokesman for Jewishness, were to play up Jewish difference. The illustrations that accompanied his columns “portrayed him with the characteristic hooked nose, dark curly hair and crafty expression that were supposed to betray the inherent traits of the Jewish character.” And Spitzig “spoke a scandalously ungrammatical form of Hungarian which betrayed his cultural and linguistic foreignness.” Not everyone saw the flair for self-parody as a valuable tool for establishing a place for Jews in a wider cultural context. Were convinced anti-Semites likely to alter their views by being offered a brew of Jewish irony? Gluck considers the question without coming to a definite conclusion regarding the effect that Jewish self-parody had outside the Jewish community. It’s perhaps difficult to ascertain accurate details about it.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century Budapest began to establish itself as a rival to Vienna: “The modernity of……Budapest found expression not so much in its innovative art scene as in its dynamic commercial life and its exuberant embrace of popular culture.” The music halls boomed, as did “popular urban texts, feuilletons, caricatures.” The respectable didn’t often like what was happening, and though operetta was acceptable, music hall was looked down on. Gluck notes that among the “many paradoxes of the world of Budapest commercial entertainment is its disappearance from collective historical memory.” There’s a lovely reproduction of a playbill for the Folies Caprice music hall which shows a cheeky-looking and scantily-clad attractive girl winking at the viewer, but we’ve no way of knowing what the performances were like. Recording techniques if they existed, didn’t stretch to live performances and nor did movie cameras. Few people ever remembered the majority of the artists who performed in music halls. Writers who produced material for the halls were often diffident about having their names linked to it. And though cabarets were popular with the public, it was unusual for newspapers to pay any attention to what was performed in them. They were even reluctant to accept paid advertisements relating to cabarets. Endre Nagy, who Gluck describes as “the inventor of Budapest cabaret in the first decade of the twentieth century,” wrote an autobiography in which he referred to cabaret having “on its forehead the badge of shame associated with its origins.”
The problem with cabaret was, in Gluck’s words, “its close association with music hall and with the Jewish lower middle-classes whose ranks supplied most of the audiences, proprietors, managers, writers, and performers of these venues.” There were demonstrations against cabarets and music halls by anti-Semitic, right-wing students who claimed to be defending the “honour and reputation of the fatherland.” And there was a general feeling in some quarters that the music halls “challenged both national ideals and bourgeois norms,” as well as seemingly opposing high culture and encouraging a social mix that, according to some, was undesirable. And the fact of the predominance of Jews helped to increase tensions in Budapest and provide ammunition for anti-Semitic campaigners.
Despite opposition, the music halls and cabarets flourished and people travelled from Vienna, Prague, and other locations to visit them. The more successful brought in performers from elsewhere, such as when Yvette Guilbert, immortalised by Toulouse Lautrec when she was at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, came to the Somossy Orpheum. Gluck’s account of this period is both colourful and informative, despite an earlier statement that her attempt to “recuperate the erased history of Budapest music hall will be of necessity fragmented and mosaic-like.” As mentioned earlier, there seems to be little or no recorded (in both the visual and aural senses) evidence of just what the performances were like. The names can be found in old newspapers and magazines, and a few accounts of comedians or singers perhaps survived, but not much else.
And, in any case, performances in Budapest, like those in the London music halls or the cabarets in Paris, probably needed to be directly experienced to understand how they affected their audiences. Popular entertainment is often ephemeral and trying to recreate it is difficult. What seemed humorous a hundred and more years ago might not have any effect now. It can even be embarrassing. Gluck refers to someone who made a reputation writing songs, poems, and plays for cabarets and music halls. When he looked back sixty years later at some of the sketches he was completely baffled: “With the best of intentions,” he ruefully concluded, “I was unable to see what was funny about them.”
Gluck has some interesting things to say about the relationship between music hall and bohemia. She quotes from a historian of Montmartre , saying that it represented “an antidote to the pomposity and stiff class rules that reigned elsewhere. In its dance-halls and cabarets Parisians could temporarily free themselves from the inhibitions of everyday respectability.” Another commentator thought that both bohemia and music hall had the capacity to upset bourgeois values by setting “play against work, heroic consumption against exemplary abstinence.” And Gluck adds that “Music hall resembled bohemia even in its final fate, which was absorption and appropriation.”
She provides a fascinating account and analysis of “a celebrated music hall skit” called “Eine Klabriaspartie” (the card game). She describes it as “a satirical sketch with musical interludes that depicted the comic interactions and off-colour banter of four Jewish card players in a fictional Budapest coffee house called the Café Abeles” Originally performed in Budapest, it soon became popular in Vienna, Berlin, and other cities. Why was it so popular? Gluck points out that “it is impossible to re-create the comic impact of the actual performance.” It featured characters who were loud and argumentative, likely to cheat at cards, and with no respect for someone else’s wife. They represented “negative Jewish stereotypes whose jargon dialect and uncouth behaviour immediately identified them as cultural pariahs.” And she says that the sketch was “a deliberate spoof, presenting Jews through the eyes and cultural imagination of mainstream society. It ironically mirrored the cultural stereotypes of the age, which saw Jews collectively as vulgar, dishonest, and irredeemably foreign.” Not all Jews were happy with the sketch and some thought its irony and satirical edge would be lost on many non-Jewish audiences. It would simply re- enforce anti-Semitic prejudices. But, as others pointed out, it didn't take a humorous sketch to encourage people to be anti-Semitic.
Gluck neatly sums up the situation for Jews in Budapest when she discusses attitudes towards what might be termed cultural questions: “Hungarian Jewry had only limited interest in the normative precepts of the bourgeois ideology, associated with the ideals of gender, domesticity, and the work ethic. Its collective values found expression in an aesthetic culture that idolised the writer, the poet, and the musician and lifted artistic achievement above practical activities.” And she adds, “Jewish Budapest was characterised not so much by ambivalence towards bourgeois culture as a selective appropriation of its different components. In the realm of everyday life, it was distinctly bourgeois, but in its cultural style and literary imagination, it was unmistakably bohemian.”
The Invisible Jewish Budapest is a fascinating book and manages to pack in so much information that could lead one into whole new areas of investigation. We know a great deal about intellectual and artistic life in Paris in the years towards the end of the Nineteenth Century and leading up to the First World War (see, for example, Mary Gluck’s Popular Bohemia: Modernism and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris, Harvard University Press, 2005), but it’s surprising that we know so little about a city like Budapest. It’s quite obvious that it had a rich cultural life that deserves to be documented.
As Gluck says, “The historical culture of Jewish Budapest came to an abrupt end with World War 1.” When the Austro-Hungarian Empire broke up in 1918 it left Hungary with only a quarter of its previous territory and only around half of its previous population. The result was “a ferocious nationalist reaction that had a direct impact on its Jewish citizens.” This isn’t the place to go into detail about how Jews were subjected to restrictions on, for example, entry into universities. Many talented Jews left for Berlin, Vienna, Prague, and eventually America. Hollywood gained by an influx of filmmakers and actors. Others, who stayed in Budapest, were less fortunate as the 1930s saw the rise of Hungarian fascist organisations and the tragic events of the 1940s.
The book is usefully illustrated and has extensive notes.