Potlucks, surrogate kin mark expatriates High Holy Days

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BUDAPEST — American Jews in Budapest are preparing for holidays spent away from home.

But Hungarian Jews today are largely assimilated. If they celebrate Jewish holidays at all, they do so with their own families.

So American Jews — a significant portion of the estimated 16,000 Americans now living in Hungary — tend to gravitate toward their own during the holidays, celebrating with friends who have become surrogate families.

A network mentality kicks in.

"I knew three Jews here and those people knew some" more people, said Anita Altman, a three-year resident of Budapest and the lifestyle editor of the English-language weekly Budapest Sun. "Before long, you have a group of 12 with nowhere else to go, but wanting to celebrate the holidays in a meaningful way."

Often they gather at the Dohany Street Synagogue.

Inside and out, it's a social scene for Hungarians and expatriates. The Moorish-style synagogue, Europe's largest, packs more than 3,000 people into its ground floor and two balconies. Men sit downstairs; women sit upstairs. After visitors pass the metal detectors at the entrance, the chatting continues even through the service.

But mostly, holidays here for Americans are about food. That's when the work begins.

It starts with the ordeal of finding a host. This might be the only person with a dining room.

Most apartments are modest and cramped. The prospective host sometimes needs coercion, guilt or blackmail to seal the deal.

Holiday meals are typically potlucks. The host usually delegates who should bring what.

But it is not merely a matter of honey cake.

Hosts routinely send out SOS's requesting folding chairs, an extra table or additional silverware — even photocopies of the appropriate prayers.

It takes quite an effort, but there's no alternative. "No one else will do it for you," said Alison Rose, who has also lived here for three years.

"At home it's something your parents usually do," said Rose, a native of Tempe, Ariz., and the managing editor of the East European Constitutional Review. "But here I've had to take a little initiative and be more active."

Rose, 26, said she rarely celebrated holidays when living in the United States. But here in Budapest she even hosted a Passover seder.

"It was more like a dinner party," Rose conceded.

Yet the effort that comes with participation prompts expatriates to rethink and, perhaps, reconnect with their Jewish identity.

Living 5,000 miles from home, many shed familial obligations.

"You can't say, `Oh, my parents are making dinner, so I have to go.' Here you don't `have to go,'" said Pearl Gluck, 25, who grew up in Brooklyn's Chassidic community and now coordinates a Jewish studies lecture series at Budapest's Central European University.

The meal itself is often laid-back. Hungarian girlfriends, boyfriends and even curious non-Jewish friends are often invited.

Through the meal, participants search for friends-in-common and swap holiday stories. Later, a self-congratulatory mood sets in.

"Weren't we clever?" Altman, 43, from Roslyn, N.Y., said to describe the mood. "An event we'd always relied on someone else to do for us, we'd done ourselves. At least we did something."

And that's the point: to do something, says Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, a Lubavitcher thought to be the only U.S. rabbi in Hungary.

His services in Hungarian and Hebrew during the High Holy Days draw just a small handful of Americans, anywhere from two to seven. But he still inserts a few minutes in English.

"A Jew should always feel at home in synagogue, wherever he is in the world," said Oberlander, 31, a Brooklyn native who arrived in Budapest in 1989, just before the collapse of communism.