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My European Odyssey

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I am traveling to Europe for the first time – and while it may be irrational, I’m a little afraid to be Jewish there.

I always keep a kipah in my backpack; with two orthodox siblings that have six children between them, I never know when I’m going to be called to an event where I need a kipah. But while packing today, I had second thoughts about bringing it.

It was pointless to remove it just to make my bag an ounce lighter. So I must have been thinking of removing it to prevent perceived harassment from anyone who happens to see it.

Logically, I know that anti-Semitism isn’t rampant in Europe. It exists, yes, and is certainly more pervasive than it is in New York. It is probably more pervasive than it is in small-town America, too. I haven’t run into much anti-Semitism here, and I travel America enough to have been to Paris, Versailles, and Madrid (in Texas, Indiana, and Iowa, respectively). In America, the anti-Semitism I do see is pretty easy to deal with. If anyone tells me they don’t like Jews (which happens occasionally, since I don’t look Jewish), I just laugh and tell them that we own their basketballs teams, and they need to suck it up.

My knowledge of America comes from experience, but my knowledge of Europe comes from only research and hearsay. As much as I travel the states, my one trip out of North America was to Israel last summer. That, like this trip, was my wife’s idea. We also went to Mexico last year. If a woman’s JDate profile says she loves to travel, she’s not kidding around.

But why should I fear the average European being anti-Semitic? It’s just as prejudiced for me to think they’ll be prejudiced as it is for them to actually be prejudiced. But the fear comes from a real place.

Our trip is to Vienna and Budapest, and our plans include some Jewish stops. My wife and I like to plan; I often find myself packing my pants a few days early rather than flying by the seat of them. But according to a Google search (and Google knows all), most of the best things to do in Vienna and Budapest involve sausages and churches, so those are out.

I know in Venice I’d want to see the canals. In London, Big Ben. In Athens, the ruins, which these days could be the Parthenon or any bank. But in Budapest, there was nothing that I automatically wanted to see; aside from some Hungarian pastry, of course. If it’s this good in America, it’s got to be awesome in Hungary.

Google told us to spend a day looking at the old churches for their architecture. But after a few hours of flying buttresses, we will surely have enough. I can’t imagine two Jews spending more than a day staring at crosses and virgins. I could do that in any catholic school in New York.

So we looked up some Jewish sights, and we will be visiting the Jewish quarter, a kosher pizza place, and a rather large synagogue. But like any Jewish trip, it also involves a Holocaust memorial.

I have seen several Holocaust memorials and museums around America (and now Israel). They are always very somber, and a stark reminder of the terrible things Jewish people went through while most of the world turned their backs. But I am particularly apprehensive about visiting a Holocaust memorial in Hungary, where the Holocaust actually happened. I assume it will have a deeper impact than a memorial in Washington DC.

My other reminder of Europe’s history is the Austrian leg of our trip. My great grandfather immigrated to the US from Austria over a hundred years ago. He came from a small town named Yashinitza, and I wanted to see if it was close enough to Vienna to visit. I tried running a Google search  and came up with nothing. It’d be easy for me to spell it wrong, so I tried several variations and still nothing. When even Google can’t tell what you’re searching for, odds are you’re spelling it REALLY wrong.

I called my father and asked him where the town was. He told me the one thing I hadn’t known about my great grandfather’s immigration: his town no longer exists.

Yashinitza was one of the towns completely destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. And while I don’t know what stands in its place today, I do know it doesn’t involve a town full of my cousins.

I know that my fear of anti-Semitism is both grounded in reality and blown out of proportion. So I left my kipah in my bag, hoping that I will be welcomed by various Hungarians and Austrians, most of whom were born many years after the Holocaust.

And if I am not, well, I will deal with it. If I can’t stand up to a simple anti-Semitic customs agent, I wouldn’t be doing a very good job honoring my great grandfather’s town. However you spell it.

Steve Hofstetter is an internationally touring comedian who has been seen on VH1, ESPN, and Comedy Central®, but you’re more likely to have seen him on the last Barbara Walters Special.

*Comedy Central is a registered trademark of Comedy Partners, a wholly-owned division of Viacom Inc.’s MTV Networks.

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2 Comments »

  • ary frenkiel says:

    go to berlin – if and when u decide to do so,please contact me – i’ll hook u up. btw, try contacting a site called: allgenerations.org – maybe they can help re. your ancestors’ town. best regards

  • Andrew says:

    The pastry you want is sold in Gerboud in Vorosmarty Square. For a meal, go to Gundel. Gellert Bath — go in, get lost in the labyrinth of thermal pools, swimming pools, baroque statues of very naked women. Don’t breathe often if you have any feelings for your lungs.

    Basically walking the downtown in Budapest is fun, for the architecture is reminiscent of Paris. (But then why go the extra mile from NY to BP? one might ask. Just get off in Paris.) (No pun intended.) But what BP has which Paris don’t is the hills, the imposing vista of the Castle Hill. The most beautiful sight in this world is to go to the Gellert Mountain, to the Citadella, and NOT look toward Pest, over the heads of 2000 Chinese tourists, but to go to the north side, before the entrance, and look at the Buda Hills, incl. the Castle. (Again.)

    All this can be easily done in two or three days. Compare the trip to Disneyworld by the Feugenbaums, who got separated from Granny by accident and a park worker called Stanley had to ask each alzheimerish-looking lady, “Mrs. Lebenstein? I presume.”, and the family was reunited five days before the tenth anniversary of the park’s official exansion (Anschluss) to the south.

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