Budapest Chanukah rolls onto the ice rink


BUDAPEST —The 150-year-old outdoor ice skating rink in this city’s center is the largest in Central Europe, stretching across 3.5 acres. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come for the Christmas market, the winter festival, and the promise of smooth ice and affordable skate rentals.

On the first night of Chanukah, however, the rink is populated with hundreds of Jews who sing Chanukah songs as they watch rabbis on skates light a large menorah built by EMIH, the local branch of the Chabad. With help from a donor, they rent the rink for $12,000 and distribute sufganiyot and tea to holiday revelers.

The City Park Chanukah celebration started just over a decade ago, and it is unusual in that it’s one of just a few places in Europe where the North American “Chanukah on ice” tradition has taken root. It’s also part of a broader “coming out” of Jewish communities in the former communist bloc, where after years of practicing their religion underground, Jews are now celebrating Chanukah in very public ways.

“Chanukah used to be low key in Budapest, as was everything else connected to Judaism during socialism,” said Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, one of the early organizers of Budapest’s Chanukah on ice tradition. Back then, Jews feared that practicing any religion — and Judaism especially — invited persecution.

Unaware or ashamed of their Jewish identity, countless Jews in that part of the world assimilated, distanced themselves from Judaism and produced children that no longer regarded themselves as Jewish.

Against this background, Chanukah has a special significance in the post-communist world, said Oberlander, a Brooklyn-born rabbi who settled in Budapest 28 years ago as an emissary of Chabad.

Oberlander isn’t just referring to public events at ice skating rinks — there’s also the longstanding practice of placing Chanukah menorahs on the windowsill, specifically for all to see. “Meaning, don’t be low key!” he told JTA.

Oberlander, 53, does not skate himself, he said, explaining he’s “not very good at it.” But in his community, the event is one of the most popular because of how it combines seasonal amenities, sports and religious ceremony in a fun, family-friendly setting.

His interpretation of how Jews should celebrate Chanukah is shared by many rabbis all over the world — Chabad rabbis, in particular — who stage large, public menorah lightings in central squares of major cities. New York, for example, boasts two such massive events: The Grand Army Plazas in both Manhattan and Brooklyn have been in competition over which holds the title of World’s Largest Menorah.

Such displays inspired Jews to think big in Western Europe, ending decades in which communities traumatized by the Holocaust had shunned initiatives that advertise Judaism.

Since 2013 in the Netherlands, for example, the chief rabbi has been lifted in a crane (along with the Israeli ambassador) to light the first candle of a 36-foot menorah built for the Jewish community by Christian Zionists who say it is Europe’s largest. In Berlin, a giant menorah is lit at the Brandenburg Gate monument.

Like the massive menorah lightings, Europe’s growing Chanukah on ice trend — which this year can be observed in Budapest, Moscow and London — also started in the United States, where it is occurring this year in locations from Wollman Rink in Central Park, to Houston to San Mateo, California.

In Moscow, the popular Chanukah on ice event, which began in 2012, is eclipsed by what may well be the largest celebration of Chanukah in Europe: the annual gathering of 6,000 Jews at the State Kremlin Palace for an evening of dance and performances, as well as the bestowing of awards to communal VIPs. Organizers say the venue is important to them for symbolic reasons because it produced some of the world’s worst anti-Semitic policies after the fall of Nazi Germany.

In Budapest, the city’s summertime Jewish cultural festival is also an example of Jews reclaiming their place in society. Judafest, which was held for the tenth consecutive year, draws thousands of Jews and non-Jews to the historically Jewish 7th district for sessions, activities and exhibitions connected to Jewish cooking, dancing and Yiddish.

But there’s something special about the Chanukah on ice event, which is held at an iconic location with strong ties to the holiday period for all Hungarians.

“I think it indicates a generational difference in which young people our age don’t think twice about participating in an event that celebrates, publicly, our Jewish identity,” Eszter Fabriczki, 30, a regular at the event, told JTA. “Holocaust survivors passed the fear element to their children, but not to their grandchildren.”

Against this background, Fabriczki said her father “is freaking out over my wanting to give my son a circumcision, if I have a son, because then he could be identified as Jewish.” She has no children, adding: “I have no thoughts of this kind, living a pretty comfortable Jewish life.”

Despite the generational gap it exposes, Fabriczki said she and her mother have bonded over the City Park Ice Rink Chanukah event.

“I’m quite religious but my mother is not, so the Chanukah on ice event is something we can share because she likes to ice skate and it’s important for me to observe all the Jewish holidays,” Fabriczki said.

But for 16-year-old Sara Szalai, Budapest’s Chanukah on ice means quality time with her dad, Kalman, who is the managing director of the Jewish community’s Action and Protection Foundation — the local equivalent of the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors anti-Semitic incidents.

Neither are particularly concerned, she said, about self-identifying as Jews at the event.

“Maybe there are people who think this way, but for us it’s not a big issue,” said Szalai, who added that she’s a “pretty good” skater.

“It’s usually pretty crowded there, so it’s a rare opportunity to really skate properly on Chanukah without worrying about bumping into people,” she said.

The event typically unites Jews across the religious-secular divide. In Hungary’s fractious Jewish community — where interdenominational tensions are rising amid polarizing policies undertaken by the nationalist government — the Chanukah on ice event offers a rare armistice in which the secular, religious, local and Israeli Jews put aside their differences for a night of fun.

It’s also, Fabriczki noted, “a chance to see rabbis on skates.”