The tour of the Jewish Quarter was an optional one, that is, available for an additional fee. There was no question that HL, Miri and I would pay it to see the second largest synagogue in the world. Paige had purchased a ticket, but elected to walk around Budapest by herself that morning. Half of the other passengers went to the Jewish Quarter, though there was only a handful of Jews on the cruise. Our two buses parked as near as was practicable to the restored Dohany Synagogue. The streets in the old neighborhood were too cramped for such unwieldy vehicles.
Before the Second World War, Budapest's prosperous Jewish community supported more than twenty synagogues, Jewish schools, newspapers, hospitals, and other institutions. Though it was decimated by the Nazis and the local fascist militia, the Jewish population of Budapest is between 80,000 and 100,000 today. Hungary has by far the largest number of Jews in Eastern Europe, and they are concentrated in the capital. The majority of Budapest's pre-war Jews, like their peers in Vienna and Berlin, were progressive. Most had abandoned Orthodox Judaism in favor of the more liberal Neolog denomination. The magnificent Dohany Synagogue has a Neolog congregation. Even the Neolog practices are much stricter than those of Reform or Conservative Jews in North America, as women are segregated from men during Neolog services.
The synagogues in Budapest are known by the names of their streets instead of their congregations. We were led from the bus by our local guide, a petite, well-groomed woman of middle age who trotted ahead of us in her patent leather pumps. East European women of all ages love their fancy shoes. During the Communist era, sporting frivolous footwear was a symbolic act of resistance against drab Soviet uniformity.
The Great Synagogue, as it is known, was in the former ghetto. Once a thriving, populous district, the ghetto full of apartment houses and shops remained deserted until very recently. Young entrepreneurs have opened bars and nightclubs in the derelict spaces, and furnished them with discarded items. These underground establishments, known as "ruin bars", are patronized mostly by Jews, who do not reside near these clubs. Dohany Street was so narrow and crowded with tourists that we could not back up far enough to get a full view of its Moorish facade, striped in white and terracotta, and crowned with two towers that resembled minarets.