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New Commitments in Ancient Eger

Aryeh Ehrlich, Hungary

Rabbi David Keleti was an accomplished maggid shiur in Israel when he discovered he had another mission. A native of Hungary and fluent in its language, he left his family behind and set off to sustain the trickle of Jews whose identities were reemerging from decades of persecution and neglect. Would he succeed? We spent a Shabbos there to find out.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The cannons no longer blast from atop Dobo Square. In fact, this historic plaza has just undergone a dramatic 21st-century facelift. But as I stand here, at the foot of the ancient fort of Eger — a 500-year-old castle and monument to patriotic heroism in Hungary — I can almost hear the desperate cannon fire in our imaginations. The fortress has known regional wars, bloody battles, and passionate revolutions, although now the artillery barrels stand empty, dusty, and abandoned. A bit like the Jewish community that once thrived here. Eger — known as Erloi by the Jews (spelled Erlau by the Germans) — is famous for its ancient battles, but also for its hot springs and world-class wines, about which Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said that anyone who tastes Hungarian wine can never go back to the taste of other wine. There is no kosher Hungarian wine, though; during my Shabbos in Eger, I made Kiddush on American grape juice. Ancient Eger, contested by the Turks and then the Habsburgs, always seemed to bounce back from calamity. In 1800, a fire broke out and consumed half the city; in 1827, another fire destroyed the city center; and four years later, hundreds of residents died in a cholera epidemic. But it never recovered from the horror of 1944, when the Jews of the city were rounded up into a brick factory, loaded into cattle cars, and shipped off to Auschwitz. Few survived the Holocaust and even fewer found their way back to their hometown, although one prominent survivor from Eger is the Rebbe of Erloi, Rav Yochanan Sofer, who returned to the town with a handful of students and reestablished a yeshivah before moving to Eretz Yisrael in 1950. Today, just a few dozen Jews are left — but that didn’t stop Rabbi David Keleti from renting out one of the tourist hotels at the foot of the castle for a weekend of Jewish inspiration. And that’s how I wound up getting dragged into a circle with Benche and his friend Binyamin Zev — a former Neolog and passionate baal teshuvah — as they do a little jig on a street corner to a song that emerges almost instinctively.

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