The Dohany Great Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary. Simply Marvelous!
I am really happy that sometimes my full-time job sends me to awesome places. A while ago I took part in a conference for teachers run by Centropa. It took place in Budapest where I had never been before. Together with my fellow colleague sharing the trip, we went a day early to wander through the fascinating streets of Hungary’s capital. I was in awe of the architectural beauty of the city. But the best came from the guided tour of the Jewish district. The main point of this tour was a visit to the Dohany Great Synagogue – the biggest synagogue in Europe and second biggest in the world.
Now, I’ve seen many synagogues in my life. I’ve been to old and new ones, prayed in some tiny shuls and huge American temples. But this one… this one is something else! Its uniqueness lies not only in its size but some unprecedented architectural choices. You can learn a lot about the local Jewish community by observing its praying houses – you can see their wealth (or lack thereof), affiliation, praying styles or influences of the local culture.
The history of the Dohany Great Synagogue in Budapest
The name of the synagogue comes from the street it’s located at. It is also called the Great or the Main Synagogue. In Hebrew, it is called בית הכנסת הגדול של בודפשט, which simply means the Great Synagogue of Budapest. It is also sometimes called the Tabakgasse synagogue, or Tabak Shul, as „Dohany” means tobacco in Hungarian.
The Dohany Great Synagogue was built between the years 1854 and 1859 in the popular then, Moorish Revival style. You can see more synagogues built in this style around Europe. One of the most beautiful examples is the Temple Synagogue in Kraków, Poland and the Jubilee (Spanish) Synagogue in Prague.
At the time, Jewish architects decided there was no “Jewish style” and the closest to the original style would be the architecture of Ottoman Empire and Moorish style of Jewish Spain. They were inspired by the Islamic art and architecture and used a lot of the distinct detailing you can see in the Arab world.
The architect of the Dohany Great Synagogue was Ludwig Förster, fascinated by the Moorish influences. The building was severely damaged during the war and renovated in the ‘90s, mostly thanks to the Hungarian Amerian Jew - Estee Lauder and her son, Ronald S. Lauder.
The exterior of the Dohany Great Synagogue
The moment you enter the Dohany street, the building captures your attention. It’s huge and does not try to hide. This alone can say tons of the position of pre-war Jewry in Budapest. The building is beautiful, strong and proud. Right away you can see the towers topped by onion-shaped domes, a clear sign of the Oriental influence. If you look closer, you notice many ornamental details in geometrical shapes. The towers themselves are octagonal.
If you look carefully, you can see a very typical decoration of Jewish prayer houses – stone tables with the Ten Commandments. There is also an inscription in Hebrew, meaning, And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25,8).
The Synagogue is, in reality, a complex made of the Great Synagogue, the Heroes’ Temple, the graveyard, the Memorial and the Jewish Museum, which, interestingly, was built on the site of the birth house of Theodor Herzl – the Father of modern State of Israel.
The interior of the Dohany Great Synagogue
When you enter you are welcomed to an amazing view. The sheer size of this place makes your jaw drop. The Dohany Great Synagogue can sit about 3 thousand people and another 2 thousand can hold standing places.
You might also be confused for a moment – the interior looks more like a Christian basilica than a Jewish prayer house. Anyone used to the traditional setup of synagogues will be surprised. Similarly, many Orthodox Jews of the old times refused to pray in this synagogue because of the nontraditional architecture.
The Jewish community of Hungary at the late 19th century saw the birth of the Neolog movement – a unique Hungarian version of Reform Judaism. It should not be confused with modern Reform Judaism as can be witnessed in the US – we could call it a “soft” Reform or slightly reformed Orthodox Judaism.
Hungarian Jews were fiercely patriotic and you can see old photos were front rows in the synagogue were filled with Jewish officers of the Hungarian army. They chose to speak Hungarian (instead of Yiddish) and be engaged in the secular life of their country.
So what is so different at the Dohany Great Synagogue?
First of all, the place where people read the Torah Scroll (called bima) is usually in the center of the building. Sometimes it is moved a bit more to the front – in more modern synagogues. Here, the bima is at the very front, behind a “fence”, looking completely like an altar in a church.
Another controversial element is the organs. You can’t see organs in Orthodox synagogues because of the prohibition of using musical instruments on Shabbat.
One more unusual architectural detail is the, again, church-like, balcony (a pulpit) for a Rabbi to speak his sermons. You will never see such a thing in Jewish synagogues! I can only imagine the shock of more traditional Jews when they saw it for the first time.
The very rich decoration is also not that common. Typically, synagogues are often painted and covered with frescos. Most of the time they will present symbolic animals, floral shapes (mostly vines) and words of prayers. In the Dohany Great Synagogue, you can see influences of not only “Moorish” style but also great love for gold. There are no shortcuts around here!
There are also the traditional elements – men and women are sitting separately. You can see beautiful balconies reserved for female worshippers. On the Eastern wall, you can see Aron Hakodesh – the richly ornamented Holy Ark holding scrolls of the Torah. If you look up, you can see Ner Tamid – the eternal light, symbolizing the eternal light of menorahs in the Jerusalem Temple.
Beyond the Dohany Great Synagogue
As I mentioned earlier on, there is more to see in the complex of buildings:
Heroes Temple – a smaller synagogue built in 1931, where services on weekdays are held. It serves as a memorial to Hungarian Jews who died in the World War I, hence the name.
Jewish Cemetery – you will not see normally a cemetery right next to a synagogue (another such unusual example is the Remuh synagogue in Krakow). But during the WWII there was no other choice but to create one right here. Over two thousand people who died of hunger and diseases were buried on this make-shift cemetery. Today you can see a memorial sculpture by Imre Varga, in the shape of a weeping willow with the names and tattoo numbers on leaves of some of the Holocaust victims.
Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park – close to the sculpture by Imre Varga you can see a memorial to the Righteous Among the Nations, among them Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews.
How to get to the Dohany Great Synagogue:
Address: 1074 Budapest, Dohany utca 2. - take subway M1 (yellow) / M2 (red) / M3 (blue) to Deák tér station, then walk on Károly körút towards Astoria. - take subway M2, tram 47, 49 or bus 7, 78 to Astoria station, then walk on Károly körút towards Deák tér. - the Dohany Synagogue is at walking distance from the downtown hotels and the famous pedestrian shopping street called Váci utca.
From Sunday to Thursday:
January 2017 - 4 March 2017: 10 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
5 March 2017 - 29 April 2017: 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
30 April 2017 - September 2017: 10 a.m. - 7:30 p.m.
1 October 2017 - 28 October 2017: 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
29 October 2017 - December 2017: 10 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
January 2017 - 4 March 2017: 10 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.
5 March 2017 - 28 October 2017: 10 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
29 October 2017 - December 2017: 10 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.
Please remember, that the synagogue will be closed on all Jewish holidays – check ahead of time if your visit does not coincide with a Jewish holiday.
You can book a tour with the Synagogue’s guides to learn more about the history of the Hungarian Jewry and the details of the synagogue. The basic entrance fee with a tour costs 4000 HUF (about 14€) or 3000 HUF for students (about 10€).
Are you interested in Jewish history of Europe or cultural travel in general? You might like those posts, too:
- POLIN - the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw - voted the best museum in Europe!
- Okopowa Jewish Cemetary - take a walk through centuries of history steeped in symbolism.
- The New Jewish Cemetery in Prague - visit Franz Kafka's grave and admire the modern art of the tombstones collected there.