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Jüdisches Budapest: Kulturelle Topographien einer Stadtgemeinde im 19. Jahrhundert, by Julia Richers . Köln, Weimar, Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 2009.  Series: Lebenswelten osteuropäischer Juden.  424 pp.  €54.90.


The multiethnic, albeit increasingly Hungarian metropolis of Budapest, which was administratively unified only in 1873, was home to one of the largest and fastest-growing Jewish communities in nineteenth-century Europe. Still, local scholars have tended to approach its history in modern times mostly through the contested question of assimilation, while internationally it has arguably never received the attention its general importance and special features would merit. Jüdisches Budapest, based on Julia Richers’ dissertation written at the University of Basel and inquiring, above all, into the life world of the significant Jewish community of Pest, therefore deserves attention in both national and international scholarship.

The book tackles matters of everyday life, processes of identification and dynamically evolving interactions, as well as the context-dependent nature of tolerance and the salience of exclusionary practices in a microhistorical perspective. The work also shows Richers’ indebtedness to tenets of the “spatial turn” through recurrent emphasis on the relevance of urban space. Jüdisches Budapest consists of a row of sensitively selected case studies indicative of larger processes even though, as Richers warns her readers, these cases should not be viewed as representative. There are admittedly still too many understudied aspects, and thus the writing of a synthetic monograph on Budapest Jewry would be a premature undertaking.

Jüdisches Budapest nevertheless manages to cover rich ground. After theoretical, methodological and historiographical introductions that, in accordance with the language of publication, draw mostly on German scholarly literature, Richers launches into a rather general discussion of relevant Hungarian political developments and urban and demographic processes, and then proceeds to the story of the founding (the Jewish community of Pest was recognized no earlier than 1833) and growth of the local community. Richers also addresses the level of perceptions and ascriptions, sketching some cultural topographies of the city.

In the second large empirical part of the book, she focuses more closely on the two “Jewish quarters” of Pest, Terézváros, where the majority of Jews lived but which did not nearly amount to a segregated space, and Lipótváros, where the Jewish elite, the “community oligarchy” which constituted a significant part of the economic elite of Hungary, tended to reside. Richers closes the empirical part of the book with original analyses of three equally significant but rather different Jewish self-help organizations, the Hungarian Israelite Handicraft and Agricultural Association, the Magyarization Society, and the Association of Israelite Women of Pest. Her research into the history of the German-dominated Pest guilds that launched a veritable offensive against the inclusion of Jews in the 1840s adds substantially to our knowledge of the epoch. It shows that behind the expressed fear of competition massive anti-Jewish prejudices could be detected. This part goes a long way to explain the outbreak of anti-Jewish violence in the spring of 1848, which is, even if Richers’ assessment of 1848–49 seems somewhat overly indebted to that of a participant, Ignaz Einhorn, one of the major contributions of the book (pp. 277–80). Her research into the history of the Association of Israelite Women of Pest not only highlights the previously often underestimated role of women, but shows how this institution established itself as a major welfare organization and managed to continue Jewish traditions while helping interconfessional integration.

The book as a whole aims at a fine balancing between various Jewish groups. One of its greatest strengths is that Richers not only talks of the negotiated, liminal identity of Jews in these transitory times in the abstract but recurrently highlights their inner diversity. In other words, Jüdisches Budapest is no synthetic volume but it does offer an inclusive, pluralistic history, featuring leading male and female individuals as well as the richest and the poorest strata in nearly equal measure, even if the otherwise centrally important and increasingly bitter conflict between Neolog and Orthodox Jews receives no extended treatment—others, most eminently Jacob Katz, have already written rather extensively on this topic. The book presents many newly uncovered empirical details on the pre-1867, pre-emancipation period, even if the recurrent emphasis of Richers on the novel nature of some of her findings ought to be complemented by admission that much of what the book offers could already be known from the multiauthored volume Jewish Budapest, among others.

At the same time, Richers aims to offer theoretically well-informed reinterpretations on some key questions in the history of the Pest Jewish community. One of her main targets is the notion of Hungarian-Jewish symbiosis which she calls “an apologetic myth” rather prevalent in scholarly works too (p. 208). She talks instead of “semi-peaceful coexistence” and the “rarity of shared activities” (pp. 341–42). While the general assertion might well be correct, in my assessment the book does not always manage to provide a differentiated enough picture of Christian society. While it displays ample awareness that the worst experiences Jews made in Hungary around this time often had to do with local German urbanites, it does not discuss the complex relations between the Hungarian national movement and the Jews of Hungary in any greater depth (p. 339). Instead of narrating a success story, Jüdisches Budapest focuses on major disappointments. This makes certain developments rather difficult to explain, for instance the “proud” and “courageous” building of the massive Dohány street synagogue in the late 1850s hardly follows logically from the stories we read (p. 233). On the other hand, her critique of the almost exclusive focus on Jewish Magyarization is well-grounded: Richers rightly points to the multilinguality of many Jews and the complexity of their identifications as well as the inability of the notion of Magyarization to capture the character of interactions between Jews and others.

In sum, Jüdisches Budapest is a thoroughly researched scholarly work that offers a row of solid case studies. At the same time, the application of lessons from the “spatial turn” does not seem to yield radically novel results. In fact, what Jüdisches Budapest offers is not a history of the built city or the lived city. The focus is much more, and much more conventionally, on the story of its inhabitants. The book also sadly lacks comparative reflections, the placing of Budapest Jewry on the map of nineteenth-century Europe. These critical points notwithstanding, Jüdisches Budapest is an important scholarly contribution with theoretical points worth considering and empirical findings not to be overlooked.

Ferenc Laczó

Imre Kertész Kolleg, FSU Jena