A Beautiful and Historic Ceremony

This last Shabbat, I had the honor of co-leading a Szim Salom service in which Dr. Gábor Iványi, the head of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship (a church of the Methodist confession), assumed a Hebrew name. As usual, I led all the sung parts of the service; Dr. Iványi and I shared the Torah reading, and he gave a dróse (sermon). Rabbi Kelemen led the spoken parts, officiated the name-giving ceremony, gave blessings, and set a joyous, soulful tone for the event.

As you can see from the photo, the room was full—and would have been much fuller if it hadn’t been for Covid restrictions. Others followed the service over Zoom. The congregation included regular Szim Salom members, members of the MET, members of Neolog synagogues, and others (including Catholics and Lutherans). This was remarkable, given that only two synagogues in all of Hungary (we and our sister congregation, Bét Orim) would have been able to do this at all. Because Dr. Iványi’s father was Jewish but not his mother, neither the Orthodox nor the Neolog communities would have recognized him as Jewish; he would have needed to convert. But members—including leaders—of the Neolog community were there.

His church is devoted to helping those in need. When we didn’t have a place to hold our services, they shared their space on Iskola utca in Buda with us. We would arrive on a Saturday morning just when they were finishing with a Bible study, so we would mingle in the intercrossing. We held services there for about nine months. Here’s a picture of me and the rabbi outside the building, back in March 2018. But that’s only a tiny fraction of their generosity.

As for Dr. Iványi’s decision to assume a Hebrew name (without discarding the name he has had all his life), this came out of years of research and introspection. When his father died in November 2009, a close friend in Israel asked permission to say kaddish for him, “because he was a Jewish soul, after all.” That gesture moved him profoundly; over time, he grew more resolute in his wish to acknowledge his Jewish heritage and identity, without denying or discarding his work as a Christian pastor.

I am proud that we were in a position to give him a ceremony. For at least three reasons, I feel that this was the right thing to do.

First, this will open up conversations and thoughts. Over the past few centuries, during those periods when Jews were allowed to settle in Hungary, many assimilated eagerly and considered themselves fully Hungarian. But Hungarian anti-Semitism—during the Shoah and at other times—took particularly cruel forms, so today many Hungarian Jews, and Hungarians with some Jewish ancestry, have buried their history, whether by choice or by default. Gábor Iványi’s gesture will give others courage to look at who they are and where they come from.

Second, I see it as an act of integrity. Identity is a complex matter; it cannot be reduced to one or two words. A person can be many things, many entities at once; our ceremony affirmed this. This was not an adult bar mitzvah; Dr. Iványi is not making a commitment to Jewish observance. Instead, he is recognizing who he is, who his family is, in full complexity. I sympathize, because while I am Jewish according to Jewish law and my own not-so-strict observance, I too am a mixture of things and know that many others are too. Instead of pushing ourselves to be just this or that, instead of letting others tell us who we are, we can live out the combinations.

Third, he and his congregation have been kind to us, so I am glad that we could do something for him and them too, something with this level of meaning and importance.

But why stop at three? There is more. This service and ceremony brought people together from different religions, different branches of a religion; and while there might have been some discomfort at moments, still we came together, and the joy overrode everything. There is more to this than I can see right now. It will unfold at its own pace.

Photo credit: Szim Salom Hitközség / Aradi Nóra.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

P.S. See Péter Árvai’s wonderful article about the ceremony.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this reflection. And sending a heartfelt mazel tov to Dr. Iványi and all the communities which benefit from his many contributions.

    Reply

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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