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[Pages 210 - 211]

The Zion Temple Centennial

By: Dezso Schon

The sight is fascinating. I'm standing in the morning sunlight on the bridge over the River Cris, and as I absorb the dome topped by the Star of David, for a moment the view takes away my breath. I have in front of me the silent witness of the once bubbly Jewish life - the Oradea Zion Temple - Chief Rabbi Dr. Kecskemeti's orphaned, saint abode. It's schizophrenia, pure schizophrenia, I tell myself. Have you forgotten the freight trains of Rulikovszki Way ? Have you forgotten Auschwitz? It is true that by some miracle, remarkable odd chance, this home survived; but its soul is missing - the assembling congregants for the religious services, the holiday spirit. Even though I remember everything, as I stand on the bridge, the view overwhelms me and I can't escape from it.

The Zion Temple… I have pondered for a long time trying to figure out why did the founders choose this name. Particularly at the time when the clergy of the Reform Movement censored from prayer books and their own hearts the names of Zion and Jerusalem. I lean toward the assumption that the name was intended as an affirmation of faith… And also something more: perhaps it was in this fashion that they wanted to appease the people - we do not wish, by far , to depart from our Jewish roots; our prayers and our true hope for salvation continue to soar toward Zion… We only wish to modernize the religious services. Using a contemporary word, we want a first rate, worldly synagogue.

I am reading from yellowed documents that at the time - exactly one hundred years ago - a generous Jew by the name of Jeromos Weinberger lived in Oradea and started a movement to build a modern synagogue. These were some of the names and the sums pledged on the first list of contributors: Abraham Schwartz 5000 Forints, Lipot Brull 5000 Forints, Albert Farkas 2000 Forints, Jeromos Weinberger 1000 Forints. In the meantime, they were selling lifetime synagogue seats and they also obtained a sizable bank loan. Then, they commissioned Chief City Engineer David Busch, who prepared the artistic layout of the monumental temple, modeling it after the Nuremberg Synagogue. The construction work was undertaken by architect Kalman Rimanoczy, Sr. The formal consecration took place two years later.

Even though subconsciously, I notice that I draw a parallel between Oradea and Israel. Why isn't there in Israel not even one temple that could compete in size and artistic accomplishment with the Oradea Zion Temple? A hundred years ago, the Oradea Neology was but a small dissident community and finding the money for the tremendous expenses must have caused great worries. But the construction of the synagogue was an important issue and they gave generously.

As I think, I realize that in this respect, the Israelis lack generosity, self-sacrifice. There are millionaires in great numbers here, but there are no patrons of the arts. They make no serious donations for building synagogues or other public structures.

The tram still jingles on the former Kossuth Lajos Street (presently Calea Independentei). According to professionals, that is the reason for the cracks in the walls of the Zion Temple. The complete restoration would require at least one million leis. But from where would the money come for such purpose? Anyway - for whom? What for?

The Zion Temple is open only once a week, on Friday nights. If all goes well, about 30-40 people gather. The fact that the synagogue is opened at all is due to the obstinate efforts of Endre (Ocsi) Jungreisz. He himself, the child of a well respected orthodox family, as a youngster would never set foot in the Zion Temple.

It is generally known that the Zion Temple is linked to the name of Chief Rabbi Dr. Lipot Kecskemeti. His predecessors were lost in the foggy past, his successor - Dr. Istvan Vajda - occupied the rabbinical chair only for a short period, as his activities were ended by the Holocaust.

Dr. Kecskemeti was one of the best Hungarian religious speakers and as a preacher, he was recognized beyond the country's borders. He created a new Hungarian language for himself and his expressions were only matched by the best linguists. Characteristics of his linguistic skills included the use of blindingly rich imagery, promoting adjectives to expressive nouns, changing meaningless words into vitally explosive ones. In summary: one thought in one sentence; one fate in one paragraph; the endless life and everything.

Every sermon he delivered was bedazzled by the brilliant fireworks of art and esthetics. In each religious discourse, he stirred, recruited members, and provided the backbone and cross-section of the moral, ideological and cultural image for a great religious community.

Although in Oradea the religious dissent was exquisite (Jews would not even compromise on the cemetery), Dr. Lipot Kecskemeti was well respected even by the Orthodox community. Everyone regarded the good hearted, knowledgeable and devotedly surrounded by his congregants Chief Rabbi, with exceptional respect.

An ocean divided Dr. Lipot Kecskemeti in his ideology and political views from the Zionist camp. The dissent was particularly deep and striking during the first years of theTransylvanian Jewish movement. Dr. Kecskemeti was proclaiming and fighting for the Jewish ideals of an era where the future of the Jewry was to materialize not through national rebirth, but rather by immersion with other nationalities and the achievement of a spiritual religious mission. He believed in this mission and his fight for it was fueled by the arsenal of his enormous talent, the convincing argument of a scientist and the fervent words of the poet.

The Uj Kelet publication of Cluj has confronted him several times in this fight. But this newspaper never knew a more honorable opponent. For even though Dr. Kecskemeti was the opposition, he was not only respected, but loved; loved, because his every word, argument and movement were penetrated by his passionate love for the Jewish people.

In the past one hundred years, the Zion Temple has been consecrated three times. First, when it was finished; the second time, after liberation, in 1945. The third time, in 1954. During the last five years of the Stalinist regime, between 1949 and 1954, the synagogue was closed; those who would have attended, dared not set foot in a temple. In 1954, when a (political) “thawing” occurred, there was a woman, the wife of Dr. Andor Kecskemeti, Sari, who became adamant about opening up the temple at any price. Dr. Imre Kovacs, son of Mrs. Kecskemeti and presently a surgeon in Tel Aviv, has this to say regarding her action:

- My late mother went from house to house, mostly in the evening hours. She visited some of the well known communists too and told them what she had in mind. Everyone was willing to contribute money, but on condition that no one else finds out…

- While the temple was closed off, some of the large window panes were broken. Pigeons and wild birds built their nests inside. Years later, when they opened the doors, mounts of guano were found. Typically, the Oradea gardeners cleaned up the synagogue in exchange for the guano…

- The inaugurative service was announced for Rosh Hashanah. There was a cantor and the choir was prepared in a great hurry. When the organ player started playing, the whistles blew out only dust clouds. The Zion Temple's famous organ huffed and puffed for hours until it was ready to emit musical sounds…

The wrought iron gate of the Zion Temple locked, one has to ring the bell for some time until the caretaker walks out shuffling. At my request, he opens the door to the synagogue and brings to my attention the memorial plaques on the surrounding walls. In the changing room to the left of the Ark, my attention is drawn to a n old carton box, all ragged , filled with dirt and pieces of old paper. Instinctively, I pick a piece of yellowed paper from the box - a religious sermon, delivered by Dr. Lipot Kecskemeti on Yom Kippur 1906. The leaders of the community had it printed as they did with numerous other sermons and published it in a bonded notebook.

The title reads: The Martyrdom of Israel. Bialik comes to mind and the poetry cycle entitled “Songs of Wrath”, which was also born following the Russian pogroms, and which represented more than mere poetic creativity: because after having shaken to the depth the Russian Jewry, it also started a process of fomentation which lead to the creation of the Jewish self defense formations.

I am reading in the notebook:

“We recall the martyrs. God will see to it that the suffering of the martyrs and their deaths do not become ancient stories in Israel. There have hardly been any (Jewish) clothes that were not worn by martyrs… God, when will this end? Perhaps you want to wait until the heavens will overfill with Jewish martyrs?

Then a little further:

“Dear God, is your compassion asleep? Always new, and yet again newer martyrs. True Jewish martyrs: poor, passive martyrs, who did not even provoke their deaths. True Jewish martyrs: hardly martyrs actually, but rather pitiable victims, whose deaths were not claimed even by their murderers as punishment. True Jewish martyrs: who even in their deaths are unlucky; the moral superiority in their deaths is oppressed by the disgusting horrible sight. True Jewish martyrs: those whose fate was not characterized by saintly fanaticism and One God consecration, but rather by sin and human brutality… We tremble as we're thinking of them; not in fear, but because they were so strong. We don't know their names and perhaps history will not even record them; however, as the Jewish soul will sigh while saying the names of such towns as Kisinev, Homel, Sitomir, Odessa, Bjelostok, Sziedlec - the sigh will not be for them personally, but for all the Jews. Don't be offended, our martyrs, life will forget you - but you Only God, you will always remain in our hearts.”

Well, already in 1906 the sighs were meant for all the Jews… As if Dr. Kecskemeti had a premonition that only a few years after his own death, his modest rabbinical abode on Szacsvay Street will be part of the ghetto and his own flock will be on the list of true Jewish martyrs…

In the afternoon we went to the Rulikovszki cemetery, where he rests under a headstone shaped as an open Torah scroll. The Hebrew inscription eulogizes the great Rabbi, Jehuda Halevi Kecskemeti, the real human being, the pride and crown of generations. On the back of the headstone, there is the following text in Hungarian: Dr. Kecskemeti Lipot - 1865-1937 - great Rabbi of his community, proclaimed the word of God, his memory shall live forever.

Then, his own prepared epitaph follows:

I taught, I wrote; I married, I buried; I preached for the Jewry, for the real man in the synagogue - not often, but a great deal; I begged for some, for the community, from house to house - not much, but often… I got tired with the words…But my prayers continue even now, into eternity: Bless dear God, bless my community.”

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