11:52 pm CET
Today was another long, rewarding day. I woke up early and bought a tasty pastry for breakfast, just before catching the number six tram to the university. We had our language class again and learned some more useful stuff, like how to say where you're from and what language you speak. We'll be starting numbers on Monday, which will be incredibly helpful. That way we won't have to keep asking for our room keys with our fingers.
After class I jumped on the number four tram into Pest with the Carleton girls. We walked around a bit, but then I split from the three of them so I could go find the Dohány Street Synagogue. I walked a while on my own, feeling strangely confident, and bought some lunch on the way. I found Dohány Street without much trouble, and when I turned onto it I was met suddenly with the synagogue. I'm not joking when I say it exploded into view; I had not been expecting it to be right on the corner, so I had kept my head down, paying attention to where I was going rather than to the scenes before me. I glanced up and there it was, and it was just as gorgeous as I had imagined it would be. It looks almost like a mosque; its arabesque towers and arches mixing seamlessly with spanish colour and flavour. But that slight peculiarity only adds to its mystique, I think, and I stood (quite awkwardly) across the street just marvelling at this work of art for several minutes before actually making my way toward it.
I wandered around the outside first, checking with the man working at the aptly-named "JewInform" booth what time Rosh Hashanah services begin on Wednesday evening (7:00). I passed the guard at the front gate and continued through the metal detector, which really brought home the threat some jewish communities still face in many places around the world. The man running the detector spoke good english, and he seemed either amused or surprised when I told him I was American. He checked my backpack with my assistance and let me through without any issue. Joining a tour was a little on the expensive side, so I decided to walk around the synagogue myself. An outdoor corridor runs between the chained off cemetery and the western wall of the main building, and I took it to the courtyard that makes up the back of the synagogue. There was a yahrzeit wall covered in the names of people who have passed, tiny stones placed in any open space. A wall of stained glass rose from the center of the courtyard and adjacent to it was a steel sculpture of a weeping willow. Called the Tree of Life, it rests on a huge block of red granite, and each steel leaf is engraved with the name of someone who died when the Holocaust made its way into Hungary. At its base is a small granite plaque with a single word: emlékezzünk. It means "remember," and I am fairly certain that this is an experience I will not soon forget.
After taking in the solemn beauty of the sculpture, I returned to the front of the building and entered the main sanctuary. If I thought my mind couldn't have been blown more, I was certainly wrong. The inside was just as sublime as the outside, and I felt a rush of adrenaline when I remembered that I'd be participating in the New Year in that very room in less than a week's time. There were stained glass windows everywhere, and they cast their colourful shadows onto the rest of the sanctuary. I let my eyes wander from the breathtaking ark and eternal flame to the ceiling, where the afternoon sun streamed through stained glass skylights, filling the room with a soft, golden glow. The Budapest Jewish Summer Festival is currently taking place, so a klezmer band was practising on the bima. I listened to them play for around half an hour as I fiddled with my miniature tripod. On my way out I couldn't resist taking a look at the little souvenir shop near the entrance, and--being the utter jewelry freak that I am--I purchased a lovely silver and turquoise chamsa to put on my necklace. As I walk, it clinks merrily against the black pearl I always wear, and the sound makes me a little happier with every step. I am so excited that I went today, and even more excited that I will be going back for High Holidays. I felt this sense of immediate connection, and nothing meant more than being told I was welcome there.
After leaving the synagogue I walked a bit more till I found the number 47 tram that I could take back home. Once in the dorm, I took the rest of the day for relaxing. Tomorrow morning we have to go to the immigration office to procure our residency permits. This means waking up early and enduring an hour and a half commute just to get there; who knows how long the actual process will take for all thirteen of us Americans.
All I know is that it will not be a fun experience. Not. At. All.