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Hungarian Suicide Song Redux

Hungary is the anti-Israel to the extent that objective measurement can tell. In my book How Civilizations Die, I construct a rough-and-ready index of life preference, namely fertility vs. suicide rates. People who like babies generally like life, and people who kill themselves don't. With the highest birth rate (at 3 per female) and just about the lowest suicide rate in the world, Israel is off the charts on the happy side. Hungary is off the charts on the sad side, with competition from no one but Lithuania.

Between 100,000 and 200,000 Jews still live in Hungary (it's hard to tell how many because few identify openly as Jews). Jewish tourism is still an enormous business, with busloads of visitors converging on the main synagogue with its Holocaust memorial. Large numbers of Jews were martyred there, and it is hard to stand in its courtyard with dry eyes. If Jewish life were to disappear entirely in Hungary, the loss would be irreparable, for the remnant of the observant community cooks like no other Jews in the world. The most important thing a Jewish visitor can do in Budapest is to eat what we elsewhere call gefilte fish, but locally is called Stuffed Carp: a whole fish with bones removed, with a filling of ground fish and spices surrounded by the carp's own meat, accompanied by a sweet-and-sharp sauce (horseradish and fruit compote) unique to Hungarian cuisine -- unlike the insipid, pallid lumps of gefilte fish consumed by Jews elsewhere.

Hungary's gefilte fish stands as the last living memorial to one of the most talented communities the world has ever known. Hungarian Jews included seven of Hungary's ten Nobel Prize winners, physicists like Von Neumann, Teller, Szilard, and von Karman, conductors like Solti, Szell, Kertesz, and Reiner, and a host of other cultural and scientific giants. This magnificent community, which made Hungary a world leader in intellect during its brief flourishing, no longer can be seen nor heard; it only can be tasted. Judaism is a religion of the body, explains the great Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod (his mother tongue is Hungarian although he was born in Berlin), and it seems fitting that extraordinary kosher food is the last remnant of Jewish life in Hungary.