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Family Reunion

A Brooklyn writer, great-great-grandson of a revered Hasidic rebbe, travels to Hungary to see if he feels a connection to his iconic ancestor

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Dinner in Mako, Hungary. (Menachem Kaiser)

Last May I traveled, along with about 75 ultra-Orthodox, to Mako, Hungary, for the yahrzeit of my great-great-grandfather. Specifically, I’m referring to my mother’s father’s father’s father, Reb Moshe Vorhand, aka the Makove Rav (usually pronounced roov), a minor-league but well-respected Hasidic rebbe, who died in 1943.

It’s difficult to say exactly why I went. While I’m proud of the lineage, it’s mostly a harmless point of family trivia. I find even my immediate family’s mainstream brand of Orthodoxy foreign to me, never mind my extended family’s extreme observance. But my mother, who is always (but lovingly) on my religious case, has recently begun to invoke the Makove Rav in remarking upon my relative non-observance. (She went to the yahrzeit the year before I did and returned inspired.) I am, she tells me, letting him down. These exhortations are hard to take seriously. Who is this rabbi, and why should I care? Does it matter that I’m his descendant? When my mother offered to pay for a trip to Hungary, I agreed to go, if only to understand what I’m supposed to feel guilty about. This would be spiritually invested voyeurism.

Mako is in Hungary’s southeast corner, close to the Romanian border. It’s known, if at all, for its onions—some of the most arable land in the country is here—and as the birthplace of Joseph Pulitzer. Size-wise, it’s somewhere between a shtetl and a village: small enough that Reb Mechel, my cousin and the closest thing the yahrzeit weekend had to a host, didn’t feel the need to give directions or an address beyond “Mako.” I arrived on a Friday from Budapest, via a train and two buses, and stood clueless in the town square until I spotted a Hasid, whom I followed.

Only a block away, just past the refurbished synagogue, was an off-white, no-nonsense-looking building. Hasidim were scattered about, walking in little circles, talking on cell phones and smoking in the small parking lot, where a banner overhead referred to my forebear, in Yiddish, as “a great tzaddik … the miracle-worker of his generation.” This building was where everybody stayed—a Hasidic hostel. About 10 years ago, Reb Mechel had bought and thoroughly renovated a former egg factory so it could comfortably accommodate those making the annual pilgrimage to Mako. The building included two industrial kosher kitchens; a few dozen guestrooms, each with a bathroom offering a negel vasser kit (for ritual washing); a large main dining room, as well as a smaller women’s one; and at least one mikveh.

The men who arrived for the weekend (and a handful of their accompanying wives) were from all over—Austria, Israel, England, Belgium, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto—so the lingua franca was Yiddish. For me that meant halting conversation; the little Yiddish I know was learned in a college classroom, from a non-Jew. My pronunciation is hopeless. Many of the other attendees were related to me, though I couldn’t keep straight exactly how, and everybody I met wanted to know what I was doing there. I’d quickly mention my connection to the Makove Rav—aside from Reb Mechel, who’s a generation closer and has no mothers in the way of his connection to him, I had the most direct line, which garnered me instant credibility, even celebrity. People called me “der zun!” or “der ainekel!” (the son! or the grandson!) and when they did I suddenly felt very underdressed. At least I’d had the foresight to bring a white shirt.

***

The yahrzeit proper, when we were to visit the gravesite, was on Sunday, so Shabbat should have been a gentle spiritual warm-up.

Except that the current and very much living Makove Rav was also in Mako. Background, quickly: When my great-great-grandfather died in 1943, the vacant rebbe position went to his son-in-law, because his son could not travel from Nitra, in modern-day Slovakia, to Mako to take up the post. The current rebbe is that son-in-law’s son—my first cousin twice-removed, if I calculate correctly—and he lives in Kiryat Ata, Israel, near Haifa, and has hundreds of followers in his congregation there. This rebbe set the tone for the entire weekend. Our meals, in particular, were rebbe-dictated. We sang when he sang, we ate when he ate (and took a piece of his leftovers), and we hushed (or shushed others) when he held forth. He spoke in a low, mumbly Yiddish; the second his mouth opened, he was surrounded by a huddled mass, heads angled and ears cocked, competing to hear him.

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Tobias Engel says:

Thank you for living in more than one world, and being willing to wander back and forth, and share your story.

Scarlet Michaelson says:

Your story is an interesting one and you brought it to life with great details. Why, at the end of the piece, do I get the feeling that you’re just getting started?

rebecca says:

loved this article! i am also jewish hungarian and went there some years back looking for anyone of my family left in lasczuncs (spelling?) Hungary. Much to my dismay I couldnt find anyone. The language came naturally to me and the history, food, lifestyle made sense in my body and mind. I hope to go back soon! Thank you for the article!

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Family Reunion

A Brooklyn writer, great-great-grandson of a revered Hasidic rebbe, travels to Hungary to see if he feels a connection to his iconic ancestor