Ruth Ellen Gruber's picture

A journey to Tokaj

Wine merchants and wonder. Off the beaten path in northeastern Hungary

Tens of thousands of Jewish tourists make their way every year to Budapest. The Hungarian capital is a bustling and cosmopolitan city of 2 million that offers plenty for Jewish and non-Jewish tourists alike - and not only that, it is home to a large and lively Jewish community.

There's so much to see, do, eat, drink and enjoy in Budapest that it can be difficult get out and explore the hidden and not so hidden treasures of Jewish history and culture elsewhere in the country.

Hungary is small, however, and once you decide to move, it's easy to get away. You can rent a car from any number of agencies in the major hotels; just be sure to order an automatic transmission and air-conditioning as they are not standard. The only caveat is the confusing road sign system getting in and out of Budapest. After you've managed that, it's smooth driving over an excellent freeway system that feeds into well-paved two lane highways. 

One of my favorite trips is to the famous Tokaj wine region in northeast Hungary. It's where the incomparable semi-sweet nectar described as "the king of wines and the wine of kings" is produced - and it's just three hours from downtown Budapest.

Wine is an important part of many Jewish ceremonies. Observant Jews are forbidden to consume any wine except kosher wine, that is, wine prepared and bottled from start to finish by Jews. Until not all that long ago, observant Jews meant all Jews. The need for an ample and ready supply of kosher wine meant that Jews became involved in the wine trade many centuries ago.

Here in the Tokaj region, amid a lush and lovely land of meandering rivers, broad fields and low, wooded mountains, Jewish vintners and wine merchants once bought, sold, produced and transported kosher wine for much of central Europe.

At the same time, Hasidic Masters — wonder rabbis — once held court in tiny, wine-producing villages. Only a few Jews live in the region today. But within a radius of a few dozen kilometers, dozens of Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and other sites still stand to tell the fascinating and poignant story of pre-war times.

You should plan on spending at least two nights and three days in the area, but you will be forgiven if you make it an overnight stint. The town of Tokaj itself makes a good base for exploring the area, and I've arranged the following itinerary as a circuit of half a dozen places within half an hour's drive of Tokaj. Distances are short, however. It's easy to go much further afield, and I encourage you to take back roads and explore. 

The region is developing a wine tourism niche, and in addition to an increasing number of wineries and vineyards that can be visited, there are a number of new hotels, rooming houses, pensions, and restaurants, some in towns and some immersed in rural vineyard settings.

Since the fall of communism, the Tokaj region has once again become a center for kosher wine, too. There are several kosher wineries in the area, and locally produced kosher wine can be purchased in Tokaj at the friendly wine bar on Rakoczi utca near the bridge across the Tisza river.

Local gastronomic specialities include the famous fish soup made from fish caught locally in the Bodrog or Tisza rivers. One of the best restaurants in the zone is Lebuj Panzió, just outside of Tokaj on the road to Bodrokeresztúr. (It also has inexpensive rooms where you can stay.)

On my last visit, I stayed at the Torkolat Panzió, a comfortable and well equipped little hotel just outside the center of Tokaj that cost less than $20 a night per person, including an ample breakfast. It is excellent for families, as some of the seven spacious rooms are mini suites, with kitchens and accommodation for four people. Guests are also entitled to use the pension's kayak and tandem bicycles. The address is Vasvári Pal u. 26, Tel/fax +3642/314517. Email: ajtayhm@zeus.nyf.hu. Web site: www.extra.hu/torkolat.

Getting Here

You can take the train from Budapest to Tokaj and other nearby towns, but connections can be time consuming. In fact, the standard joke is: Why do Hungarian trains move so slowly? To make the country seem bigger.

Tokaj is about a three hour drive from Budapest. Head northeast on the M3 motorway toward Miskolc - and be prepared to have it fritter away into a two-lane blacktop after 100 kilometers or so. And always stay within the speed limits in Hungary. Someone has bought the Hungarian Highway patrol a lot of radar equipment.

At Miskolc, go east on highway 37, which takes you through the market town of Szerencs. It was here that the Hasidic sage Izaak Itsik Taub, the first Hasidic master to live permanently in Hungary, was born in 1751. Izaak, long the rabbi of Nagykallo, was renowned for his dreams and mystical interpretations of dreams, and particularly for his songs. His most famous is Szol A Kakas Mar (The Cock Is Always Crowing), based on a peasant song and now a standard on the klezmer and Jewish music circuit.

Take the turnoff for Tokaj, about seven kilometers past Szerencs and follow the road into town.

Tokaj is a charming little town of 6,000 people located at the confluence of the Bodrog and Tisza rivers at the foot of a dramatic, 500 meter hill. It's fun to walk around the meandering streets lined with pastel colored baroque architecture and poke into the wine cellars and new little antique shops. The local town museum displays all sorts of tools and material depicting how wine is made, and it also has a corner devoted to Jewish traditions and ritual objects.

About 100 Jews lived in Tokaj in the 1820s. By 1910, there were more than 1,100. About 800 Jews lived in the town on the eve of World War II; all were deported to Auschwitz.

"I remember Friday nights," an elderly woman once told me, recalling the days of her childhood. "It was very quiet in the town. Before the Sabbath came, women would make solet (cholent). Everything was made ready on Friday evening; in every home candles were lit."

Today, two Jewish men and their families are all that are left. M. Gluck and Lajos Lowy are both highly knowledgeable about local Jewish history. Lowy in particular has made it his mission to preserve the traces of Jewish history in the Tokaj region. He has amassed photographs and other documentation and has spearheaded efforts to tend the local Jewish cemeteries.

Lowy can be reached at his dry goods and plastic shop in the center of town, at Rakoczi utca 41.

Tokaj's first synagogue, established in the mid 1700s, was destroyed in a devastating fire in 1890. It was replaced by the grand edifice that still stands, one of the most imposing buildings in town. Built in an eclectic style with tall arched windows, it could seat 1,000 people in its heyday and was so ornately decorated that it was considered the "jewel box" of the town. In the town museum, there is a pre-war aerial photograph that shows just how the imposing synagogue dominated the surrounding neighborhood.

The synagogue was wrecked during World War II, and in the 1960s it was sold by the Jewish community and used as a warehouse. An abortive attempt to restore it left it an almost total ruin, without a roof. In the 1990s, the exterior was restored - you can't miss the bright yellow paint. But the interior has remained unfinished, as no final use for the building has been decided.

The synagogue stands in a fenced-in yard, surrounded by other former Jewish buildings, most of them also sadly in decay. These include a small Hasidic shtibl built in the 1930s by a wealthy local ironmonger. After the war, it was the only active prayer house, but it hasn't been used for years. When I went inside it during the 1990s, it looked just as if people had gotten up from their prayers. Ancient, battered prayer books lay on pews and tabloes; half-burned candles stood in front of the Ark. Cabinets contained moldering books, moth-eaten prayer shawls and even the four wooden poles of a wedding canopy.

Tokaj has two Jewish cemeteries. The more recent cemetery rises up a slope on the road leading out of town to Bodrogkeresztur. It is well maintained, and much of it is visible from the locked gate.

Contact Lowy or Gluck to obtain the key (and also to obtain information about the current custodian of keys to cemeteries in other towns).


To visit the older cemetery, established in the late 1700s, you must take a ferry across the Bodrog River. This was the original burying place for Tokaj Jews, and the oldest decipherable tombstone dates from 1825; the last burial was in 1878. It is a beautiful place, quiet and hushed, shaded with plum trees whose fruit hangs like purple jewels in the early autumn.

From Tokaj, it is a short drive along the Bodrog river to Bodrogkeresztúr, a village that was famous as the seat of the Hasidic rebbe Saje Steiner, who lived from 1851 to 1925. As in Tokaj, Jews coming south from Poland and Galicia settled in the village in the early 18th century. Jews were involved in the wine trade but also carried out many other professions. Most of them were Hasidic. On the eve of World War II they made up 20 percent of the local population.

Pilgrims still come in great numbers to pay their respects at Steiner's tomb in the Jewish cemetery, high on a hill overlooking the village. The first time I tried to get up there, there was no sign, and the road I finally found was like a river of mud. I got hopelessly stuck half way up the hill and never did reach the cemetery.

Today, though, there is a paved road. Turn left at the sign marked "Reb Sajele" - Rabbi Saje - and keep going up. The cemetery is surrounded by a fence made of concrete slabs that look like tombstones and affords a beautiful view of the lush surrounding landscape.

A barnlike former synagogue, built in 1906, stands on Kossuth st. Steiner's house, at Kossuth utca 65, can also be visited.

From Bodrogkeresztúr, rejoin Route 37 and head northeast to Olaszliszka, another quaint wine-growing village that was one of the centers of Hasidism in Hungary and the seat of a famous Hasidic rebbe, Zvi Hirsch Friedmann (1808-1874). "Olasz" means Italy in Hungarian, and the story goes that the town got its name from Italian winemakers brought to Hungary in the middle ages.

Friedmann was a disciple of the great Hasidic master Moses Teitelbaum of nearby Sátoraljaújhely, the major Hasidic figure in Hungary. Pilgrims visit Friedmann's tomb in the Jewish cemetery on the anniversary of his death. It's a fascinating graveyard, now protected by a fortresslike wall topped with barbed wire, that includes rows of carved tombstones, many of which also bear traces of bright red and blue paint. Unfortunately, many of the tombstones have been shattered by war and vandalism.

The synagogue in Olaszliszka was built in the mid-19th century. Located in the middle of town, was large, in order to accommodate Friedmann's followers, but today it is a total ruin that speaks eloquently of the tragedy of the Shoah.

All that is left is the half crumbled eastern wall at one end of a vacant lot. The niche for the ark is clearly visible. Recently the lot was fenced off to protect the ruin and to prevent the lot from being used as a dump.

next stop on our itinerary is Mád, another charming wine-making village that is the site of one of Hungary's most important synagogues. Head back southwest on Route 37 and take the turn-off for Mad.

The impressive baroque synagogue is one of the treasures of Hungarian architecture. I absolutely love it. Built in about 1795, it is one of the only synagogues in Hungary constructed in the Polish style around a four-pillar central bimah. It stands next to an arcaded, L-shaped former rabbi's house and Yeshiva, forming a unique Jewish complex. The big, white-painted synagogue is similar in exterior structure to Mád's two nearby Christian churches; the three religious buildings dominate the town.

Like elsewhere in the Tokaj area, Jews from Poland settled in Mád in the early 18th century and became deeply involved in the wine trade. At its height, the community numbered about 800. All the local Jews were deported to Auschwitz; memorial plaques fixed to the wall inside the synagogue list all their names.

The synagogue is currently undergoing restoration, and the workmen usually allow visitors to enter. There's even a guest book to sign, and a stack of brochures about the building.

Much of the sumptuous interior decoration is intact, but in bad condition. Fading, flaking frescoes ornament the sweeping vaults and ceiling and vivid, but sadly damaged carvings of lions and mythical griffons surmount the still-proud Ark.

Don't miss the very interesting (and picturesque) Jewish cemetery on a slope just outside the town center. You get an impressive view of the tombstones from the road below.

Go back to the main road, Route 37, head northeast and take the turnoff to Tarcal. This little village has a small synagogue which was built around the same time as the synagogue in Mád and has been described as the "brother" to the Mád synagogue. The little baroque building stood for decades in ruins, although it conserved the faded remnants of brilliant frescoes as well as carvings and other interior decoration.

Several years ago, the synagogue was restored and converted into an art gallery. Almost all of the original interior ornamentation was obliterated and the walls were painted white, with only one part of the carving above the ark conserved. The building is no longer used as a gallery, but as a private residence for Finnish artists.

Still conserved above the entrance, however, is a weathered Hebrew inscription from Psalm 118: "this is the gate of the Lord, let the righteous enter thereby." There is also a newly placed memorial plaque to the destroyed Jewish community. There are two Jewish cemeteries with weathered stones just outside the town limits.

Other towns and villages within easy reach that have Jewish sights include, among others: Abaújszántó (old Jewish cemetery), Erdo"bénye (old Jewish cemetery), Gönc (old cemetery), Göncruszka (old cemetery), Sátoraljaújhely (old cemetery with tomb of Moses Teitelbaum; new cemetery, right on Slovak border; former synagogue).

Further Reference:

Ruth Ellen Gruber, Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today (New York: Wiley, 1994). Chapter 2, "Wine Merchants and Wonder Rabbis" deals with this region of Hungary.

Ruth Ellen Gruber, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe (Jason Aronson, 1999).

Charles Fenyvesi, When the World War Whole: Three Generations of Memories (New York: Viking, 1990)

Meir Sas, Vanished Communities in Hungary: The History and Tragic Fate of the Jews in Ujhely and Zemplén County (Toronto, Memorial Book Committee, 1986)

Eli Wiesel, Souls on Fire and Somewhere a Master (London, Penguin, 1984)

Péter Wirth, Itt Van Elrejtve, (Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó, 1985)

Ruth Ellen Gruber
author of:
Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe
University of California Press


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