A review of Somehow I am Different: Narratives of Searching and Belonging in Jewish Budapest, written by Alyssa Petersel, published by Acorn Publishing, March 2016.
Youthful Alyssa Petersel embarks on a quest from her native New York to immerse herself in contemporary Jewish life in Budapest, Hungary. She conducts 50 interviews and retains 21. She uses her creative writing skills and keen observations, undergirded by her expertise as a counselor, to tease out that which gives meaning and purpose to her interviewees and, by extension, to her own life and quite likely those of her readers as well.
She quotes the Buddha who allegedly said, "If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change." How much more does that ring true for the many lives she encounters, and, by extension, the lives of her own readers?
In their search for identity, the Jews of Budapest are a template for individuals across the globe who are wrestling with similar existential issues they faced and continue to face.
Petersel’s account opens up several windows into the Jewish way of life, sufferings and joys, and hopes and fears. She believes we can better understand ourselves by better understanding others.
Every one of her stories is worth its weight in gold. Each touches a resonant chord within our own psyches and often our personal experiences. Some stories remain untold because of the weight of trauma that they carry, stories that would open up old and agonizing wounds that are perhaps best left undisturbed and buried deep down inside the person’s soul.
Hope and despondency jostle each other in her narratives. On the one hand, Jewishness in Budapest is under threat. Anti-Semitism is growing. Funds from American Jews are dwindling. Commitment is decreasing. Responsibility among the youths to develop their community is weakening.
On the other hand, the dream of the visionaries and hard-working men and women among the Budapest Jewish community toward a thriving community that will bond together in hard times, have fun together in good times, and construct a bright future together, is also alive and well, people who will support each other, celebrate the beauties of life, and be active citizens of their country.
Peteresel concludes her book with a short history of Hungary and the role of the Jewish community within it during the good and the bad times. She also includes a helpful section of cyberspace links to various Jewish organizations. Her style of writing is congenial. Her stories and facts are compelling. Her book is worth keeping for future reference, especially for those who might want one day to retrace her footsteps, perhaps a decade on, to compare notes.
Claude Lombart writes from the village of Binfield, UK, where he is in active retirement. He holds emeritus credential from the BUC. Lombart has served in several countries in francophone West Africa, the Middle East, New Zealand, Scotland and England in leadership, departmental, teaching, pastoral, and counsellor roles. He is a regular contributor to several church papers and has recently published a book on successful relationships.
Image Credit: Acorn Publishing
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