Danube days: Hungary launches culture year in Israel with song and dance

With diplomatic ties at a peak, Budapest is intent on winning over the Israeli public with a cavalcade of events including operettas, ballet, theater, art and yes, goulash as well

The Budapest Operetta Theater (Eszter Gordon)
The Budapest Operetta Theater (Eszter Gordon)

BUDAPEST – On a brisk afternoon in February a troupe of top Hungarian singing and dancing talent assembles in a grand old building in the capital’s center for a dress rehearsal, as a small crowd gathers to watch in the main auditorium.

The lights dim and a hush falls over the audience. The orchestra launches into a rich medley of folk tunes and beloved local classics, and one after another a string of performers take their turn on stage in vaudeville-like procession: strapping young soldier-types slap their boots and stomp about to a cheerful, driven musical suite; a maid in flouncy clothes mocks her lord in a crisp soprano, laughing on key to a mischievous tune; a tux-clad baritone winks and smirks at the crowd as he croons of the pleasures of a simple life; and a glitzy couple shimmies and prances while extolling the joys of tripping the light fantastic.

It is colorful, it is playful and it is dazzling: It is Budapest’s Operetta Theater, and it is making final preparations for a series of performances in Israel next month.

Indeed, the operetta is only the opening shot of eight months’ worth of cultural events that Hungary is sending Israel’s way in 2019 as part of its Hungarian Culture Year in Israel.

The Budapest Operetta Theater (Eszter Gordon)

Israeli-Hungarian relations have grown ever closer in recent years, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban appear to enjoy a particularly strong rapport. Just this week Orban announced the opening of a diplomatic office in Jerusalem. This closeness has not escaped criticism in Israel – both for Orban’s authoritarian tendencies and for his attitudes to his nation’s World War II history.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, February 19, 2019. (Amos Ben Gershom)

But the diplomatic love affair between the leaders is unquestionable, and now Budapest is hoping to win over the Israeli public as well, as it launches an unprecedented cultural exchange with the Jewish state to mark 30 years since the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the two nations. The coming months will therefore see the arrival of around 20 productions and over 1,000 guests who will strive to give Israelis throughout the country a taste of Hungary, from ballet and opera to food festivals, art exchanges and nightlife events.

The Times of Israel was among media outlets invited to Budapest earlier this month, all expenses paid, to attend a showcase of items on the menu. Here are some of the main attractions:

Singing up a storm

Starting things off with sonorous gusto is the aforementioned Budapest Operetta Theater, which arrives in March for four performances in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The operetta is a precursor to the modern musical — lighter, more theatrical and often comical. Though musicals have replaced the form in many parts of the world, operettas remain a staple of Hungarian culture — and few do them as well as the Budapest Operetta Theater.

The theater, which has toured Israel with major productions in the past, will this time present a gala of its greatest hits and showstoppers by some of the top performers in Hungary. The theater’s 80 orchestra players and singers will be joined for the first time by the Hungarian National Dance Ensemble as well as a folklore music band.

With works by household names Emmerich Kálmán  and Johann Strauss II and interspersed with traditional dances, the show is varied and dynamic and provides a charming, colorful and joyous window into Hungarian culture.

The show will play at the Jerusalem Theater on March 11 and at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on March 13-14. Tickets can be purchased here.

Thought for food

Next up is Hungarian culinary week, to be held April 7-12. Organizer Ofer Vardi will bring top Hungarian chefs and confectioners to share their modern and innovative takes on Hungary’s famous dishes.

A former Israel-based journalist of Hungarian descent, Vardi has turned his love for his grandmother’s cooking into a business, and now leads food tours in Budapest.

Pörkölt, a traditional Hungarian meat stew in paprika sauce (Courtesy)

“In recent years Hungarian cuisine has undergone a revolution,” Vardi says. “Young, talented chefs are putting their own creative and delicious twists on classic dishes… the past decade has seen the opening of more and more venues offering fresh, surprising and innovative dishes. The capital Budapest has become an essential destination for foodies.”

Visiting culinarians will be hosted by several of Israel’s leading restaurants, where they will share their expertise and vision. The week will also include cooking classes, movies, talks and other events relating to Hungarian culinary culture.

Túrógombóc, Hungarian cottage cheese dumplings (Courtesy)

Details will soon be available on the culture year’s official website.

Movies from the Magyars

May will see some of Hungary’s silver screen highlights arrive at Israel’s leading cinematheques. From May 12 to 19 Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa will screen the works of some the country’s current leading filmmakers in both live action and animation, followed by meetings with the creators.

Headlining the events will be the film “Curtiz,” a historical drama following the story of famed Jewish-Hungarian director Michael Curtiz as he struggles to complete his magnum opus, “Casablanca,” with World War II raging in the background.

Writer-director Tamas Yvan Topolanszky and producer Claudia Sumeghy will be on hand to introduce the film, which won the 2018 Grand Prix des Amériques award at the Montreal World Film Festival.

Topolanszky says he was drawn to the character’s extremes. “He was a very hard person to live and work with… and he was a genius on the other hand,” he says.

As the story unfolds Curtiz is struggling to bring his sister over from Europe to the US to flee from the war. “He’s also helped his ex-wife and a daughter he’s never known escape Europe. This daughter decides to find him in Hollywood and is expecting him to be a father from now on, which he obviously is not prepared for. And these three elements are meeting at a very politically interesting time in the United States because censorship is also coming into Hollywood and people from the government are basically telling what kind of movies each director and screenwriter can do from now on,” Topolanszky says.

Also coming to Israel are Ferenc Rofusz, who won an Oscar for his 1981 short “The Fly” (below) and Ferenc Varsanyi, winner of a Daytime Emmy for his direction work on popular 90s series “Rugrats,” who will spotlight the nation’s animation scene.

And screenwriter Norbert Köbli will discuss his films “Demimonde,” “The Ambassador to Bern” and “Trezor.” The first is a historical drama that follows famous courtesan Magnas Elza and her complex intrigue-filled relationships with two other woman in 1910s Budapest. The two others are thrillers set against the backdrop of the short-lived 1956 Hungarian revolution against Soviet rule.

Details on the screenings of these films and more will soon be available on the culture year’s official website.

State of the art

Tel Aviv’s annual art fair Fresh Paint will devote a portion of its 2019 floorspace to Hungary’s thriving art scene. “Focus on Hungary,” to be held May 30-June 2, is a joint initiative of the Israeli fair and Art Market Budapest, Central and Eastern Europe’s largest modern art fair.

Art Market Budapest is an international art fair established in 2011 to highlight new and emerging galleries and artists.

Founder Attila Ledenyi says work with Israel’s Fresh Paint has been ongoing for several years, and has been the fair’s “biggest and most successful” cooperation of any of the market’s partner countries.

“Our narrative is that we’re looking for top quality art that’s under-represented, or is not as represented as it should be on the global market,” Ledenyi says. “When we went to do research in Israel this is exactly what we found: a country with amazing artistic input with hardly any international representation — with a few exceptions.”

He adds that “Fresh Paint as a local platform is very, very strong… Cooperation was so natural and so easy.”

Two years ago the Market invited Israel to be its guest of honor in Budapest. “We had the pleasure of cooperating with the Israel Museum…. with the Serge Tirosh collection, quite a few amazing galleries… there was an amazing richness.”

Details will soon be available on the culture year’s official website.


The 40-year-old Gyor Ballet, one of Hungary’s leading troupes which draws in dancers from all over Europe, will perform in Jerusalem and Herzliya on June 1 and 3 respectively.

The Gyor Ballet company in ‘PianoPlays’ (Vera Eder)

It will be the dance company’s fourth visit to Israel, and director Janos Kiss is a big fan. On one trip to Israel’s capital years ago, Kiss became so enamored by a klezmer band’s performance he attended that he decided to create a ballet piece to the tune of the traditional Jewish instruments. Titled “Purim” and following the story of the biblical Esther, it found great success internationally.

This time, Kiss and his company will present a concert that features two pieces: Maurice Ravel’s world-famous “Bolero” and “PianoPlay – Études to works by Liszt annd Wagner” featuring leading pianist János Balázs.

“I’m really happy that we can go back [to Israel],” Kiss says. “It was a fantastic experience and my plan is to go back again and again.”

Tickets for Herzliya are available here, and tickets for Jerusalem here.

Lowering the bar

In recent years Budapest has become famous for turning its nightlife scene into something of an art form in and of itself, with its unique “ruin bar” phenomenon.

These staples of the city have taken run-down, decrepit buildings and embraced the grunge, turning their crumbling rooms and hallways into a celebration of all that is shabby and worn. That is not to say the decor is treated as an afterthought — on the contrary, every piece of cracked and graffitied wall and exposed piping appears considered, every strand of overgrown foliage meticulously designed. The result, subversive-yet-controlled chaos, is fascinating.

Now this staple of Budapest will find a home at Jaffa’s trendy Ken Hakukiya bar for 18 days in June. The bar, which features multiple stories and hosts art events, exhibits and concerts, will be transformed into a ruin bar between June 13-30 and feature art events, Israeli and Hungarian bands and DJs, live streams with Budapest pubs and more.

Tel Aviv can definitely hold its own when it comes to nightlife, and yet the ruin bar trend will likely provide the city with an experience unlike anything else on offer.

Ken Hakukiya’s Facebook page, which provide updates on events, can be found here. Details will also soon be available on the culture year’s official website.

Hungary for more?

June 30 will see a visit by the Hungarian National Theater, which will perform “The Passion of Csíksomlyó,” a contemporary reimagination of Christian myth, at the Jaffa International Theatre Festival.

Budapest’s Recirquel Contemporary Circus Company will return to Israel for performances of The Naked Clown, after successful past runs, on July 19-23 in Herzliya.

The Hungarian National Dance Ensemble will perform its work “Liszt Mosaics,” based on the works of composer Ferenc Liszt, at the Karmiel Dance Festival on August 2-4.

The Hungarian State Opera will perform “The Queen of Sheba,” praised by the New York Times in a recent US performance, in Tel Aviv on September 10.

September 12-13 will see the arrival of “Wedding Dance,” dubbed “The world’s first klezmer musical,” which tells the story of a young supposedly Christian woman in Transylvania who discovers her Jewish roots.

On October 16-18 (coinciding with the Sukkot holiday) Tel Aviv’s port will host Hungarian Days, an outdoor food and street performance festival along the pier.

Events will close with a festive concert in Jerusalem on October 23 featuring Israeli and Hungarian musicians and singers performing together on stage.

The culture year’s official website with full details is set to debut later this month. Meanwhile its Facebook page can be found here.

The writer was hosted in Budapest by the Hungarian government and organizers of Hungary’s Culture Year in Israel.

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