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ELI. A Jewish Pilgrim's Journey from Safed to Bodrogkeresztúr




Bence Illyés, a Hungarian freelance photojournalist, writes about a day of an Israeli Hasidic Jewish pilgrim named Eli, whom he accompanied from the airport to the Jewish pilgrimage in Bodrogkeresztúr, Hungary, following the events with him throughout the day.
The series presents the hidden world of Hasidic Jews and the pilgrimage from the inside, through the eyes of a single person. If you want to know more about Illyés and his project click on the following link.

We are driving in a rented car on the highway with Eli and his friend, who arrived from Safed to Hungary to participate in the pilgrimage held in Bodrogkeresztúr of the Zemplén region, where every year nearly 30,000 Hasidic Jews from various countries around the world are expected. Surprisingly, the car's speakers are playing Dvorak's New World Symphony. When I ask Eli about it, he explains that both he and his friend are big fans of classical music, and due to religious regulations, they primarily listen to instrumental pieces. For example, listening to female vocals is prohibited for them out of respect and exclusivity towards their wives.

Éli is one of the many Hasidic pilgrims who travel to Hungary every year from various parts of the world, primarily from the United States, Israel, England, Belgium, and even Australia and South Africa, to visit the grave of the wonder Rabbi in Bodrogkeresztúr on the anniversary of his passing. Known as Reb Sayele, the Rabbi (or Rebbe) performed numerous miracles during his lifetime and tirelessly helped those in need and the downtrodden. The legends about him are vividly alive in the memories of both the village and the Hasidic communities to this day. According to the belief of Hasidic Jews, the Rabbi is capable of providing assistance even after his death, especially on the anniversary of his passing. Thus, starting from the year following Reb Sayele's departure (he passed away in 1925), pilgrims began visiting his grave, and this tradition continues to this day. In fact, over the past 15 years, the pilgrimage has gained significant momentum, with an increasing number of pilgrims coming to Bodrogkeresztúr each year.


As we travel towards Bodrogkeresztúr, Eli shares his story and tells me about his family. Despite being only 33 years old, he is already the father of six children, which is not uncommon in the Hasidic world. He originally comes from England and spent his early years in Manchester. Later, he moved to Safed, a city in the northern part of Israel, which is considered the center of Kabbalah and mysticism. In his everyday life, Eli is involved in real estate in the Galilee region, but he sets aside time every day for prayer and study. For him, studying involves delving into the Talmud and religious literature.

Over the past 7 years, Eli has participated in the Bodrogkeresztúr pilgrimage every time. He first heard about it from his brother, and the atmosphere of the event touched him so deeply on his first visit that he decided to come back every year if possible. Many Hasidic Jews come to Hungary for pilgrimage due to family connections, especially if their relatives are buried here. However, Eli's family comes from Galicia, so his motivation is primarily to experience miracles, have his prayers fulfilled, and undergo spiritual elevation, which is the fundamental purpose of Jewish pilgrimages. As he shares, he himself experienced a small miracle thanks to the Keresztúr rabbi. During the birth of their youngest child, doctors predicted complications due to a high-risk pregnancy, and they anticipated that the baby would not develop properly in the womb and would be born prematurely, unlikely to survive. Although the hospital advised his wife to immediately move into one of the hospital rooms, they chose to travel to the Keresztúr pilgrimage together to pray for the well-being of their unborn child. In the end, their son was indeed born earlier than expected but healthy and without complications, and they named him Sayele, after the rabbi, as an expression of gratitude.

During the Jewish pilgrimage, participants arrive to pray at the tomb of the wonder rabbi located on the top of Dereszla Hill, which offers a beautiful view. They come to express their prayers and requests because Hasidic Jews believe that the rabbi serves as a mediator between the ordinary believer and God. In addition to the prayers murmured at the tomb, the pilgrimage also includes regular daily prayers, performed according to the prescribed practice, three times a day (morning, afternoon, and evening). These prayers are conducted outside the cemetery, in the former house of the rabbi of Bodrogkeresztúr.

Following the prayers, there is a large communal meal held in tents specifically set up for this purpose. Every pilgrim is generously hosted and provided with a free meal, continuing the tradition established by Reb Sayele during his life in Bodrogkeresztúr. He always welcomed numerous pilgrims and those in need with warm food donations.


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In recent years, there has been a frenzy of real estate purchases in Bodrogkeresztúr. The small Hungarian village has seen property prices per square meter skyrocket, reaching levels comparable to the most expensive neighborhoods in Budapest. This is mainly due to the Hasidic community repurchasing properties, particularly those that were once owned by Jews before the Holocaust. The new owners primarily use these houses as guesthouses. When I ask Éli whether there is a possibility of a resettlement by the Hasidic community in this area, where the Jewish population accounted for 30-50% before the war, he responds:

It is unlikely, primarily not due to economic reasons or lack of infrastructure, but because the memory of the deportations from those places is still vivid in the community's collective memory. It would be difficult for individuals to overcome the personal impact of those events if they were to live permanently in these settlements.

At the same time, as evidenced by the phenomenon of the pilgrimage, Hasidic communities have a strong attachment to the places associated with their past, which they even preserve in the names of their communities. For example, the Satmar Hasidim preserve this name due to Szatmárnémeti, the Pupa Hasidim after Pápa, and the Lisker community after Olaszliszka. By regularly visiting those European cities and villages where their communities originated in the 18th and 19th centuries, they keep the Jewish heritage of these places alive. This is important because, like in Hungary, there are no longer Jewish communities living in these settlements in Eastern Europe since the Holocaust.

Jewish pilgrimages are also places of numerous spontaneous encounters and acquaintances. Community life is an extremely important element of Hasidic religious practice and everyday life. During the pilgrimage, Éli meets many old acquaintances whom he may only see once a year during this occasion. For him, these trips are opportunities to break away from his usual home environment and participate in a kind of "spiritual vacation" that is not otherwise possible throughout the year. During the pilgrimage, he tries to exclude everyday matters and tasks and focuses solely on spiritual elevation. Typically, male participation prevails in the pilgrimages, primarily due to the limited infrastructure at Eastern European pilgrimage sites, which could present considerable challenges and potential discomfort for women, resulting in their predominantly staying at home.

As we return from Keresztúr before Eli flies back to Safed, he visits the original remains of the former ghetto wall in Budapest, located on Király Street. He solemnly observes this dark chapter of Hungarian Jewish history. Despite the somber location, he says that the journey was relaxing and uplifting for him, as if he had stepped out of time.

KörperMag Quotes
Given the current political situation and the armed conflict between Israel and Palestine, the internal team of KörperMagazine, always with the focus on offering the widest range of information and emphasising all points of view, thought it very appropriate to publish this project in an attempt to curb anti-Semitic and/or racist thoughts that may arise from the current situation. It should also be mentioned that Hasidic Judaism is a movement within Orthodox Judaism that originated in Eastern Europe and is clearly anti-Zionist.

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