She grew up with a love for traveling, visiting places like East Africa as a child. But Williamsburg resident Alyssa Petersel never imagined writing a book about Jewish life in Budapest.
Petersel, 25, is the author and editor of “Somehow I Am Different: Narratives of Searching and Belonging in Jewish Budapest,” which was named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2016 on Dec. 19.
“It felt really powerful getting it in the mail,” Petersel said referring to the book. “I put a lot of pressure on myself to figure out my career, and I’m very grateful that I have a lot of supportive friends and family members.”
Petersel went to Northwestern University for engineering, but quickly changed her major to liberal arts. In her sophomore year she began working with Hillel in the community outreach internship program. Then as a junior, she worked with them as a special projects chair of the student executive board. During her senior year, she went with 20 students on a trip to Budapest.
At that time, Petersel knew very little about Budapest other than what she had read in the media about rising anti-Semitism and a poor economy.
Boy were they wrong.
“I went assuming things would be pretty bad,” Petersel remarked. “The energy on the ground was very lively.”
They volunteered at a community center called Bálint Haz, where they learned that many of the Jews were just discovering their Judaism. Jewish identity was lost during the Holocaust and communist rule and is slowly building its way back up.
Petersel got a taste of Hungary, but she yearned for more. She explained that the tour guide described Budapest as a “hipster Brooklyn,” but after spending time there Petersel disagreed.
“I found myself at the end of the trip much more positive,” she commented.
At the end of World War II, 140,000 Jews remained in Hungary, compared to 750,000 in 1941. Between 1945 and 1949, 40,000 to 50,000 Jews left Hungary for Israel and Western countries.
There is a debate about the number of Jews in Hungary. Estimates range from as high 120,000 to as low as 35,000. The majority of Jews in Hungary are unaffiliated.
In 2013 she graduated early from Northwestern earning two bachelor’s degrees in psychology and international studies. She got a job at Strengthening Chicago’s Youth (SCY), a violence prevention collaborative within Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. She conducted research and policy analysis, as well as engaged in community outreach, communications, and social media.
However, she realized sitting behind a desk was not for her. So, she took a leap of faith and decided to explore Jewish life in Budapest. In January 2015, she left for Hungary.
In order to fund the trip, she applied for a series of grants which were ultimately unsuccessful. As a final hope, she launched a Kickstarter, through which she raised $12,085 after one month of community outreach and support.
“I really like writing and I think I was really struggling at my first job,” she told JP Updates. “I felt really claustrophobic in an office. I was really craving this more on hands on experience.”
She reached out to people she met her first time there and began to setup interviews. Since she had no journalism background, she knew it was going to be a challenge.
According to Petersel, the culture is thriving in Budapest. There are numerous street festivals, events commemorating the Holocaust and many social justice organizations.
“I found it very cool that a lot of the Jewish programming was open towards advocating for the Jewish population,” she noted. She added that most organizations are funded by America and Britain.
“Somehow I Am Different: Narratives of Searching and Belonging in Jewish Budapest” [ Alyssa Petersel]
Her original plan was to stay for a year, but after eight months, money was tight and she had completed a manuscript. With the help of Google and a few writers she met in Hungary, she embarked on a journey she would never forget.
She interviewed 65 people, mostly young adults, and attempted to use people that represented diversity across the Judaism spectrum.
“People were really open,” Petersel said.
Celebrating Shabbat and holidays was a unique experience, she explained.
“There were a variety of different Shabbat options, from fairly funky and musical at places like Moishe House to fairly conservative at places like Frankel Leo synagogue,” she said. “At places like Teleki Ter, a small shtiebel, the environment and setting took you back to the 20s, but the air was warm and homey.”
An interesting tidbit she learned was that her grandmother Rozalia Berman was Hungarian. She always thought she was Czechoslovakian. Unfortunately, she died while she was there.
Upon returning home, she sent the manuscript to editors and was told it needed a complete overhaul. The book read too much like a transcript instead of a narrative. So, after numerous edits and revisions, everything came to fruition in the summer of 2015 and the book came out in March.
Life has changed a lot since then. She has done book signings, talks and won two other Kirkus awards. She went to Hungary in June to distribute books to the interviewees and their families and is also working with a company there to publish the book in Hungarian.
Petersel is set to complete her Masters in Social Work at New York University in 2017. She is also a participating author in the Jewish Book Council 2016-2017 cohort and a nonfiction fellow at The Writer’s Institute at CUNY Graduate Center.
Looking back at her time in Budapest, she is glad she was able to live in a foreign country and learn about its culture.
““I felt like a part of the family, so to speak, which is a feeling that has taken me years to build at home, but days or weeks to feel in Budapest with the Jewish communities I was meeting and engaging with,” she said.