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A Word from the Headmaster

Dear Prospective Student,

By way of welcoming you to our school, or simply welcoming you to apply to our school, I’d like to say a few words about the vision behind it, and I’d like to do so both in a professor-like manner and with no holds barred.

Our generation uses the term “Ashkenazi” to refer to the heritage and identity of a Jew whose grandparents or great-grandparents or still more distant ancestors were born somewhere in Europe and spoke Yiddish as their mamalushn, their mother tongue. Ashkenaz was the name of this vast conglomeration of European lands and its unimaginably rich thousand-year-plus civilization. The name was first used by Jews in the 11th century to name the German soil on which they settled. When two-thirds of the members of this civilization were killed in the name of this same German soil in the middle of the 20th century, Ashkenaz forever lost its geographical meaning. All that remained were Ashkenazim.

The school named after this culture might well suggest, therefore, some kind of airless museum of relics from a “vanished world” (like in the haunting black-and-white photos of Roman Vishniac) or some fantastically contrived aquarium for an extinct species of fish. Nothing could be further from the truth. Geographically speaking, Ashkenaz is indeed the name of a dead and vanished world. But with its disappearance from the surface of the earth, Ashkenaz became a reality internalized in our depths, a reality in some ways even more real and more consequential than it ever was when it existed as an external reality spread out on European soil. Geologically speaking, as it were, Ashkenaz is the name of a hundred massive solid sediments, carefully laid down over a thousand years, on which the present Jewish reality is built.

The problem with internalized, subterranean historical realities, of course, is that they are taken for granted. They become invisible because they are so obvious. And hence the great task that they place upon the generation of Jews living in the open air and sunlight is that of excavating and facing and coming to terms with what is obvious and what is taken for granted. The school named after the very real and very consequential reality of Ashkenaz is dedicated to this task. It is founded on the basic idea that the most pressing questions confronting Jews today—the New Anti-Semitism, the State of Israel, Jewish identity in America, Jewish identity in Israel, the rift between these identities, the Hareidi-Hiloni divide, assimilation, insularism, spiritual revival, etc.—can only be squarely confronted in an intensified study of Ashkenaz.

I realize that the above statement may not be terribly typical for a Word from the Headmaster. You may well be someone who is simply curious about Ashkenazi life and letters and who simply desires to acquire a Master’s degree in Jewish Studies, without any interest in high-fallutin’ ideas about the metaphysical importance of Ashkenaz. That is perfectly fine and you are very warmly and sincerely welcome to join us in the lovely city of Budapest for an exciting curriculum in Jewish Studies. It is in case you are up to the task of the defining ambition of our school that I am taking this opportunity to make my headmastership as transparent as I can. There is a vision at stake. One might even say that the vision is a messianic one. If you, dear student, are someone who hungers for the truth as I do, and who has an indistinct but strong gut feeling about the sui generis importance of Jewish civilization and Jewish wisdom—“for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations” (Deuteronomy 4:6)—who desires to be, not just a university student, but also an active partner in an unprecedented think tank in which the secrets of this civilization and this wisdom as it flourished during the European Millennium are placed before your intellect by the best Jewish academics of our generation, then this school is for you. And I will be the first to extend my hand to you as the newest member of our special community of minds in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter at the Ashkenazium.

Blessings for success in all good things!

Michael Chighel