Street Music in Istanbul

Not only is there music on just about every corner in downtown Istanbul (especially in the Beyoğlu district), but some are so soulful that they halt you for a while.

Here is my favorite musician so far. I love the quiet subtlety of his music. I heard him (and took this video) on my first day and then saw him again two days later. I hope to learn his name before I leave. Kudos, also, to the young man holding the microphone; such service sometimes goes unnoticed.

Then this morning I heard this beautiful duo. The song’s melody reminds me of a piyut I began learning recently. They aren’t identical, but they have similar cadences.

If I learn who any of these musicians are, I will add the information here.

As you can see, walking around in Istanbul is no ordinary matter. You have to be dreamy and alert at the same time: dreamy because you can’t help it, and alert because so much is happening all around.

istanbul cat 2As I was listening to the duo, some children came up to me and began begging. I gave a few coins to one of them. Then another approached me; I shook my head and left, but she walked along with me, saying “Syria, Syria” and many other things. With her hands, words, expression, and urgency, she conveyed that she needed something to eat. I finally motioned to her that I would go get some change. She understood and waited outside as I went into a McDonald’s (of all places). They wouldn’t give me change without a purchase, so I got some Chicken McNuggets, gave the girl some change, and fed the quasi-food, bit by bit, to cats in the neighborhood. Here is one such cat.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it. Also, it is possible that the girl was a Syrian Dom refugee.



Yesterday, at the Sainte Pulchérie Lisesi, there was an eleventh-grade award ceremony in commemoration of Atatürk’s birthday. For part of the philosophy award, I presented copies of CONTRARIWISE (a journal of philosophy by students of Columbia Secondary School in New York City) to Selin Tunalı, whose essay “What Is a Human Being?” won honorable mention in the journal’s international contest.

More photos of this ceremony will soon appear on the CONTRARIWISE website. You can purchase a copy of the fourth issue through the website or at the journal’s upcoming celebration at Book Culture at 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 27. I will still be out of the country, but CONTRARIWISE will be vivid in my thoughts.

For three consecutive years, a student from the Sainte Pulchérie Lisesi has won an award in the CONTRARIWISE International Contest. The past winners are İdil Ertem (for her poem “The Organization of Manti”) and Beliz Ürkmez (for her piece “Birth and Death”).

This year the editors-in-chief, editorial board, and Professor Terranova produced CONTRARIWISE without me; I left Columbia Secondary School at the end of June 2016 to write my second book. It is thanks to CONTRARIWISE that I am in Istanbul right now; through the international contest (created by the founding editors-in-chief), I began corresponding with Dr. Nimet Küçük, the philosophy teacher at Sainte Pulchérie. We then met twice in person in NYC. She and the school’s director, M. Abellan, invited me to the school for a short-term teaching residency; when I saw that it would be possible this spring, we began planning.

I am glad to have another week here! The visit has been beautiful and enlightening; I have been teaching, visiting classes, attending school events, and exploring Istanbul, all with the help and support of Nimet, other teachers, and the director. I am moved by their hospitality and impressed with what I have seen of the school. It has a compelling combination of formality and spirit, discipline and initiative, and learning and questioning. I have attended a math class on vectors, a music class on Debussy, and a French class where students were working on projects. I have taught two lessons so far (to four sections comprising the entire eleventh grade) and have seen the students’ great attention and participation.

The school hosts a theatre series performed by professional actors; this evening I will see Occident by Rémi De Vos, and tomorrow Yılın En İyi Kadın Oyuncusu (“The Best Actress of the Year”) by Seyyar Sahne.

This second photo (which I took on my first day here) shows a side alley and cat; I do not know whether I will find them again. Everywhere there are hilly, winding streets and alleys, each one different from the others. Even people who have lived here all their lives discover new places on their familiar walks. I look forward to many more walks over the coming week.

istanbul cat 1


imageFor now, these photos will speak for themselves. It is strange to sit on a plane for some nine hours and then find yourself in this dreamy city full of music and walks of life. Singing voices come from almost every corner. (There are cats everywhere too, and hilly streets and winding alleys.) Today I teach my first classes here.

Havel havalim (Koheleth)


Reading Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), I sit up in awe, drop stray thoughts, and listen again and again to the second verse (translated as “vanity of vanities,” etc.). Then I start hearing its cadences everywhere: in Shakespeare (as do others), in Mahler, in poem after poem, song after song, film after film. This poem holds millions of breaths.

I was first introduced to Koheleth as a teenager, through Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” via Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Here’s Orwell:

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

For a long time, that was all I knew of it. I understood that its language was vivid and lilting and that it looked askance at the world. I read parts of it here and there–but did not begin to understand the whole until I first heard it chanted in Hebrew (just a few years ago). Then I sensed its coherence–not quick meaning, but unity and movement–and a joy mixed in with the sadness, a joy of walking through life.

Just a week ago I started learning the first few verses, with trope and all. It was then that I fell in love with the second verse.

Havel havalim, amar Koheleth; havel havalim, hakol havel.

The whole verse sounds like a sigh; this is no coincidence, as “hevel” originally meant “vapor” or something similar.

The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament states (in volume 3, p. 315): “In virtue of its supposed onomatopoeic origin, hebhel consistently retains the meaning of “breath” and, especially with reference to the visible aspect, although possibly delimited by the stronger ruach, “vapor, mist, smoke.” … Ideas of transitoriness and fleetingness are associated with the word when it means “breath,” and these tend to point toward an abstract connotation (cf. the LXX). This tendency is aided by the capability and openness of onomatopoeic words for new meanings.” This paragraph continues–and it’s part of a much longer entry–but I want to get back to the second verse and the joy.

The noun hevel (or hebel), with root heh-bet-lamed, appears in this verse in three forms:

  1. havel (with a long “e” and a stress on the second syllable): the construct form of hevel. This indicates that it accompanies the noun that follows.
  2. havalim: the plural of hevel.
  3. havel (with a short “e” and a stress on the first syllable): the pausal form of hevel.

This verse not only shivers with alliteration (not only of havel, havalim, and havel, but also of hakol and Koheleth), but takes a single word and turns it around and around.

Vapor of vapors, says Koheleth; vapor of vapors, all is vapor.

But even this does not recreate the morphology and cadences. Here is my recording of the first three verses. Here, also, is a wonderful recording (and video of the text) by Rabbi Moshe Weisblum.

What is it about this verse (and the poem as a whole) that brings joy?

Koheleth is not conducive to takeaways. Its message is not “enjoy life” or “fear God”; it holds up both. In terms of theology and philosophy, it stands out as one of the most puzzling Biblical texts. (I would love to take Stephen Geller’s course on it; I have taken his course on the Psalms.)

Still, for all its complexity, the poem has a gesture of learning, of seeing beyond illusions.

If success, fame, power, labor, even wisdom are all vapors, then life is anything but futile. It is possible to understand a little more each day and to walk with understanding. Koheleth is a long and wistful walk.

Image credit: I took this photo today in Fort Tryon Park. It reminded me of the second verse.

Leviticus 13: Complexity and Simplicity

The other day I related the complexity of Leviticus 13 (which I had read, i.e., chanted, on the previous Shabbat) to the complexity of the human condition. In my mind, at the time, it was all complexity, complexity of complexities. In this complexity I found beauty. Now I see, at the same time, a logical and structural simplicity.

Leviticus 13, which forms part of the Torah portion Tazria, describes the diagnosis, treatment, and ritual purification of people with various skin disorders, which may or may not be “nega tzaraat,” or “the plague of [leprosy]” (it is commonly translated as “leprosy,” but we don’t know what the disease actually was).

As I discussed before, these verses present special challenges for the readers. Words and phrases repeat many times, but within different grammatical structures (and thus with different trope, or melody). It does not work to associate a phrase with a melody. You have to learn both trope and text in a different way.

Today we have our last cantillation class. We were supposed to bring some pedagogical materials that we use when teaching cantillation to others. (Most of the students are preparing to be cantors.) Since I have never taught anyone else how to leyn, I thought about how I might go about learning Tazria, if I were to do it again.

Then it came to me. In the earlier part of chapter 13, in many of the verses, the first part of the verse has to do with the symptoms and general diagnosis; the second, with the action or treatment (and sometimes the reason as well). The two parts are divided by a melodic phrase called etnachta, which indicates a pause analogous to our semicolon. (It appears under its corresponding syllable and looks somewhat like a curved caret.)

So there you have it: symptoms and diagnosis in the first half, and treatment or action in the second.

But you can break it down still further. Within the first half, the symptoms are sometimes grouped in phrases; these phrases are separated by a zakef katon, a trope that indicates something like a strong comma–not quite an etnachta, but closer than many of the other disjunctives, or melodic separators. (It appears above the syllable and looks like a colon.) In fact, sometimes this zakef katon separates specific symptoms from a more general diagnosis. In the second part of the verse, the zakef katon may separate two possible actions.

I am not doing justice to the topic of parsing; there’s much more to it than this, both within these verses and in general. I am just looking at a particular relation between structure and meaning. When you consider it in this way, everything falls into place–if not in this particular way, then in other ways.

Take, for example, Leviticus 13:2 (I have set the etnachta phrase in blue and the zakef katon phrases in green; the quoted text is courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website):

ב אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֤ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ֙ שְׂאֵ֤ת אֽוֹ־סַפַּ֨חַת֙ א֣וֹ בַהֶ֔רֶת וְהָיָ֥ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂר֖וֹ לְנֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת וְהוּבָא֙ אֶל־אַֽהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֔ן א֛וֹ אֶל־אַחַ֥ד מִבָּנָ֖יו הַכֹּֽהֲנִֽים׃

“When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.”

Up through “bright spot,” you see a description of the symptoms; in the next phrase, the larger condition (the plague of leprosy); and after “leprosy,” the possible actions: bringing him to Aaron the priest (pause) or to one of his sons.

You can hear Hazzan (Cantor) Rob Menes of Congregation Beth Shalom read this verse. He announces the verse numbers in English as he goes along, so just listen for “two” (and continue listening after that, of course).

Of course this is not the pattern throughout; but once you see how it works, you can find other patterns too. Many Biblical verses have a kind of semantic symmetry; once you see the relation between the two main parts, you can see other relations as well.

If I were teaching this portion (to myself or anyone else), I would encourage the person to think in terms of the logical patterns and their meaning: in this case, in terms of symptoms, diagnosis, and subsequent treatment or action. We would start with this pattern and then find some of the others. We would parse a few verses systematically and completely, for the practice and understanding–but other verses we would view in terms of cadence, movement, symmetry, and meaning.

The portion still requires hours of practice (for me, at least), but it’s much easier when I not only see the smaller and larger structures at once but relate them to the narration.

This leads to a subject that might seem off-topic at first: “growth mindset.” In a group of previous posts, I questioned the assertion (now widely popularized) that people have either a “fixed mindset” (an assumption that their abilities are fixed) or a “growth mindset” (a belief that they can improve) and that a “growth mindset” is conducive to success, while a “fixed mindset” is not. I argue that we both have and need a mixture of mindsets.

After stumbling over this reading last Saturday, I was definitely not in “growth mindset.” I felt terrible. I thought it was the worst I had ever done (even though it was the longest and trickiest portion I had tried to learn in a short time). My disappointment was unreachable; people’s kind and encouraging words barely grazed my skin. But I had no doubt that I wanted to persist with cantillation. Also, I knew I wanted to figure out what went wrong. So as soon as the distress passed, I went back to the verses. That is when I saw the pattern.

Someone might say, “But with a total ‘growth mindset,’ you can skip over the distress altogether; that way, you’ll be more productive.” The distress has an important place, though; it comes from longing. When I am discouraged by my own performance (in the sense of carrying out a form), it’s because it matters to me to do well. The mattering carries me forward.

That brings out another possible meaning of the portion and the next one. Sarah Krinsky, a rabbinic fellow at B’nai Jeshurun, gave a magnificent D’var Torah (commentary, interpretation, sermon) on the purification process for the leprous person. Once the priest has pronounced him unclean, his clothes must be torn, he must let his hair loose, and he must cry, “Unclean, unclean” (Leviticus 13:45). On the one hand, this seems like humiliation; why should the person be forced to cast such stigma on himself? On the other, it can be taken as a statement of truth and a call for help and compassion. The person does not stay “unclean” forever.

My discouragement was much like a cry of “Unclean, unclean.” I knew I had not done well. By seeing and feeling this, without mitigation or immediate “positive thinking,” I could then proceed to do better.

I am glad for human complexity and structures of simplicity; I am grateful for cadence and mattering.

Note: I revised this piece in several stages after posting it. For much more on trope and how it works, I recommend Joshua Jacobson’s 965-page book Chanting the Hebrew Bible.

Uncertainty as an Opening

uncertainty Once in a while, for fun, I take some quiz or questionnaire that has me rate my agreement with various statements, for instance: “I like to have things planned out in advance.” What am I to say? Do I agree with it or not? Is it even possible to respond in the abstract? Yes, I like to plan things in advance. In less than two weeks I leave from Istanbul, where I will be teaching for two weeks at the wonderful Sainte Pulchérie Fransız Lisesi; from there I go to Budapest and Košice for a week. I have planned a beautiful itinerary and schedule but have also left room for the unexpected. It’s possible that the unforeseen parts will have the most meaning, as they will take me out of what I already know.

I have uncertainties in my life as well. I devoted this year to writing my second book. I have finished the second round of revisions but do not yet have an agent, let alone a publisher. People are often surprised when they hear this; they don’t know why someone would write a book without a contract. Of course it’s risky–but not nearly as risky as waiting for that elusive contract and maybe not writing any book at all! I chose to focus first on the work and only later on its place in the world. For that reason, I am facing uncertainty, but it’s worthwhile.

There’s a great comfort in locating yourself in the world, especially in conversations with others. Perceived success often has to do with having a place. When people ask, “Who’s your publisher?” it’s awkward to say, “I don’t have one.” When people ask, “How’s the job search going?” it’s embarrassing to reply, “I was turned down for job A and haven’t heard anything about B, C, D, E, or F.” I sense acutely that I am coming across as Unsuccessful. But this lack of placement–this interval of not knowing where one will be–can have great meaning and thrill.

I lack certain external markers right now; I cannot glibly say, “Oh, my book will be published by Knopf, and I will be heading a new humanities program at Carnegie Mellon in the fall.” That sounds extremely impressive and warming; I suspect that if it were true, I’d be glad. Sweet grapes these would be. The names wouldn’t even have to be so grand; there’s a comfort in having any concrete answer to the question, “Who are you and where are you going?”

But here’s the rub; if I had these externals all set up, if I had a ready-made answer, I would never have worked with the question. The uncertainty has been its own fortune.

Not knowing who the publisher would be, I persisted with the book; through this, I came to know it on its own terms.

Not knowing what my job would be, I looked at many possibilities; in seeing them, I started imagining what I could do. Had my job been all set up, I would not have had a chance to do this.

Beyond that, there’s a strength that comes from letting oneself just plain not know.

I also recognized how much I have, even in this uncertainty. I thought of the harrowing uncertainty that millions upon millions of people suffer every day: the uncertainty about the next meal or shelter, or even life itself. My uncertainties are not petty or trivial–but in looking at them, I see uncertainties vastly more difficult than my own.

The uncertainty can also open up into beauty. This year I have had room to go to concerts, plays, and an opera; see friends; take walks; go biking; visit Columbia Secondary School and lead philosophy roundtables there; and plan the upcoming trip, while also devoting myself to my book and the cantillation course.

So uncertainty can be an opening into oneself, one’s work, and the world. Last week, when walking down 88th St., I saw a tree in bloom and took the photo above. At that moment, I realized that I had noticed the tree because I was not rushing off somewhere. I had a little lull in the morning and did not know exactly where I would go next. There’s a liveliness in that lull. Of course I can’t stay in it forever, but I remember it as I go on.

In fact, if I think of the happiest moments of my life, there’s one kind that stands out among the rest. It’s that brief shivery hesitation, where for a split second your soul vibrates. I have had this at street intersections, in classrooms, and before a scroll. For just a flash, you do not know the next step, and that flash holds everything. Then it goes away and you continue on your course, which now has tinges of gold.


The Beauty of Leviticus 13

In my last post I criticized the careless application of the word “toxic” to human beings. The day I wrote it, I was invited to read (i.e., chant, leyn, cantillate)  a substantial part of the Torah portion Tazria (Leviticus 12-13) on April 29. Tazria first describes the purification process for women who have just given birth and then provides instructions that Aaron, his sons, and any priest must follow when examining and treating skin disorders. The latter part–contained in Chapter 13 of Leviticus–fascinates and moves me because of its intricacy, which (in my interpretation)  represents the intricacy of the human condition. The diagnoses are anything but careless.

The cantillation here poses challenges because of the verses’ grammatical complexity and the repetition of words and phrases. Normally, when preparing to read a portion, you can associate a particular phrase with its trope (melody); here you cannot, because each time the phrase comes up, the trope will be different. You must be entirely focused on the particularities and meaning of each verse. (I had more trouble with this portion than with any I have read before–but in its difficulty lies its beauty.)

Then there are the pronouns “hu” (masculine) and “hi” (feminine), which are so tricky that they elicited commentary from the medieval French rabbi and scholar Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105). These pronouns refer not to the nouns just before them, the predicates, but rather to the subject of the verse or even the subject of the set of verses. The subject may not even be named explicitly in the verse; you have to understand what it is. So you hear both “nega tzaraat hu” (he/it is the plague of leprosy, where the pronoun refers to an earlier “nega”) and “nega tzaraat hi” (it is the plague of leprosy (or whatever the disease actually was), where “it” refers to “michvat-esh,” a feminine compound noun meaning “a burning by fire”). To make things trickier still, the two pronouns are almost always spelled identically in Torah; editions with vowel markings will have the “u” or “i” marks, but a scroll will not. (Elsewhere “hu” and “hi” have distinct spellings.)

This grammatical complexity reflects the complexity of the skin diagnoses. Some conditions are contagious (impure); some are not. Some have to be watched over time. Some conditions that look threatening begin to fade a few days later; others that seem to have faded may erupt again. Each case needs to be recognized for what it is. Here are verses 13:1-5 (courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website):

א  וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר. 1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying:
ב  אָדָם, כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ-סַפַּחַת אוֹ בַהֶרֶת, וְהָיָה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ, לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת–וְהוּבָא אֶל-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, אוֹ אֶל-אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים 2 When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.
ג  וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת-הַנֶּגַע בְּעוֹר-הַבָּשָׂר וְשֵׂעָר בַּנֶּגַע הָפַךְ לָבָן, וּמַרְאֵה הַנֶּגַע עָמֹק מֵעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ–נֶגַע צָרַעַת, הוּא; וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן, וְטִמֵּא אֹתוֹ 3 And the priest shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.
ד  וְאִם-בַּהֶרֶת לְבָנָה הִוא בְּעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ, וְעָמֹק אֵין-מַרְאֶהָ מִן-הָעוֹר, וּשְׂעָרָה, לֹא-הָפַךְ לָבָן–וְהִסְגִּיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת-הַנֶּגַע, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים 4 And if the bright spot be white in the skin of his flesh, and the appearance thereof be not deeper than the skin, and the hair thereof be not turned white, then the priest shall shut up him that hath the plague seven days.
ה  וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן, בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, וְהִנֵּה הַנֶּגַע עָמַד בְּעֵינָיו, לֹא-פָשָׂה הַנֶּגַע בָּעוֹר–וְהִסְגִּירוֹ הַכֹּהֵן שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, שֵׁנִית 5 And the priest shall look on him the seventh day; and, behold, if the plague stay in its appearance, and the plague be not spread in the skin, then the priest shall shut him up seven days more.

This is just the beginning of a long and intricate set of instructions. First, the person with the skin disorder (a rising, scab, or bright spot) goes before the priest. Certain symptoms definitely indicate a plague; others require inspection over time. But look at all those independent and subordinate clauses! Take verse 3: “And the priest shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.” The trope (which reflects the grammatical structure) is of course as intricate as the structure itself. You can hear Hazzan (Cantor) Rob Menes of Congregation Beth Shalom read these verses.

The beauty here is that only under extreme conditions is someone pronounced “impure”–and that person will then go through purification. While some of this may seem harsh and unpleasant, the whole point is to attend to each individual and to the community: to avoid isolating anyone unnecessarily or longer than necessary, to isolate those who really have the plague, and to purify them so that they can then come out of isolation.

Although this priestly ritual is long obsolete, it is not entirely different from a skin exam at the dermatologist’s office. It has other levels of meaning, though. To me this is a parable of human complexity and compassion; people have all sorts of problems and characteristics and should not be categorized crudely. If skin diagnosis is intricate and nuanced, how much more intricate and nuanced our judgments of each other can be! As with cantillation itself, the challenge is to hold the complexity.

Update: Yet there is simplicity here too! See my followup post.

The Toxicity of “Toxic”

fort tryon in springWe gain much of our strength, versatility, and wisdom from difficulties and challenges. Yet today a cult of convenience squats in each field of life. Often, when people refer to others as “toxic,” they are not just using words carelessly; they are suggesting that the people they don’t like (or don’t immediately understand) are bad for their existences and deserving of expulsion.

Would the scene in the photo exist if no one could be bothered with difficulty? It took some adventurous sculpting and grappling with stone and plants (and that’s an understatement). What about a great friendship, also a mixture of nature and sculpture? If people dropped friendships as soon as they became difficult in any way, what would be left?

Again and again, I see advice about how to eliminate “toxic” people from your life. The criterion for “toxicity” is basically inconvenience or unpleasantness. Those who speak of “toxicity” rarely distinguish between people who pose difficulties for you and people who really hurt you.

On her website Science of People, Vanessa Van Edwards, author of the forthcoming Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People (Portfolio, April 25, 2017), declares that you “deserve to have people in your life who you enjoy spending time with, who support you and who you LOVE hanging out with.” The site has been discussed in comments on Andrew Gelman’s blog; while there’s plenty to say about the references to “science,” I’ll focus on “toxic” instead, since that’s the topic of this blog post.

In her short article “How to Spot a Toxic Person,” after describing seven toxic types, Van Edwards lists some tell-tale symptoms that you’re in the presence of someone toxic.  She then assures her readers that they don’t  need these toxic people–that they deserve the company of wonderful people, with whom they can be their best selves. Here is the list:

  • You have to constantly save this person and fix their problems
  • You are covering up or hiding for them
  • You dread seeing them
  • You feel drained after being with them
  • You get angry, sad or depressed when you are around them
  • They cause you to gossip or be mean
  • You feel you have to impress them
  • You’re affected by their drama or problems
  • They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no’

Now, of the nine symptoms listed here, only one clearly has to do with the other person’s actions: “They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no.'” The others have to do with the sufferer’s own reactions and assumptions. Of course those reactions also matter, but they do not necessarily reflect meanness, selfishness, or obtuseness in the other person.

So what? someone might ask. If someone’s company leaves you miserable, don’t you have a right to detach yourself? Well, maybe, up to a point (or completely, in some cases), but it makes a difference how you frame it, even in your own mind. It is possible to keep (or work toward) some humility.

If your explanation is, “This person wants more time and energy from me than I can give,” then it makes sense to try to set an appropriate limit. If that fails, either because you weren’t clear enough or because the other person does not accept the terms, then a more drastic resolution may be needed–but even then, it doesn’t mean that the person is “toxic.” It just means that you have incompatible needs. Perhaps you were like that other person once upon a time; many of us go through times when we particularly need support or seek it from someone who cannot give it.

If the explanation is, “I don’t like the kind of conversation I end up having around this person,” then one option is to change the topic or tenor of conversation. Another is to limit its length (or try to do something together instead of mainly talking). If neither one works, there may be a basic incompatibility at stake. Even then, it doesn’t mean the other person is “toxic.” It just means that you have different interests.

Now, of course there are people who use, harm, and control others. There are those who gossip aggressively and meanly, promote themselves at every possible opportunity, or treat others  as their servants. When describing such people, one still doesn’t have to use the word “toxic”; a clearer description will lead to a clearer solution.

Why does this matter? The concept of “toxicity,” as applied to humans, has become a fad; people use it to justify writing off (and blaming) anyone who poses an inconvenience or whose presence doesn’t give constant pleasure. Philosophers, theologians, poets, and others, from Aristotle to Buber to Shakespeare to Saunders, have pointed to the moral vacuity of this practice. Yet the “toxic” banner continues to fly high in our hyper-personalized, hyper-fortified society (and always over the other people).

There are ways to be around people and still hold your ground, draw provisional lines, and take breaks. It’s possible to limit a relationship without deeming the other person awful. It is not only possible, but essential to public discussion, substantial friendship, and solitude. Who am I, if I must dismiss and disparage someone just to go off on my own or be with others? Doesn’t that cheapen the subsequent aloneness or company?

As for whether we deserve to be around people we love, people whose company we enjoy–yes, of course. But we also deserve to be around those whose presence is not so easy for us. When appropriately bounded, such a relationship can have meaning and beauty. Some of my best friendships had an awkward start; they grew strong when we let each other know what we did and didn’t want.

I hope never to call a person “toxic”; if it’s my reactions that trouble me, I can address them appropriately; if it’s the person’s actions, I can find a more specific term.

Image credit: I took this photo in Fort Tryon Park.

Update: Here’s an article by Marcel Schwantes (published in Inc.) advising people to cut “toxic” co-workers from their lives as a way of keeping “good boundaries.” Here’s a quote:

5. Cut ties with people who kiss up to management.

They will go out of their way to befriend and manipulate management in order to negotiate preferential treatment–undue pay raises, training, time off, or special perks that nobody else knows about or gets. Keep an eye out for colleagues who spend way more face time with their managers than usual. The wheels of favoritism may be in motion. Time to cut ties.

What? You don’t even know why the person is spending “face time” with management. Why conclude that it’s “time to cut ties”?

This anti-“toxic” stance of this article (and others like it) is much too self-satisfied and self-assured. 

The Folly of Followership

no followerIn a New York Times article from yesterday, Susan Cain argues that college admissions offices are overemphasizing “leadership” and should give more attention to “followership.” (She also gives a nod to teamwork and independent thought.) In the comments, people spoke up against this concept of “followership”; to many, including me, it poses as the next bad Big Idea. Instead of seeking “leaders,” “followers,” “team players,” or “solo thinkers,” colleges should seek young people with intellectual accomplishment, promise, and interest. The challenge is to identify them properly; the concept of “followership” will not help.

To begin with, Cain frames the problem incorrectly. It isn’t that admissions offices have come to emphasize leadership above all else. Rather, when looking over thousands of applications, they seek qualities that stand out. Leadership is one of them; knowing this, students emphasize their leadership roles, often to excess. But leadership takes many forms; when writing college recommendations, I have sometimes emphasized a student’s intellectual leadership in the classroom or outside. Some students lead through their work; to write an outstanding essay (that goes beyond any “rubric” into the subject itself) is to exercise leadership.

One problem is that students face pressure to stand out in some way. They have no guarantee that their desired colleges will single them out. Even outstanding grades and test scores are no guarantee; many students are now entering college with two years of calculus, or with experience in a biomedical lab, or something else beyond the usual school curriculum. Some worry about whether they will have a chance if, say, they choose to play in a youth orchestra instead of enrolling in the intensive calculus course that their peers are taking.

As a result of such pressure (as Cain duly notes), students begin shaping their resumes for the sake of being seen. This is nothing new; I remember such a tendency in graduate school. I was often told that I should attend this or that conference because it would look good on the resume; that was one of the reasons that I decided not to go into academia. But it is especially painful to see teenagers under such pressure. A possible solution would be to limit the number of applications per student and to limit the Common App itself. Also, colleges could send clearer messages to students about what they seek.

But “followership”–even understood subtly–is misleading and potentially harmful. Cain quotes Robert Kelley, who in 1988 listed some qualities of good followers, including dedication to “a purpose, principle or person outside themselves” and being “courageous, honest and credible.” But as you read on, you see that what he describes is not so much “followership” as “a life of integrity outside of leadership.” “Paradoxically,” he writes, “the key to being an effective follower is the ability to think for oneself—to exercise control and independence and to work without close supervision.” (It’s paradoxical because “follower” is the wrong word and concept. He’s really talking about people who, in the workplace, occupy positions other than those at the top–but who contribute thoughtfully, independently, and honorably to the larger endeavor.)

Many commenters on Cain’s article brought up problems with the leader-follower dichotomy. It can be limiting and patronizing; it casts even solo thinkers as “followers” (just because they aren’t “leaders” on paper), and it does nothing to solve the problem at hand. I would add that it’s geared toward a kind of workplace (often but not always corporate) that practices social engineering. Many firms try to engineer success by combining personalities effectively: by identifying employees as “types” (leaders, followers, introverts, extraverts, and whatever it might be) and then adjusting the staff proportions. This trend is neither necessary nor universal. There are other ways to work and lead one’s life.

Are professional orchestra musicians “followers”? Not quite. True, they follow the directions of the conductor. But for music to occur, each musician must have excellence, soul, and a musical life. It isn’t just a matter of coming to rehearsal and doing what the conductor says and shows. Each member of the orchestra is dedicated to music; this includes hours of solo practice, chamber music, teaching, and much more. All of this contributes to the orchestra’s work and performance. Without each member’s independent musicianship, the orchestra would turn mediocre.

Is a professor (other than department chair) a “follower”? No–even those who teach the standard courses bring their own thoughts, research, and questions into the classroom. On their own, they conduct research in areas of interest. As they advance, they may teach more courses of their choosing or branch into new areas. Many professors I know perceive “leadership” positions as an encumbrance; they would not want to be department chairs, even less administrators. There is plenty of leadership in what they do.

Even in corporate settings, the “leader/follower”opposition fails to characterize the situation at hand. Many outspoken editors, software engineers, and others help shape the company’s work and direction, even though they are not formally “leaders.” Sometimes it is those in lower positions who exercise the intellectual leadership of a company.

Most of us, in our everyday lives and work, combine leading, following, participation, and independent action. We may tend toward one or the other; different projects may bring different qualities out of us. As Helen Vendler notes in a memorable essay (which Cain cites but misinterprets), a young poet or artist may have less-than-stellar grades; her talent and excellence may show not through all-around achievement, but through a special brilliance and intensity. So instead of crudely categorizing ourselves and others, we can instead look at what we do, say, choose, think, and desire, and how this changes over time.

Back to college admissions: I doubt that many admissions officers swoon over hollow tokens of leadership. Still, there are ways to strengthen and dignify the application process. Typecasting is not one.

Image credit: I took this photo in Gill, Massachusetts.

Note: I made a few changes to the sixth and ninth paragraphs after posting this piece.

The Trope of Esther

Rembrandt_EstherOn Purim (this Saturday and Sunday) I will be chanting Chapters 7 and 8 of Megillat Esther at a synagogue in Long Island. These are momentous chapters; Esther reveals to King Ahasuerus that Haman intends to destroy her people; at the king’s command, Haman is hanged on the very gallows that he prepared for Mordechai; then Esther entreats the king to reverse all Haman’s letters ordering the destruction of the Jews; the king orders letters to be written in his name, sealed with his ring, and sent out all over the land from India to Ethiopia; his order is executed; Mordechai goes forth in royal apparel; and all the Jews are joyous.

Purim is often known for its costumes and noisemakers, wine, food, and music–and rightly so. But underneath that, something serious is going on: the reading and hearing of the entire Scroll of Esther, at both the evening and the morning services. Every Jew (male and female, young and old) is required to hear the reading of Esther; the catch is that you can’t hear much, because of the noisemakers and general brouhaha. Every time Haman’s name is uttered, people are supposed to drown it out. The noise extends beyond the name. But that makes it all the more exciting to discover the text and melodies. They cry and rejoice below the festivities.

The Hebrew sacred texts have six distinct trope sets (codified by the tenth century, and probably much older), all with the same basic principles and symbols but distinct melodic phrases. These are: Torah trope, Haftarah trope, High Holiday trope, Esther trope, Festival trope (for the Song of Songs, Ruth, and Ecclesiastes), and Lamentations trope. Trope–the melodic system underlying the art of cantillation–brings out the structure, meaning, and beauty of the text.

I will give a brief sense of Esther trope through Chapter 8, verses 5 and 6. Verse 5 is in regular Esther trope; because of the sentence complexity, it is especially ornate. Verse 6 makes a diversion into Lamentations trope; it has a simple melody and a plaintive feel. (The Esther text has  many melodic diversions–some into Lamentations trope and some into special melodies.)

Biblical verses typically divide into two parts; from there, they subdivide into still smaller phrases. The first division is indicated by the trope called “etnachta,” which looks like a caret and comes with a pause. Further subdivisions and connections are marked by other melodies.

Here’s the Hebrew-English text of 8:5-6 as it appears in the Open Siddur Project (except that I have bolded and colored the word in each verse that contains the etnachta: “be’einav” in verse 5 and “et-ammi” in verse 6). This has both vowel and trope marks; the actual scroll has neither (the reader must learn the trope patterns beforehand).

הַ5 וַ֠תֹּאמֶר אִם־עַל־הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ ט֜וֹב וְאִם־מָצָ֧אתִי חֵ֣ן לְפָנָ֗יו וְכָשֵׁ֤ר הַדָּבָר֙ לִפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וְטוֹבָ֥ה אֲנִ֖י בְּעֵינָ֑יו יִכָּתֵ֞ב לְהָשִׁ֣יב אֶת־הַסְּפָרִ֗ים מַחֲשֶׁ֜בֶת הָמָ֤ן בֶּֽן־הַמְּדָ֙תָא֙ הָאֲגָגִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֣ר כָּתַ֗ב לְאַבֵּד֙ אֶת־הַיְּהוּדִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּכָל־מְדִינ֥וֹת הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ 6 כִּ֠י אֵיכָכָ֤ה אוּכַל֙ וְֽרָאִ֔יתִי בָּרָעָ֖ה אֲשֶׁר־יִמְצָ֣א אֶת־עַמִּ֑י וְאֵֽיכָכָ֤ה אוּכַל֙ וְֽרָאִ֔יתִי בְּאָבְדַ֖ן מוֹלַדְתִּֽי׃

In the JPS translation, Esther 8:5 reads, “And [she] said, If it please the king, and if I have favour in his sight, and the thing seem right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes, let it be written to reverse the letters devised by Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews which are in all the king’s provinces.”

The long subordinate clause occupies the first part of the verse–and the main clause, the second. The etnachta, dividing the two parts, occurs at the phrase “in his eyes.” There are more subdivisions from there. Here is my recording of the verse; here’s verse 6. (I posted recordings of verses 5 and 6 only, to give a sense of the trope.)

Verse 6 (still Esther speaking) is simpler in structure; through its Lamentations trope and clear parallelism, it contrasts with verse 5. It translates, “For how can I endure to see the evil that shall come unto my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” The verse’s symmetry holds sadness.

In Esther trope, the etnachta sounds different from the sof pasuk trope, the melody at the very end of the verse. In Lamentations trope, the two are nearly identical. You can hear this difference in verses 5 and 6. Lamentations trope feels in some ways like swinging on a swing, all alone, in the courtyard of a crumbled city; you feel the repetition and rhythm, but everything is bare.

These two verses hold complexity and simplicity; they combine art and soul into a cry. It is this combination that defines Esther for me; with all her cunning, she lives and speaks for her people and their survival. Her plea rolls the story to its conclusion.

There is much more to say about cantillation–but the discussion gets more technical (and beautiful) from here. Of course there is much more to say about Megillat Esther too. The best book I know  on trope is Joshua Jacobson’s 965-page Chanting the Hebrew Bible: The Complete Guide to the Art of Cantillation. I recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. Of course the best book to read on Esther is the Scroll itself. In that spirit, happy Purim and almost-spring!


Image credit: Rembrandt, Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther (1660)

Note: I made some edits and additions to this piece after posting it.