Singing in Class

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Songs are not a frill or luxury, in a language class or anywhere else; they are part of what we live for. A language class without song–entirely without song–is incomplete, since songs not only help with language, but make language learning more worthwhile than it would otherwise be. A song takes a place in your life; you can sing it, hum it, play it in your mind, listen to it–at least one of these, whenever you want.

We learn more language from songs than we realize. Song lyrics are full of the grammar and words we use every day, but slowed down (or sped up), reshaped, cast in melody. But it isn’t just for their utility that we learn them. They are ends in themselves, or some combination of ends and means. They stay with us. We remember them years later. They connect, unexpectedly, with other things.

The evening before my first session of the year with one of my tenth-grade classes (with whom I meet just once a week), I received a message from one of the students in the class: “Look at what I found🙄 maybe an idea for a warm-up exercise for tomorrow.” He had attached a photo of his own copy of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which we had sung last year. I agreed that we would sing it. When we did, I could see how much the students were enjoying the return: the song itself and the remembering of it. What it brought back, and what it was right then. I then taught it to the ninth-graders (pictured above).

The third week into the school year, I was in for a surprise. Yesterday I was filling in for another teacher (during the ninth graders’ math lesson), so I decided to do a combination of math and poetry. First I challenged them with Thales’s theorem, which they figured out with a little help, and which one student then explained eloquently from start to finish (in English). Then I taught them Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” First I recited it, then took them through it bit by bit, and then asked them to find a contradiction in the poem. They recognized it: on the one hand the two roads are “really about the same”; on the other, the speaker imagines a time far in the future when he will be “telling this tale with a sigh” and saying “I took the one less traveled by.” I asked them: Is this about the tricks memory plays on us, or the way we fool ourselves with our stories? Or is there a way that both of these things can be true: that the two roads are, at the outset, both equally untraveled, and yet, by the end, the speaker has taken “the one less traveled by”? We considered “how way leads on to way” and how, as time goes on, the sequence and combination of paths that the speaker takes must grow more and more singular. Not at the outset, but over time, not on that initial road, but on the long stretch of roads, forks, and turns, the speaker takes “the one less traveled by,” since the probability of anyone else taking that precise combination of roads grows smaller and smaller. That is just one way of hearing the poem, but it holds up and brings the many parts together.

Before this discussion began, a student made everyone laugh by singing the poem. But when I listened more closely, I recognized he was doing something serious, although it sounded comical. He wasn’t simply setting it to a random melody. He was chanting it; each line followed the same melodic pattern, which brought out the poem’s cadence and rhythm. I told the class that ancient poetry was often chanted in this way–that this was a natural thing to do with poems. And then the student said something that made me curious. “I see something similar between this poem and ‘This Land Is Your Land.'” At the end of our discussion we returned to his comment.

He then explained. “It isn’t that the two are similar, but they come out of a similar feeling. Of homesickness.”

Neither “The Road Not Taken” nor “This Land Is Your Land” mentions homesickness, but you can feel it in both of them. I stood stunned for a few seconds, hearing both of them in a new way.

But that’s the point: hearing. It’s when you hear the poems and songs that you understand them, that you go below the surface.  Singing and hearing go together; this is part of why I love leyning Torah, chanting liturgy, memorizing poems in different languages, listening to songs over and over again. This is why singing belongs in language classes–why it is not a frill, not an extra, but one of the necessities that you bring along.

 

I took the photo in class (in the first week of school) and am posting it with the students’ permission.

 

Unhyped

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In Hungary I am relieved of the pressures of hype. Here, by and large (with exceptions and shadings), people care more about the quality of a thing than about the publicity surrounding it. It is more important to write a good book, song, or play than to “succeed” in terms of sales and numbers.

Not that this is always true here, or always false in America. Here in Hungary, artists have to promote their work just to keep on going; to make a living off of it, they have to win a large audience. Conversely, in the United States, people are not always impressed with big publicity; especially with music, they look beyond the fame.

But often, in the United States, you are judged by your external success. If you want to be considered–yes, even considered–by a major publisher, you must find a literary agent. To persuade a literary agent to represent you, you must usually show that you have a “platform”–that is, a built-in audience that will guarantee sales. Or you must have connections with the big media outlets. Or else your idea must look like a big hit–something that will sweep the country and the world. Once the book (or other work) is out, you are judged by the splash that it makes–even though that splash, in many cases, has been pre-engineered. “Everyone’s talking about such-and-such”–people forget that sometimes the strongest reaction to a book is silence.

Beyond all of that, in the United States there is a fantasy of “making it”–of hitting upon something that makes you famous and rich and that tells the world that you matter after all. Many people believe that if they make it, they are legitimate human beings, and if they don’t, they aren’t. I know musicians who were profoundly and widely appreciated and who still believed they hadn’t made it. Some quit out of discouragement. Some shifted their attention to other things. Some switched to other kinds of music, where the “scene” didn’t matter any more. (Granted, this wasn’t always out of discouragement; sometimes they just wanted to take a new direction.)

In Hungary, from what I have seen, people recognize that life is difficult and bounded, that external success involves a lot of luck (and sometimes privilege too), and that you are better off focusing on your work itself than on the attention it is or isn’t receiving. Every writer or artist wants an audience that grows over time; audiences are necessary. Everyone wants recognition–awards, positive reviews, and so forth. But a small audience is not taken as a judgment against the work or its creator. Or maybe it is sometimes, in some places, but not everywhere.

Also, in Hungary there is intense emphasis on quality, sometimes to a fault. People readily criticize their own and others’ work, not always to put it down, but to point out how it can be better. The adjective “good” is a serious compliment, not freely given. People do not often laud creativity in the abstract; that is, they do not respect it as much as they respect a created thing, if it comes out well, and its creator. This has a negative side: judgments can be harsh, inaccurate, and overly self-assured. But in the best circumstances they can encourage discernment.

Take, for instance, the band contest in TörökszentmiklĂłs. I had never seen anything like this before. The bands were being judged by a jury on the quality of their musicianship, lyrics, uniqueness, and overall stage picture. The results made sense. Contests abound in Hungary–academic, artistic, athletic contests of talent and accomplishment. These contests have limitations and imperfections, but they can bring out the good. In the U.S., there are contests aplenty, but one contest reigns supreme: the “buzz” tournament, the challenge to produce something that everyone will be talking about for months to come. As though talk were a measure of anything.

This topic could be the subject of a book, but it wouldn’t be easy to write. I would have to go much farther into the essence of the matter. Right now I am dissatisfied, knowing I have barely touched the surface. Much remains to be asked, considered, probed, rethought. We shall see.

I made some revisions and additions to this piece after posting it.

Song Series #7: Favorite Songs

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Twenty years ago, I could have named my ten favorite songs. They would probably have been songs of Granfaloon Bus, Hannah Marcus, Sonny Smith, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities (or maybe 100 Watt Smile), the Breeders, Dieselhed, 20 Minute Loop, Leonard Cohen, Sonic Youth, and Kristin Hersh. Today I love those same songs but have a harder time naming favorites. Knowing this, I can enjoy the task. Maybe my choices will change over time. Maybe they’re narrow. Maybe they’re too far flung. But these are songs that I come back to again and again. For the sake of brevity, I will name not ten but four. Not in order of preference–at this level there’s no order–but just as they come to mind. I am not even sure that they are my favorite songs in all the world; many others circle around them. But I will go ahead and name them.

The first is Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea.” I heard them play it live in San Francisco. There was a time when I played it over and over again. But even after that, it kept coming back to mind. I love the changes it goes through, the way the music creates the diamond sea. I also love the matter-of-factness of the main melody, and the way the lyrics build.

The second is 1LIFE’s “Maradok ember.” I have written about the song, covered it on cello (in Szolnok and Dallas), heard it performed live, and returned to it again and again. It crosses boundaries of language, culture, age, musical style, and more. When they played it in TörökszentmiklĂłs in August, I realized how radical and raw it is. I hope that it will eventually be heard all over the world.

The third is Cesaria Evora’s “Petit Pays.” This song comes close to reminding me of when I was a baby in Brazil. She is from Capo Verde, not Brazil, but her voice, the language, and the music bring back memories, not in any explicable way, but in a way I can’t shake off either. Maybe that’s what a good song does: take on the quality of an old, old memory. But besides that, I love the rhythm and Cesaria Evora’s deep, knowing voice. This video is beautiful, too.

The fourth is Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee.” It is majestic, with a voice that lilts and cries, a melody with a Jewish or Middle Eastern feel, a violin weaving in and out of sound, and gorgeous backing vocals by Emmylou Harris–not really “backing,” but side by side with Dylan’s. It’s understated; it ends before I know it, and I want to hear it again. There’s an imperfection to it, also, that I love; the violin slightly (and pleasantly) out of tune in places, Dylan and Harris sometimes blending together, sometimes sounding like two strong and separate souls.

There are at least twenty other songs I could have included here. Maybe even fifty. But there’s something to be said for choosing a few.

I made some changes to this piece after posting it; in particular, I changed the fourth selection.

Image: Bradford J. Salamon, KLH Turntable, oil. Featured in Southwest Art Magazine, March 2016.

To read all the posts in the Song Series, go here.

Szolnok’s First Golden Age

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This evening I went to a lecture by Zsolt Bajnai on Szolnok’s first golden age (from 1867 to 1914). I learned about buildings I see every day, buildings I have never seen (because they don’t exist any more), buildings that have partly remained, and the ways of life associated with them. Mr. Bajnai showed photographs and postcards of the buildings that now house the Varga Katalin Gimnázium and the Ferenc Verseghy Library; the County Hall and City Hall, the building, which I often admire in passing, on the corner of Kossuth Square and Arany János Street; the buildings on Szapáry; the churches and synagogue; the train station; the old Szabadság bridge; the water tower, and much more. It was exciting to follow along; I understood at least 85 percent of the lecture and could figure out much of the rest. Besides learning about Szolnok, I was in awe of the occasion: a lecturer who knew and cared so much about this city, an inviting venue (the community center on Napsugár Street, right by the Alcsi-Holt-Tisza), and a rapt audience. This wasn’t just “worth” the bike ride to the outskirts of the city; the bike ride, lecture, audience, and surroundings were all part of the event.

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Afterwards, I bicycled in the wrong direction at first–but realized my error quickly and saw some lovely things along the way. Within minutes, I was back home. I have more to say, another time, about this event and about Zsolt Bajnai’s story “From the Pelikán to the Sugar Factory,” which I first read yesterday morning and which swiftly changed my life.

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Catching Up

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I have some things to say, many more things on my mind, but so much going on right now that it’s hard to catch up. Really enjoying the school year so far–the new classes and the familiar ones, the overall feeling of teaching at Varga for the third year. Now I enter the whirl: on top of the teaching, preparations for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and two trips to the U.S. for literary events (in Worcester and Dallas). Even so, I managed to spend some time at the Szolnok Goulash Festival yesterday. Some of my students were staffing a Russian booth there, so I talked with them for a while. Just when I was leaving and crossing the Mayfly Bridge, I saw a folksong group approaching. I had to stay just a little longer to listen to them.

In addition, I saw two beautiful films this past week, Curtiz and A lĂ©tezĂ©s eufĂłriája (The Euphoria of Being), both of which I recommend to all. Both, in different ways, have to do with the Holocaust; both are about art (film and dance) and life; both have a way of unraveling you. I intend to watch them again. Curtiz is coming back to Szolnok soon–I will see it at least one of those times–and in November I will get to see the dance performance around which A lĂ©tezĂ©s eufĂłriája revolves. I want to say more about these films but will have to wait for a later time.

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On a different subject, I had promised to explain what it means to be a “vice form teacher,” one of my many roles this year. Against appearances and sounds, it is nothing like the role of the Sub-Sub-Librarian in Moby-Dick. In Hungarian high schools, the official form teacher (osztályfĹ‘nök) is the homeroom teacher for a particular class from ninth grade through graduation. He or she meets with them regularly, keeps track of their individual situations, grades, and so forth, maintains contact with their parents, gives them support and advice, and then, at graduation time, participates in ceremonies with them and handles their final diplomas and grades. Visiting teachers from abroad (like me) are not eligible for this role–but they can be “vice form teachers”–which means being there to help out. I am honored to be vice form teacher for the new bilingual ninth grade class, working alongside my colleague Marianna Fekete, the official form teacher.

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This is not nearly all that I wanted to say, but I have some more things to do before I sleep. More at a slightly slower time.

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I took three of these pictures: the first at the Goulash Festival, the second in Buda after the film A lĂ©tezĂ©s eufĂłriája (The Euphoria of Being), and the fourth this morning, outside my apartment here in Szolnok. The third (in the schoolyard) was taken by my colleague Krisztián Berecz, who teaches geography and biology and photographs the school’s official events.

New Poem: “Living Hades”

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Living Hades

Diana Senechal

She closed before him like a woolen drape.
He tried to draw her open with his words.
“Of course,” he said, “if I had known on time—
didn’t we see a play on that same theme,
that rainy day when you wore those red boots
that went up almost to your knees, and we
ducked under my umbrella … afterwards
you didn’t want to go home right away,
so we went to Bob’s Burgers, and your eyes
reflecting in the window looked like cars,
so we talked about places we had been,
and the next morning I woke up in awe
and thought, I have found it, this is the world
as it is meant to be, the dream is real—
which was true, but reality breaks down
like pages, sponge, or pavement over time;
being real is no bulwark against change
and loss; we’re made of stage and loss and time
and”—from the curtains came a sharp “Shut up!–
I know all this! Why do you have to preach?
You’re not making it better!” He tried three
times to reach through the cloth, but all three times
she moved away, leaving his hands to grasp
just warp and woof and the uncounted shift
of air, the shift that gulls us every time.

The Immensity of Language

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While the Varga graduates of 2019 are off to their university orientations, we teachers are having orientations of our own: meeting new colleagues, participating in meetings, and getting ready for the school year, which starts on Monday. As I contemplate the coming year, take part in meetings in Hungarian where I really understand what is being said (not just in general, but in detail), and recover from a few recent language embarrassments and mishaps (where I misunderstood what was being said and responded accordingly), I think about the immensity of language.

You can study a language for a decade, study it well, study it with vigor and openness and play, and still not reach fluency in it. That’s what makes it worthwhile! Languages would be dull if they could be mastered in a year. Learning a language takes patience, not only with the language, but with others and the self. Especially the self. Supposedly young people learn languages faster than older people, but even for them, it is not easy.

After our year in Moscow (when I was fourteen), and even in college three years later, some people called me fluent in Russian. I was not fluent. I had good pronunciation. I could read Dostoevsky without a dictionary (and with only a few lapses in understanding). I could speak confidently (albeit with mistakes) on familiar topics. But put me in an unfamiliar situation, and I might not know what to say at all. This came clear in graduate school, when I had to take a proficiency test. I reached a level that qualified me to teach the language, but the last task stumped me completely. I was given a situation: “You come home to your apartment but find that your doorknob is broken. You have to go to the neighbor to ask for some tools to fix it.” I didn’t know the words for this–or rather, I knew them, but didn’t know to use them here. A basic situation that left me speechless!

Remembering this–and this was after I had majored in Russian in college–I can forgive my level of Hungarian right now. I am making lots of progress, but there is a huge amount to learn, and I still get stumped sometimes in basic situations.

The reason is this: A language is life, history, thought, and art. It is not simply a set of words and structures, although those are essential; many other things can affect your expression and understanding. First, the more you know of the context–the background information, the situation at hand–the better you will fare. Second, in the early stages there’s a good deal of luck. A single word you don’t know, or a grammatical construction that you don’t immediately grasp, can throw you off. It takes time to get beyond that uncertain stage. Even then, there are nuances that you might miss. Third, even when you border on fluency, you make mistakes. Mistakes are part of it all; they bring out not only the differences between languages, but language complexity in general.

Isn’t this part of the reason to learn a language in the first place? To go into that immensity–not only the grammar and vocabulary, not only the countless variations, but also the literature, songs, plays, and films? These would not exist if language were a simple, compact matter. If we made no mistakes, there would be no poetry either.

Given all of this, how does one go about improving? A language, being a combination, demands one too. I have to be immersed in the language–with no one translating for me, no one stopping me from listening, listening, listening. I attend literary events and take in as much as I can. I speak the language whenever I can, with colleagues, friends, and strangers, even making mistakes, because that is how I learn. I have wonderful “language exchanges” where we meet regularly and speak first entirely in English (for the other person’s practice) and then entirely in Hungarian (for mine). I also read every day, sometimes without looking anything up, sometimes slowly, with a dictionary. I write, too, and learn songs and poems.

Systematic study is also necessary. Recently I have started a vocabulary log, since vocabulary is my main obstacle right now. I watch and listen especially for words that I hear often but don’t know, or words that I really like for some reason. I look them up and write them down(or vice versa). That helps a lot. The grammar is in better shape; I understand how much of it works and am getting more adept at using it. Hungarian grammar is thrilling; once you start using the -hoz, -kĂ©nt, and other cases with ease, you can say all sorts of things. And don’t get me started on the translative case, my favorite of them all!

If someone were to ask my advice on how to learn a language, I would say: do it all. Listen, speak, read, write, sing, learn vocabulary, study the rules, take in as much literature as possible, listen to songs. Do these last two for their own sake; they will bring the language with them. Beyond all of this, don’t be afraid of the difficulty, don’t be afraid of things you don’t yet understand. And above all, don’t be afraid of mistakes.

Song Series #6: American Epic Sadness

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Many American songwriters compose an epic song at some point. By “epic” I don’t just mean “long” or “momentous”; I draw on Louise Cowan’s definitions of epic: for instance, as something that “displays on a panoramic scale an entire way of life—caught, it is true, at a moment of radical change, and yet, viewed from an omni-dimensional standpoint, in that very act transfigured and preserved.” (Louise Cowan, “The Epic as Cosmopoiesis,” introduction to The Epic Cosmos, p. 3.) Here I want to bring up not American epic in general, but American epic sadness in song. The examples–Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote,” Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” and Hannah Marcus’s “Hairdresser in Taos”–all give a sweeping sense of American loss.

How can a country famed for its prosperity be also a country of loss? Every country has its undersides and contradictions, and America (by which I mean the United States here–I use “America” because of its tones) may be foremost among them. The prosperity never came to everyone, and it always came at a cost. Moreover, those to whom it came were not necessarily happier; the very pressure to find happiness could make them miserable. But the songs also point to changing times–things rumbling underfoot that the characters cannot identify. If you know these songs, you understand something about the United States. It’s almost like visiting the country.

This time I won’t include the lyrics, except for a few quotes–since they’re long, and you can find them easily. But it’s better just to listen to the songs and let the lyrics come to you on their own. I’ll start with Don McLean’s “American Pie,” a longstanding hit and then a classic. When I was in college, people would play it on guitar at coffeehouses, and we would sing along in the chorus:

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

The chorus is always preceded by the phrase “the day the music died,” which at one level refers to the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. At another level, it refers to the end of an era. McLean said, “It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music.” Here’s the 1971 recording.

This song still gives me the shivers–not only the lyrics, but the piano touches, the changes of tempo, the way he explodes into rock in the second verse.

Joni Mitchell is most widely known for her gorgeous contemplative folk songs (like “Both Sides Now”), but her album Hejira changed my ideas about what a song could be. My friend Steve introduced me to it in college. He considered Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen songwriting geniuses; he would quote form their songs and then say, “Yeahh!!” (He did that with “Coyote,” in fact.) I came to know what he meant about the Hejira album. Jaco Pastorius’s bass, the dreamy guitar, the wandering voice all talk together about a relationship that cannot be, because of “different sets of circumstance” and long distance.

Here’s the first verse:

No regrets Coyote
We just come from such different sets of circumstance
I’m up all night in the studios
And you’re up early on your ranch
You’ll be brushing out a brood mare’s tail
While the sun is ascending
And I’ll just be getting home with my reel to reel
There’s no comprehending
Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes
And the lips you can get
And still feel so alone
And still feel related
Like stations in some relay
You’re not a hit and run driver, no, no
Racing away
You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

And the recording:

Now for Dylan’s “Hurricane“–the first song on his album Desire, which has a few of my Dylan favorites, including this. The song is about the imprisonment of middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who in 1967 was accused of triple murder, wrongfully convicted, and sentenced to double murder. (Almost twenty years later, he was released.)

The song (recorded in 1975 and 1976) is so fresh that it must be playing right now on hundreds of guitars, recordplayers, CD players, computers, and phones around the world. Here’s the refrain:

Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin’ that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world

I am moving along rather quickly, since I think the songs speak for themselves. Here’s Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” from her 1966 album Wild Is the Wind. Listen to the stories in these songs, the stories of women of color, and the refrain, “What do they call me?” then “My name is,” and then a name that tells a life. But just wait until the end; it tears open the whole song. Here’s the first verse:

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is Aunt Sarah
My name is Aunt Sarah, Aunt Sarah

And now for the last song, Hannah Marcus’s “Hairdresser in Taos.” This is one of my favorites of her songs; like “American Pie,” but even more intensely, it goes through vast changes and takes you across the land. Just wait till you get to this part–and afterwards:

Just like all my dreams they’re all tossed and scattered.
Where it seems that I lost what mattered.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
I’d take it.

By golly, I think this is one of the great American songs. It blew me away all over again. I will end here.

Image credit: Robin Hutton (1919-2017), North American desert landscape (pastel)

For the previous installments in the song series, go here, here, here, here, and here.

A Great Afternoon in Törökszentmiklós

IMG_9234I went to TörökszentmiklĂłs today for the first time ever (I have passed through it by train but have never set foot in it until now). The occasion? A band contest, AZTaQ, hosted by the Ipolyi KözművelĹ‘dĂ©si Központ (Ipolyi Cultural Center) and featuring 1LIFE and others. The contest–one of many taking place around the country–is specifically for amateur bands: that is, those whose music is not commercially available (through big record labels, distributors, etc.). In addition, they must perform only their own music. The bands are judged on the basis of their playing (that is, how well they know their instruments), lyrics, uniqueness, and overall stage picture.

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I learned in advance: each band would play only a short set, and the exact timing was uncertain. That is exactly how it was; the sequence was not announced in advance (at least not to the audience members), and each band had a thorough sound check before performing. This, in a way, made it even more fun; there was time to relax into it. I was only worried that if it went very late, and if 1LIFE ended up being the last band, I wouldn’t get to hear them at all, since I would have to catch the last train, which was to leave TörökszentmiklĂłs at 8:56. But this didn’t happen; they played fifth, and after the sixth band the event came to a close.

I have never been to an official band competition. Festivals, yes; concerts, yes; but no competition with judges and points. The bands who played today had been selected out of a pool of applicants. What surprised me was the relaxed, friendly atmosphere; the people running the event were there for the love of it and seemed to be enjoying themselves all the way through. They helped with setup, breakdown, and soundcheck; took many photos; and tapped their feet during the songs. I have to go back to this place.

I went primarily to hear 1LIFE (and Dana & the Dreamcatchers, who, as it turned out, did not play today), but I was curious to hear the others too: LĂ©legzet, Dorchipelago, SteelO, Caephis, Perfect Pill, and Nest of Plagues (Nest of Plagues didn’t play today either). Exciting things are happening in Hungarian rock music. Bands upon bands are forming, writing new songs, trying out new sounds and forms. The six bands that played today differed sharply from each other, not only in their styles, which ranged from heavy metal to something R&B-like, but in their entire approach to music.

I do not want to describe the performances, since the contest is still underway. This much I can say: I now know of more bands that I would like to hear again, and 1LIFE was fantastic, hands down. Their sound was glorious, they played with full commitment and presence, and you could feel the audience loving the songs. They finished with a ripping, passionate performance of “Maradok ember.” That in itself made the trip worthwhile.

As for Törökszentmiklós, I look forward to visiting it again.

Update: 1LIFE won first place! Congratulations!!!

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I took all three photos in Törökszentmiklós. Also, I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

An Early Answer to a Difficult Question

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Friends, acquaintances, and strangers in the U.S. often ask me, “How much anti-Semitism is there in Hungary today?” To answer, I would need much more knowledge than I have right now. I would need to be fluent in Hungarian to understand the many layers of conversation around me. I would need to know Hungary’s history; my knowledge right now is elementary and spotty at best. Beyond that, I would need to speak with a range of people, of different backgrounds and walks of life. Here I will try to convey (much too briefly) what I understand as of now: that Jews in Hungary have a rich and painful history, as does Hungary itself, and that my personal experiences so far have been of profound kindness.

First, for those who do not know it, a little about my ancestry. My mother is Jewish (of Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian origins); my father is not (his ancestors came from France, Norway, Ireland, Holland, and elsewhere). I consider myself fully Jewish but not only Jewish; I am heritage, experiences, education, choices, practices, languages, and the millions of things that make up a person. I was not brought up Jewish; how I came to it six years ago is a longer (and wonderful) story, possibly for a much later time. But yes, I am a Jew, by lineage and practice–not strict practice, but practice nonetheless.

From what I understand, Jews in Hungary date back at least to the Kingdom of Hungary in the Middle Ages. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Jews had assimilated into Hungarian life, occupying a range of professions and trades, attending school with non-Jews, and intermarrying. At the same time, undercurrents of anti-Semitism could erupt in violence at any time. I don’t know what drove my great-grandfather’s family to leave Györke, Hungary (now ÄŽurkov, Slovakia) in 1890–but their lives may have been affected by the Tiszaeszlár Affair–the blood libel of 1882–and its repercussions.

The Hungarian Holocaust was swift and brutal, but with long antecedents. Jews and non-Jews–or many, anyway–are now grappling with what happened during those years. There are memorials, commemorations, studies, but also efforts to forget or to deflect responsibility–and bitter controversies over the way history is portrayed or apportioned. There are new beginnings, too. At Szim Salom (my synagogue in Budapest) we sometimes have newcomers who are looking into their heritage, or exploring their Judaism, for the first time; some are Holocaust survivors or children of survivors, while others may have just discovered that a parent or grandparent was Jewish.

But what about anti-Semitism today? Is it strong? I have heard varying responses to this, from Jews and non-Jews alike. I have met only one person who said anything anti-Semitic in my presence: an old man in the village of Pácin, who was standing with me under the eaves of a grocery store, waiting for the downpour to stop. He began ranting about Jews and the Holocaust until he realized I was Jewish. His theory (if I understood it correctly–this was all in Hungarian, and his speech was slurred) was that Jews didn’t really die in the Holocaust, and that Viktor Orbán was now bringing them back.

Orbán is contradictory, for that matter, as is his milieu; his anti-Soros posters have obvious anti-Semitic tropes, as do some of his anti-liberal statements. Yet he also supports Israel (in some way) and Jewish life in Budapest (in some way). Jewish life in Budapest is thriving–with about 22 active synagogues, kosher stores, Jewish festivals, Jewish schools, and more. It may be one of the safest places in Europe, or even in the world, for Jews today.

But Orbán’s policies and statements do not account for everything; there are also rules, spoken and unspoken, in workplaces and elsewhere, with long histories of their own. Some people have told me that they never bring up being Jewish, except among other Jews or others they especially trust. There is still a fear of abrupt loss, or subtle ostracism and exclusion. It is also rude, I am told, to ask people whether they are Jewish (or Roma, or any other Hungarian minority); if they are, it’s up to them to decide whom to tell. Many people keep their heritage under wraps, from what I understand.

Compared to Hungarian Jews, I am in a fairly secure position; as a foreigner, I am already different, and as a teacher of English, I am needed and appreciated. So far I have felt genuinely respected for who I am and what I do. In Szolnok as well as in Budapest, I have been open about my Jewishness, and here are some things I have seen.

My colleagues–and other adults I know–show respect for Jews and Jewish history in their words and actions. On the day of the Holocaust commemoration, two colleagues arranged for a chorus of students to sing at the main event at the gallery (the former synagogue, shown in the picture above). Another colleague told me about the Holocaust memorial run at the end of that day; we both joined the run, along with another colleague. Two more colleagues introduced me to the people in charge of the gallery so that I could discuss the possibility of holding an event there. The event took place, and it was beautiful. I have colleagues who wish me well at the time of the Jewish holidays–and the school has allowed me, every year so far, to take a day off each for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Around me I hear people discussing Judaism, Jewish writers, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and more–and the discussion is thoughtful and searching. There are people who readily admit–with shame and pain–not only to Hungary’s role in the Holocaust, but to Szolnok’s as well.

As for students, I am reluctant to repeat their words on this blog, especially on sensitive subjects–but they often bring up Jewish writers, films, and musicians, as well as Jewish history. They are curious about Judaism as well; they ask questions about it and read about it on their own. Several students cited MiklĂłs RadnĂłti’s “Nem tudhatom” (“I cannot know”) as a favorite poem; one recited it from memory. I later memorized it too and recited it for one of my classes one day; a student said, “That was amazing. But do you know what it means? Do you know what it means?” I began to explain what I thought it meant, and I saw the vague nods, meaning, yes, yes, but there is much more.

Jews and non-Jews are not entirely separate or separable here; as I mentioned before, many non-Jews have someone Jewish in their family, and the synagogues–many of them now used as galleries, concert halls, libraries, museums–stand side by side with the churches. During the Holocaust, some courageous Hungarian gentiles risked their lives to save Jews; Zsuzsanna Ozsváth describes one such person in her memoir When the Danube Ran Red. In addition, Hungarians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, have suffered sieges, wars, relocations, regime changes, impoverishment; it is a lot to put together in the mind and heart. One should not relativize history–the suffering of Jews and other Holocaust victims cannot be likened to anything else–but Hungarians are familiar with trauma. An outsider comes to understand it in glimpses; a story, a saying, or even a bitter joke lets you see, for a split second, what people here have gone through.

I will not be surprised if I eventually encounter negative attitudes toward Jews, even coming from people I like. In the U.S. I have met people who are resentful of certain Jews’ money and power, or baffled by certain Orthodox practices, or critical of certain Israeli government policies. The dangerous error here–as with all prejudices–lies in turning a particular criticism, dislike, or misunderstanding into a judgment of an entire people, or even an entire person. Criticism has its place, but generalized criticism loses the very faculty of discernment and becomes tragically uncritical.

Here in Hungary people have told me, again and again, how much they appreciate my open-mindedness–and have shown me kindness and openness too. But how people treat me is just a fragment of what I want to learn and understand. The experience in a country is inevitably personal, but it can also be more–not through abandonment of the personal aspect, which is there no matter what, but through attention to things outside the self. Give me a few years. I will come back to the question that started off this piece, perhaps with more of an answer.

I took the photo of the Szolnok gallery (formerly the synagogue) on Friday.

I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.