Music, Theatre, and Goodbye

The visit to Istanbul concluded like a story: Before attending a student performance at the school, I took a walk, and found some of my favorite musicians again. (I had not seen them since the one time on May 19.) This time I asked them their names so that I could look them up and listen to more of their music. They are Fali Talebi and Sherko Hoseini, originally from Iran. I requested the song I heard them play last week (by humming the melody); when they played it today, many people gathered around and began singing along. (You can hear the crowd faintly in the video below.)

I kept the video clips to two minutes, because of my upload limits–but here’s a second clip with most of Fali’s solo, and here’s another song they played.

I got back to the school just in time for a joyous theatrical performance by the preparatory class. Proud parents were taking photos and videos.

And here are a few classroom and Café Philo photos from the previous days.

This is more of a photo album than a blog post, but as you can see, it will take a while to absorb everything that happened in these two weeks.

As for the musician I heard on my first and third days, my first favorite, I did not see him again, and I still do not know his name. I stopped in the Mephisto book and record store to ask about him. A store clerk told me that he has been playing on the street, and only the street, for the past twenty years; he has no formal recordings. He often plays the songs of Âşık Veysel–so I got a CD and booklet of  Âşık Veysel’s work. The “aşık” (minstrel) has a long tradition in Anatolian culture; Âşık Veysel is among the most renowned. Through this booklet and CD, I will learn something about the musician I heard; through the musician I heard, I will start to learn about the Anatolian minstrels.

Istanbul Memories in Advance

IMG_3053When I step outside of the school, this is the first street I see. Before I’ve walked a block, I see pictures of kebabs on restaurant walls; I hear an approaching motorcycle or a clattering wooden cart. Café tables and chairs fill the sidewalks. By 11:00 a.m., people are sitting outside, observing the day, drinking tea, talking with each other. Cats amble along, picking up food and affection along the way.

My time at the Sainte Pulchérie Lisesi is passing quickly; tomorrow I teach my last class. Today we held a long-anticipated Skype conference with the editors-in-chief of CONTRARIWISE. Selin, Zeynep, and Pinar participated on this end; Kelly, Alan, and (Professor) Kim Terranova on the other. (Nimet and I listened and took pictures; at one point I lifted up the laptop to show Kelly and Alan the view through the window.)

I have not seen my favorite musicians again, but I will keep on looking. I heard many other musicians, including this wonderful Syrian group playing “Habibi Nour el Ayn.” (Someone else posted another lovely video of the same group and song.)

This blog conveys only a fraction of these two weeks; I do not want to sum them up, so I will end here.


Street Music in Istanbul

Not only is there music on just about every corner in downtown Istanbul (especially on Istiklal Caddesi), 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. (She may have been a Syrian Dom refugee.) 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.

Update: On May 25, my last day in Istanbul, I heard the duo again and learned their names! They are Fali Talebi and Sherko Hoseini, from Iran. I will write a separate post about them.



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.