Fall Gratitude

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In celebration of this autumn day (a welcome change from the heat of the past few weeks), I offer some short and memorable readings.

The first is Jeb Sharp’s essay “On The Wind in the Willows and Going Home.” I was tempted to quote it, but the part I wanted to quote deserves everything preceding it. After reading the essay online (months ago), I found the journal in which it is published, Clockhouse, and ordered a print copy, which sits now on my desk. It’s coming with me to Hungary. (The desk is not.) It’s one of the most moving essays I have ever read.

The second, which I have mentioned here before, is William Lychack’s magnificent (and very short) story “The Ghostwriter.” (If you don’t have access to JSTOR, you can find it in his story collection The Architect of Flowers, which, like Volume Three of Clockhouse, will come along with me.)

The third and fourth are poems: May Swenson’s “Water Picture” and Edward Hirsch’s “Wild Gratitude,” both of which I first read about thirty years ago and reread with different understanding today.

Hirsch’s poem holds all of this together, including the photo above, taken earlier this month, of the ceiling of the Ady Endre Libary, formerly Baja’s synagogue, and the one below, from this morning’s outing to the corner store. I wish I knew what the cat saw at that moment; I’m pretty sure it was something I did not see.

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Goodbye to a School

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Over forty years ago, for a year, I attended school in the Netherlands, in the town of Paterswolde. It wasn’t quite a one-room schoolhouse, but it came close; you can see it in the photo above. There were three classrooms; each room was shared by two grades. I think there were thirteen of us (and only five girls) in the sixth grade. Then their were the fifth graders, some of whom became my friends. I have stayed in regular contact (at least once a year) with one friend from that year and have been in touch with others off and on.

I just learned that this schoolhouse will soon be demolished so that an expensive housing project can take its place. Somehow I took for granted that this lovely building would stay. I remember our teacher, Meester van der Meer, teaching us how to find one percent of a number (“een, twee, HUP, en een, twee, HUP”). He turned math into song–not nursery rhymes, not singsong chants, but his own melodic explications.

Outside, during recess, we played marbles (“knikkers”). This was a dangerous game; we could actually lose our favorite ones, if we weren’t careful. At the end of the game, we would tally up our gains and losses. The ones who came out ahead would say, “Ik hep winst” (“I have profit”); those who lost a marble or two would admit, “Ik hep verlies” (“I have a loss”).

In the photo, you can see the bikes parked in front; there were many bike racks in back. Lunch lasted about two hours; we biked home and returned. Sometimes we had lunch at each other’s houses. No invitation was needed; we just showed up.

Several of my friends from that year will be taking a memory tour on bike, before the building is gone. They will stop and visit the school.

I don’t know which is stronger right now: sadness over the loss of the school, or awe over this memory tour. I suppose the two go together, but I still hope for a twist, a happy idea, a last-minute decision to keep the place intact.

 

Photo credit: Annemarie Machielsen (courtesy of rtv Drenthe).

 

The Difficulty of Dignity

IMG_3777On October 23, a week before leaving for Hungary, I will lead a philosophy roundtable at Columbia Secondary School on the topic of human dignity. Our texts will be Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech “Solitude of Self,” and a short excerpt from Immanuel Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. This excerpt begins, “In the kingdom of ends everything has either value or dignity. Whatever has a value can be replaced by something else which is equivalent; whatever, on the other hand, is above all value, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.” That strikes me as a good starting point.

At these philosophy roundtables, the discussion takes surprising directions; while I prepare in advance, I do not know what to expect. I am fairly sure, though, that we will spend some time discussing the difficulty of dignity. That’s an inexhaustible topic, so it will not hurt if I lay out a few thoughts here.

It’s easy, when speaking of dignity, to point to egregious violations, such as those we see in the current U.S. presidency. It’s important to call out the egregious and to separate oneself from it (“I deplore this; this is not me”). But take away those extremes, and no one has mastered dignity. Everyone has difficulty with it; each of us fails in some way to perceive and honor others.

If dignity consists in that which is beyond all value and cannot be replaced, then we ignore or harm dignity when treating each other as dispensable or replaceable. Now, we all have aspects that are replaceable; that’s a different matter. If I leave a job, and someone takes over my responsibilities, that person has replaced that aspect of me that fulfilled those responsibilities. Still the person has not replaced me as a whole; I, like the new person, am irreplaceable. Not only did I bring something unique to the work, but I exist beyond it, as does any worker. Also, we often have qualities that we wish to slough off; those qualities do not deserve special honor.

How do we treat others–that is, entire people–as dispensable and replaceable? One common method is gossip. (That doesn’t happen to be my weakness–I gossip “hardly ever“–but don’t worry, I have plenty of other foibles.) Gossip, especially vicious gossip, creates an in-group and an outcast; the outcast has no say, and the gossipers assume that their own words have more status anyway. Also, gossip takes one aspect of a person–one mistake, one unpleasant quality–and treats it as the whole. Now, there’s gossip and gossip; some gossip is on the gentler side, but all the same, it takes advantage of the person’s absence.

But you do not have to be a gossiper (or slanderer, or libeler) to have difficulty with dignity. There are many other ways! For instance, if you try too hard to befriend people who don’t reciprocate, you risk ignoring or damaging their dignity; you assume that your own wishes are worth more than theirs (or that you know what’s good for them). On the other hand, if you shut people out unreasonably, if you push away people who show goodwill and kindness, you are reducing and tossing their gestures and sometimes, with that, their very selves.

If you chronically show up late for appointments and dates, you are rattling others’ dignity by making your day more important than theirs. But sometimes there’s dignity, or at least courtesy, in slight lateness (for instance, when arriving for dinner); it gives your hosts a little more time to prepare and relaxes the expectations. Etiquette has dignity bound up in it, but etiquette taken too far becomes judgmental and self-serving.

Online communications can affect dignity in all sorts of ways; a too-long email can overwhelm, whereas a short text message, in certain contexts, can reduce or erase conversation. Twitter seems to have a built-in indignity; it’s set up for eruptions of semi-thought. Brevity itself isn’t the culprit; it’s a certain kind of brevity, a dismissive kind, that runs rampant online.

Why is dignity so difficult? There are numerous possibilities; one is that we live inside our own minds and do not know what it’s like to be someone else. Everything we do, think, or feel is from our own perspective; while we can experience empathy, it’s essentially an act of imagination. Because of this, it is all too easy to treat others as slightly less real than we are. There’s supreme difficulty in seeing others.

Then there are the limits of a day and a life; there’s only so much we can take in, only so much room we can make for others. People reasonably set up their lives with concentric and sometimes overlapping circles; they have their inner circle and then successive outer rings. Distance can have dignity too–there’s dignity in strangers and privacy–but it’s all too easy to diminish distant people, to treat them as existentially less important.

Is there hope, then? Yes; first of all, dignity is inherent in us and cannot be given or taken away. It can be recognized or ignored, strengthened or damaged, but it stays. (I recognize that some dispute this, but I hold to it for now.) Second, there are thousands of ways of moving closer to it. Just as it can be bruised, so it can be healed. Treating others as beyond all value–that’s the work of a lifetime, but it’s possible,  thought by thought, gesture by gesture, mistake by mistake, repair by repair.

 

I took the photo in Albertirsa, Hungary. You can’t really see the grapes (except for one cluster), but they are there. When I looked at this little vineyard (in person), at first I saw no grapes at all. But then I started noticing one cluster after another.

For an extraordinary investigation of human dignity, see George Kateb’s book on the subject.

Radical Patience

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Urban life seems to tell us that only fools show patience. If you’re waiting in line, and the people in front of you are just dawdling, then it’s on you to urge them to move along. Or if you apply for a job and hear nothing for several months, there’s no virtue in staying silent; unless you make an inquiry, you may find yourself waiting indefinitely. It seems that the people who accomplish things are those who take existence by the horns and shake it up. It is those movers and shakers–legs in the air, hands gripping the Toro–who actually matter, or so it seems.

Celebrity lore perpetuates this idea. Famous people get huge book deals, and their books get *everyone* talking. Famous people make hugely influential films about social issues. Famous people influence election outcomes, for better or for worse. Whenever these take a bite from a celery stalk, they send a tremor through the press. According to these exemplars, any worthy accomplishment in life comes loudly, with grand echoes; if your work lacks such dramatic response, it basically doesn’t exist.

But this celebrity model distorts things. Many accomplishments such as writing require not only persistence and “grit” but a subdued quality known as patience. The right kind of patience is far from foolish; taking time with things, letting them unfold, you come closer to understanding their nature. Patience allows for sorting and recombination; it puts immediate passions in perspective.

In this sense, patience does radical work. It rips a person away from immediate reactions and demands, away from the distortions of glitz and fame, into a perception of things that matter. It has dangers, of course, especially when combined with wishful thinking; a person can wait and wait for nothing at all. It needs the mediation of good judgment.

Working on my book, I needed more patience than I first expected. I initially thought it would get snatched up by an agent–or rather, I thought this was expected of me. People were surprised to hear that I would devote a year to writing when I didn’t even have a publisher, so I thought, “I’ll have one soon.” It takes time to find one; not only that, but there’s something to be said for the time involved. It allows for serious thinking and revision along the way.

It is too soon for me to say anything definite, since I don’t have anything definite–but in terms of publication, I see some light ahead. Whether or not this light is for me, I don’t know. But the book will make its way into print, and the time will have helped it. I don’t think it would be where it is now if someone had seized it right away.

Too much waiting does no one any good; it can turn into sloth or procrastination. But I am not talking about either of those things; while waiting, I have been working on the book and doing many other things.

How, then, does patience differ from grit? With grit, you are the one in control; with patience, not so. Patience is essentially passive (as its root suggests); this quality doesn’t get much respect in our “go for it” culture. But certain kinds of passivity make room for good; moreover, passivity and activity often combine. Patience does not equal a long nap or, at the other end of things, a long scream. It’s somewhere in the background, but not too far; while letting things happen, it stays alert and taut. It exists only alongside impatience; there is a time for waiting and a time for saying “enough.” When to do which? To choose between the two, one must be capable of both; the bold word holds hours of holding back.

 

I took the photo in Albertirsa, Hungary.  “Pékség” means “bakery,” and baking, in many situations, requires patience. (Then again, it can also be done in a rush.)

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

 

On Giving Things Up

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Last week, in a conversation about my upcoming move to Hungary, a friend asked me, “How could you give up your apartment here?” I found this question difficult to answer; after all, we are defined in large part by our willingness and unwillingness to give up certain things. For me, giving up an apartment (under these circumstances) is easy; for someone else, it may be unthinkable. But I struggle with other material attachments. When sorting and packing my things, I have paused for a long time over books. I can’t bring many books with me, but I find more and more that I don’t want to leave behind. I am just putting them in storage–they won’t be gone–but I won’t be able to take them out of the shelf whenever I want.

Extreme circumstances–a war, flood, earthquake, fire, or other calamity–can force a person to give up things that otherwise would have seemed indispensable. Even a minor life change requires relinquishment of some kind. All the same, in large and small situations, each of us has a unique response to things that stay and go. Whether in times of ease or difficulty, no two people attach in the same way to their possessions, surroundings, and relationships.

Why is it easy for me to give up my place? After selling my apartment in Brooklyn, I chose to rent (rather than buy) an apartment so that I would have greater flexibility. I wanted to be open to future possibilities. So in a way the departure was already built in; I just didn’t know what form it would take. I love the neighborhood–particularly Fort Tryon Park–and am grateful for the two years here. It was an ideal place for writing my book (which is inching toward publication, by the way; there’s no concrete news yet, but I see light ahead).

So one answer to the question is, “This was part of the plan, before I even knew what the plan would be.” But another answer has to do with my sense of home. In my adult life I have spent years in one place or another–over a decade in New Haven, seven years in San Francisco, thirteen years in Brooklyn, two years in upper Manhattan, and seven Julys in Dallas. I am not one to move around continually. But I have no single home; each of these places is still a home for me, and there will be more.

Home does not exist for me without homesickness and longing for unknown places. Those are two different longings, though they combine at times; homesickness is a longing for a real or imagined home, while that longing for other places–places that aren’t home–pulls a person away from home, away even from homesickness, into travel and exploration. In his video introduction to his Shudh Sarang-sextet, Iván Fischer describes his search for a single word for such longing, something along the lines of “farsickness.” He had a wonderful Hungarian word, elvágyódások, but could not find a title in English that conveyed what he wanted.

So to answer the question, I would have to explain my sense of home, homesickness, and longing for the faraway. That could take a few years; in the meantime, the relations might have altered or shifted. For most of my adult life, I have not traveled much abroad, but the few trips I took on my own (to Kyrgyzstan, Argentina, Lithuania, Turkey, Slovakia, and Hungary) became part of my daily thought. The move to Hungary is more than travel; I don’t know what it will become, and I look forward to finding out.

Isn’t this true for everyone? Doesn’t each person have a sense of home that is difficult to explain to others, that changes shape over a lifetime, and that gets pushed and pulled in unexpected ways?

Back to the sorting and packing….

 

I took this photo in Baja, Hungary.

Classrooms, Bach, and Trains

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IMG_3718Now rested from my trip to Hungary (see yesterday’s post on the synagogue concerts), I marvel that this was all possible and that it is just the beginning. In the space of one week, I visited the school in Szolnok where I will be teaching, attended Shabbat services (and read Torah) at Sim Shalom, met with the Hungarian director of the Central European Teaching Program, and attended three Budapest Festival Orchestra concerts in three different towns (or cities). Yet this itinerary was not frantic or rushed; rather, it introduced me to something long-lasting, something that extended far before and after me but was soon to involve me for at least a few years, possibly more. Traveling to the different towns, in this sense, was like tilting a place in the light, or rather, being tilted by it, being turned into someone slightly different from before. I will soon be walking down the corridors of this photo every weekday.

On Friday morning I took the 5:10 train from Budapest to Szolnok. (I chose this early train so that I would have ample time to walk to the school; the route was simple, but I didn’t want to risk being late.) Many students boarded the train; when we got off, we all walked in one big crowd, which dwindled as students entered this or that school. A few continued walking all the way to the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. There I spent the day visiting classes and learning the ropes from the teacher who will be going on leave.

In general, I do not blog in detail about what goes on at school; although I might mention something interesting that came up in discussion, or describe a school event, I treat the classroom as confidential. But I was impressed with what I saw: the thoughtful atmosphere, the teacher’s combination of structure and spontaneity, and the students’ interest in learning. I met many teachers and had a chance to speak with the headmaster, whose dedication and vision were immediately apparent. I am excited about teaching there.

IMG_3715I got to see a little of Szolnok too, and there is much more to explore–the Tisza, the bike paths, the side streets, and the city’s lively cultural offerings, including concerts, a theater, and an array of festivals. The street from the train station to the school has many cafes and pastry shops; it passes by the city’s main buildings and sculptures, which bring together many eras.

I returned to Budapest in time to recollect myself and go to the Friday evening Shabbat service at Sim Shalom. Here too, I do not blog about the details! I loved the warmth of the service and felt profoundly at home. At the morning service I was invited to read (i.e., chant) Torah–the first aliya (Deuteronomy 26:1-3) of Ki Tavo–and so I did. It was wonderfully fitting, as these were my first fruits.

IMG_3732In the afternoon, after a delightful kiddush lunch (which reminded me in some ways of philosophy roundtables at Columbia Secondary School), I headed by train to Szeged, to hear the Budapest Festival Orchestra play two Bach cantatas at the Szeged Alsóvárosi Ferences Plébánia, also known as the Havas Boldogasszony Church. After arrriving in Szeged, I wanted to stop off at the hotel but had a little trouble finding it, so I asked a woman for directions. She walked me all the way there. When I told her that I was attending the concert, she said that she was too. (I did not see her later, but it was very crowded.) I found my way to the church, but asked a few people, just in case, whether I had come to the right place. “Igen, igen” (“Yes, yes”) was the reply.

People were coming from all over the city–on foot, by bike, and by car. There were people in wheelchairs, small children, elderly people; one family brought a Border Collie (who barked once or twice during the introduction but was quiet throughout the performance, either because the music calmed him down or because someone took him outside). The church filled up fast. People were courteous; when it turned out that I had taken a seat that someone had been saving, others in the audience pointed me to an open seat.

I still have the sounds of the concert in my mind: the alto-soprano duet of “Jesu, der du meine Seele” (I am thrilled to be introduced to Emőke Barath’s voice), the tenor aria with the Baroque flute solo, the bass aria (“Nun du wirst mein Gewissen stillen“) of the with the repeated violin motif, pictured below in a score excerpt, and, in the next cantata, “Christus, der ist mein Leben,” that tenor aria and the brief and solemn choral “Weil du vom Tod erstanden bist” at the end, which reminds me a little of the “Passion Chorale” in his St. Matthew Passion. These are just the pieces in my mind right now; there is much more to remember and study. But look at the picture below: you see, in the second line, the first violins’ motif with the trill, and then, in the third, the shorter version of the motif. They come back again and again. I love this repetition and am intrigued that it works so well and memorably. (One would expect a repetition to be “memorable”–that’s part of what repetition is for–but I remember not just the motif itself, but the joy of it.)

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IMG_3752After the concert, and the following morning, I walked around Szeged, enjoying the architecture, sounds, parks, imaginative statues, wide bike paths, river life (I crossed the Tisza on foot and saw boats on the river and parks on either side) and overall feel. I hope to return many times to this city. It will be an easy day trip on a weekend. I then took the train from Szeged to Albertirsa for the first of two synagogue concerts.

It was easy and relaxing to get to different places in the country; the trains were generally reliable, comfortable, and not too crowded. The best part, though, was when I almost missed a connection when traveling to the synagogue concert in Baja. The train from Budapest to Dombóvár was running behind schedule; I thought I might miss the train from Dombóvár to Baja. I stood near the train exit, anxiously looking out the window. A man (who had been checking the timetable on his phone) spoke to me in Hungarian; I guessed that he was talking about the delay, but I didnt know how to respond. It turned out that he was transferring to the same train.

When we got to Dombóvár, I thought it was too late. I asked a conductor where the train to Baja was. “A piros vonat,” she said, pointing to a little red train just ahead. I began to sprint for it. Then I saw the conductor standing beside it, smiling, and gesturing with his hands for me to slow down. So I walked the rest of the way and boarded. The rest is history and still to come.

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Opening the Gates

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A piyut by R. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol (Spain, 11th century) begins, “Sha’ar asher nisgar, kuma petahehu….” (“The gate that is shut, get up and open it…”). Here is a beautiful performance. Filled with echoes of the Song of Songs, the piyut expresses a longing that is both intensely personal and communal, both immediate and bound up in history.

In Hungary, many gates to Jewish history are locked; during the Holocaust, Jewish communities throughout the countryside were destroyed. Many synagogues are now abandoned, and the unanswerable loss hidden away. The synagogue concerts I attended on Sunday and Monday–performed in Albertirsa and Baja by members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra–opened a few gates.

I begin with the ending: in Baja, at the Ady Endre Library, whose building was once the city’s synagogue. After the first piece (the first movement of Brahms’s Sextet, Opus 18), the rabbi (Rabbi Slomó Köves, I believe), who spoke in between the pieces and gave a rousing shofar demonstration, asked someone to open up the ark. It remained open for the rest of the concert and afterward, so we could see the Torah scrolls, siddurim, photographs, hanukkiah, Shabbat candles, tallit, and more. As you can see in the photo above, the musicians performed right in front of the ark. I understood this as a gesture of gratitude and hope. Here is a closer view.

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The Budapest Festival Orchestra inaugurated its synagogue concert series in 2014. This project, initially envisioned by the conductor, Iván Fischer, aims “to fill synagogues that were laid bare by the Holocaust, with life, music and culture once again.” In other words, there is more to this than “just” playing concerts in these spaces; the music and presentations, the gatherings and assemblies, gently transform the people, synagogues, and towns.

This series is one of the orchestra’s many community initiatives. Orchestra members bring concerts to the elderly, the sick, the disabled, pregnant women, disadvantaged children, and people who cannot afford to travel. They give free concerts, open to all, in cities, towns, and villages around Hungary. (On Saturday evening, in Szeged, I attended their wonderful church concert of two Bach cantatas; I will say more about that in another piece. People came from all over the city: on foot, by bike, and by car. One family brought a big Border Collie.) The orchestra hosts an annual “Dancing on the Square” on Heroes’ Square in Budapest; over 500 children of different backgrounds work with teachers for six months to prepare a dance choreography for this celebration.

On the surface, the Albertirsa and Baja concerts had identical programs: the Brahms, Alexander Glazunov’s Rêverie orientale, Jacques Ibert’s Three Short Pieces, and, for the encore, a beautiful melancholic piece, evocative of a Nishmat melody, by a Hungarian Jewish klezmer composer (I will provide both his name and the name of the piece when I learn them). But beyond that, the Albertirsa and Baja concerts differed not only in the architecture and acoustics, not only in the audiences, but in the many layers of present and past. I remember the big echoing sound of Albertirsa and the warm resonance of Baja, but those adjectives say only so much.

I took the train from Szeged to Albertirsa late Sunday morning. Arriving in mid-afternoon, I had some time to wander around and get my bearings. I found my way to the little town square, which has memorial dedicated to the residents of Alberti and Irsa who died in World War II. I sat on a bench there for an hour or two.

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Around 3:30 I saw a stream of people all walking in the same direction: children, elderly people, families. I thought they might be going to the concert, so I followed them. Indeed, that was so. We were all going to the same place.

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I later learned (from Szolongo Szani, the orchestra’s community program coordinator, that when the BFO played at this synagogue in 2015, the building was abandoned and in ruins. It seems that the concert inspired the community to restore and make use off the space, which now serves as a House of Arts (Művészetek Háza). This was a project of spirit and care.

Here’s a view of the inside. I took the photo about twenty minutes before the concert started; by the time it began, the hall was full.

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Each piece in the program had a perfect and memorable ending: the pizzicato of the Brahms, the hush of the Glazunov, the glorious final run of the Ibert, and the encore’s final notes. Those endings stay with me and tug at me. The end of a piece can be a revelation: right then, in those fleeting seconds, you grasp the piece as a whole.

A ending of this kind also seems to say, “Remember and return.” You walk away with something of the piece, and it brings you back to the listening.

After each piece, the audience clapped heartily, in rhythm (a gesture analogous to standing ovations in the U.S.). There was a reciprocity in the room: not only between the audience, musicians, and rabbi, but between past and present. The concert was part instruction, part music for the sake of music; the clarinetist Ákos Ács gave the initial introduction (about the series itself), and the rabbi spoke twice. Since this was all in Hungarian, I missed most of the rabbi’s humor but understood some of the gist: he spoke of the history of the synagogue and of certain Jewish practices (such as the blowing of the shofar). He pointed out where the women once sat and where the Torah scrolls were once kept.

after the concertAfter the concert, there was cake. People stayed and talked outside for a long time. In this photo you can see the cellist Rita Sovány (now one of my favorite cellists) and the violist Barna Juhász. Lingering was part of the spirit o the event; the music was still in our ears, and many of us did not want to leave just yet. We were welcomed to stay.

Afterward I took a leisurely walk back to the train station. I did not even have to ask, “Hol van a pályaudvar?,” which I have had occasion to ask a few times. I remembered my way and had no trouble catching the train. That night I would go back to Budapest–and then, the next morning, head out to Baja.

I have stories to tell about the trip to Baja–for instance, about the delightful little red train I caught in Dombóvár. They will have to wait a little while. When I got there, I fell in love with the townlike city: its leafy park, pastel-colored buildings, and the Stars of David rising up into the sky (from the Ady Endre Library). Here again, I did not have to ask for directions.

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The city and synagogue had a different feel from Albertirsa. The synagogue, which the city purchased from the Jewish community in 1985, bears witness to a thriving past. When converting it to a library, the city restored its many details, including artwork and lettering. When I entered and saw the library staff greeting people warmly, I sensed their pride over this concert. Members of the small local Jewish community were in attendance; during his presentation, the rabbi welcomed comments from people in the audience who knew the synagogue’s history intimately.

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Within its visual splendor, the hall had a warm and subtle feel. At the end of the Glazunov you could hear the sounds so close to silence . The encore (the name of which I will find out) felt like something that happens once in a lifetime, even among hundreds of performances of the same piece. After the concert, as I got up and headed toward the cake, I made eye contact with other audience members; their eyes told me what I would not have been able to understand in words.

I stayed for a little while, took pictures of the ark, and spoke in my bare-beginner’s Hungarian with a library staff member, for whom I recited the first four lines of Ady Endre’s poem “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm,” which seemed appropriate for this night and week.

Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok,
Számban nevednek jó íze van,
Szent mennydörgést néz a két szemem,
Istenem, istenem, istenem….

It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear,
Thy name of names is sweet inside my mouth,
And the holy thunder fills my sight,
My God, my God, my God.

(This is my own attempt at a translation; I used Leslie A. Kery’s as a starting point.)

IMG_3833The gates were opened that night, and so were the skies; that night, as I slept in a little inn in Baja, the rain came pouring down. In the morning, before sunrise, I walked back to the train station through glowing streets.

In Hebrew, HaMakom (“the place”) is one of the names of God. These synagogue concerts were not just concerts played in synagogues; the place and the music were part of each other. This is probably always true, but easily forgotten; in some way, music–the creation, playing, and listening–comes out of knowing who and where you are, even as you search your whole life for the answers, the countless answers, to these questions.

 

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it (and a few more later). Also, thanks to Jenny Golub for editing the sixth photo to make it lighter.

Before Dawn in Baja, Hungary

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At 5 a.m., in a gentle rain after a night of downpour, I walked down this street toward the Baja train station. What a beautiful week this has been. I will soon write two pieces: one about the trip overall, particularly the visit to Szolnok, and one about the Budapest Festival Orchestra concerts in Szeged, Albertirsa, and Baja.

Routes of Passage

budapest1Someone getting to know a new country may go through many rites of passage, which sometimes take the form of routes. For example, it’s important to learn how to take public transportation from the airport to your destination. Why? It’s about one-tenth the cost of a cab, it’s more fun, and once you know how to do it, it’s easy (or can be). So I was excited to take the bus to the Budapest city center.I was going to take the metro from Astoria to Keleti, but I walked instead. This picture, taken from the bus, gives a sense of the ride.

Another important route has been vertical, through a glass elevator at the Baross City Hotel. When I ride, I feel swept up into a low-key elegance. The Baross is modest, as far as hotels go–comfortable but not fancy, gracious but not unctuous, and one of my favorite hotels yet. It seems to hold several eras at once, through its neoclassical architecture, mechanical and electrical engineering, internet connections, and daily comings and goings. Here I am not sure what the rite of passage means, or where the route may take me, other than up and down in glass–but I’m enjoying it. I have some jet lag but must get some more sleep, as I leave for Szolnok early in the morning.

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The Red Heifer

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I had read about Iván Fischer’s opera The Red Heifer (A Vörös Tehén), often described as biting political commentary, but did not realize until yesterday that there was a beautiful video of the October 2013 world premiere! It was performed in Budapest by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the Saint Ephraim Male Choir, students of the University of Theatre and Film Arts, and soloists and dancers; conducted by Fischer; and directed by Tamás Ascher and Kriszta Székely. Find an hour to watch it today. It’s in Hungarian (and at one point in Hebrew), but if you do not know these languages, the music will carry you along, and the unobtrusive subtitles will give you the gist.

The Red Heifer accomplishes something rare in art or life: It makes a political statement without reducing anything or anyone. It dives into the difficulty of the matter.

It has the texture of a lyric poem; with taut soul and few images, it takes up a complex historical and contemporary event: the Hungarian blood libel of 1882-1883, also known as the Tiszaeszlár affair, in which Christian townspeople and agitators accused the local Jews of ritually murdering and beheading Eszter Solymosi, a peasant girl (who had gone missing), in order to use her blood for Passover.

Móric Scharf, the teenage son of the synagogue sexton József Scharf, first denied all knowledge of the alleged events but later testified that, while looking through the keyhole of the synagogue, he had seen his own father and others commit the murder. (Many years later, in an interview, he said he had been tortured and threatened before his testimony.) A body with the girl’s clothes was found in the Tisza, with no cuts or evidence of murder–but the mother denied that this was her daughter. Fifteen people were formally accused, and news of the case spread fast and far.

The statesman and lawyer (and former Governor-President) Lajos Kossuth wrote letters of protest, from exile, against the accusations and proceedings; even this did not alter the course of events. Only later, when doctors reexamined the body, did it become clear to all that the girl had died by drowning and that no ritual murder had occurred. On August 3, 1883, all of the accused were acquitted–but the case had inflamed anti-Semitism in the country.  (There’s much more to all of this; I have given a bare summary.)

The opera (whose libretto is drawn from a 1931 novel by Gyula Krúdy) focuses on the boy. What would cause a teenager to accuse his father falsely? What might have been happening inside him, then and afterward? The music and choreography convey the questions and hint at possible answers. The musical idioms and forms–Hungarian and Jewish folklore, opera, fugue, rap, cantillation, and more–express not only cultures but minds. It is not a hodgepodge; as I listen, I find that some of these idioms are part of me, that I, like the characters, walk within many languages. Yet not all of them are home; home requires more than knowledge, more than fluency.

You see Móric (Jonatán Kovács) at the inn, watching the townspeople dance, yearning to be part of things, but moving invisibly in the room, as though not counted or seen. He sees the innkeeper (a Jewish woman, played by Orsolya Sáfár) slipping and sliding drunkenly around, humiliated and still magnificent; you feel him wishing to be included, wishing to be one of the others. But this is not just a matter of a teenager wishing to belong. The crowd and individuals seize and use him.

Móric’s court testimony has stunning musical form; as Alex Ross describes it in The New Yorker, he spits it out “in a terrifying triplet-rhythm rap, with Weill-like chords snapping behind him.” Then he turns to the cheering crowd and makes gestures of egging them on, not realizing that they are the ones controlling him.

Lajos Kossuth (Krisztián Cser) appears later, showing a dignity and a standard absent from the proceedings: something possible in this life, something to grow into. His voice resounds with conscience and experience. You sense that he has suffered.

All of this leads up to the astonishing scene between father and son, after the acquittal and release of the accused. (I will leave it at that; it’s better to watch and hear it for yourself.)

The red heifer itself has several meanings in this work. As Iván Fischer explains in his introduction (at the start of the video), it refers to (a) a cow that stepped on the toes of the girl and thereby provided evidence through which the body could be identified; (b) an inn called The Red Cow, where all the manipulation took place; (c) the innkeeper, who was nicknamed “The Red Cow”; and (d) the red heifer in the Torah (Numbers 19), used for ritual purification.

Maybe there’s a fifth meaning here as well. Maybe the red heifer is the great mistake or mistakes we make in our lives–the mistakes that will eventually teach us how to live. None of us is immune to mistakes; there is no static human purity, only purity of learning and return.

But the lessons of the historical event have not been fully learned. The girl’s symbolic grave in Tiszaeszlár has become a site of pilgrimage by extremists. The accusations were disproven and dismissed in 1883, but some wish to revive them even now. Thus the opera speaks not only to the past and its modern-day analogies, but to an urgent present.

How can art protest cultural and political trends while retaining its complexity and integrity? This opera achieves just that–by speaking in music and poetry and by going into the difficulty. True political life requires rejection of the glib. We are never just one thing or another; we live in conflict with ourselves. Even so, we are responsible for seeking understanding and moving toward the good. The Red Heifer suggests the possibility and profundity of this movement, not long ago or far away, but here and now.

 

 

Image credit: Painting by Yoram Raanan. The painting and opera are unrelated except through the red heifer.

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