These Swift, Full Days

IMG_6518When I came back to Hungary, I knew sour cherries would be out of season, or at least hard to find—and so they are, sadly—but plums and grapes spill over. Yesterday I saw a blue-fruited plum tree by the side of a bike path on the outskirts of Szolnok. There were signs saying “do not eat,” but of course I ate. It was the best roadside plum I have ever tasted. (I have never tasted a roadside plum before.)

The plums remind me that there’s little left of summer. For me this means not the end of vacation but rather the approach of deadlines and events. I am preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; I will be leading the musical parts of these services at Szim Salom, my synagogue in Budapest. Beyond that, I am preparing for my book release and turning my thoughts toward the school year. The main vacation-like thing here is the flexibility of days; for the next week, I can plan each day as I wish. We teachers return to school on August 24; from then onward, I will have a fixed schedule (probably on the looser side until the students return, then full and busy every day). I look forward to this year with its four aspects: teaching, writing, religious life, and personal life (which will include biking and learning Hungarian). It looks overfull, but I would not give up any of it. It isn’t frantic, just abundant and demanding in the best of ways.

So it is great to get on the bike and go in any direction the whim suggests. I only have to step outside to see the heather along the Zagyva river; to come to unexpected places, I need only ride along the river, but there are many other options and directions.

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The other day I followed a dirt road, along the Zagyva, that I had taken twice before but had found too muddy both times. This time, it was completely dry, so I could go on and on. The photo of the horses and the video of the water are both from that ride. (I also saw cows, storks, and a deer.)

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But given the swiftness of days, some planning is in order too. So I intend to take the train to Baja (with bicycle) on Sunday, bike southward along the Danube, possibly into Croatia, and return to Szolnok on Monday. I loved Baja on my first visit (eleven months ago) and was able to reserve a room just now at the same beautiful bed-and-breakfast place where I stayed before.

The day itself is going by too fast, so I will end here.

“Just as You sent the rain this night, so raise this boy.”

revolt of job 0The 1983 Hungarian film The Revolt of Job (Jób lázadása) begins with mist, an indoor swimming pool, boys jumping, splashing, and shrieking, boys upon boys. Adult figures emerge in the background; one of them, a man with greying beard, begins inspecting a few boys (for possible adoption) while his wife and the orphanage managers comment on the selections. Then a melody can be heard in the background, just for a few seconds, just the stark opening phrase, one note at a time, as though played with one finger hitting the piano keys. It is the Hungarian Jewish song “Szól a kakas már,” which comes and goes several times throughout the film.

According to legend, the first Kaliver Rebbe, Yitzchak Isaac Taub (1751-1821), learned and purchased this song from a shepherd, who, after teaching it to him, forgot it completely. Beloved by Hungarian Jews, it has come to be associated with the Shoah because of its Messianic longing, but it also evokes a longer history. The film itself is filled with longing; Imre Gyöngyössy, who directed it along with Barna Kabay, was himself adopted by Jewish parents who disappeared in the Holocaust. In an interview he told Seth Mydans, “Until now, in all my work the heredity of my adoptive father is working. Until now it is I who am running after the Messiah, after eternal liberation. I am running until now in all my films. I am running as my father told me.” (Please see Mydans’s superb article for more about the film, its background, and its making.)

Here by the swimming pool, we soon learn why the husband and wife (Jób and Róza, played by Ferenc Zenthe and Hédi Temessy) are “purchasing” a boy–in fact, exchanging him for two calves: Jób, who has lost seven sons, wants a Christian son to whom he can leave everything once they are gone. It is 1943; Christians have better odds of survival than Jews. The manager warns the wife not to be too choosy; as it is, he will have to back-date the papers to 1938 (when Jews were still allowed to adopt).

Having rejected several possibilities, Jób looks out into the pool again and sees a boy dunking underwater to hide. The boy pops up, looks at him, and goes under again. This is the one, Jób decides; Lackó (Gábor Fehér) gets carried out kicking and screaming, gets a haircut, and gets taken home in the horse-drawn cart, with the sheep in the back. (A dog running alongside the cart gets adopted too; there is some mayhem, but they make it home.) Over the next eight months or so–the film begins before Rosh Hashanah and ends about a month after Passover–Lackó comes to love his adoptive parents and become beloved by them. They accomplish what they set out to do: raise a son, even in such a short time, to carry on their tradition and memory. This is the “revolt” of Jób (the father’s name); rather than give up all heritage, he has decided to go out and find it, breaking custom, meeting with some disapproval, but listening to what he knows he has to do.

Part of this film’s magnificence lies in its sense of time. At the poolside we learn that it is 1943; after that, as far as I remember, no specific dates are mentioned again. All time is conveyed through nature (day and night, rain and sun) and the Jewish holidays (Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach). We find little Lackó gazing through the window at his adoptive mother lighting the Shabbat candles. Jób joins her and wishes her “gut Yontiv.” This suggests that the date is Friday, October 1, 1943–the very end of Rosh Hashanah–or perhaps one week earlier. The next time Lackó peers through the window, it is Kol Nidre; he sees a man carrying the Torah scroll and chanting “Or zarua latzadik…”; he hears Kol Nidre; he hears a rabbi give the D’var Torah.

Jób does not try to convert Lackó to Judaism; he tells Lackó about God but asks a Swabian friar to instruct him too. In one of the conversations, at the village market–where some of the townspeople and the Deputy Town Clerk are singing “Let’s hit the Jews with a stick,” and where a man is squirting water at two mating dogs who are stuck together–Lackó learns from his father that God–the word he teaches is “Shechinah,” a Hebrew word for an aspect of God, often understood as the manifestation–is “in the acts of love in the pastures”; that he gives light, like a glow-worm. Lackó asks whether God is in frogs too; Jób replies that he is, since frogs croak nicely. (At the end of the film, during the closing credits, we  hear “Szól a kakas már” again, slower than any other time, with frogs croaking in the background. The sound reminded me of the frogs I heard when bicycling to Sárospatak at night last April.

When Lackó and his best friend–a little girl from the village–capture frogs as a surprise for his father, they see militia coming through the marshes to hunt down deserters. The two tell a soldier that they have seen no one pass through. Thus the film is not only of love and sweetness; contrary to what Janet Maslin wrote, it holds both the cruel and the sweet. Nor is the sweetness overdone; it may be hard for the cynical among us to believe, but that is part of the point. The sweetness has something to do with time; even Lackó senses the treasure of these few days. Or maybe he knows it through memory; it is a story of memory, of trying to find what has been lost.

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To me the most moving scene is during Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, when Jób is praying in the sukkah. (It may be specifically the holiday Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot, since that is the day when we pray for rain.) The sukkah itself symbolizes transience and fragility; in Leviticus 23:40-43, God commands Moses:

מ  וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים, וַעֲנַף עֵץ-עָבֹת, וְעַרְבֵי-נָחַל; וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם–שִׁבְעַת יָמִים. 40 And ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.
מא  וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג לַיהוָה, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה:  חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי תָּחֹגּוּ אֹתוֹ. 41 And ye shall keep it a feast unto the LORD seven days in the year; it is a statute for ever in your generations; ye shall keep it in the seventh month.
מב  בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים; כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, יֵשְׁבוּ, בַּסֻּכֹּת. 42 Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths;
מג  לְמַעַן, יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. 43 that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

 
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Jób knows that he is not only praying in a booth, but living in one, that his time will soon end; he prays in an undertone (maybe reading from the book before him, maybe praying from memory, maybe praying from his heart), but he prays without pause. Lackó sees him from the outside and comes in, but Jób motions to be left alone, and he leaves: first telling the dog that his father has either gone mad or been attacked by love, then spying on the servant couple in bed, then crawling in bed with his mother. The rain starts to pour down, into the sukkah; Jób gives thanks for the rain, saying Hallelujah, praying, “Just as You sent the rain this night, so raise this boy.” Lackó, hearing the rain, realizes that his father must be getting wet; he rushes back to the sukkah, with Róza close behind. Jób takes him up on his lap, lifts him up, laughs with joy torn open, saying Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

Much more happens in this gentle film; they make it to Pesach and a little beyond, but Jób and Róza cannot protect Lackó from his grief and confusion when they are carted away. That will be part of his inheritance, along with the love, the traditions, the gifts, and the nighttime sounds.

I have watched the film four times on a big screen–in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018–at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, where I teach each July. It is part of the curriculum for the course in the Epic, which takes place in the even-numbered years. Each time I have watched the film, I have understood much more than the previous times–not only because of the returns, but because of my own learning. In 2012, I had not yet begun going to synagogue or learning Hebrew. In 2014, I had been doing both for a little over a year, so I could understand some of the words and references. In 2016, I understood still more; in 2018, I had been living in Hungary for eight months, could understand some of the Hungarian (and more of the Jewish meaning), and recognized the countryside, although I do not think I have been to the particular places of this film. Now I see that there is still more to understand, much more. This film resembles a poem, where the rhythm, language, shape, argument, sounds, images, and allusions all take part in the whole, and where the truth dazzles gradually, in all too short a time.

The images are screenshots of Jób lázadása, which you can find in DVD format (with optional English subtitles) or watch online (without subtitles). The verses from Leviticus are courtesy of Mechon Mamre; the phrase “dazzles gradually” alludes to Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Update: I just learned that the film will be on Hungarian television (channel M5) on Friday, August 17, at 9:15 p.m.

The Revolt of Job (soon)

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Not long ago I promised to say something about the Hungarian film Jób lázadása (The Revolt of Job, released in 1983)–but when I started putting thoughts together, I realized it would take more than a few hours to say enough and to say it sparsely. I expect to write and post the piece on Sunday or Monday.

This image is a screenshot from the film (directed by Imre Gyöngyössy and Barna Kabay; written by Gyöngyössy, Kabay, and Katalin Petényi). Gábor Fehér plays Lackó.

“The day’s on fire!”

IMG_6479The title of this post comes from Theodore Roethke’s poem “In a Dark Time,” which I recommend to all. The fire in the photo (or rather, the red glare from the fire trucks) comes from the hostel where I was staying. Through some splash of intuition (and relative ease of circumstance) I decided to spend the last two nights in an inexpensive hotel instead of there; a private bed and bathroom, no matter how small, coalesced in my yearnings. When I went to the hostel to notify them of my decision and return my door card, I saw fire trucks outside. Apparently a breaker had caught fire in the basement. No one was hurt, as far as I know. Later I came back to find the electricity out and the floors  doused with water. People were given the option of staying there (without electricity, at least for  the time being) or canceling  their reservations; in either case, they were to receive refunds. I hope that everyone found a place to stay.

I have been meaning to tell about the cab driver born in Greece who extolled Socrates on our way to my storage room in Washington Heights–but I already have. He began by talking about New York City in the 1970s–how great the music was, how nothing today approaches that greatness–and then he revealed that he was from Crete and had been living in New York for nearly fifty years. We started talking about Greece; when I mentioned Socrates, his voice lit up. (I couldn’t see his face.) “Socrates!” he cried. “What strength of character! To think that he could have escaped, gone into exile, but no, he chose to drink the hemlock, because he knew that if he escaped, he would lose his reputation and his teachings. Just think of that! Who would have the courage to do that today?” At this point we were almost at my destination. He seemed delighted to have had occasion to sing the praises of the great teacher. What is happiness, if not the recognition of occasions? Well, there is something more to it, but that’s a big part.

The five weeks in the U.S. held occasion after occasion–in Texas, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut–but also something between occasions, those times of passing by, taking care of daily things, or thinking about something else, times that didn’t seem occasion-like at all. And that was the greatest part of the return to Szolnok–just getting on the bus at the airport, taking the bus to the train, catching the train minutes later, riding back to the city, taking a cab home, lugging the suitcase up the stairs, opening the door, and hearing Minnaloushe with her “where have you been?” meows and purrs. Then a conversation in Hungarian with the cat-sitter (all was well), then a bike ride to various stores for food, then dinner, then an early collapse and long sleep. No occasions, really, except for the return itself, but a return that I was to exhausted to “enjoy” but enjoyed nonetheless. Strangely, my Hungarian seems slightly improved; I was able to conduct several conversations with long sentences. I expect to improve over the next year; that, too, will reflect something unoccasional.

Which photo to end with? Well, maybe this one (also taken in NYC), since it makes an occasion of the in-between.

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What’s in a Walk?

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A walk is much like a bike ride, except that you’re without wheels and therefore must go more slowly. Even a brisk walk has a relative slowness to it. This is where the statement “it’s all relative” becomes almost true. It isn’t all relative, but concepts such as “fast” and “slow” are. When people remark that the world is “getting faster and faster,” they are comparing the current state of things not only to their memory of things past, but to actual measurements of miles per hour, kilobytes per second, and such. So, in comparison to driving down a highway (where it has become dangerous to drive as slow as the speed limit), walking (at any speed) has a slowness worth relishing.

When walking, you rarely have to make split-second decisions; if there’s a turn or fork ahead, you have a good minute or more to contemplate it. People passing you will rarely crash into you, or you into people coming your way. So beyond staying alert and aware of your surroundings, you don’t have to worry much about accidents, wrong turns,  and aggressive traffic. (But do watch out for the surprise rollerbladers.)

This, in turn, means that you have time to look around and get lost in thought–a combination not always afforded. For instance, you might notice the way light falls on a rock.

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Or enjoy not only the sunset, but others’ enjoyment of it.

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Or catch a soccer game at an exciting moment.

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But of the thoughts themselves, what of them? They went all kinds of ways without scattering. I thought of my two years in the neighborhood, of the homelikeness of return, of the languages in the air, of the upcoming two years, of the book, of the Summer Institute, of a meal, of the setting sun, of a recent joke, of a spontaneous story, of regrets and happinesses, of the bike back in Hungary, of music, of poetry, of Torah.

I sat down for a while to go over my upcoming Torah reading at beloved B’nai Jeshurun and was struck by Deuteronomy 9:21:

כא  וְאֶת-חַטַּאתְכֶם אֲשֶׁר-עֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת-הָעֵגֶל, לָקַחְתִּי וָאֶשְׂרֹף אֹתוֹ בָּאֵשׁ, וָאֶכֹּת אֹתוֹ טָחוֹן הֵיטֵב, עַד אֲשֶׁר-דַּק לְעָפָר; וָאַשְׁלִךְ, אֶת-עֲפָרוֹ, אֶל-הַנַּחַל, הַיֹּרֵד מִן-הָהָר. 21 And I took your sin, the calf which ye had made, and burnt it with fire, and beat it in pieces, grinding it very small, until it was as fine as dust; and I cast the dust thereof into the brook that descended out of the mount.–

 

I have not heard anyone say (yet)—or maybe I have heard or read but forgotten—that this verse is the origin of Tashlikh, the custom of casting pieces of bread (symbolic of one’s sins) into the river on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah–but the verb in the second half of the verse, “vaashlikh,” has the same root, and Moshe’s gesture seems to have a similar meaning. (People often point to Micah 7:18-20 as a Biblical source of the tradition; I have not yet heard anyone mention this.) I love imagining the fine dust of the golden calf being cast into the brook descending from the mount.

A walk has an aspect of that too; you cast not only your sins, but your worries and stray ponderings into the stream. The thinking gets clearer.

I learned yesterday that a white supremacist group had held an illegal flash anti-immigrant demonstration in the park on Saturday. They displayed a large banner that said, “Stop the Invasion. End Immigration.” On Tuesday, New Yorkers held a vigil in response. I do not know whether the rally itself was illegal–it depends on what took place and how many people took part. From what I gather, the demonstrators had no permit. But it is scary and sad to see Fort Tryon Park used as a broadcasting point for an anti-immigrant message, even if the demonstrators were acting within the law. It goes against the history, spirit, and fortitude of the park, whose beauty lies not only in its cliffs and flowers, but in the many people who live near it, who walk in it every day, who play, sing, read, and think in it, and in the generations of the neighborhood, its Jewish, Latino, and other immigrants, its people from around the world, its newcomers and old-timers, its ancestors and newborns, its lovers.

I think about thought–how it is not to be taken for granted, but thrives in places like Fort Tryon Park, where you can walk, absorb, and dream without worrying that anyone will tell you to go away.

I took all the photos on Sunday, July 29, in Fort Tryon Park. The quotation of Deuteronomy 9:21 is courtesy of Mechon Mamre.