The Ballagás That Wasn’t


Today, when I was saying goodbye to some students online (since it is the last week of classes for the seniors), one of them said, “I’m a little bit sad because the ballagás would have been today.” The ballagás is a ceremony not quite like high school graduation in the U.S. It comes at the end of a whole week of serenades and farewells, and it happens twice: first at school, then in the city. (Last year I wrote about it here, here, and here.)

Because of the coronavirus restrictions and precautions, we said goodbye this year without a ballagás. We expressed our appreciation and farewells online. A colleague put together a beautiful presentation of farewells from the faculty, and classes gave presentations too. We also said goodbye in our online sessions. All those gestures are worthwhile. But it’s also important to admit that something is missing. A goodbye on the Discord server is not the same as a serenade in the hallway outside the teachers’ room, or a schoolwide gathering in the courtyard.

The seniors are heading into final examinations without a full ceremony to mark the transition. There is no way to make up for this fully. The only thing we can do is to try our best, while recognizing the limitations and losses.

Not only now. Many times in life we have to go forward without the completion, goodbye, or ceremony that we had expected and wanted. It probably happens to everyone at some time or another. It is not something to trivialize. Instead, it demands respect and honor. This is no simple challenge. It is a ritual of its own.

This week, and over a much longer time, my students have shown good attitudes, thoughtful work, and kind words. Let this be its own celebration. It does not replace a ballagás, but it lifts things up and stays in the memory.


New Home, New River


I have loved living by the Zagyva and am grateful to my school and the Central European Teaching Program for setting me up so well. The only thing was that my books (the ones I have here in Hungary, just a fraction of my total collection) had been piling up all around, with nowhere to go. That, and I have known for a while that I want to stay here for a long time.

Earlier this year I planned to buy a place, and found just the right one: small but lovely, quite a bit larger than this one, with enough room for books and other things. With the coronavirus restrictions, I didn’t think I would be able to move any time soon, but today I received calls from both the real estate agent and the seller. Everything has worked out, and I will receive my keys to the new place tomorrow.


In celebration, I biked to the apartment. The rose garden in the Tisza park was almost in bloom, and the Hotel Tisza’s restaurant looked inviting despite being closed.


The Airplane Museum (just a few blocks from my new place) stood bold against the sun.


In previous weeks, I have rode the bike onto my street but stayed shy of the actual building, not wanting to bother the sellers. But now I biked up close.


And here’s a nice view of the street.


Finally, here’s the neighborhood, including the smaller Marcipán sweet shop, as I saw it on my way out. Great clouds, too.


The Tisza itself looks mighty, but I didn’t take any pictures of it today. Here’s a picture from a few days ago.


Update: The following morning, after receiving my keys, I took some photos indoors and in the garden.

In Person

The coronavirus isolation is not all bad. It’s good for working on projects, sifting through thoughts, going on bike rides. Even on a short bike ride, I find all kinds of things to explore; I turn off onto dirt roads (which are dry, not muddy, right now), discover a bridge or path I didn’t know about before, take detours, cross meadows, peer into the river, and turn back when I think it’s time.


So that’s isolation, on the one hand. At home, too, there’s a lot of exploring in it. Putting together the online journal Folyosó, which will appear on May 11, I have been editing pieces, experimenting with layouts, fixing this or that feature, and getting so absorbed in the whole thing that I stay up late.

But the pandemic is bringing out, in different ways, the necessity of doing certain things in person. Zoom and other online services are substitutes, and substitutes only. Sometimes a substitute will not do. For instance, we (the drama club, the drama teacher, and I) were going to take Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok (Wolves) to the festival in Veszprém this June. The festival was cancelled; of course it was. First of all, if the drama troupes cannot rehearse, how can they prepare for a festival? Second, a festival of this kind cannot take place virtually. We were disappointed, but this just brings out how drama requires physical presence–of the actors among each other, of the stage and space, and of the audience along with the actors. The actor and director Joel Grey wrote about this in a memorable and treasurable New York Times piece.

With teaching, too, the best thing is to have classes in person. We work with the substitutes because we have to, and some good things come out of them. But there is nothing like being in the room together, seeing each other’s facial expressions and gestures, sensing the mood as the lesson progresses, picking up on understanding and uncertainty, and above all, living the lesson–be it grammar, literature, or something else–together. The substitutes–Discord, Zoom, Messenger, Google Classroom, and so on–are functional, but functionality is not everything. I think of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man:

You believe in the crystal palace, eternally indestructible, that is, one at which you can never stick out your tongue furtively nor make a rude gesture, even with your fist hidden away. Well, perhaps I’m so afraid of this building precisely because it’s made of crystal and it’s eternally indestructible, and because it won’t be possible to stick one’s tongue out even furtively.

Don’t you see: if it were a chicken coop instead of a palace, and if it should rain, then perhaps I could crawl into it so as not to get drenched; but I would still not mistake a chicken coop for a palace out of gratitude, just because it sheltered me from the rain. You’re laughing, you’re even saying that in this case there’s no difference between a chicken coop and a mansion. Yes, I reply, if the only reason for living is to keep from getting drenched.

–Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Michael Katz.

I don’t think anyone is mistaking Zoom, etc., for a palace. But it’s also good to see them for what they are: substitutes. Less than ideal. Not the ideal itself. Granted, they can do some things that in-person gatherings cannot (for instance, bring together people from all around the world). But that doesn’t make up for the losses.

A new video by the rock band Kiscsillag expresses this uproariously (and bawdily). The song itself, “Nem szégyellem,” precedes the pandemic–and appears on the band’s new album, Tompa késekbut the video itself was shot on mobile phones, just a few weeks ago, in the band members’ homes. (See a Music Backstage article on this.) A gem of quarantine rock and home filming–and you don’t need to know Hungarian to appreciate it, though each word raises the appreciation higher.



There you have the soul of it, ticklish but true. It isn’t just that certain things are best done in person. It’s that when all the things around you–the food in the fridge, the bathtub, the rocking horse, the vacuum cleaner, the chess board–start acting as substitutes for the world, then you know that you, too, have been substituted.


Memorials Upon Memorials


Today is Memorial Day of the Hungarian Victims of the Holocaust. One year ago, at the end of the day, I joined in a memorial run and then danced with others outside the former synagogue. Earlier in the day I was feeling bad (even sorry for myself) because a lesson on poetic song verse had seemed not to go so well.

Yet such lessons need to happen too. This year, I would have given a lot to have a not-so-successful lesson in an actual classroom. The online classes have had their beauty; much good has come out of them. But it is strange to be saying goodbye to seniors without seeing them in person.

There were no Holocaust memorial events in Szolnok today, online or otherwise, as far as I know. So I went on a memorial bike ride. I first biked to the Holocaust monument (pictured above) at the site where Szolnok’s first synagogue used to be, by the Pelikán. Then I went to the Szolnok Gallery (formerly a synagogue), and visited the memorial stone next to it. It is usually covered with little stones that visitors have left, but the stones were gone for some reason, maybe because of the recent winds.

From there, I biked along the Tisza, and then along Tószégi út, to the site of the old sugar factory; this is where the Jews were forced to stay before deportation to the concentration camps. I had gone there last year, for the memorial run, but because I took a bus there, I didn’t see the surroundings. This year, I cycled around the area; parts look like no one has touched them in fifty, seventy, a hundred years.


It took some doing–and a conversation with a friendly security guard–but I found the sugar factory sign and the memorial plaque.

On the way there, along the Tisza, I picked up a nice little stone, so on my way back home, I stopped by the stone memorial again and laid my stone on it.


The side plaque quotes Psalm 23, Verse 4:


ד  גַּם כִּי-אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת, לֹא-אִירָא רָע–    כִּי-אַתָּה עִמָּדִי
.שִׁבְטְךָ וּמִשְׁעַנְתֶּךָ   הֵמָּה יְנַחֲמֻנִי
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; {N}
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.

Besides remembering last year, and another time I laid a stone on a grave, I was in the middle of memorials not my own, as though I were biking through a past that I had not lived. I also thought of Zsolt Bajnai’s story “A Pelikántól a cukorgyárig” (“From the Pelikán to the Sugar Factory”), which appears both on his blog and in his newly-released third book of stories, Az eltűnt városháza, which I received today, to my joy, after returning home.

I am sorry that there was no memorial gathering today; at the same time, biking by myself to these places, I could notice and feel things that I wouldn’t have in a group. And I think of the others who may have taken memorial walks and bike rides, who may have laid down stones, who may have passed through known and unknown pasts.

Bike Rides During Lockdown

bike ride 3 Here in Hungary we’re not supposed to go anywhere unless it’s really necessary. There are a few exceptions. One of these is solitary outdoor exercise–walking, running, biking. This is fine. You can’t go on really long bike rides, though, since that would involve staying at a hotel or something like that. So today I biked to Tiszasüly and back (about 90 kilometers in all, since the bike path takes a roundabout way along the Tisza river). I had the illusion of being able to continue indefinitely, but it was definitely illusion; when I got back home, I was very stiff. It has been quite a ride. Had I been able to continue onward instead of turning back, I probably would have made it to Tiszafüred. But this time, that was not to be, and it was just as well (since today is Easter Sunday, and everything was closed). On a long bike ride I am generally comfortable as long as I don’t get too much sun, don’t get a flat tire, and drink water along the way. All of these came true. The risk of a flat was low, since there’s no glass or other sharp material on the bike path. Still, I didn’t want to push the risk.


It’s a fantastic ride, because about 20 kilometers in, the bike path starts, and you find yourself cycling under hawks and falcons and alongside wildflowers, willows, birches, farms, and trees in bloom. I saw a lizard and a grasshopper crossing the road; I saw the beautiful Racka sheep with their spiral horns, and goats with tiny kids.

bike ride 5

I passed through Nagykörű and Kőtelek–and spent a few minutes by the Tisza– before finally making it to Tiszasüly, where I decided to turn back.
bike ride 4
On the way back, I noticed new things, such as a house in Nagykörű that has an assortment of tools hanging on the outside wall. The cherry trees (for which the town is famous) are in bloom; in a few months the boughs should be sagging with fruit.

bike ride 2

I had planned to go biking in Zemplén this month, as I have done for the past three years (the first time was before I moved to Hungary). But with all the coronavirus restrictions and risks, it seemed foolish to try to stay overnight anywhere or to take a long train trip back. This closer-to-home alternative was gorgeous, though, and it gives me many ideas for the future.

bike ride 8

The Valley of Dry Bones

richard mcbee dry bones Tomorrow, in synagogues around the world, wherever a Shabbat service is taking place, those attending (virtually or in person) may hear the chanting of Ezekiel 37:1-14, the Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. This was the first Haftarah I ever chanted–six years ago, in Pesach 2014, on this very Shabbat–and it remains one of my most beloved passages in all of the Bible. I think of it now because of the triple timing: in terms of the Jewish calendar, the coronavirus, and my own life.

One day in shul, my eye fell on the text of this Haftarah, and it seemed I was reading my own life. So when I chanted it, after months of preparation, some people were startled by the emotion I brought to it. Some said that they would never forget it and that they cried. Others told me (not that day, but later) that you aren’t supposed to chant a Haftarah that way; it is supposed to be less musical, more like speech, and more toned down. I understand this and would do it differently now. But I didn’t do it to be dramatic; I did it because these verses were alive to me.

When I came to Judaism (I am Jewish by birth, on my mother’s side, but was not brought up Jewish), it was during a difficult time in my life when I wasn’t sure of the way. I had just finished my first book, but had accepted a teaching position that demanded everything I had. Now there was hardly time for writing at all. Also, I was lonely, not for company or social life, but for real companionship and understanding.

Through one thing and another, I found a few recordings by a cantor who I had recently learned of but had not met. I knew nothing about cantors at this point. I started listening to one of these recordings, the Blessing Before Haftarah, and found myself listening to it again and again. I started to learn it. I pored over the Hebrew letters and matched them with the sounds. This was my entry into Hebrew.

The cantor was the son of a Holocaust survivor who had died a few years before and was buried in a Jewish cemetery some eighty miles away. Out of gratitude that I could not explain yet, I rented a car, went out to that cemetery, bringing a little stone with me, found the grave, and placed my stone on top of it. (That is a Jewish tradition.)

That was my valley of dry bones. That day was big, overwhelming, and sad, yet something started to come to life right then and there.

ג  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי–בֶּן-אָדָם, הֲתִחְיֶינָה הָעֲצָמוֹת הָאֵלֶּה; וָאֹמַר, אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה אַתָּה יָדָעְתָּ 3 And He said unto me: ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered: ‘O Lord GOD, Thou knowest.’


But what  I love about the Ezekiel verses, or one thing among layers and layers of things, is that the life does not happen at once. It happens in stages, and through prophesy. God commands Ezekiel to go to the bones and prophesy over them; when he does, he sees the prophesy coming true and the bones coming together, and sinews and flesh joining with the bones. Then God commands him again, and through this prophesy, they start to breathe. But then what comes out of them, in God’s retelling, is a cry of pain: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off. ”

Then comes the next prophesy: Ezekiel is to tell them that God will lift them out of their graves and take them to the land of Israel.

In the Hebrew text, command, prophesy, and vision exist in complex relation, as though in a dance or symphony. There is also play with the word ruach, which means “spirit,” “wind,” “breath.” In the ninth verse, you can feel the ruach and its meanings swirling around.

ט  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי, הִנָּבֵא אֶל-הָרוּחַ; הִנָּבֵא בֶן-אָדָם וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל-הָרוּחַ  {ס}  כֹּה-אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, מֵאַרְבַּע רוּחוֹת בֹּאִי הָרוּחַ, וּפְחִי בַּהֲרוּגִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְיִחְיוּ 9 Then said He unto me: ‘Prophesy unto the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath: {S} Thus saith the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’


I understood at the time, and understand again today in a new way, that a person can come to life anywhere, in the bleakest of circumstances; not only that, but coming to life is painful. At first you may not know what is happening, but once you can breathe it, you understand what you are missing and longing for. But that too can come; life builds and builds, adding layer upon layer, sinew upon bone, wind upon wind, meaning upon word.

Today I tried to record a fresh chanting of this Haftarah, but my voice is a bit tired from the virtual seders (with Szim Salom on Wednesday night, and with my family last night). I was glad to try, though, and to spend a few hours with the text.

When I was first learning those words and sounds, and when I placed the stone on the grave, I had no idea, and no way of having an idea, that six years later I would be here in Hungary, putting together a makeshift seder plate, along with haggadah texts and melodies, so that I could co-lead two virtual seders out of necessity (and a joyful necessity it was). Who knows what will be asked of me and others in the coming weeks. But these verses and gatherings tell me that more levels of life and ruach are still to come.

Art credit: Ezekiel by Richard McBee, courtesy of I originally included Gustave Doré’s woodcut, but found McBee’s painting more appropriate here and more evocative of Ezekiel’s verses.

Photo credits: from the two virtual seders and my table. Hebrew text and JPS English translation courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website.

Update: I recorded it after all and uploaded it as an mp3. I preceded it with the Blessing Before Haftarah and followed it with the Blessing After Haftarah. (Some will say that the Blessing Before Haftarah should begin with a kadma, not a pashta. But I first learned it with a pashta and love it that way.)

Why Spring Break was Cancelled in NYC

On March 30, New York State issued a directive for schools to continue online instruction throughout the spring break, which includes Passover and Easter. There was a possibility of giving teachers and students two days off–for the first day of Passover and for Good Friday–but that ultimately got nixed. Why no spring break? The primary reason given is this: that if students and teachers are busy with schoolwork, they will be more likely to adhere to social distancing, which in turn will help the city overcome the coronavirus. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a letter, “We are confident that continuing remote learning will help ensure that families adhere to social distancing in the coming weeks, which is imperative to slowing the spread of the virus and keeping ourselves and our neighbors safe.”

This rationale reveals an underlying belief (endemic to American education) that a good part of the purpose of school is to keep people busy and out of trouble. Not only that, but if you are looking to keep people busy and out of trouble, just put them in school.

The assumption that this is a legitimate purpose of education–to keep people from doing other things, to keep them busy–creates plenty of mischief of its own. Leisure, rest, breaks should be part of education, not distrusted. A spring break, far from releasing the masses into the evils of the streets, could actually give families and individuals a chance to catch up with themselves a little, celebrate the holidays, do some housecleaning, relax, and prepare for the coming weeks and months. In contrast, online instruction without a break will contribute to stress, which, beyond a small amount, is bad for the health and for education too.

The idea is not limited to the current crisis. Many U.S. pedagogical models emphasize the importance of keeping students busy at every moment. Granted, most educators will stress that the activities should be purposeful and meaningful, but they still recommend a tight sequence, with swift, well-coordinated transitions. There’s an assumption that if you let up just slightly, havoc will ensue. And so it becomes the truth. Many kids do not learn how to handle pauses, silences, and uncertainties. Why not? Because they are told, from day one, that they must stay “on task.” Teachers are told to keep things swift and purposeful–to remind students of the aim of the lesson, to demand outcomes, and to avoid having students do any one thing (especially listening to the teacher) for very long.

Some of this is fine. But it has turned into a system-wide fear of autonomy, of being left to one’s own devices. This relentless busyness doesn’t help education or those involved in it. Even less does it help those badly in need of rest right now. At the very least, teachers and students could have been given those two days–Thursday and Friday–so that they could celebrate the holidays at home and enjoy a brief respite from online life. Education does not take place in frenzy, nor cures and recovery in exhaustion.

There and Here


Every day I read the news about the coronavirus epidemic in New York City, my former home. I lived there for thirteen years (from 2002 to 2017, with two of those years in New Haven). The city is going through pain, loss, poverty, death. Probably everyone in NYC knows someone with the virus. Many have loved ones who have died or are very ill. I know someone who had the virus and recovered; it’s possible that others I know are sick but that I haven’t heard yet. In general, a giant misery has swept the city. But there’s resilience and generosity too. The New York Philharmonic dedicated a performance of “Boléro” to the healthcare workers on the front lines. A friend of mine is a violinist in the Philharmonic; it is moving to see her in this video.


As for life in Szolnok, it’s rather busy for me, and I spend too much time in front of the computer. With 139 students, it takes all I can do to avoid getting behind. But some of this is my own doing; starting an online literary journal was a terrific idea, but it adds to the computer time. And I am still working (slowly) on translation and writing projects. Yes, and my synagogue has started having online services–our first was last night–and we will have a virtual seder too, led by Rabbi Katalin Kelemen, Milán Andics, and me. Then the next day I will take part in a virtual family seder. I made matzah for the first time in preparation; I will be making a bit more this week. (Granted, it looks sort of wrong, but it definitely conveys the spirit of rush.)


Well, yes, and I get myself outside once a day, at least to feed the neighborhood cats, go grocery shopping, and take a little bike ride. People are out walking, running, and biking; sometimes the walkways seem more crowded than back before the virus. Maybe it’s because it means so much now to get outside.


I have received a few alarmed messages from people who read in the news about how the Hungarian Parliament granted Orbán the power to rule by decree as long as the coronavirus emergency lasts (with no end date). Yes, there is reason to be worried about this, but not in terms of everyday life right now. There’s a stay-at-home order, but people are allowed to go out for exercise, go food shopping, go to work, take public transportation, get bikes repaired, etc. That doesn’t mean that Orbán’s or the parliament’s actions should be taken lightly. It just means that we aren’t living in terror, at least not here in quiet Szolnok. But that’s all the more reason for vigilance and alertness, here and elsewhere; emergency measures can turn into a way of life, and many governments, not just Hungary, are expanding their powers. Around the world, people are asking the same question: where will this pandemic take us, individually and together, now and down the road?


  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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