Winter Clusters

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Here are a few Szolnok scenes from the past few days. Above, some people gather around a table for a warm afternoon beverage.

Here a dog seems to be enjoying the bank of the Zagyva. Some people accompany their dogs down to the water; others wait up on the promenade while the dog romps down and up the hill. Here there’s no cluster, really, but I couldn’t resist including the photo. If you like, you can consider it part of the Szolnok photo cluster, the Zagyva photo cluster, or the cluster of enthusiastic dogs worldwide.

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And those specks you see in the water below are ducks; they often cluster around the water trees.

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This week has been filled with clusters too: classes, preparations, grocery bags, quick evening hours, bursts of thick sleep.

A Place for a Hanukkiah

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Yesterday evening I thought about where to put the hanukkiah. There is no place near the doorway for it, and the window is more than thirty feet above ground, so I had to look beyond the traditional options. I put on the windowsill after all, because it is lovely there. I had it face toward the inside, since only from indoors can anyone see it in full. No one in the alley below can see it–the balcony blocks the view–but someone walking along the Zagyva might spot the tips of the flames.

I thought about the resilience of the Hanukkah story–the rededication of the Temple, the lasting of the lights–and the resilience that I have found here. People sometimes think of resilience as difficult, exhausting, admirable, even pitiable, but that’s an outside view. From the inside, resilience isn’t always joyous, but when it is, it girds itself with light. It has less to do with toughness or bravery than with locating something that endures. Even that endurance might not be obvious. I find it, for instance, in May Swenson’s poem “Water Picture,” which seems (but only seems) to collapse into itself at the end.

And at school we have a tradition of caroling–so I have been singing Christmas songs too. Here in Szolnok, the festivities revolve around Christmas; Budapest has a Hanukkah celebration on the ice rink, but in Szolnok I have yet to see the word Hanukkah at all. I imagine, though, that somewhere in Szolnok someone else is lighting a hanukkiah. It isn’t too hard, in any case, to bring the holiday into the air. I taught one of my classes “Sevivon sov sov sov” yesterday, along with some Christmas songs, and told  them a little about it. None had heard it before, and they seemed to enjoy it.

Hanukkah is traditionally a minor holiday; it has become popular over time mainly because of its proximity to Christmas (it takes place in November or December, depending on the Jewish calendar). Moreover, the earliest written source of the Hanukkah story–Maccabees 1 and 2–is part of the Catholic Old Testament but not the Jewish Bible, and it tells only part of the story that we know today. It is the Talmud that first recounts the miracle of the oil.

Still, minor or not, the holiday has resilient meaning (despite John Oliver’s quip about it essentially “celebrating fuel savings“), not only in the lights’ symbolism but in their reality and our accompanying imagination. When I lit the first candle last night, I thought of people who would be lighting theirs in six hours or so. I thought, also, of the shamash, the lovely “servant” candle that lights the others, and its importance to the entire ritual. On my hanukkiah, which I purchased in Budapest, the shamash stands above the others, which was one reason I chose it (the lions were another). I sensed that this hanukkiah had been used and loved for many years. The storekeeper believes it is over a century old (except for the shamash holder); he doesn’t know where it comes from, but whatever its origins, it has held light and time.

Hag Urim Sameah, Merry Christmas, and Happy Almost-Wintertime to all!

P.S. On another subject: My essay “This Is a Resolution? A Letter on Bellow’s Seize the Day” is now published in Literary Imagination, Volume 19, Issue 3. To read it, please find the link on the News page of my website or, better yet, subscribe to the journal.

Bikes, Rivers, and Challenges

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Bikes and rivers have this in common: they are both good for the soul. Put the two together, and you have a tonic for any time of day. I took this picture last week during a bike ride to school; it takes me only five minutes to get there (or back home), but during those five minutes, I get to see the sunrise (or whatever the skies might hold) while zipping along the Zagyva promenade. A quieting and thrilling commute.

The first month in a new country may hold sunsets and paperwork, but whether it’s dreamy, signature-laden, or both, it’s just the first stage. I am here not for a lark, an extended vacation, a nap in a hammock (see the bear below), or even a sabbatical, but for something more substantial. That means challenges. For instance, I try every day to apply my basic Hungarian to a new situation, but it will take much more practice, study, and experience–and many more mistakes–to learn the language well. It doesn’t happen overnight, overweek, or overmonth; but over time the structures and words will take hold. I look forward to this.

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I took both photos here in Szolnok.

The River’s Neighbor

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The move this morning went more easily than any other I can remember. The people who helped me were full of cheer and good suggestions; we managed to communicate in basic Hungarian and gestures. They not only brought my things to the new place (in one trip, in a truck) but installed all the things that needed installing and brought over the cable technicians to set up the TV and internet. Although I haven’t watched TV at home in years, I think I will start doing it now (I mean, not tonight, but soon), as it will help me learn Hungarian.

After unpacking some things, I biked along the Zagyva to school; upon spotting the swans and big brown cygnets, I parked the bike, ran down the hill, and took pictures. The river is full of birds; you see them in big clusters along the banks or around the river-trees. On my ride home, I heard thick clusters of ducks.

In the morning, all I have to do is step outside, carry my bike a few steps up to the promenade, and take off; it takes five minutes to get to school, unless I take a few extra minutes to run down the bank and see the river up close. I have never lived so close to a river; at night I can step out onto the balcony and see the lights shivering in the water.

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It’s so quiet that I can let my thoughts unwrap. And there’s time unwrapping, too; I look forward to seeing the river at different times of day and year, and setting out and coming home at different times.

“But I have promises to keep”

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Today the first December snow fell on Szolnok—this is a view of my street—so it’s fitting that I will be teaching my ninth-grade students “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” this week. But it’s fitting in other ways, too; I think of the poem’s gentle contemplation and humor, its tension between digression and direction, its humor and questions, and its final dreamy turn toward duty.

The teaching is going beautifully; I am grateful for the school and hope to stay there a long time. I am in no way ready compare schools here with schools in the U.S.; one school is not the same as schools in general, and I am still learning how things work. But besides that, I have something else to tell right now.

On November 22, the rabbi called me with a question. The shul was badly in need of a chazzan (cantor); would I be willing to serve in this role every other Shabbat (when I already come to shul)? I said yes, not because I felt ready, but because I would take on the learning. It isn’t just a matter of singing well, or knowing Hebrew, or even knowing the nusach and melodies.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the cantor’s responsibilities in his essay “The Vocation of the Cantor,” which must be read slowly and carefully. The cantor does more than sing; he or she communicates with the congregation and the people of Israel, goes deep into prayer, senses the right melodies for the right times, responds to the text and the moment, and brings out internal truth.  But there’s a heimish side to it too; often the chazzan is someone in the shul who has taken on the role. That’s the case here.

The role sounds daunting, but no, it’s just immense. If we don’t confront immensity at some point, what are our lives for? Life is dreary and delusive if we’re always looking down at tasks we’ve finished and packaged up, things we can check off a list or click on a phone. So I said yes and started preparing, and realized, early on, that I could not check anything off a list. I learned melodies; I started learning a new nusach. I went over familiar and unfamiliar text again and again. I remembered chazzanim and melodies and chants. It still seemed too big for me, and then I  realized that was how it should feel.

It went beautifully, and so the beginning has begun. The rabbi introduced me warmly as the new chazzanit (female chazzan), and everyone gave me a “Shehecheyanu.” As soon as I started and  heard people joining in, I knew things would be fine. I also had a chance to leyn Torah (the first three aliyot of Vayishlach: that is, Genesis 32:4-13) and to speak about these verses.

Verses 10 through 13 of Genesis 32 are sometimes my favorite in all of Torah. Jacob has just started heading home from the house of Laban, with his two wives, servants, and animals. He has crossed the Jordan. But after hearing from his messengers that Esau is coming to see him with four hundred men, he becomes afraid and divides his company into two camps. But then he has a crisis of doubt:
 

י  וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב, אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי אַבְרָהָם, וֵאלֹהֵי אָבִי יִצְחָק:  יְהוָה הָאֹמֵר אֵלַי, שׁוּב לְאַרְצְךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתְּךָ–וְאֵיטִיבָה עִמָּךְ. 10 And Jacob said: ‘O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who saidst unto me: Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will do thee good;
יא  קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים, וּמִכָּל-הָאֱמֶת, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ, אֶת-עַבְדֶּךָ:  כִּי בְמַקְלִי, עָבַרְתִּי אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה, וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי, לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת. 11 I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown unto Thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two camps.
יב  הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי, מִיַּד עֵשָׂו:  כִּי-יָרֵא אָנֹכִי, אֹתוֹ–פֶּן-יָבוֹא וְהִכַּנִי, אֵם עַל-בָּנִים. 12 Deliver me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children.
יג  וְאַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ, הֵיטֵב אֵיטִיב עִמָּךְ; וְשַׂמְתִּי אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ כְּחוֹל הַיָּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִסָּפֵר מֵרֹב. 13 And Thou saidst: I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’

 

Part of what I love is that Jacob can stop himself in a big mistake. The trope brings this out; in verse 11, the first word is “katonti,” which means “I am not worthy,” “I am insignificant,” or “I have fallen short.” The first half of the verse has to do with the goodness that God has shown him; the trope etnachta sets this off from the second part, which has to do with Jacob himself. The second part divides again into two parts, the first having to do with Jacob’s crossing of the Jordan (which God commanded him to do, in commanding him to return home) and the second with his becoming two camps (which he did out of fear). So this “katonti” can be felt in the very division of the verse; he himself has been divided in two. The trope indicates these halves through the zakef katon melodic phrase. This Jacob sees his division and puts it into words, not only his own, but words of God; through quoting God twice (in verses 10 and 13), he enters into dialogue.

If he had not stopped to think about what he was doing, to remember the promises and his shortcomings, then he might not have wrestled with God that night or reconciled with Esau the next day. Who knows? I can’t say this for sure. But to me these verses suggest, among other things, the power of seeing one’s own errors, of pausing, thinking, and remembering. They have extraordinary beauty in Hebrew and have been made into a song. I have returned to them many times over the past few years; when I first read them, I understood the thirteenth verse as God’s response to Jacob in the moment. Now I read it differently but still sense Jacob hearing the holy words in their full  life, through remembering them and speaking them aloud. In that sense he does what a chazzan does.

Now I turn my thoughts to the week: to teaching, the move to a new apartment, and much more. I have not even mentioned the wonderful Budapest Festival Orchestra concert I attended last night! But I still lack internet access at home, the cafe time has flown by, and I have much to prepare for tomorrow.

 

The Hebrew text and JPS translation are courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website.

A Meaning of Performance

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On Saturday night I attended the Senior Ball, along with colleagues, parents, students, and, of course, the seniors themselves. Expecting something like a prom, I was in for a big surprise. First, there was a pinning ceremony, where the seniors, dressed in suits and color-coordinated blouses, walked out hand in hand, with their homeroom teacher at one end, stood before the audience, had ribbons pinned to their chests, and filed out again, hand in hand. From there, they reappeared in their dancing costumes and performed in sequence; each of the four senior classes performed one ballroom dance and one modern dance. (They had separate costumes for each one.) With the help of a dance instructor (whom they had specially hired), they had been preparing these dances since September. Here’s a fifteen-second clip.

In preparing, they learned at least two dances together; that was the most beautiful part of it all. They had not only a ball, not only an evening in their honor, but an accomplishment together. Maybe that’s one meaning of performance: learning a particular form, which then becomes yours. (I wouldn’t call it the meaning of performance, since performance is full of meanings and mystery. Sometimes it’s sheer play, sometimes it has its own language, sometimes it can’t be pinned down, and sometimes its meanings come much later, mixed in with time.)

In contrast, I had a slightly formless (but lovely) day today–taking this direction and that, like the Tisza. I prepared for the week, practiced for next Shabbat (more about that later), and went on a long bike ride, first on the promenade along the Tisza, and then on the continuation of the bike path. Here’s a little terrier running on the promenade, and here’s the Szent István Bridge.

I enjoy the grey November weather, with its rain, wind, and mist; some may find it dreary, but it suits me well. Much lies ahead in the coming weeks, including a move to an apartment near the Zagyva–where I will have not only more space, but a wifi connection. That will come welcome; I need the internet not only for email but for research, lesson preparation, and more. In the meantime, having finished my second latte at Cafe Frei, I sign off, since I have much to do before tomorrow.

The Mist and the Mistake

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This photo, maybe my favorite that I have taken of Szolnok so far, marked the end of a vivacious day and week. On Friday the whole school assembled at the Szolnok stadium, across the Tisza, to see the ninth-grade classes compete against each other (through performance, mostly dance) and undergo their grand and humorous initiation. I had heard that we would all be walking over the bridge together; I looked forward to joining this procession of six hundred or so.

Earlier that morning, we dispersed for various activities: music, drama, art, and more. I went with a colleague to see the drama workshop, led by the drama teacher, who also directs the school’s Thespis Teatrum Drama Club. Held in an elegant hall across the street, the lesson focused on improvisational exercises, which brought out wit and laughter.

When the class ended, I went back to the school to get some things done before the historic bridge crossing. After a while, the building went silent; I realized everyone had left. I rushed to catch up with them–down Kossuth Lajos Street, around the corner at Szapáry, and then south toward the bridge. As my feet began clattering on the planks, I saw just two people ahead. I soon realized they were students from the school; after catching up with them, I asked them where the event was. They pointed me to the stadium, and I rushed ahead, only to find a locked door. They then motioned me to the side of the building and held the doors for me. Only then did It occur to me that most of the students and teachers must have taken the other bridge, the one right near the school. Of course! Why would they walk all the way to the Mayfly Bridge, when there’s one right across the street? I could have realized this earlier–but I had the one bridge so firm in my mind that good sense could not replace it.

Then came the performances. I took many pictures, but from too far away. This picture of my ninth-grade students conveys the idea, though. They didn’t win the competition, but they danced with spirit and skill.

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After the event, I walked back—over the correct bridge—to the school.

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I saw birds circling over the river, flying around and around, over and over again. I shot a video with bells ringing in the background (since it was noon). I don’t try to make videos when the bells are ringing; it has just worked out that way.

People went home from there; we had no afternoon classes, since it was a special day. Earlier in the week, the ninth-graders dressed up in various costumes, held marches and rallies, performed stunts, and covered the walls with flyers. These are my two ninth-grade sections, one of them in 90s costumes, and the other (the next day) in recycling gear or something like that. They are great kids; I thoroughly enjoy teachibg them.

I leave off with a photo from Thursday evening, after a long day at school. (I left around 6 p.m. because I was grading tests.) When I exited the building, I saw misty streets and lights. That is my bike in the foreground. I unlocked the lock, climbed on, and rode away.

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With all the dancing, singing, and campaigning, all the memorable markers of the week and year, I think I will also remember the mist and the mistake: taking the wrong bridge, having it all work out anyway, and taking the right bridge back. Was one bridge really wrong, though, and the other right? Only in terms of what I had set out to do; otherwise, each bridge has its share of rightness.

Note: The school photos are posted with permission of the students and in keeping with school policy.

“What’s There to Do in Szolnok?”

So I have been asked. The question puzzles me; aren’t there things to do regardless of place? I don’t remember being anywhere and thinking, “there’s nothing to do here.” That said, Szolnok has many interesting places: a theatre, an art cinema (neither of which I have visited yet), and much more. Last week alone, thanks to the invitations of colleagues, I attended a professional basketball game (lots of fun—and Szolnok won!), visited the beer museum, and sat in the cockpit of a a MiG-21UM, a Soviet-made jet-propelled fighter plane. Here’s proof of each:

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The brilliant Kendrick Perry (Szolnok team) has the ball. He was a joy to watch. The whole team played fantastically (and their opponents gave them a good challenge).

imageHere’s the outside of the Sörárium, the beer museum. The inside is cavernous and engaging, with a historical exhibition, a zestful video presentation, a game room, a restaurant, and long echoing halls.

And here’s a photo of one of my favorite displays at the Szolnoki Repülőmúzeum (the Aviation Museum). I would have included the photo of me in the cockpit of the fighter jet, but it’s too Dr. Strangelove-like for my comfort. This one shows a replica of a plane built in 1911, I believe.

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I have shown (and learned) just a fraction of the things to do in Szolnok (besides biking and other frequent topics of this blog). But I must go now; it is Monday morning, and I have much to do!

Three Sentences

IMG_4513I will get to the three sentences in a minute. Today, around noon, I went biking along the Tisza; all the photos and the video in this piece are from the ride. There’s a long promenade that runs along the river all across town and beyond; I started exploring the path beyond but turned around when I saw an animal that looked from a short distance like a wolf. He stopped and stared; at one point he seemed ready to charge in my direction, but then, when I started to turn around, he slunk away. I figured I wouldn’t push the matter.

People were out biking, running, and thoughtfully walking; it was like Riverside Park, but with about one-hundredth of the crowd. There were solitary walkers, couples, and families; people with dogs, people fishing, and ducks paddling along with the current, which seemed to sweep them along.

Exactly at noon, when the church bells were ringing, I happened to be biking over the Tisza, on the Tiszavirág híd (the Mayfly Bridge). I decided to make a short video. You can see the old synagogue (now a gallery) ahead; you can hear the bells and the clattering of bike on planks. The biking seems a little wobbly because I was holding the phone up at the same time. Because of the angle, it also seems that I’m about to run into the people walking my way, but this was not so.

When I came to the Zagyva, I saw someone fishing right there, at the corner where the two rivers meet. If you look closely (and zoom in), you can see him too.

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But that’s not what this piece is about. I brought in this long preface so that I could include and explain the photos. Here are a few more, all taken on this ride.

So, on Friday, right after school, I went to Budapest for Shabbat; I stayed until Saturday late afternoon. I had prepared to leyn (chant) Torah on Saturday morning; in addition, the rabbi had asked me to give a little D’var Torah (teaching) on the relationship between the trope and the meaning of this Shabbat’s text. For the sake of simplicity and time, I limited myself to just a few remarks, which I did not write down. In addition, I decided at the last minute to say the first sentences of my D’var in Hungarian, so I prepared and memorized them.

I do not want to describe the service—that is not for the blog—but I’ll give those three sentences, since they mark an important moment in my life here. This was not only my first D’var Torah ever (except for a few short remarks at Morning Minyan in NYC), but my first time trying to say something in Hungarian beyond greetings and basic questions.

A Biblia legtöbb versje két részre osztható. (Most of the verses in the Bible can be divided into two parts.)

I saw people nodding; my Hungarian was intelligible! This is nothing to take for granted; if I had gotten one of the vowels or consonants wrong, the whole meaning might have been lost. I continued:

A trop “etnachta” osztja őket. Ez a két rész gyakran tükrözi egymást. (The etnachta trope divides them. These two parts often reflect each other.)*

From there I went on to discuss, in English and Hebrew, the word “anochi” (“I”) in Genesis 25:22 and 25:30: its  prominence in the etnachta position, and the contrast between the two occurrences (one is spoken by Rebecca, the other by Esau, with different tone and implications, and different conclusions of the verses). People jumped in; it turned into a stimulating discussion in three languages, with translations going every which way.

Now, I am not sure that my Hungarian was completely correct; in particular, I suspect that my use of the word tükrözi (“mirror,” “reflect”) was somewhat off. But the meanings came through as we talked.

I am nowhere near being able to form such sentences spontaneously—but this was a true beginning. Things will build from here.

*P.S. In retrospect, I see that I should have said, “The trope etnachta signals their division” (possibly A tropus “etnachta” jelzi megosztottságukat), not “The trope etnachta divides them”; such precision comes with language and time. (Also, it seems that the word for “trope” is tropus—but trop may be clearer in this context.)

 

Slow Impressions

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Top secret: I love life and teaching in Szolnok so far. I have been holding back praise because I’m so new here; praise implies knowledge, which I do not yet have. People have been helpful and welcoming, and the rhythm of life suits me well. But there is much to learn. There’s the language, among many other things; each day I try to say something new in Hungarian, but that’s minuscule in relation to the language as a whole.

The street above is right near where I live; the shed below, right across the street from me, as soon as I exit the gate.

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Szolnok seems a little like New Haven (without Yale, but with excellent public schools; with a different culture, history, language, architecture, geography, layout, and cuisine; with bike paths everywhere and bakeries on every corner, neither of which New Haven has–granted, New Haven has the pizza–and with a full but unfrantic way of life, which is what they seem to share).

But even these are just surface impressions; as I form the words, they split into questions and qualifications, which split into others, and I look at the clock and realize that Cafe Frei will close soon, and with it, my internet connection. So I end with a photo of the cafe.

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