My Hungarian Jewish Great-Grandfather

I come from many different places, both in terms of my own life and in terms of ancestry. I have lived in the U.S. (my birthplace and citizenry), Brazil, the Netherlands, the former Soviet Union, and now Hungary; within the U.S., I have lived in Arizona, Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, and New York. As far as ancestry goes, I am Jewish on my mother’s side (from Hungary, Ukraine, and Lithuania); on my father’s side, a mixture of French (with many generations in Canada), Irish, Norwegian, German, Dutch, and more. Each branch that I know anything about has an interesting history; I am proud of the mixture.

But yes, the boy in the photograph is my great-grandfather Max Fischer, at the time of his bar mitzvah (around his 13th year, which would have been 1898 or so). He and his family came to the U.S. from Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia) when he was five or six. They spoke Hungarian at home. I have tracked down the ship passenger records, which list Györke as the town of origin, as well as many census records from the U.S., but so far have found no records from Hungary or Slovakia. That may still come.

Max’s eldest brother was Charles Fischer, whose inventions I have described both here on this blog and in Mind over Memes. About Max I know little except that he had a great sense of humor and met my great-grandmother, Flora Samuels, at an Edwin Markham poetry reading.

This branch of the family has been somewhat de-emphasized in family lore; I can’t complain, since that gave me some room to do my own research, which has been rewarding. I wouldn’t say that I came to Hungary—or chose to stay here—for the sake of my roots, but the roots exist, along with many others. I wish I could have met Max Fischer, who died four years before I was born. And how the protagonist of Rushmore ended up with the same name must be just another simple twist of fate.

Why the Mass Killings in the U.S.?

Why the mass killings in the U.S.? The first and most obvious answer is that Americans (by which I mean citizens and residents of the U.S.) can obtain guns, including automatic rifles, far too easily. But there are other reasons. Gun control, though essential, won’t solve the problem, since people will find ways around the laws or use something other than guns. The killings have cultural and ideological sources, even though the killers come from widely different backgrounds. There is something particularly American about this.

First, to get this out of the way: some object to the use of the word “American” as an adjective for the U.S.A. I use it because it’s recognized and simple. Every country that I can think of has a one-word (or, at most, two-word) adjective: Russian, Soviet, Danish, Icelandic, Mexican, etc. Yes, it’s true that North America encompasses more than the U.S., and Central and South America are also America. Yet no other country has “America” as its short name, hence the chance of confusion is negligible.

Criminals do not exist or act in complete isolation; they come out of a history, a culture, an infinite set of attitudes and beliefs. Even mental illness cannot be separated from “normal” life. Besides the availability of guns, what conditions in the U.S. might give rise to mass shootings?

I discussed this with my twelfth-grade students yesterday, and several ideas came up. One was that many Americans feel special: entitled to something good in life, angry and wounded if they do not receive this, and convinced of their own right to avenge themselves and pursue their own “happiness,” as it were. The same cannot be said of Hungarians, who view life with a basic pessimism, who don’t think they are owed anything in particular, who believe that they will be lucky if they achieve a fraction of their goals, and who see the absolute importance of helping others and being helped. (There’s both good and bad in both attitudes, which have plenty of variations and exceptions; the point here is not to judge them but to consider where they lead.)

Another difference is that in the U.S., there’s a much greater value placed on being in the spotlight, having your fifteen minutes of fame (or more, if you can manage it). Appearing on the front page of the NYT–wow! Getting mentioned on TV–wow! The most interesting essay I have read on this subject is David Bromwich’s “How Publicity Makes People Real.” People will go to great lengths, even to the extremes of self-debasement, for a bit of media attention. In contrast, Hungarians tend to eschew the spotlight. This is changing, inevitably, with all of the influences of social media, but there’s a strong belief, with origins in the communist/socialist era and earlier, that you are better off if people aren’t paying much attention to you. Writers, artists, and others want their work to be known, like anywhere else, but children aren’t typically encouraged to “put themselves out there,” except in formal academic, artistic, and athletic competitions.

This Hungarian reticence is refreshing but also has its drawbacks. Whenever I teach Shakespeare, there are some students who play their roles brilliantly in class but absolutely refuse to take part in a public performance. I have had dreams of putting on a musical at Varga, but just persuading enough students to take part would consume an entire year. In contrast, at my former school in NYC, the annual musical might have a cast of a hundred students or more. A hundred students, singing and dancing together on stage and through the aisles. When I taught there, the challenge was the opposite: to encourage quiet thought, which exists here in spades. I love the thoughtfulness of Hungarian culture and feel at home in it–but also come across as exuberant and enthusiastic in comparison with most Hungarians. I think others would agree. So it’s a complex matter: what a culture does and doesn’t emphasize, and what it brings out of a person. Many of us have combinations of cultures in our lives and hearts.

Crime exists here in Hungary too, as does violence, but they’re both usually of a surreptitious, inconspicuous sort: muggings, domestic violence, theft. People aren’t trying to make a splash or get in the news. On the other hand, you can be fooled into thinking you are completely safe here, and you aren’t; you have to be careful and alert here, as anywhere.

So, if you put these three conditions together: availability of guns, sense of entitlement, and desire for attention, and consider them as particularly American, coming out of the country’s history, culture, and beliefs, you can see part of the source of so many mass killings. This doesn’t explain everything, or even close, since you can seek attention and believe in your own specialness without dreaming of killing anyone. In fact, you can hold these attitudes and lead a life of kindness and gentleness. (I’m special and you are too!)

But this is a start.

Are Hungarians Especially Sad?

Yesterday evening a former student wrote to me to wish me a happy Women’s Day and to ask what I thought of a certain Mariana Hernández’s comment on Quora that Hungary is the saddest country in Europe. “I can say I have never seen such bitter, depressed people as the Hungarians,” writes Ms. Hernández, who has been living in Hungary for eight years. She goes on to explain that she loves Hungarians and considers them open-minded, peace-loving, freedom-loving. They just have an extremely pessimistic outlook (in her opinion), don’t believe dreams can come true, and rarely smile.

No, this is not my experience. First of all, I would avoid any sweeping generalizations. I know Hungarians who are generally cheerful, Hungarians who are generally gloomy, and many whose mood and outlook fluctuate. That said, Hungarians do tend to be less optimistic on the surface than many U.S. Americans I know, but they also work toward what they want to do. If that isn’t optimistic, I don’t know what is. There’s a sense that life is difficult but that if you’re alert, clever, and persistent, you can find solutions to problems, and learn things while you’re at it. Also, here people are generally more open about their problems than in the U.S. (where such disclosures can come across as “too much information”). Maybe all of us have sadness, but some cultures show it more than others.

I have a hard time measuring happiness and sadness anyway, because they have so much to do with each other. They are intermeshed. I think of the stanza from W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939“):

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Or a haunting poem by Endre Ady that I read recently, “A sorsom ellopója” (“Thief of My Destiny”), which begins:

Ki az én sorsomat ellopta,
Láttam,
Nipponban vagy Amerikában,
Nem emlékszem:
Álmomban láttam.

The one who stole my destiny,
I saw,
In Nippon or America,
I don’t remember:
In my dream I saw him.

I wouldn’t say that these poems bring happiness, but they do bring a kind of joy, since they give form to something hidden in us. Form is one of the biggest longings, one of the biggest fears, in a human life; we don’t want imposed forms, outworn forms, forms that fit us badly, but we want form in a deeper sense.

There are certainly Hungarians who believe that the current forms in the country are rotten: that the economy, government, and infrastructure have been overtaken by human greed, and that nothing better can possibly come, since human nature will not improve. But there are others who focus on doing their best with whatever they have and showing kindness to those around them. And having a good laugh here and there. The humor here is wonderful.

Just an example of basic goodwill: last week I went to see my general practitioner for the first time, so that he could enter my information in their system and then let me know when it’s my turn for a vaccination. The doctor’s office is on my street (the address is officially on Indóház, but the entrance is actually on Vörösmarty utca). I waited in the waiting room for just 15 minutes or so, and then I could go in. He and two assistants were in the office; the phones were constantly ringing, and he cheerfully handled the appointment while he or one of the two women took the calls (people calling anxiously with questions about the vaccines). It seemed hectic to me, but they were handling it all so skillfully and calmly, just taking the work as it came along. Doctors don’t get paid much in Hungary, and only the fanciest places have actual receptionists in the waiting area. But they admitted me cheerfully and charged me nothing.

Or another: last week I got an official letter in the mail, written in intimidating bureaucratic language (which I now understand, though I sometimes have to read it slowly), which informed me that I had to appear at the government office to apply for an address card and personal ID (which are required now that I have a permanent residence card), and that I had to bring certain documents, including a birth certificate with official translation. I despaired at this momentarily, because I had sent the official translation to Debrecen when applying for the residence permit, and had not received it back. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would need it again.

Then, just when I was about to go to the translation office, I received word of the new lockdown. All services and stores, except for the essential ones, were to be closed for two weeks. So I raced to the translation office and explained the situation. The OFFI worker looked me up and saw that the translation was still in the system; all I needed was to order an official copy, which she could have ready by Monday. I asked whether the office would be open, and she said she wasn’t sure, but she’d call me on Monday morning, and if I couldn’t come in, she’d mail it to me. “Megoldjuk” (“we’ll solve it”), she said. And indeed: she called me on Monday and said I could come pick it up.

This kind of thing has happened many times, at school as well. There’s a willingness to solve problems, as well as an eagerness to do good even on a small scale. How many times a colleague has left a bag of fruit tea, or a piece of chocolate, on my desk? How many thoughtful gestures have I received? There has to be some kind of optimism in this. But it’s just not the “pumped-up, rah-rah” kind.

This week I brough George Saunders’s story “Winky”—one of my favorite stories in the world—to my twelfth-grade students. Reading it with Hungarians was very interesting (and moving) because of what they understood. They didn’t all grasp the first part, at the Seminar led by Tom Rodgers. They understood that it was a kind of success workshop, and a few figured out that Tom Rodgers was a con man, but the situation itself wasn’t familiar to them. The self-improvement craze hasn’t reached the same extremes here. But the parts they understood profoundly had to do with Neil Yaniky and his somewhat dimwitted but kindhearted sister, Winky. They understood Yaniky’s error: his belief that if he got rid of his sister, if he just told her to leave, he could succeed at last. And they understood how deluded this was.

Despite all my qualms about spoilers, I have to quote the ending of “Winky” to explain what I mean. At the Seminar, Yaniky has been convinced that Winky is the one who has been standing in his way, (“crapping in his oatmeal,” to paraphrase Tom Rodgers), and that now is the time for him to win. He gets all geared up for his great moment. In the meantime Winky is happily getting ready for her brother to come home, walking around with a sock over her shoulder and a piece of molding under her arm. And when he gets home, he just can’t do it.

… and as he pushed by her into the tea-smelling house the years ahead stretched out bleak and joyless in his imagination and his chest went suddenly dense with rage.

“Neil-Neil,” she said. “Is something wrong?”

And he wanted to smack her, insult her, say something to wake her up, but only kept moving toward his room, calling her terrible names under his breath.

He isn’t happier, he hasn’t had some rosy realization that family is what really matters in the world, but we are the ones left relieved. As a student said, “They have a history together.” Something in him can’t go against that. Maybe it’s cowardice, maybe it’s weakness, but whatever it is, it keeps him from doing that awful thing, and my students knew that it would have been awful, sending Winky out into a world she had no idea how to face.

Human nature is no better in one country than in another. But in my experience, Hungarians know that there’s something to be said for being among others and treating them well, even with imperfections and limitations (on all sides). Like Yaniky, Hungarians may mutter terrible names under their breath, but they (or many of them) reject the ultimate selfishness. And if that isn’t hopeful, I don’t know what is.

ALSCW Zoom event, March 21: Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (3 p.m. EDT, 8 p.m. CET)

Zsolt Bajnai’s photography opening at the Tisza Mozi on September 2, 2020.
From left to right on stage: Marcell Bajnai, Gábor Benő Pogány, Zsolt Bajnai.

I am excited to announce that on Sunday, March 21, at 3 p.m. EDT (8 p.m. CET), in a Zoom event hosted by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), I will be interviewing the fiction writer, journalist, and blogger Zsolt Bajnai and his son, the songwriter, musician, and university student Marcell Bajnai. After the interview, the father will read several of his stories, and the son will play his own songs in between them. A Facebook event page has been set up. Please come and invite others! Here’s the Zoom information:

Ernest F Suarez is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.
https://cua.zoom.us/j/87577216462?pwd=cXNMaUhkOVRmUCs2K0pZcEJIdDQ3UT09
Meeting ID: 875 7721 6462
Passcode: 442761

The Bajnais are exceptional contributors to cultural life in Szolnok and Hungary. Zsolt’s wife, Judit Bajnai, is an editor and reporter for SzolnokTV, with a focus on culture. Her eye and ear for what is worth reporting, her interview questions, her way of engaging with the guests, and her speaking voice all contribute to making her programs enlightening and beautiful.

Judit Bajnai interviews the cellist Éva Nagyné Csontos and the actor Botond Barabás on SzolnokTV.

Kata Bajnai, Marcell’s sister, is a young playwright, actress, director, and university students. Her plays have won awards here in Szolnok and have been performed by the Varga Drama Club at venues around the city; I translated her darkly whimsical and satirical Farkasok (Wolves) with hopes that the Varga Drama Club could perform it at the Veszprém English-Language Drama Festival, but unfortunately Covid delayed those plans. Kata has a lot coming; I am eager to see what she does in the future.

Performance of Kata Bajnai’s Farkasok by the Varga Drama Club at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár, June 22, 2019.
Third from left: Kata Bajnai.

The family doesn’t end there; the grandparents come to the events full of love and pride (and kindness—they have welcomed me warmly, and we sat together at the performance below), and there are other relatives I haven’t met yet.

Now for our featured guests. When I first discovered Zsolt Bajnai’s blogSzolnok—an exploration of Szolnok’s history through postcards, photographs, maps, and other artifacts—I knew I had come upon a treasure. What can you learn from a postcard? Much more than I had considered before: you can figure out when the photo was taken, what its significance was, what buildings looked like at the time, what the postcard-writer was doing, and much more. I made a practice (which has since slowed, because of the demands on my time) of reading the blog every day, as this allowed me to practice Hungarian and learn about Szolnok, both at once. Mr. Bajnai also gives (or, until Covid, gave) lectures based on his blog; people crowd into rooms at community centers, libraries, and other places to hear him speak, share memories of the past, and ask questions. Soon after finding the blog, I came upon his first two collections of fiction and started reading them. When I read “Korrupcióterápia” (“Corruption Therapy”), I knew it had to be translated. The satire is dead-on and pertinent to us all; the story has a lively rhythm and musical feel, with motifs and phrases cycling and returning. I especially enjoy hearing Mr. Bajnai read it at events, because of this and the audience’s laughter. (My translation was published a little over a year ago in The Satirist; you can read it here.) His most recent collection, Az eltűnt városháza (“The Vanished City Hall”), came out last April. Just a few days after its release (this was during the first Covid lockdown), I received a phone call from Mr. Bajnai himself. He asked what my address was, and I thought he was going to mail me the book. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang, and there he was on his bike, with an autographed copy in hand! That not only made my day but opened up hours of enjoyable reading. The title story tells the incredible (and fortunately fictional and satirical) story of the disappearance of Szolnok’s beautiful city hall; the events are so close to reality that, after first reading the story on his blog, I had to bicycle past the city hall to make sure it was still there.

Marcell Bajnai was my student in 2018–2019, the year when his band 1LIFE (now Idea) released their first album, Nincsen kérdés (There Is No Question). I remember when the album came out; one of my colleagues told me about it and even procured an autographed copy for me. The first listen called for many more. One tuneful, energetic, thoughtful song after another; the three band members together fill the air with sound but also know how to texture the songs so that you can hear everything. I was amazed and moved by the song “Maradok ember” (translatable as “I remain human,” “I will remain a person,” and similar variations), to the point of covering it on cello. I listened (and listen) to the band many times: on CD, at concerts, and online. In addition to being the band’s lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter, Marcell—currently a student of Hungarian at the Faculty of Arts of the Eötvös Loránd University, where he studies literature and linguistics—has been writing songs for years and has begun a solo project. The songs move people of many ages; they show young wisdom, courage, and a love of working with words and music together. The songs truly play, even in sadness; they take up a theme and turn it in different directions. One of my recent favorites is “dühöngő” (“raging”), which you can hear below.

People often talk about the importance of contributing to a community, but the Bajnais bring meaning and life to this concept. I could go on, but you will get to hear Zsolt and Marcell yourselves, if you attend on the 21st. I am happy and grateful that during this new lockdown—except for grocery stores and private health care, all stores and services are closed until March 22—we can come together for an interview, stories, and music. Please do join us.

Photo credits: Szolnoki Koncertek (photo of Zsolt Bajnai’s photography opening at the Tisza Mozi), Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (photo of the curtain call of Kata Bajnai’s Farkasok).

Update: The event went wonderfully; thanks to everyone who came, and thanks for the many enthusiastic comments we received afterward! Also, on a related subject, my translation of Zsolt Bajnai’s story “Az eltűnt városháza” (“The Vanished City Hall”) will be published on the Asymptote Blog on April 6!

Announcements and Pictures

This is one of my favorite photos that I have taken in Hungary. My friend Jenny Golub asked about it, and I replied:

The Tisza river, just a few meters away from this photo, is famous for its mayflies, which emerge from the river by the thousands for a few hours in late June. They do a mating dance in the air and mate, the females lay eggs in the water, and then they die. I haven’t managed to see them yet–you have to catch them at just the right time–but when it happens, the air shimmers with mayflies. We have an annual Mayfly Festival (Tiszavirág Fesztivál) which we missed sorely last June because of Covid. It’s one of Szolnok’s treasured events; bands play, food and beer abound, and you can have a great evening (or two or three) by the river.

These are two statues of mayflies. In the background, a beautiful Calvinist church. I see the mayfly statues almost every day–but have never seen them catch the light in this way before. It was raining lightly, there was a light fog, and everything was glowing. I took a picture in the other direction too, looking toward the former synagogue (now Szolnok’s gallery).

The first of my announcements is long in advance—but mark your calendars now!

On Sunday, March 21, at 3 p.m. EDT, in an event in the ALSCW Winter/Spring Zoom Series, I will be interviewing the writer Zsolt Bajnai and his son, the songwriter and musician Marcell Bajnai, in Hungarian with English translation. After the interview, Zsolt Bajnai will read a few of his stories, and Marcell will play his own songs between them. Please come and invite others! It will take place at 12 noon PST,  3 p.m. EDT,  8 p.m. in Hungary. (This is a rare weekend when the time difference between NYC and Hungary is only five hours, because of the different dates for the Daylight Savings Time switch.) I will send the Zoom information as soon as it is available.

You can read more about the Bajnais in the official event description: https://alscw.org/news/alscw-winter-spring-zoom-series/. In addition, you can read my translation of Zsolt Bajnai’s story “Corruption Therapy,” published in The Satirist, and listen to Marcell Bajnai’s song “dühöngő.”

The second is just two days in advance: on Monday, February 15, the Winter 2020–2021 issue of Folyosó will appear! You will be able to read the contest winners, Shakespeare-inspired scenes, stories, and essays. Here’s the beautiful cover (art by Lilla Kassai):

And here is one more photo, taken on the same evening as the one at the top. This is of Szolnok’s gallery, formerly a synagogue. I have taken many pictures of the inside and outside and posted many on this blog. This time I love it against the evening blue.

Getting Up and Settling Down

It really snowed last night, so as soon as I got up, I went on a walk: westwards toward the old railroad buildings and then back again. The cats were in a state of excitement too: everything out the window was moving, moving! It snowed all morning.

I taught my British Civilization class–today’s lesson was about the Globe Theatre and Shakespeare, so we didn’t have nearly enough time for everything. But I am glad that the students, now in twelfth grade, have read two Shakespeare plays while at Varga.

Then I taught my American Civilization classes. We have been reading and listening to American speeches, and the students are about to write their own. For an exercise, I asked them to write a short speech welcoming new students to Varga. Their speeches were delightful; I chose ten to be read aloud in class. A particularly funny and sophisticated speech was written by a student whose microphone wasn’t working today, so he nominated another student to read it. Somewhere in the middle, the doorbell rang, and I had a feeling I knew what it was. I asked them to wait just a second, and I went to the door. It was the postman with an official letter. To receive it, I had to show my ID, which I did. I felt the envelope; it had a card inside it. I was opening it on my way back to the computer. So the reading resumed; at the end, I commented on the speech and then told the students what had happened: I had just received my permanent residence permit. Then we went on to hear seven more students’ speeches, and then, with five minutes of class left, I read them Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Snow Storm,” which I quote in full here, because how could I not?

The Snow Storm

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

After that, I headed off to the school, with hopes of finding the financial officer, who would want to photocopy the permit for the school’s records. On the way there and back, I took photos right and left. The sun had come out, and unfortunately the snow was melting–but there was still quite a bit.

The financial officer had left, but I found some colleagues, including Csilla Vágóné, who kindly took a photo of me. (The photo below is a different one, though, which I took at home. Csilla took a lovely photo, but the fluorescent light made me look a little pasty-faced. This one, with the warm lighting, suits the occasion better.)

The permanent residence permit means many things. First of all, there’s a symbolic significance. It means that I live here; I’m not just visiting. In that regard it reflects my reality and wishes. Second, I have to renew it only every five years; to renew it, I just pay a fee–there’s nothing elaborate involved. This in turn simplifies all my other paperwork; for instance, my health insurance card can have a longer validity term as well. Third, it means that I can get an address card, which is an essential item here but which temporary residents do not receive (instead, they receive a temporary document). Fourth, it simplifies travel; I have essentially the same travel rights as Hungarian citizens. Especially now, during Covid, this helps; if it turns out that I can go to the U.S. this summer, I won’t risk a situation where I can’t come back here. Permanent residents have other rights similar to those of citizens: they can travel freely within the EU, work anywhere in the EU, etc. So a time could come in the future when I wanted to spend a summer in France or the Netherlands, for instance, and this would be possible.

But there’s something more than all these things I’ve listed, even the first. I consider Szolnok home. I teach at a wonderful school, with great students and colleagues and all sorts of possibilities; outside of work, I can bike and walk around, attend literary and other events (once Covid is behind us), take part in my synagogue and serve as its cantor, and enjoy my sweet apartment. The Hungarian word for a permanent residence permit is “letelepedési engedély.” “Engedély” means “permit” or “permission”; “letelepedés” means “settling, settlement, establishing (oneself somewhere), establishment, homemaking.” The prefix “le-” means “down,” so essentially this is a settling down.

Song of the Sea

Next Shabbat, during the Torah reading, I will chant the Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, pictured to the left. It brings back happy memories of cantillation class at JTS; this was one of the special things we were required to learn, in addition to the six trope systems. Preparing the Torah cantillation is one of my favorite parts of my role at Szim Salom; it keeps me on my toes, since I always have to prepare, even if I am familiar with the verses. I prepare in general as well–it’s always good to go over the liturgy, since something will through in a new way–but the Torah portion assures the preparation.

The Song of the Sea is often chanted responsively, but this time, over Zoom, that would be too cacophonous. I will just have to encourage people to sing along, while muted, at the appropriate parts.

It has now been nearly eight years since I began attending synagogue in general, and over three years since I assumed Szim Salom’s cantorial role. I hesitate to call myself the synagogue’s cantor, even though that’s my role; cantors are on a completely different level in my mind. When I think of the word “cantor,” I imagine not only the legendary cantors, but the ones known mainly to their own synagogues, who have brought the language and liturgy into people’s lives, year after year, generation after generation, with wisdom and feeling that can be conveyed only through the doing. But it’s also a responsibility, and it has been mine now for three years. I love the responsibility; sometimes I feel flat-out exhausted when the weekend arrives, but then when it comes time to lead the service, the language, rhythms, melodies, and togetherness take over.

It is exciting to see Szim Salom, after almost thirty years of existence, becoming accepted in Hungary’s larger Jewish worship community. For many years, the General Assembly of Hungary’s Federation of Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) did not recognize Szim Salom or our sister congregation, Bét Orim, because as progressive (European Reform) congregations, we diverged too far from what they considered halakhic. To date, our rabbi is the only female rabbi in Hungary, as far as I know. But through the extensive, big-hearted efforts of individuals including Péter Árvai from our community and members of Neolog communities, we not only gained official recognition (In February 2020, the Mazhihisz officially welcomed Szim Salom and Bét Orim as associate members), but received gestures of extraordinary goodwill. Gábor Fináli, the rabbi of the beautiful Ohél Ávráhám on Hunyadi tér, has decided to invite us and Bét Orim to hold services there about once a month (once it is possible to hold services in person again). Over the years, we have had no real place of worship; in my three years here, we met in three different locations. So this gesture meets an urgent need and opens up possibilities of friendship and learning.

As I have often thought before, it’s essential to have different levels and forms of observance within Judaism, as within any religion. This opens up the possibilities, not only for individuals, but for long-term traditions. It also allows for resilience. People change over time in their relation to religion, worship, sacred texts, and so on. When the traditions grow too rigid or forbidding, any personal change can lead to a break. But when they do not, or at least when many varieties exist, a person can “hang in there,” so to speak. I find it important and exciting to hang in there. In the beginning of my Jewish life, I was intense with enthusiasm and commitment–not so much to the laws of observance as to the learning of texts and melodies. Hours and hours went into study and listening, evening after evening. Later, things slowed down a bit, but the commitment did not go away. I have started to find my own way, which is not anyone else’s, but which is not isolated either.

The returns remind me how much there is to come. Chanting the Song of the Sea and feeling the joy of it all over again—the image and sound of the sea parting, the phrases that bring up so many memories—I know that not only does the text endure, not only do I in some way, despite aging and mortality, but person and text come together, again and again, around the world, as time roars and crashes around us.

Language and Hyperbole

Last night I had a dream in which a Hungarian person spoke to me in English and I gave a passionate litany, in Hungarian, about why I wanted to speak Hungarian instead. I remember the ending words: “és nagyon fontos számomra, hogy beszéljek magyarul amennyire csak lehetséges!” (“And it is very important to me to speak Hungarian as much as possible!”) My Hungarian has come a long way; I sense it when reading news, reading complex emails with no trouble, participating in conversations on an array of topics, handling a doctor’s appointment, being interviewed for my residence permit, and much more. Yet there is still a long way to go. For instance, the litany could have been a bit punchier, with more colloquialisms.

This is true for everyone. Even at advanced levels, people make mistakes or ignore nuances in foreign languages—that is, languages they didn’t grow up with. English is fairly forgiving of inaccuracy, since so many people from around the world speak English at different levels and in different ways. The language itself stretches to accommodate these levels. Hungarian is like the stone in the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s “Rozmowa z kamieniem.” To get in–to persuade people to speak Hungarian with you at all–you have to be inside the language already, to some degree. Mistakes tend to jar a Hungarian’s ear; Hungarian spoken by a foreigner is a rarity in the first place, except for a tourist’s köszönöm and jó napot. But I love this about Hungarian perfectionism; once you start taking part in it yourself, it’s like playing music; you want to hit the right note even more than others want to hear it.

With a language, you have to get used to going on and on, learning endlessly more and endlessly less, becoming more accurate and flexible in your expression yet still making mistakes, even basic ones, no matter how far you advance. Oh, this makes me think of Nabokov’s Pnin, which I long to reread.

“Information, please,” said Pnin. “Where stops four-o’clock bus to Cremona?”

“Right across the street,” briskly answered the employee without looking up.

“And where possible to leave baggage?”

“That bag? I’ll take care of it.”

And with the national informality that always nonplused Pnin, the young man shoved the bag into a corner of his nook.

“Quittance?” queried Pnin, Englishing the Russian for “receipt” (kvitantsiya).

“What’s that?”

“Number?” tried Pnin.

“You don’t need a number,” said the fellow, and resumed his writing.

Fluency does not come quickly; it goes beyond the highest levels at school. You can be advanced according to the tests but still far from fluent. People used to exaggerate my language knowledge, calling me fluent in Russian when I really was not. I never mastered the Russian verbs with their many prefixes, my vocabulary had gaps, and there were many colloquial expressions I never heard. But because few in the U.S. spoke Russian at all, even conversational proficiency came across as fluency. In graduate school, most of our courses were in English. Only one or two professors taught in Russian. We were allowed to write our essays in English (though I wrote some in Russian); our oral exams and dissertations were in English too, except for quotations.

In college, graduate school, and afterward, I had some opportunities to travel to Russia; I just didn’t take them. I had a strong desire to stay put for a while. For years, going abroad for a long time didn’t hold much appeal, since it had already been a big part of my childhood (we lived in the Netherlands for a year when I was ten, and in Moscow for a year when I was fourteen). It was only later that I wanted to live abroad again—here, where I am now.

Three years in, I am happily in the thick of it all, with heapingly much to do, projects galloping through the mind, kind people in my life, and all of this persisting and growing even during Covid. It’s amazing to me that there’s the book of poetry translations, the Orwell project, Folyosó, regular teaching, my synagogue role, and so much more, and the language all around me, taking form in my ears, in silence, in my dreams.

I took these pictures within the past week. The second one, as you may have guessed, is the view from my windows. I love that view and its many changes.

A Kind of Puzzle

I am almost always working on a story in my head; eventually it gets down on paper. Somewhere along the way, I run into the story’s puzzle. When it’s in its beginning stages, I know where it’s going, more or less, but don’t know what it’s about, until something clicks, a piece that fits right in the middle, or a little off to the side. One of these years, I will have a story collection out, even though publishers, I hear, avoid story collections like grilled dill pickles with chilled vanilla filling. It has been a long-term dream; years ago, I intrigued an agent slightly with my collection-in-progress The Dog Park, and Other Tales of a Wounded Ego. The title will be different, but the collection will come.

I was recently reading Tad Friend’s great, long piece in The New Yorker on Bill Hader, which mentions that Hader met with George Saunders and Tobias Wolff for dinner at one point. I had a flash of jealousy: why did he get to have dinner with them, two of my favorite story writers? Why did they get to have dinner with him, one of my favorite actors, screenwriters, comedians, interviewees, lovers of literature? (Here he is on SNL with one of his classic Keith Morrison impressions.) Why do celebrities float around in a world where they need only utter a wish, a dinner invitation, and it’s “Open Sesame”? Not that that’s really how it is. But then I felt better when I learned that Saunders and Wolff would be speaking over Zoom at the Bay Area Book Festival–about Russian literature, no less! (The event, “Writing, Reading, and Being All Too Gloriously Human: George Saunders with Tobias Wolff on the Storytelling Greats,” takes place today at 7 p.m.—so, 4 a.m. tomorrow my time.) I signed up and paid the registration fee, only to be informed that the event was only for people in the U.S., according to the terms of a contract. My registration fee was refunded, but the excitement was not. Oh well. (Update: The Bay Area Book Festival kindly sent me the link to the video they made of the talk, so I will be able to hear it after all.)

I had been thinking about parallels among three of my favorite stories: George Saunders’s “Winky,” to which I have returned again and again, Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” and Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat”; also, in a way, “Fat Phils Day” by Hubert Selby Jr. These stories all end with a swift motion into some kind of revenge, retribution, or release–except that in the case of “The Overcoat,” it’s a bit of an oddity, a coda in the form of a ghost story, which seems disconnected from the main story but also not. And in the case of “Winky,” the ending seems both a victory and a defeat at the same time: Yaniky’s victory over the cult nonsense he has been fed, a gut inability to carry it through, but also, in his mind at the time, a terrible failure, because he will never be able to liberate himself from plain old life. But what I find in common is not the message of these endings, nor even the particular quality, but the motion itself, the way it brings everything together.

A great thing about writing is that you don’t have to meet other writers in person. In fact, if I did, I probably woudn’t know what to say, or even want to say much. Just by virtue of reading and writing, you are part of that world, and your work will speak for itself, as theirs does to you. I’m not saying this to console myself. It’s true: I would feel awkward at a party with writers I admire, though I’d happily take their classes or attend their readings. The work is the thing I am drawn to, though once in a while in my life, the writer has also become a friend. Some of this is set up in advance, by others; we know only of work that we have access to. Some writers’ work never makes it into print, unless they self-publish; some gets published here and there, and some takes off. There’s both justice and injustice to it all; lots of good work gets published, lots of mediocre stuff does too, but somewhere along the way, sooner or later, writers and readers find each other.

Therefore reading is part of the puzzle. If there weren’t readers, there would be no reason to write in the first place, and so reading completes the act, or maybe just continues it, since the things worth reading are worth reading again and again. I don’t read nearly as much or as quickly as I would like–but the reading that does take place is a kind of participation in the work itself. Today the Orwell project begins; a few of my students and I will join Columbia Secondary School students on Zoom to discuss the first few chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Over the next two weeks, we will read the entire novel together. And because this first joint class is happening in just a few hours, and I have some errands to run beforhand, I must leave off here.

I took these pictures yesterday.

On Loyalty and Its Dangers

Last night I checked the New York Times and saw that they were livestreaming the Congressional debate over the certification of the Electoral College results. I started watching and then realized that some students, particularly in my eleventh-grade American Civilization classes, might be interested, so I posted a link on Google Classroom. When I returned to the livestream, it was no longer going on; there was uproar in the hall and loud noises coming from outside. Lawmakers were huddling on the floor or hurrying out. Then sounds of crashing and yelling, rioters bursting into the room. It was probably the strangest event that I had watched live on TV or through streaming. A debate and then, suddenly, a broken debate.

There is little to say about it that hasn’t already been said; I watched for a couple more hours on ABC News; nothing seemed to happen but more and more chaos, Republican rebukes, a bizarre video from Trump, people scaling the walls of the Capitol. Finally the police and Secret Services managed to clear the rioters out of the building. In the morning I tuned in again to see that the certification process had resumed. Within an hour or two, it was complete, and Biden’s victory had been officially accepted by Congress. But the tumult isn’t over; for one thing, it has to be dealt with in many different ways, and for another, it could resume.

I don’t know whether any of my Civilization students tuned in–we meet just once a week–but if they did, right then, the sight must have been surreal: first democracy in action, then mobs.

Plato was right that democracy runs the risk or encouraging selfishness and self-satisfaction. But that is part of the reason why the Constitution was written so carefully, why so many procedures and checks and balances were set in place. The unwieldy structures and processes of U.S. representative democracy are supposed to prevent and restrain extremism of various kinds. What, then, has gone wrong?

This question has been discussed endlessly–but one word that kept coming up in the news interviews was “loyalty”: the idea that the rioters felt loyalty to Trump and were doing this largely out of loyalty, because he had incited them toward it. As someone mentioned, he himself classifies people terms of loyalty: who is loyal to him–that is, never criticizes him–and who is not.

A certain kind of loyalty can destroy a government, a relationship, an institution. It is the loyalty that usurps integrity and ethics, that goes on reckless attack, that gives up anything just to prove itself again and again. This loyalty comes with a thrill: of imagined belonging, acceptance, revenge. It is horrifying but not far away. Probably each of us has known a speck of it at some point in our lives, either in ourselves or in those close to us. The one who doesn’t dare say anything critical about so-and-so, because that would be unloyal.

No one teaches this in school, except through literature and history. There is a virtuous loyalty that has room for criticism. There’s a kind of patient, rugged loyalty that does not lose its mind. But there’s another kind that tries to rid itself of mind, because thinking seems like treason itself. This can happen on the right and on the left. It can happen outside of politics. It is only a fraction of what was happening yesterday in DC, of what has been happening in the U.S. and around the world. It falls far short of explaining everything. But for what it holds, it is worth bearing in mind. Its ruins have no end. The burdens of the mind are light compared to this.

I took the above photo yesterday afternoon from inside Szolnok’s Holocaust memorial. I did not intend any sort of connection between the Holocaust and what happened yesterday. They are profoundly different and should not be trivialized through comparison. But it occurs to me now that a dangerous kind of loyalty runs through both.

  • “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.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    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.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    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.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    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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