Ellenkezőleg

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Life here in Szolnok gives me lots to ponder. For example, I pass by the word gépkölcsönző and ask myself, what could that mean? I look it up and find out that it means “tool rental shop”–a place to remember, as I might need a drill one day.

I learned today that a possible Hungarian word for “contrariwise” (congratulations again to the international contest winners!) is ellenkezőleg. This came from a visit to the bookstore, where I found and purchased a Hungarian translation of Through the Looking-Glass. This means a translation not only of “contrariwise,” but of “Jabberwocky“!

Nézsonra járt, nyalkás brigyók,
Turboltak, purrtak a zepén,
Nyamlongott mind a pirityók,
Bröftyent a mamsi plény….

I started reading and could not resist skipping ahead to Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Subidam és Subidu), the White Knight (a Fehér Huszár), and other favorite characters and parts. I look forward to reading it in and out of sequence.

I started writing an quasi-absurdist mini-play in faltering Hungarian (something to do when you don’t know much of the language), but haven’t gotten too far yet, since I have so much else to do. Here’s the opening dialogue. The characters’ names,  inspired by various travels, are Vasútállomás and Pályaudvar (Train Station and Railway Station).

Vasútállomás: Tovább?
Pályaudvar: Tovább.
Vasútállomás: Kártya van?
Pályaudvar: Van.
Vasútállomás: Egy ember azt mondta, hogy…
Pályaudvar: Mit?
Vasútállomás: Valami csengő. Nem tudok semmit.
Pályaudvar: Győződjön meg arról.

Vasútállomás: Természetesen. De nincs időm.
Pályaudvar: Vár a buszra?
Vasútállomás: A busz gyakran megáll itt. De ez nem bizonyít semmit.
Pályaudvar: Miért ne?
Vasútállomás: A bizonytalanság kissé boldoggá tesz.
Pályaudvar: A boldogság néha kissé boldoggá tesz.
Vasútállomás: Az igaz. Viszontlátásra!
Pályaudvar: Miért viszlát?
Vasútállomás: Nem tudok annyit magyarul folytatni ezen a ponton.
Pályaudvar: Ó, már értem. Viszontlátásra.
Vasútállomás: Úgy beszélsz, mint egy igazi pályaudvar.
Folytatjuk.

 

“For nowadays the world is lit by lightning!”

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All weekend I had been working on my book and meeting other deadlines; by afternoon today, I thought of staying home and continuing, instead of going to Budapest to see The Glass Menagerie (Üvegfigurák in Hungarian) at the Radnóti Színház. In the beginning of January, a colleague had told me about this production, and I had reserved a ticket, but now it seemed I couldn’t afford the time.

Then I thought: “What are you thinking? This is one of your favorite plays, you’ve been looking forward to it for a month, so go!”

I rushed out the door, got to the train just on time, and went to the play, the first play I have seen in Hungary. I have attended an opera and about six concerts, but no play until tonight. My expectations were high and low at once; I had never seen a production of The Glass Menagerie that I liked. I had read the play many times, from my early teenage years onward; I had imagined it on stage; yet actual performances (stage and film) had  disappointed me. They tried too hard; they forced the play into something it wasn’t. The dreamy, melancholic quality got lost. I liked John Malkovich as Tom, but that was it.

Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie is, in Tom’s words, a memory play, and the play itself is memory; the stage descriptions are as important (and at times as lyrical) as the lines. The plot seems simple: an impoverished and broken family contends with dreams. Amanda wishes for a gentleman caller for her daughter, Laura, who lives in her own world of glass animals and the Victrola. Tom, Laura’s brother, longs to escape from the trap of home. But the play has longer action, through Tom’s recollections.

This performance not only hit the right notes but surprised me. Tom (Ádám Porogi) was superb from the start; he came out onto the fire escape, spoke directly to us, and took us into the first scene. The stage set was the way I had imagined it, more or less, with screens that Tom opened and closed, and a semicircular cord curtain surrounding the dining room. The glass menagerie was in a glass case, and when Laura took her animals out, you could see them glitter in the light.

Tom was often on the sidelines, saying Amanda’s (and sometimes Laura’s) words just before she said them. This is not in the written play, but it worked perfectly. Sometimes it seemed like mockery, sometimes like old knowledge (he had heard his mother say these things so many times), sometimes like memory.

Rozi Lovas’s interpretation of Laura was the subtlest, funniest, and quirkiest I had seen. This wasn’t the Laura I had imagined over the years, but I loved her. When playing with her glass animals, she made squeaky voices; when not caught in her mother’s gaze, she flounced awkwardly before the mirror. This made her romantic disappointment all the more heartbreaking; she had shown more than usual to him, even sang with him for a few seconds (in a delightful duet), only to be let down and left behind.

Amanda (Adél Kováts) was frail, expressive, and magnificent, not the towering belle I had seen in productions before. She lived in fantasy, small to others but large to herself. She kept trying to gather up her dignity, kept losing it, kept gathering it again. I loved how she would throw things now and then at the portrait of her husband, the one who had fallen “in love with long distance.” She spoke quickly but melodically; she commandeered but knew her own defeat.

Jim (Dániel Viktor Nagy) was just right–ordinary, a bit carried away with himself, not a terrible person, but not capable of seeing what he had brought about.

The light was beautiful–dim light, bright light, green light, candlelight, changing and turning like the records in the Victrola.

But there was nothing like the catharsis at the end. I had not understood the final scene in this way until tonight. Down comes the rain; Tom gets drenched, and then he speaks from a later time, looking back. His mask has come off; throughout the play, he had tried to distance himself from his sister and mother and from the action; now he admitted that he could not leave Laura behind, that no matter where he went, he saw her. Ádám Porogi brought such rawness into this that it became, for me, the play’s recognition and reversal.

Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger–anything that can blow your candles out.

[Laura bends over the candles.]

For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura–and so goodbye. …

[She blows the candles out.]

All of this was in Hungarian, but I could follow it; Tom’s final admission broke everything open, like the broken unicorn. I left full of the play, not only as I had read it, but as it was performed tonight. I am glad that this was my first play here; I don’t think I will forget it easily. Thanks to the Radnóti Színház for this exceptional performance.

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I added a paragraph and photo to this piece after posting it; later I corrected the quoted text.

“Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated.”

My ninth- and tenth-grade classes at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium have been reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, respectively. This week, the ninth graders read Act 3, Scene 1; the tenth graders, Act 1, Scene 3. (It’s the only time we’ll have this symmetry, I think.) In preparation for Bottom’s “translation,” I visited Maszka in Budapest, where I found a simple donkey mask (not the rooster mask shown below).

For Midsummer, the students not only read the parts but act them out, moving around the room; the action brings meaning to the words. We discuss the text briefly as well. For Hamlet, students read the parts dramatically and also spend time with specific passages. Eventually the two approaches will converge; if everything works out, we will give some kind of Shakespeare presentation toward the end of the year.

Here below, to the left, Snout speaks to Bottom; to the right, Titania wakes up.

The next two pictures show a different cast. To the left, Bottom returns to his rehearsal, with Puck following behind. To the right, Titania wakes up.

Every time I teach these plays, I find them “translated”; no two readings or discussions are identical. Here in Szolnok, there has been insight after insight, surprise after surprise.

 

I took all of the photos; the classroom photos are posted with the students’ permission.

 

Phases and Counterpoints

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Popular psychology often describes human life in terms of stages: the five stages of grief, the four stages of culture shock, and so on. Such formulations are simplistic and untrue, except as general templates. Our lives cannot be chunked; we may go through phases, but they blend and combine and sometimes appear out of order.

Still there are reasons to mark points in time, to honor life events, whether of the past, present, or future, whether our own or someone else’s. The point is not to dictate joy and sorrow but rather to create a counterpoint. My own thoughts and feelings do not disappear during a ritual, but I hear them alongside something else; in this way they turn into something new. Ritualized mourning will not match my own mourning, nor ritualized celebration my own joy; so the ritual lifts me both out of and into myself.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that one can think of Jewish ritual as “the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.” He notes that the first time that the word qadosh, “holy,” is used in the Bible, it is applied to the seventh day–that is, to time. Shabbat is art and architecture of time in that we ourselves shape it. It is artifice in the best sense of the word; it comes out of intention and imagination.

Jews vary widely in our observance of Shabbat. Many do not observe it at all, many observe it strictly, and many do something in between (or change over time). Differences aside, even an awareness of this day can affect how we go about our lives. It contrasts with our everyday timing, urges, and impulses. Moreover, it is we who have to build it; it has been observed and described for centuries, but we contribute to its structure, not just once, but again and again. We lay down a block or beam; we set a window.

Something similar can be said for other holidays (inside and outside of Judaism). They are ways of honoring and structuring time: not our personal time, but the time of a larger entity.

This Friday and Saturday, as Szim Salom, we celebrated Shabbat Shira, the special Shabbat that includes the Shirat Hayam (the Song of the Sea) in the Torah reading. Shabbat Shira takes place once a year. Traditions vary from place to place, but it is common for the entire congregation to rise for the Song of the Sea and to sing certain verses responsively.

In the cantillation course I took at JTS last year–taught by the wonderful Cantor Perry Fine–we devoted much time to the Song of the Sea because of its importance and complexity. The leader must know how to alternate between regular Torah trope and the responsive melody; moreover, he or she must be steeped in the text, capable of giving it cadence and tone.

800px-Song_of_the_seaFor this responsive reading at Szim Salom yesterday, we made many preparations; on Friday night, after service, we went over the melody and verses; the rabbi spoke about the significance of the responsive verses and their difference from the rest of the text. On Saturday morning, we invited everyone to come up to the scroll to see the Shirat Hayam, which has a different layout from the rest of the text. Before beginning the Torah reading, we reviewed the melody and verses again. From there, things swelled; the reading was truly responsive and joyous. It is not for description here; it happened there and is now wrapped up in memory.

Shirat Hayam (in Chapter 15 of Exodus) tells how Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, which parted left and right for them, and how Pharaoh’s horses, riders, chariots, and captains perished in the waves. While most of the text relates a succession of events, the responsive verses have a sound of eternity. They are part of Jewish (and sometimes Christian) regular liturgy, hymns, and piyutim; people readily recognize verse 15:11, “Who is like unto Thee, O LORD, among the mighty? who is like unto Thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” and 15:18, “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.”

In this way, right there in the Shirat Hayam, you feel the counterpoint of timelessness and time: a song rising up out of a tale, or a ritual out of history.

As I thought about this, before and afterward, I remembered Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (“That is no country for old men. The young…”) I started thinking about some lines that I had not given as much attention before. When I think of the poem, I usually remember the second stanza first of all:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

All of this I thought I understood. But just a little later, at the end of the third stanza, a phrase takes me by surprise: “the artifice of eternity.”

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

This is supposed to be strange, I think; it goes against notions that eternity just happens. Eternity is created, magnificently created; it opposes nature, which “is begotten, born, and dies.” The speaker yearns to become artistic form and creation; the fourth stanza begins,

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,

“Once out of nature”–this phrase is peculiar too. What does it mean? Perhaps “released from the phases of life,” released from the body and its decay. Once out of nature, I will take a new kind of form, the speaker suggests, and it will not be “from any natural thing.” But there are still more surprises to come:

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

There is a lot to say about the repetition of “gold” (“goldsmiths,” “hammered gold,” “gold enamelling” and “golden”) and the sardonic “keep a drowsy Emperor awake.” But it is the ending that catches my thoughts: “Or set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” How is it that the golden form, “out of nature,” sings of time and passing, “Of what is past, or passing, or to come”? It is the singing that sets it apart; to sing of time is to gather it up.

This singing is not only external; it involves studying “monuments of its [tjat is, the soul’s] own magnificence.” Here, to study is to sing; through study you rise up into form. This poem invites its own study; it seems easy to understand but keeps startling you (as though you were a drowsy emperor). It draws you into a continuous puzzle that, with each solution, brings new meanings to the whole. Its iambic pentameter (with aberrations) both lulls and wakes the ear; the stresses and counter-stresses make the song.

That’s only the beginning, though; if you read the poem along with its companion, “Byzantium,” you understand it in still more lights and tones.

So it is with the phases of life; they exist not on their own, or even in combination with each other, but in counterpoint with the things we read and sing, the time we honor, the words we slowly come to understand.

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Dave Pearson, Sailing to Byzantium (gouache and ink)

Dave Pearson’s Sailing to Byzantium is part of his Byzantium series.

The image of the Shirat Hayam in a Torah scroll is borrowed from Wikipedia. As for the photo at the top, I took it last week on my way to school. The gold behind the trees looks like a sea or a lake, but it isn’t. That morning, there was a straight cloud line that hung low over the horizon; where the cloud line ended, the sun’s rays spread. A few minutes later, this sea of gold vanished, as the sun rose up past the line, into the clouds.

There was a problem with the formatting of this post; it is now fixed.

The Dare of Beauty

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Over the centuries, many have claimed that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (or something similar), but this formulation seems simplistic. If beauty exists only in the viewer, then it has no ability to bring people together, except haphazardly or by persuasion. But beauty does bring people together, and while it can’t always be explained, it has some principles and paragons.

I find the above picture beautiful: not only the only the shapes of the branches, not only the snow, not only the curves of the river against the line of the wall, but the adult pulling the child in a sled, an accident of timing, since a few seconds earlier they were hidden behind the tree to the right. There was also surprise here; before opening the curtains, I thought, “Today I’ll go out on a long bike ride.” Then, when I saw this scene, I reconsidered and took two photos instead.

A scene can change in seconds from humdrum to songworthy. When crossing the river recently, I saw, from a certain angle, a string of lights reflected in the water; when I took a few more steps over the bridge, these reflections disappeared from view. So I backtracked a little and found the reflections again.

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Beauty comes through at certain angles and times. That doesn’t make it transient; once you find beauty in something, you can find it again. Sometimes–for instance, in a favorite literary work or musical recording–you find it every time you return to it. But even then, it demands your alertness–maybe even more, the better you know it.

Alexander Nehamas writes in Only a Promise of Happiness (2007) that “beautiful things don’t stand aloof, but direct our attention and our desire to everything else we must learn or acquire in order to understand and possess, and they quicken the sense of life, giving it new shape and direction.” Some might take this to subordinate beauty to purpose–beauty is important because it gives shape to our lives–but I see it in reverse: beauty demands that I live up to the seeing. Being an audience member is no easy task; it does not stop when the performers take their last bow. I am responsible for everything I have seen.

Perceivers of beauty cannot be dismissed as naive dreamers or timid escapists; they know (sometimes painfully) what this perception requires of them. Whenever you find something beautiful–be it a film, place, or person–someone else is sure to deride it. How do you respond? Stubbornness will not do; if your defense is too brittle, it cracks. Capitulating is no better; you can’t let others dictate what you see, since there would then be no point in seeing at all. Instead, you must be able to hear others while holding your ground. In this way, the beauty draws you into counterpoint; you hear and see more than one thing at once (and more than you did before).

Someone looking at the picture above might say, “Yes, but look at those ugly apartment buildings.” Yes, the apartment buildings look drab (from the outside), but they seem to answer the trees. The same can be said for the picture below, in which people are gathering with sleds. The high-rise has added some lights of its own to the string.

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To honor those amazements, while also learning and changing: that is the dare of beauty. Not everyone will see beauty in everything, but our glimpses go beyond the personal. They add something to human capacity. There are poems, stories, plays, songs I remember not only for themselves, but for the way they were introduced to me. There are people I remember not just for their stories and jokes, not just for their kind or mixed deeds, but for the things they pointed out.

 

I made a minor change to this piece after posting it.

 

On Inconvenience

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I returned today from a week in Israel (two nights in Tel Aviv and five in Jerusalem). It’s too soon for me to tell about the trip; I’m still absorbing it. But it turned my thoughts, in various ways, toward the topic of inconvenience. I will knock my way into that topic; the photos will speak for themselves, except where I chime in.

I usually avoid group trips; I travel alone so that I can take things in and think. But this time I went on a trip hosted by B’nai Jeshurun, my beloved New York shul; it was a profound introduction to Israel, not only because of the insights, meetings, and itinerary, but because of the slight messiness of it all. Some of my favorite memories (right now) involve a minor inconvenience of some kind: waiting for someone, being waited for, using someone’s soap by mistake, trying to understand the revised schedule, finding the bus, relaying what was just said–little things, but all part of being physically among others, in this extraordinary place.

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On another level I felt a great and beautiful inconvenience: the bumping of one culture against another, the walking on my own and others’ holy ground, the pressing up of faith against faith (or lack of faith), thoughts against questions, road against road. Some of us avoid, others treasure these encounters. Or maybe most of us do both.

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On my last day, I met two Bedouin brothers who ran two shops; they showed me dreamy items while treating me to stories, praise, and tea. I understood this as theater and loved it for that; for those few minutes (that turned into more and more), I enjoyed being called their sister and told that I had beautiful eyes; I laughed as they played against each other, each one claiming to offer me the better deal; I admired a silver and garnet mezuzah (that one of the brothers, Hashem, had made) with pomegranate design and Hebrew inscription; and I bought more than I had meant to buy, without regret. Poetry and theater take you out of your way and gather you up, in a shop or anywhere.

As humans, we seek convenience and efficiency; if there are two ways to accomplish a goal, and one way is quicker and easier, we’ll take that way, unless we have reason to want the other. There’s elegance in this. Many inventions offer some form of convenience. My great-granduncle Charles Fischer discovered ways to make daily tasks easier; hence the take-up spring, the book prop, and other gadgets of his devising. When playing an instrument, we seek ease, not difficulty; a bow grip should not strain or contort the hand. That way, the music can come out.

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But take convenience too far, and you’re through with human relations. Instead of “Hell is other people,” the saying becomes, “Inconvenience is anyone outside myself.” To know someone substantially, you must let yourself be thrown off a little (or a lot).

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None of us can handle being thrown off all the time; the other extreme would be unbearable too. Too much stress and uncertainty, and we buckle; too much predictability, and we harden into planks. Nor do convenience and inconvenience come wrapped and ribboned; each one involves the other. If I take the trouble to meet strangers in various countries, I have taken on both an inconvenience and a convenience; we may speak different languages, but our interactions may be fleeting and unencumbered. If I befriend someone who speaks my language and belongs to my general culture, the initial comfort may lead into expectations. “We should really” starts to enter the conversation.

Inequality and equality both carry their conveniences and inconveniences. If I go out of my way, day after day, to help others, I have the inconvenience of attending to their needs but the convenience of automatic moral stature (and possibly escape from other responsibilities). If I relate to others as an equal and devote time to my own projects, I lose both the duties and the moral markers. So the categories break down.

The questions, or a few of many, become: In my combinations of convenience and inconvenience, do I keep enough uncertainty at the center and around the edges? Do I remember how little I know about others and they about me? Am I willing to take on new challenge and ease, not only externally, but internally? Am I willing to live not only intentionally, but with forms that come clear over time?

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This has to do with “aliveness” as described by Sean D. Kelly in a beautiful essay. “There are things that you know must be said,” he writes, “that are necessary, even though you don’t know why. And only later, in your later years, will the necessity and the significance of those statements become clear. Because you grow into them, or they grow into you. Or both.”

Sometimes an inconvenience invites us into something larger than we could explain in the moment; sometimes ease does this too. Sometimes life takes us up in a way we didn’t expect, and we ride the bumps, drink up the view, and later come to understand what we were doing. This is perplexity; this is prosperity. I think of Marianne Moore: not only “What Are Years?” but also “Poetry” and its revisions. Words, even those set down on paper or screen, do not stay still; they turn and glow, catching us off guard. Those startlements hold ease and unease; things seem brilliantly clear, “but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had.” There is simply no saying, yet there is; saying and silence join and then part ways again. For now, that’s all I have to say.

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I took all of these pictures in Jerusalem, except for the second, which I took in Jaffa (of my friends Elenor and Jenny walking together), and the sixth, which someone–Marcy, I think–took of me (in Jerusalem, just a few meters west of the Western Wall).

I made a few minor revisions to this piece after posting it.

“Hold on there, Evangeline”

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This photo I took yesterday of tracks in the Szolnok snow (on the Zagyva promenade) reminded me of Mark Twain’s Whittier Birthday Dinner Speech, delivered on John Greenleaf Whittier’s seventieth birthday, at the Hotel Brunswick, Boston, on December 17, 1877—that is, 140 years and a week ago. I hadn’t read it since high school, but I remembered how Twain mocked Longfellow. The speech is a story within a story. It begins with Twain tramping through the southern mines of California and then resolving “to try the virtues” of his “nom de guerre,” that is, his pen name. He knocks on the door of a miner, who, after letting him in and feeding him, reports dejectedly that he is “the fourth”—that he just hosted three “littery men” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) the previous evening. The miner proceeds to tell Twain what a difficult lot they were; toward the end of his deluge, he comes to this:

“They were pretty how-come-you-so by now, and they begun to blow. Emerson says, ‘The nobbiest thing I ever wrote was ” Barbara Frietchie.”‘ Says Longfellow, ‘It don’t begin with my “Biglow Papers.”‘ Says Holmes, ‘My “Thanatopsis” lays over ’em both.’ They mighty near ended in a fight. Then they wished they had some more company — and Mr. Emerson pointed to me and says:

“‘Is yonder squalid peasant all
That this proud nursery could breed?’

He was a-whetting his bowie on his boot — so I let it pass. Well, sir, next they took it into their heads that they would like some music; so they made me stand up and sing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” till I dropped — at thirteen minutes past four this morning. That’s what I’ve been through, my friend. When I woke at seven, they were leaving, thank goodness, and Mr. Longfellow had my only boots on, and his’n under his arm. Says I, ‘Hold on, there, Evangeline, what are you going to do with them?’ He says, ‘Going to make tracks with ’em; because:

“‘Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime;
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.’

As I said, Mr. Twain, you are the fourth in twenty-four hours — and I’m going to move; I ain’t suited to a littery atmosphere.”

The whole speech is pugnacious and funny, but the newspapers reported it as an “attack.” Longfellow then replied in Twain’s defense, stating that everyone present understood the speech as humorous and that the newspapers themselves had caused the “mischief.” That’s sublime, in my view: to take such mockery in good spirit and even speak up for the lampooner.

I think about that kind of goodwill and how it can’t be taken for granted. It comes not  only from individuals but from ways of thinking and living.

At school, the calendar year of 2017 ended with an abundance of goodwill. Friday was filled with treats and caroling. Here are the videos of the eleventh-graders’ first caroling visit of the day. (They went from classroom to classroom all day long and performed for the teachers as well.)

I end with three photos from Thursday and Friday: one of a funny student skit (the scene took place in a restaurant and involved the flashing of credit cards), one of the students rehearsing the carols, one of me in the classroom, and one of the eleventh-graders in the hallway before their first caroling visit. Reverence and irreverence combined to make this a day that will leave tracks in the snows and staves of time. Boldog Karácsonyt, Kellemes Új Évet, és Kellemes téli szünetet!

“Le calme enchantement de ton mystère”

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This evening, at the Református Templom (Reformed Church) in Szolnok, students and teachers (including me) will be giving a little concert. I was assigned the solo for Joseph Noyon’s Hymne à la nuit, based on a theme from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera Hippolyte et Aricie. I will see whether someone can make a video during rehearsal today; if that works out, I’ll post the video. We have rehearsed daily during breaks between classes. Music dissolves language barriers; during rehearsal, we all understood what we were supposed to do and shared the thrill when we improved. It has been wonderful to prepare these pieces with my colleagues, under the direction of the music teacher, who leads us so generously and well.

Here are the lyrics (by Édouard Sciortino):

Ô Nuit ! Viens apporter à la terre
Le calme enchantement de ton mystère.
L’ombre qui t’escorte est si douce,
Si doux est le concert de tes voix
Chantant l’espérance,
Si grand est ton pouvoir transformant tout en rêve heureux.

Ô Nuit ! Ô laisse encore à la terre
Le calme enchantement de ton mystère.
L’ombre qui t’escorte est si douce,
Est-il une beauté aussi belle que le rêve?
Est-il de vérité plus douce que l’espérance?

There are additional lyrics, but these are the ones we sing. The second stanza is the solo.

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I love the willow trees here, especially at night when they pick up the glow from the lights around. This one (not the same as the one in the first picture) has a swing.

Today’s the last day of Hanukkah, so yesterday evening I lit all the candles. Last weekend, in Budapest, I taught Hanukkah songs, led Kabbalat Shabbat service for the first time ever, in a big hall with many people, and then, the next morning, led a cozy Shacharit service, read Torah, and commented on the relation between trope and meaning. All this together was slightly too much but a good plunge; now I have time to learn my way into the role.  The details and subtleties take time. But that’s what draws me; the davening opens up slowly, adding candle to candle, color to color, word to velvet, secret to sound.

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Ways of Walking to Work

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Yesterday morning, on my way to school, I ran down into the grass to take the photo above. You can see the swans right in the middle. I haven’t seen the cygnets since early November; they have probably gone off on their own.

I have been thinking (again) about solitude, the subject of my first book. People speak in terms of needing a lot of solitude or not needing much at all, but it doesn’t come in quantities. It does not translate into “time spent alone.” Everyone has a form of it; it’s these forms that differ.

On the surface, Judaism does not  emphasize solitude; most practices and life cycle events are communal. Yet the texts could not exist without solitude; their authors, situations, and stories have to do, again and again, with standing apart from the crowd, thinking alone, going through things alone, relating alone to God, saying things that others would rather not hear. From Noah to Rebecca  to Hannah to Jeremiah to Solomon, from the Psalms to the Prophets to Koheleth to Genesis to Deuteronomy, solitude fills the words and sounds–solitude in its fullness and with all its contradictions.

How do you find your way in a tradition that is so profoundly solitary on the one hand and so strongly communal on the other? You do just that: find your way. It won’t be the same as another person’s, but it will be founded on the texts and practices. There is solitude (and commonality) in that search and study. Some have devoted themselves to the study of solitude in Judaism (see, for instance, the blog Jewish Contemplatives); others learn about it in passing and repassing.

Solitude may involve long retreats, but it often takes the form of a brief cocoon of thought. Sometimes, no matter where I am, I need to step aside in my mind to reconsider things; this can happen within seconds, but it’s still solitude. Those few seconds can make the difference between understanding something well or poorly, handling something gracefully or ungracefully, or acting wisely or unwisely. Solitude allows us to exist in full dimension.

Some will object that this is just reflection, not solitude, but no, it’s solitude too. You can’t reflect in this way without standing and thinking apart. Solitude affirms that there’s something beyond the first appearance of things, something that calls for introspection, analysis, feeling, creation, and relinquishment, or some combination of these. Solitude wraps and unwraps itself; it retreats and returns.

That’s why it makes little sense to describe someone as “solitary” or “social.” We are all complex combinations of both. Some may seem aloof but have strong daily relationships. Some may seem gregarious but keep most of their thoughts to themselves. For some it depends on context, time of day, and stage of life. But whatever shape our associations and detachments take, they influence each other. It is our ability to step back that allows us to shape our actions, to listen to others, and to protect ourselves from sheer impulse and reactivity.

Some see “thinking” and “doing” as mutually exclusive; in their view, the “doers” are the real people, the ones getting the work done, while the “thinkers” are just inconvenient clods of contemplation. To those people I would say: if that were so, you would not have a house to live in, for there can be no architecture without thought. You may not particularly enjoy thinking (any more than some others enjoy making things with their hands), but that does not mean you can do without it. Someone has to do the heavy lifting, someone the light; sometimes it’s a lifting of planks, sometimes of ideas. Give respect to both, and life will have meaning and housing.

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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.