Radio

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The radio joins mystery with clarity. We take it for granted today, with all the alternatives out there, but I remember the awe that came from rotating the dial in and out of sound and fuzz, sometimes even tuning in to stations in foreign countries, with broadcasts in French, Spanish, German… Also, from a young age I thought of the radio as something you could make at home, and even broadcast on from home. My various electronics kits allowed me to make basic crystal radios and to broadcast signals, even voice. (Once the neighbors came over to complain because my signals were being picked up by their TV.)

My paternal grandfather, who died when I was six or so, had a ham radio station in the basement of their house in Chicago. My one memory of him is from there: he was in his radio broadcasting room, fiddling around with things and singing along.

We actually didn’t listen to radio much at home; my parents listened to classical music and were content to stick to their record collection and informal musical gatherings with friends. In fact, radio listening stood out through its absence. Once I was home with a fever, and my cousin (who was living with us at the time) put the radio in my room. I heard two songs I had never heard before: Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” They played at least twice that day, maybe more. I would hear those songs many more times over the years; today they are popular classics.

Many years later, when I lived (for about seven months) in Tucson, I signed up to be a volunteer DJ at KXCI, Tucson’s community radio station. There I learned how DJs get to be DJs, what the various rules are, and how to set up a good sequence of songs, with announcements in between. I learned, also, that people will tell you if they like what you’re doing (and if they don’t). My time there was so short that I didn’t get my own slot, but I filled in for people a few times. Twice, I think, I took on the early-morning show “Breakfast Cafe.” I thought some of my favorite songs would be perfect for it, but about twenty minutes in, the phone rang, and someone asked in an aggrieved voice, “Could you play something that isn’t so depressing?” But then another time, when filling in for someone in a prime time slot (around 11 a.m.), I confused the “heavy” and “medium” rotation categories–and thus ended playing songs that people don’t hear very often (and that I happened to like). I got an excited phone call: “This is great! Can we have more music like this?” The thing is, during prime time you are supposed to play mostly “heavy rotation” songs–that is, songs that are already being played all the time. A smaller portion of the time goes to “medium rotation,” and only a tiny portion to “low rotation.” To me, that’s backwards–but anyway, I got it wrong, had a great time, and received no complaints from anyone.

But back to radio itself and what it can be. People used to gather around it for news, radio theatre, songs, talk shows, and more; it was through the radio that people heard the breaking news in the world. Sometimes those broadcasts changed lives. I have brought some recordings of old radio broadcasts to my students here in Hungary; we listened to a few episodes of the Aldrich Family, as well as one of the broadcasts when John F. Kennedy was shot. A radio broadcast about Kennedy (John or Robert) is the opening event of Gyula Jenei’s poem “Rádió” (which I translated and hope we will include in the Dallas events). Listening to old radio shows, I am brought into a time when this device was an opening to the world, or else a tiny world of its own. (In Jenei’s poem, a version of which can be found here, the child imagines little people in the box.)

One of the great traditions of radio is the “call-in” show or the phone request. It was something exciting to find yourself on the air, even for a few seconds, to request a song, ask a question, or enter a contest. For some, this was (and still is) a way of life; Irving Feldman conveys this trenchantly in his poem “Interrupted Prayers,” which begins:

The sun goes, So long, so long, see you around.
And zone by zone by zone across America
the all-night coast-to-coast ghost café lights up.
Millions of dots of darkness—the loners,
the losers, the half alive—twitch awake
under the cold electronic coverlet,
and tune in their radios’ cracked insomnia.

Today radio has distanced itself from us, through streamlining and corporatization; there are fewer request and call-in programs, fewer independent stations, fewer people taking up broadcasting with a passion. Or maybe that’s my imagination–maybe there are more than ever, but they have to be sought out. There’s a lot of controversy about whether radio is dying; some say yes, others say no. To a great extent it is giving way to Spotify, YouTube, etc. But there are still radio shows and DJs discovering, uncovering, loving, broadcasting music. Art of Flying’s new album Escort Mission is getting all sorts of radio play; that right there attests to the vitality of the medium.

Why am I fond of radio sometimes? Is it just nostalgia? I don’t think so. With radio, first of all, you’re focused on sound; there are no visuals, and so you can get caught up in the listening. Second, it’s there to bring you something you don’t already know, like, or have. Sure, you hope your favorite songs will get played, but in between them, something else catches your ear. Your trusted DJs will bring you things worth hearing. And even news broadcasts seem more intimate than TV; the updates are less polished, more spontaneous, and since you don’t have to see the reporters in suits, with layers of makeup, they seem closer at hand somehow.

I say “sometimes” because I am not always fond of radio; sometimes all the available broadcasts are mediocre, or sometimes I want something that doesn’t skip so quickly from song to song, topic to topic. Giving the choice between listening to a full album and listening to the radio, I will usually go for the former. But the radio has many delights.

It fascinates me when I am taking the cab to the airport (in NYC) and the cab driver has a classical radio station on. And the driver himself is very quiet, listening. Classical music (a broad category, and a misnomer) can give people something to stay their minds on and be staid, to paraphrase Robert Frost. But it’s also full of adventures–twists and turns of melody, many shades of chord. Many people listen to popular music in this way too: who treat it not as background music, but as the center of attention, something worth listening to again and again.

I listened to radio (KXT 91.7 FM) sometimes when driving in Dallas. I enjoy that station; everything I heard on it was interesting, and I intend to keep on listening to it. Just before returning to Hungary, I mailed a copy of 1LIFE’s CD Nincsen Kérdés to KXT 91.7 FM in Dallas. “Maradok ember” is the 8th track. Dallas readers, if you would like to hear the song played on KXT, here’s the online request form. The form allows for three requests–so you can ask for other songs too! It would be great to hear “Maradok ember” on KXT, not only because it’s a great song, but because the song already has a presence in Dallas. I’m not trying to organize a request blitz, since that would go against the whole purpose of requests: to bring hosts and listeners closer together. But if you listen to KXT and would like to hear the song there, you can help bring this about.

That, to me, is part of the fun and meaning of radio: hoping that a particular song will be played, requesting to have it played, listening to hear whether they play it, and in the meantime, getting surprised by things you haven’t heard before.

Image credit: Courtesy of Plymouth Voice (Michigan).

Stretches of Time

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It is good to have these stretches of time–to work on projects, go out on the bike, play cello, think about things. It is often said that humans are social beings. This is true, but we are solitary too; each of us has a different combination of the two, and in each of us, the combination changes. Somehow we are led to believe that we aren’t supposed to be alone–but certain projects, even ways of thinking, require a good bit of aloneness. This isn’t the same as being isolated or detached; it can lead to better company, since you have done your work (or part of it) and can enter clear and rich conversation.

Thanks to the streches of time this past week, I have been able to accomplish a few things. I finished the entire first draft of the translation of Kata Bajnai’s Farkasok, the first draft of a review of John Wall Barger’s The Mean Game, and the first draft of a translation of a poem by Gyula Jenei–the tenth that I have translated so far of his poems. I intend to revise all of these and translate two more poems in the next week–and then, by the end of the month, write the paper that I will present at the ALSCW Conference. There will be lots else to do this month–getting ready for teaching, going on a faculty trip to Serbia, etc., but all of this will be possible now. The projects have been enjoyable in themselves, and the focus only made them more so.

The fall is full of commitments and projects–including teaching, serving as vice form teacher–not the official form teacher, but rather the support person–for the incoming ninth grade bilingual class, leading services (about once a month, in addition to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) at Szim Salom, participating in the ALSCW conference, going with my colleagues Gyula Jenei and Marianna Fekete to Dallas at the end of October (see the event descriptions here), and translating some poems by Tomas Venclova, whose work I translated in the past. In addition to that, I want to take some new steps with my writing and music–and bring my Hungarian to a much higher level.

And to ride the bike, too; the fall is my favorite time for that. Last week I bicycled to Besenyszög–not an especially long ride, but long enough in the heat. (Tonight and tomorrow’s rains should bring the temperatures down; there’s already a vigorous breeze.) I took the photos on the road. In the sunset photo, I like the way the grass picks up a tinge of the pink and orange of the sky. The farm machines are beautiful too. How much work gets done, and how many ways there are to do it, beyond anyone’s individual knowledge? Work of the mind, work of the fields, work of the stage, work of the bakery–wherever we go, there is some work that requires someone’s work; much of the time, we have only a fragmented idea of it, if even that much.

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Verging on Home

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I was exhausted and thrilled to arrive in Szolnok, take a taxi home, enter the apartment, greet the cat (not the one pictured here), run down to the river, walk across the river to the SPAR, go back home, take a long nap, then walk around town in the wind, under the pressing clouds. I have said “home” three times so far, but for me Szolnok is a home in the making. I have lots to do before I can fully call this home. The plans are getting clearer and clearer.

In November 2020, when I will have been here three years, I intend to apply for permanent residency. Around that time–maybe sooner, maybe later–I will try to purchase an apartment. The prices for downtown apartments are now high (by Hungarian standards and my own), but it’s possible to find something roomy and inexpensive on the outskirts: for instance, near the old sugar factory, which would allow for a daily bike ride along the Tisza to school.

Assuming I can work something out with my school for the longer term, I would plan to teach for another 10 years–no more than that, since I want to retire with some force left in me. Upon retiring, I would devote myself to writing, music, Szolnok culture, biking, translation, and Jewish study and practice.

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Also, while I won’t become fully fluent in Hungarian within the next year–fluency takes years–I hope, in this coming year, to read much more Hungarian literature and to speak comfortably on everyday subjects. I want to continue translating.

I hope that it will be possible to continue teaching at the Dallas Institute in July and to visit the East Coast before and afterward. This would be good not only for the known reasons, but for unknown and surprising ones too.

Any pieces of this could change. Emergencies come up; plans get thwarted or diverted. But these plans have been steady for a while. I look forward to seeing at least some of them take shape. In the meantime–particularly in the next few weeks–I have lots to do:

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1. Finish at least a draft of a translation of Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok. I have translated the first scene and intend to translate the whole play by August 15. That will leave time for revisions and adjustments–first on my own, and then in consultation with the author and others.

2. Write a review of John Wall Barger’s book of poetry The Mean Game. I hope to complete it by August 15.

3. Translate a few more of Gyula Jenei’s poems (by August 20 or so).

4. Prepare for the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s 2019 Education Forum, presented by the Dallas Institute’s Louise and Donald Cowan Center for Education.

5. Write the paper that I will be presenting at the 2019 ALSCW Conference (on Frederick Douglass and Robert Hayden, in Ishion Hutchinson’s seminar)–by the end of August.

6. Plan the seminar that I will be leading at the ALSCW Conference (on the nature of great literature).

7. Translate at least one of Tomas Venclova’s more recent poems, and then translate more over the coming months.

8. Read books in Hungarian, beginning with the books I have received as gifts or begun reading on my own.

9. Take bike rides, including long ones.

10. Go with my colleagues to Serbia for three days.

11. Get ready for the school year.

12. Write sketches for the next book.

13. Write some other things.

14. Play cello. (This appears in 14th place but should go higher.)

15. Learn Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.” (Thank you, Tonya Fisher!) This should go higher too.

16. See friends, answer emails, make a few phone calls.

That’s just a start.

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I took all four pictures in Szolnok on Tuesday, August 6.

Thanks Upon Thanks

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In just a few minutes, I will board a plane to New York–so this is a quick post filled with thanks. I am grateful to the Dallas Institute, its Summer Institute, the Cowan Center, and everyone in and involved with them. The literary works, music, discussions, lectures, films, conversations, laughter, delicious meals, and overall spirit made this one of the most glorious summers yet. I learned from my colleagues, the participating teachers, the staff, the works we read, the songs we sang, and more. Thanks to Marcell Bajnai and all of 1LIFE for the song “Maradok ember,” which brought so much to our last two days here. I played it twice: first during my faculty remarks (the opening remarks before the main lecture) on Thursday, and then at the closing ceremony on Friday. Both times, people sang along in the chorus; the second time, there was a standing ovation! Here are two photos courtesy of the Dallas Institute (if you click on them, you can see them on Flickr and browse the other photos as well); here, also, is a short video taken at the closing ceremony by Leo Vaughns Jr. MEd.

Thanks to Dallas Strings, the wonderful place up in Allen where I rented the cello and purchased some sheet music for future playing (including cello pieces by Liszt and Farkas).

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Thanks to Congregation Shearith Israel, the synagogue I have attended every summer when in Dallas, which has become a “shul away from shul” for me. I got to leyn (chant) Torah again–from one of my favorite parshiot, Balak (about which I hope to say something later). It was good to be there again—in the shul, community, liturgy, teachings, and text.

And thanks to the extraordinarily generous person who lets me stay in her apartment, summer after summer. This has made my Summer Institutes not only possible but fruitful, since there, in the quiet of her place, I could read, write, gather my thoughts, and sleep.

One more thanks: to Tom McLaughlin, who made one of these beautiful pieces for each of the faculty members, using pyrography and a branch from a nearby felled tree—and gave each of us a lovely antique book too. And to everyone who gave their works and thoughts.

I am leaving some things out, but that’s the nature of it, full and unfinished. From here into the air.

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Who Are the Real Influencers?

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I have been hearing a lot about “influencers,” people who have managed to build a gargantuan social media following and thereby exert power in real life: as politicians, pundits, CEOs, “unboxing” video creators, and so on. Some claim that influencers are the way of the future. That must be partly true. But deliberate influence has its limits; some of the greatest influence is unintended, or at least not an end in itself. It comes from a quality of a person or thing.

Who has influenced me the most over my lifetime? Do I even know? Surely my family, friends, teachers, classmates, colleagues, students, and various mentors, but also the books I read (some modern, some hundreds or thousands of years old), the music I listen to, the places I have lived and visited, the languages I learn, the faith I practice or not, the things that happen in a day. But there’s still more: memories long forgotten, strangers who have crossed my path, mistakes I have made, angles of the light. When we speak of our influences, we usually refer to things and people we admire, but influence goes far beyond that, far beyond what we can name. Also, influence has a complex chemistry. It doesn’t always take effect right away, and even when it does, it may or may not be visible. Sometimes it inspires its opposite, or something at a skew from it.

So it is important to distinguish the “influencers” from the full range of influences in our lives. Yes, the influencer economy is part of reality. Not all of it is terrible; it offers a certain democracy, as people can gain an audience through their own efforts, with minimal equipment and funds. Also, if they’re influencing others for the sake of something worthwhile, they deserve some respect. But one can influence others profoundly without being an influencer, and vice versa.

Should influencing be a primary goal? It certainly has a place among other goals. Everyone wants to reach and affect others, and affecting them can mean influencing them. But as a primary goal it lacks something; who am I, that I should want to influence you? Even in teaching, influence happens as a result of other things: interesting lessons and subject matter, a quality of conversation, and so on. There would be something vain, for instance, about hoping all my students will go into my field or adopt my perspective. Influence, if it happens, will take its own form.

As for popularity and outward success, they have some meaning but do not deserve complete trust. Large outward success can ruin private and internal life and can quickly disappear; some brilliant work is done in obscurity. A lot takes place in between the extremes. The influencers will do what they do, but over the long run, the ones who do good work, learn from others, speak bravely, and treat others kindly will leave traces without even trying.

P.S. See the sharp and enlightening Lex maniac entry on the term “influencer.”

Nyílik a szem (The eye opens)

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This morning, on the way to the Dallas Institute, I was listening to 1LIFE’s song “Kopog a szív” and getting caught up in the phrase “nyílik a szem” (“the eye opens”). The song lands on it, by surprise, and repeats it, and returns to it, and stays there; the song is about a lot of things, but part of it is about suddenly seeing what is going on. To me, its montage of images tells a story, or two; different listeners will hear different stories in it.

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It fit well (though unintentionally) with today’s discussions of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and yesterday’s of Aeschylus’s Eumenides, both having to do with the opening of the eyes (as tragedy generally does). When things (like a song and a play) come together without planning, they set off many thoughts. I was thinking all day about having the eyes opened and what this can mean in different forms and places: in the plays we are reading, in this song, and beyond. When your eyes are opened to yourself, whether in tragedy or in song, there are two sides to it: you realize what you have done, and you realize who you are. Also, this opening of the eyes can’t be taken back. It can be terrible or joyful, but it’s there for good.

It isn’t just an intellectual consideration; I think of vivid moments in my life when my eyes were opened in some way, through a meeting with another person, through accident, through loss, through poetry, through learning, through mistakes.

The song opened up to me slowly over the past months; I enjoyed its melody and rhythm from the start but needed some time to grasp the lyrics, since I am still far from fluent in Hungarian. I remember hearing it in concert (at Európa-nap, I think) and suddenly understanding “nyílik a szem.” The rest came from there. It is now one of my favorite 1LIFE songs. (I have previously commented here on “Maradok ember” and “Kapcsolj ki!“)

Here is a video of the song, which contains the lyrics; and below it, my tentative translation. I took a few liberties and may have made some outright mistakes. It is a start; I will make corrections and improvements over time. “Szem” can be taken in a singular or plural sense. I first translated it as “eyes” (“the eyes open”) but later my eye opened and I changed my mind. “Eye” in English can also have a general or plural meaning, and all the other images in the chorus are singular (or archetypal).  “Nyílik a szem” could also be translated as “the eye is opened,” but that suggests that it has already happened, whereas here it seems to be happening right in the moment. “The eye opens” does not fit the rhythm of the song, even in translation–but it is more vivid and direct than the alternatives I considered. So I will leave it as is.

over the housetops, the sky
in the lonely streets, the wind
see our brain does not converse
gut and feeling, what goes with them?

infinity is in our cells
fear resides in our bones
suddenly a stroke of luck
makes our fingers interlock

winter comes, summer goes
it would come but can’t find its way
on goes the light, click of machine
the ice melts, but the heart knocks,
the heart knocks, the heart knocks

this is all that our eyes see
from the sky a cloud cries onto us
the truth has no clothes
our empty room is overcrowded

winter comes, summer goes
it would come but can’t find its way
on goes the light, click of machine
the ice melts, but the heart knocks,
the heart knocks, it stands in the door,
it waits for the key, the lock gives way,
quiet in the room, order on the shelf,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens

winter comes, summer goes
it would come but can’t find its way
on goes the light, click of machine
the ice melts, but the heart knocks,
the heart knocks, it stands in the door,
it waits for the key, the lock gives way,
quiet in the room, order on the shelf,
the eyes opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens

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I took all three photos today. The first and third are of the Dallas Institute; the second, of the dashboard of my rental car. The video was made by Zsombor Papp; the song “Kopog a szív” is by 1LIFE, and its lyrics are by Marcell Bajnai.

I made a few additions and an important correction to this piece after posting it: “kopog a szív” means “the heart knocks,” not “the heart beats.”This correction is important because first of all, it’s accurate; second, it’s a fresher image than “the heart beats”; and third, it goes with the door, lock, and everything else. It affects everything. Also, I commented a little more on “nyílik a szem” (which I first translated as “the eyes open” but then changed to “the eye opens”).

Friendship and Place

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The past few days have reminded me how friendship and place go together. I associate friends with certain places; when we meet in those places, old memories get layered with the new; when we meet in a new place, it can bring something out of the friendship. I will not talk here about the conversations I had with various friends; that is not for reporting on the blog. There must be something that a person can keep offline. But I will say a little about the places, in reverse chronological order.

Yesterday afternoon I arrived in Dallas, and that evening I went with my dear colleagues and friends to Gloria’s, the Salvadoran, Tex-Mex, and Mexican restaurant that we have visited so many times. I did not take pictures, but the conversation and meal are fresh in my mind.

On Tuesday evening, a friend and I met at the New Leaf restaurant in Fort Tryon Park (in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC). Both of us had been there before, but not together. She lives right by the park; so did I, in the two years before I moved to Hungary. The photo at the top is of the park as I walked through it after dinner.

On my way to dinner, I walked through the long subway tunnel at 190th Street.

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Earlier in the day, I went with another friend to the New York Public Library. (Both he and the friend I first mentioned were also my colleagues at Columbia Secondary School.) We had gotten together there before, but this occasion was different; his wife, who works at the library, arranged for us to see the Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens special collections; this included the copy of Alice in Wonderland that Carroll dedicated and presented to Alice Liddell, as well as the copy of A Christmas Carol, replete with handwritten cuts and edits, that Dickens used for his public readings. After that, we got to see the very first handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, in the hand of Thomas Jefferson. It was difficult to take a good picture of it; here is one of my attempts.

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Before and after the Declaration of Independence, we went to the children’s reading room, where his two children were playing, and saw the original Winnie the Pooh toys.

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That morning I met with a friend in Edgar’s Café, which has become our traditional meeting place. It is named after Edgar Allan Poe; its original location was on Edgar Allan Poe Street between West End Avenue and Broadway. It was there, right on or near that street, that Poe lived from March 1844 to August 1845; it was supposedly there that he wrote “The Raven.” I didn’t take any pictures, but here’s one I took in February, when I came to NYC for two days to give a book reading and had breakfast with the same friend. (Neither of us appears in the photo.)

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The previous evening, I met with a friend in a gorgeous apartment on Washington Square Park (it belongs to one of her family members, who was away). We had never met there before; it ended up hosting a good, long conversation. I took no pictures indoors, but here’s one of a street corner nearby. The arched windows of the tall building across the street were glittering in the sun, but the picture doesn’t catch that.

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On the way there, I passed by the Stonewall National Monument. It was the day after the Pride Parade, so it was quiet (but still full of visitors). I missed the parade on Sunday–well, I could have caught the end of it, probably, but was too tired and jet-lagged to realize this. The quiet walk was good, in any case.

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Each of these places was beautiful, and just right for each of the meetings with friends–but I think it’s partly because I was alert to them. Living in Szolnok has made me more aware of places and their relation to people. I think of the rivers, the school, the library, the places where the banketts were held, the Tiszavirág Fesztivál grounds, the Tiszavirág bridge, the café where I met weekly this year with Böbi and Tündi, the many streets I got to know by bike, the buildings whose history I am slowly beginning to learn. A person not only becomes part of a place, but gives something through it, so that the place becomes a messenger, but the opposite of Hermes and Iris, since it needs no wings but rather does its work by standing still.

“…használhatatlanná váltak…”

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After doing some last-minute errands before tomorrow’s trip across the seas, I decided to return to the exhibit–at the corner of Szapáry and Kossuth–of the history of some of Szolnok’s old buildings. I had attended the opening at 7 p.m. on June 22, the Night of the Museums, which coincided with the last day of the Tiszavirág Fesztivál. Zsolt Bajnai, who wrote the text and contributed some of the pictures, spoke about the exhibit and the buildings described in it; Marcell Bajnai opened and closed the event with a few of his songs.* I lingered a few minutes afterward to look at the pictures but knew I needed more time. Today I took a few minutes, not enough, but something.

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I began reading about the 1969 fire in the center of Szolnok. This sentence caught my attention: “A baleset utáni vizsgálat nyilvánvalová tette, hogy az üzletterek és a raktárak lényegében használhatatlanná váltak, azaz Szolnok akkori legnagyobb áruháza megsemmisült.” (The investigation after the accident made it clear that the business spaces and warehouses had essentially become unusable; that is, Szolnok’s largest department store at that time had been destroyed.)

Even within such a sad topic, how magnificent the word “használhatatlanná”! It consists of the root “haszon” (advantage, benefit, use) and four suffixes: the verb-forming suffix “ál,” the potential suffix -hat, the privative suffix -atlan, and the translative suffix -vá, which gets converted to “ná.” (I first learned about the translative case—my favorite of the cases—when  learning “Maradok ember,” which has the phrase “viharrá lettél.”) The phrase “használhatatlanná váltak” can be translated as “became unusable.” But how do you translate its length, its parts and whole, its metamorphosis, its six-time “a/á” vowel sound, the double occurrences of the consonant sounds h, l, t, and n, the last of which actually occurs triply, since it is doubled the second time? That word alone made the foray worthwhile, but it was just a fraction of what I saw and read there, between rush and rush, before leaving the country for five weeks.

*Regular readers of this blog have probably seen the Bajnai name come up often; yes, the Bajnai family contributes richly to cultural life in Szolnok and beyond, together and individually. I admire their work and look forward to knowing and understanding it better over time. I have begun translating Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok (Wolves), which I saw for the second time on June 22, just a few hours before this opening.

From Ballagás to Bankett

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Here in Hungary, after students finish the last of their school-leaving exams, they might have a special dinner at a restaurant, a “bankett,” (like a banquet but not exactly the same), to which they invite their teachers. It’s a chance to spend time together and talk informally. I went to two such celebrations this year and had a great time at both. Serious and light conversations, warm atmosphere, enthusiastic hosts (the students, who made sure we all had plenty to eat and drink). This is all so different from the customs in the U.S. that I want to say a little more about it. I wrote about the serenades and ballagas already. Now for the exams and bankett.

After the ballagás (a ceremony that takes place twice–at school and in the city–after the seniors have finished their classes), the seniors begin taking their exams in several rounds, in a range of subjects. First come the written exams, which (like most of the oral exams) they may take at the standard or advanced level. The standard-level exams are administered by the school; the advanced exams, by the district (and at a location other than the school). Then come advanced oral exams, also administered by the district. After finishing all of this, the students take their standard-level oral exams, which are usually administered by their own teachers in the various subjects. There are oral exams in physics, biology, chemistry, languages, Hungarian language and literature, history, music, informatics, civilization, and more. Not everyone takes every exam; typically, at this stage, students take two or three, depending on what they have taken already and what they need for the university.

I administered the American and British Civilization oral exam to eighteen students in two classes. In addition, I administered two standard-level English exams (since all my other twelfth-grade students from those two classes took the advanced exam). I also sat in the room and listened while other exams were being given; that was part of my responsibility, but it was also an honor.

I did this last year as well and enjoyed it, but this time I understood much more. At its best, the oral exam is a dialogue between student and teacher. The student comes in the room, walks up to the teacher administering his or her first exam, chooses an envelope at random (which contains the specific topic), and sits down to prepare for at least half an hour. When called up–only one student takes the exam at a time–he or she goes to the examination seat across from the teacher, and begins to speak about the topic. Once the initial presentation is over, the teacher poses questions and the student responds.

I saw several physics exams, each of which involved a different experiment–one with a pendulum, one with an electric current, and one that I don’t remember. I listened to a music exam, which started with some theory and sight singing and ended with the student rising and singing a Bartók song magnificently. I heard Hungarian literature (including world literature) exams on topics ranging from Homer to Kafka to Radnóti, and Hungarian grammar exams on vowel harmony, etymology, and logic. History was one of the most dazzling experiences; students spoke in detail about topics from ancient Greek democracy to the rule of Szent István király to the Reformation to the Holocaust to the Kádár regime. Across the subjects, students weren’t always able to answer the teacher’s questions, but those questions served a purpose beyond the test itself. Some questions served to clarify or correct a detail; others challenged the students to explain the meanings and reasons behind the facts. All of this reminded me a little of my oral exams in graduate school; there, too, I found that I was learning something through the exam itself, through the exchange with the professors. But that was graduate school; I have never seen anything like this in high school in the U.S. (or even in college).

I forgot to mention that we dress up for their exams. The students wear white and black (shirts and suits), or white and blue, or their own class’s color combination. The teachers wear white and black, though not as strictly (and we all made some adjustments for the weather, since it was intensely hot). The oral exams as a whole begin and end with a ceremony: all the students in a row, facing all the students who will be examining them. They present flowers to the exam supervisor, who comes from the district. At the end, they receive their diplomas, certificates, and report cards and present flowers or chocolates to the teachers.

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Through these exams, through showing what they have learned and discussing all these topics with their teachers, the students cross over into another stage of life, which is why the bankett is so fitting. It’s a kind of recognition of each other and many things. We get to ask each other questions about life, studies, politics, future plans, cultures, languages, things that you have wanted to know about each other. We get to express appreciation that maybe didn’t find its way into words before. We get to laugh together.

I fear that my description was clumsy, but so is everything right now; I leave for the U.S. the day after tomorrow and will be there until early August. There is much to look forward to this summer and in the coming school year. As for this year, thanks to all the graduating seniors, their families, and their teachers for building this beautiful ending, which holds, transforms, and releases the years that came before.

One Foot in Each World

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Religion might be the touchiest subject in the world, or at least a mighty candidate. Those who feel strongly about it (one way or another) have trouble considering others’ beliefs; those who don’t feel strongly about it see little need to discuss it. Religious convictions (including atheism) often come bundled with attitudes of superiority; those with religious faith see atheists as spiritually impoverished, whereas atheists often see the religious as deluded or worse. Even within a given religion, there are demarcations and judgments; some look down on their less observant fellow worshipers, while others pride themselves on not being one of those “crazy” types. Add to this the centuries of conflicts between and within religions, and you have a sensitive subject indeed. But perhaps there are ways to think and talk about it, even with disagreements.

First of all, what is religion? It begins with the apprehension of something beyond our concrete knowledge but somehow involved in our lives. We start to see this as a god; a text that reveals this god takes on a sacred status. Practices arise out of this perception; if there is a god, and if this god is good, then one should make as much room for the god as possible, driving away the god’s enemies, whatever they may be. Religious rituals, services, and prayers, as well as dietary and other practices, can be seen as ways of letting God in.

For many an atheist, this is nonsense or worse; religious practices distract from a truly moral way of life–where one strives to make the world a better place for its own sake–or a life of self-fulfillment, where one seeks one’s own advantage. There’s no god watching over us, no afterlife awaiting us, just ourselves and our choices, be they selfish, generous, or both.

These views seem diametrically opposed, but maybe they aren’t. It’s possible to hold both of them at once. I have no way of knowing whether there is a god or not. I consider it entirely possible that there is none, and no afterlife either. Yet religious texts and liturgies–Jewish texts and liturgy in particular–have a meaning for me that cannot be explained away or reduced. Judaism emphasizes the communal and the social, but for me it is primarily internal. I loved those hours of learning a Torah portion late into the evening, pondering the meanings, looking up the etymology of word after word, figuring out the logic behind a particular trope pattern–or else sinking into the liturgy, listening, singing, chanting. This is similar to my relation to literature and music but not exactly the same. I say “loved” because I learn the Torah portions much faster now and have been focused on leading services, which requires more than one kind of preparation. Leading services is a great joy, but it shifts the attention to the external. You not only learn the texts and prepare your voice, but also make adjustments for the many possible occurrences: special guests, a large crowd, a complete lack of crowd, a changed location, etc. I imagine that rabbis and cantors (as well as priests and leaders of other religions) must work hard to protect their internal lives. Religion is a kind of internal life that cannot be replaced with anything else.

A future rabbi (now a rabbi in actuality) told me about five years ago that I had one foot in the secular world and the other in the religious world, and that this was not a bad thing. This remains true. I reject a sheltered existence for myself; I want to be in the world, and that means being among people who differ from me, as well as those with whom I share interests, background, priorities, experiences. I need the retreat as well, not the retreat of escape, but that of sinking into texts, thoughts, melodies, both secular and religious. I know that these two (or three or four) worlds meet, the secular and the religious, the external and internal, because I live them. Yet how difficult it is to explain the intersection (or overlap, or intertwining, symphony, or stew)! I suspect that when human life reaches an end, when the whole story wraps up, if it ever does, each of us will turn out to have been at least slightly wrong. Maybe that’s the upshot of the “double life”: each one reminds the other that there is more to learn and more people and things to learn from.

I took the photo at the Tiszavirág Fesztivál last night; this was one of many entries in a “light painting” (fényfestés) competition. Here the art is projected onto the Reformed Church.