“The dreaming lapse of slow, unmeasured time”

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There’s a common assumption in American society, and to varying degrees around the world, that if you are not frantically busy, then you are not working hard enough. A leisurely life, in the view of many, is nothing but a frivolous luxury. Especially if you are a woman, you should be running around doing this and that; many people prove themselves by rattling off their schedule to those around.

It is acknowledged, now and then, that some men need to go off into their studies to ponder, or to the river to fish. But for women, this kind of leisurely solitude has little or no place in the public imagination; a woman who goes off on her own to work on something may even arouse pity. “Poor thing!” they think, if they think about the matter at all. “She doesn’t go out, she doesn’t socialize, she must be so lonely and bored.” Or: “Why isn’t she an activist?

Why shouldn’t leisure (of various kinds) be treated as a good–not only for the wealthy, but for everyone who needs and wants it? “I just can’t afford it,” some will reply. But there are also those who can’t afford to go without it. What’s more, it needs, like other things, to be learned and passed on. This can be done almost anywhere; tt’s possible to create leisure even on a low income. This is an old idea; liberal education, in its earliest conception, was education within leisure, for leisure; while this idea has been contested over time, part of it holds up as strongly as ever, if not more so.

First of all, leisure allows a person to think. It isn’t the same thing as sloth–lying around, dilly-dallying, munching on chips while watching TV (though all of that can have a place). It’s a matter of slowing down enough to carry a thought from beginning to end–to test out possibilities, consider meanings, and so on.

Second, leisure can be profoundly productive. There are things you can’t work on in a rush. For my translation work, and for any serious writing, I need stretches of time, so that I can work without worrying that I will suddenly have to stop. Interruptions are part of life, but too many get in the way of your thinking and condition what you are able to do in the first place.

Leisure also changes your attitudes about life, often for the better. If you recognize that you don’t always have to rush, then you can take time with things that need time. This allows you to actually accomplish them. For example, writers often make the mistake of submitting pieces for publication before they’re really ready, or submitting them to the wrong place. It takes a lot of time to bring the writing to its ideal state and seek out appropriate publications. If you rush any of this, you will probably do something wrong. But if you take the time to persist, something will work out.

Leisure is good for the health, too. On weekends like this, when I don’t have to rush anywhere, I feel rested and clear-headed. I can piece together the events of the past week, month, and year; I can look ahead and ask myself questions; I can have fun and laugh.

It can take place in company; leisure doesn’t have to be solitary (in the most obvious sense, the sense of physical aloneness). Whether with others or alone, you can take time to enjoy something, discuss something, or just be together or by yourself.

But leisurely solitude is a great thing for those who want or need it. It isn’t for everyone. Some people get anxious when alone for too long; others get bored when they don’t have enough to do. Such boredom or anxiety isn’t fixed, though; a person can lose it over time.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “leisure” derives from the Old French “leisir,” “capacity, ability, freedom (to do something); permission; spare time; free will; idleness, inactivity,” from the Latin from Latin licere “to be allowed”; it has the same root as “license.” Interesting that it contains both the sense of “capacity to do something” and “idleness.” That is its paradox: to do certain things, you need idleness as your foundation.

Leisure also allows you to do nothing, or seemingly nothing. To look out at the frost on the trees, to listen to music, to read a book, to take a long bike ride, to sit and think, to sit with your cat (who understands leisure very well), to laugh over something funny that happened, to make up a story in your mind, to sense the changing of the light.

I close with “Leisure” by Amy Lowell:

Leisure, thou goddess of a bygone age,
When hours were long and days sufficed to hold
Wide-eyed delights and pleasures uncontrolled
By shortening moments, when no gaunt presage
Of undone duties, modern heritage,
Haunted our happy minds; must thou withhold
Thy presence from this over-busy world,
And bearing silence with thee disengage
Our twined fortunes? Deeps of unhewn woods
Alone can cherish thee, alone possess
Thy quiet, teeming vigor. This our crime:
Not to have worshipped, marred by alien moods
That sole condition of all loveliness,
The dreaming lapse of slow, unmeasured time.

A Great Lecture and Bike Ride

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This evening I bicycled to Szandaszőlős, a suburb of Szolnok, to hear Zsolt Bajnai speak about Szolnok between the world wars. When crossing the Tisza, I stopped to look at the Tiszavirág Bridge, which looked ghostly in the distance. The bike path went along the road, for the most part; but when crossing Route 4, it dipped downhill and passed through three tunnels.IMG_0827
Soon I arrived at Szandaszőlős and was amazed by the majestic houses. I might have been to Szandaszőlős before, but not to this part. (The building on the left is the confectionery, the “cukrászda”; the one on the right is someone’s house, I think.)

Finally I made it to the House of Culture and to the lecture. It was great. I learned about various buildings, sculptures, and other landmarks, including the old bridge (which was bombed in World War II), the boys’ school, the girls’ school, the Tisza Hotel (and the unfulfilled plans to expand it), the beach on the banks of the Tisza, the stores in the Town Hall, the Nerfeld-palota, and much more.

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The return trip was much quicker than the trip out there, since by then I knew the way. I rode back the way I came, through Szandaszőlős, through the tunnels, along the bike path, across the Tisza, then along the Zagyva and back home. Here is a backward look along the Zagyva. A good end to the day.

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“And he said….” (pause)

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Jewish life in Budapest is evolving in exciting ways. The two Reform congregations, Szim Salom and Bét Orim, are working out a schedule of joint services, which officially began this Shabbat. It isn’t clear exactly what shape this will take in the future, but it’s off to a good start. Because of this change, at least for now I will no longer lead services on Friday evenings; instead, I will focus on Saturday mornings (on alternate Shabbatot). That means I don’t stay overnight in Budapest on Friday night; instead, I take the train in on Saturday morning. It worked well; I like this new arrangement because it gives me just a little more time to practice my leyning, and because I can sleep at home. Also, it reminds me of the BJ (B’nai Jeshurun) days in some ways; in New York City I was a Saturday morning regular, but I only occasionally went to services on Friday evenings. It was important to me to have some quiet time at home. For me, Saturday was when it all came together: the beautiful liturgy, the Torah reading, the Haftarah, and everything else. Yesterday was like that. In addition, Szim Salom has a shiur, a Torah study, after the Shacharit service on Saturday; I always stay for that and enjoy being part of it.

As I discussed in a recent post, the Mazsihisz’s (Federation of Jewish Communities) has deliberated over the possibility of recognizing the Reform communities. So far, the Mazsihisz has voted against this, but the discussions are ongoing.

But I came here to bring up something interesting from the Torah reading and leyning. Israel (Jacob) is on his deathbed, and he tells Jacob that he wishes to be buried not in Egypt, but where his forefathers are buried. And Joseph answers that he will do as his father has said. This is in the second half of Genesis 47:30: וַיֹּאמַר, אָנֹכִי אֶעֱשֶׂה כִדְבָרֶךָ. “And he said: ‘I will do as thou hast said.'”

The word “vayomar” (“and he said”) is in pausal form (the regular form is “vayomer”). The cantillation phrase is a zakef gadol, which typically accompanies a word that constitutes a phrase on its own. It is a medium-level disjunctive; there is a slight pause after it.

Just a few verses later, in Genesis 48:2, there’s another zakef gadol, but this time with “vayomer” instead of “vayomar.” וַיַּגֵּד לְיַעֲקֹב–וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה בִּנְךָ יוֹסֵף בָּא אֵלֶיךָ; וַיִּתְחַזֵּק, יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֵּשֶׁב, עַל-הַמִּטָּה. “And one told Jacob, and said: ‘Behold, thy son Joseph cometh unto thee.’ And Israel strengthened himself, and sat upon the bed.” Why is “vayomer” in the non-pausal form here, when it seems to have an equivalent place grammatically to the previous one?

Then, a few verses later, in Genesis 48:9, there’s a zakef gadol again, this time with “vayomar” again! וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף, אֶל-אָבִיו, בָּנַי הֵם, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן-לִי אֱלֹהִים בָּזֶה; וַיֹּאמַר, קָחֶם-נָא אֵלַי וַאֲבָרְכֵם. “And Joseph said unto his father: ‘They are my sons, whom God hath given me here.’ And he said: ‘Bring them, I pray thee, unto me, and I will bless them.'”

What is the difference between the two instances of “vayomar” and the one instance of “vayomer,” given that they have the same cantillation phrase and therefore (more or less) the same grammatical and syntactic function? I looked all over for answers but found nothing specific. I see two possibilities here. First, both instances of “vayomar” indicate a response to another person: Joseph responding to Jacob, and Jacob responding to Joseph. The word is separated from what precedes it as well as what follows it. In both cases, the cantillation phrase that precedes it is an etnachta, which separates the two halves of the verse.  “Vayomer,” in contrast, continues the idea of “vayaged,” “told.” It isn’t separated as strongly from what precedes it (melodically, a zakef katon).

Another (related) possibility is that both instances of “vayomar” are moments of great emotion: Joseph promising to bury Jacob with his forefathers, and Joseph asking to see his grandsons. The instance of “vayomer” is not as emotionally charged. This is connected with the previous points in that the emotion is a response to what was said before. I can imagine a pause both before and after “vayomar”–slightly longer than the pause before and after “vayomer.” Pauses in cantillation can be extremely subtle; only the most advanced readers know just how long to pause.

The difference in sound between “vayomar” and “vayomer” is not just that of one vowel; in “vayomar,” the last syllable is stressed, whereas in “vayomer,” it’s the second syllable. I don’t know how often “vayomar” occurs in Torah with a zakef gadol, but there’s something arresting about it. For these verses, you can hear the first “vayomar” here, the “vayomer” here, and the second “vayomar” here. (These recordings are by Hazzan Robert Menes, former cantor of Beth Shalom in Kansas City.)

These fine distinctions–who notices them? Some people spot them right away; when I was in New York City last summer and read Torah at B’nai Jeshurun, Sharon Anstey, a fellow congregant and Torah reader (and an extraordinarily dedicated BJ member) noticed the special trop (cantillation melody), the karne parah, which occurs only once in the Torah. She even mentioned it in a beautiful piece she wrote.

But people at other levels of knowledge pick up on the trop as well. I remember when I first heard a shalshelet and had no idea what it was. After the service, I ran up to Shoshi, then the cantorial intern, and asked, “What was that I heard?” She told me, and added that the young woman who had read that Torah portion loved the shalshelet so much that she had a pendant in its shape (it looks like a zigzag, a lightning bolt). Later I wrote to a cantor about this experience, and he sent me an article about the shalshelet.

And even without that kind of awareness, even without knowledge of Hebrew or cantillation, we pick up on the phrasings and cadences that we hear. It is possible to be moved by a text without even understanding the words–not because the reader chanted it with emotion, though that might also be true, but because the very rhythms and cadences of the words convey something. Over time, meanings start to come through, then more, then more.

 

The photo shows a kiosk with a video advertisement for an upcoming one-woman operatic production of Anne Frank naplója (Anne Frank’s Diary), to be performed at the Budapesti Operettszínház in February.

 

 

How the Other Half Learns: Not a “So What?” Experience

how the other half learnsA few days ago I wrote a response to Robert Pondiscio’s terrific book How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice. Here are some more thoughts, this time about the “so what?” question.

Before reading the book (but after reading many reviews, summaries, and excerpts), I wondered if I would be left nonplussed, even if I enjoyed and learned from the book. If part of the book’s message is, “The Success Academy is not for everyone–students, parents, or teachers–but insofar as it serves some students and families extremely well, it should be recognized and supported,” doesn’t a similar message apply to all students, parents, and teachers? That is, shouldn’t all of us seek out a place that works for us, leaving the rest alone except to acknowledge its value for others? If I, as a teacher, do not like the Success Academy model, then isn’t it my right (and responsibility) to seek out a place that does suit me, as have done over time? And if this is so, if it is on us to find the place that suits us, then who cares about a larger picture, except insofar as it offers each of us a place? Why should I care what’s going on at another school, if it’s not my type of place to begin with? But this conclusion dissatisfied me; there are reasons to care what is going on in other schools, and as it turned out, Pondiscio’s book brought them to light.

I found myself rooting for the students as I read about them–from Adama, whose parents were continually pressured by Success Academy to transfer him to another school (and finally gave in), to Darren, who shot up the waiting list and was finally admitted, to  Luis, who passes an informal reading test and blurts out to his class, “I’m Level L!” Even when I disagree with the admissions procedures, teaching methods, and more, I want things to go well with these kids–and I want to keep up some kind of discussion about what is important in education. Even if different approaches work for different students, even if different kinds of schools can, do, and should exist (not only among charters, but within the public school system itself), there are some universal goods and ills worth considering.

Take the instance of Luis becoming a “Level L.” Setting aside the business of calling oneself an L or a P or a 2 or a 3, I see at least two sides to the issue. On the one hand, despite my many criticisms of the Fountas and Pinnell leveling system (which Pondiscio gives a good shaking), I recognize that moving up the levels represents some kind of progress in reading, especially if the instruction is good, the texts are worthwhile, and the student practices continually at school and at home. And when a little boy reacts with such joy and pride to his progress, I want to join in. I want him to get to level Z and beyond–into good literature and other texts worth reading for their own merits.

On the other side, the Fountas and Pinnell system has even more problems than Pondiscio discusses (particularly on pp. 230-236). In addition to its misleading measures of text complexity, in addition to its flimsy basis in research, Fountas and Pinnell has given rise to some terrible writing. There is an industry devoted to writing children’s books and texts to match the F&P rubric exactly. If you read these texts (the ones written to match a particular level), you find something canned about them, and for good reason: they are canned. There isn’t a Curious George or Winnie-the-Pooh among them. In fact, many classic children’s books have been rewritten (i.e. simplified, distorted, and re-fonted) to match this or that reading level. In some cases they don’t even make sense.

Beyond that, the insistence on precise levels is inherently limiting. Any books worth their salt, including children’s books, contain a mixture of levels. In school, students can learn phonics systematically while also being exposed to texts, many texts, that they can’t read entirely on their own yet. They can learn background information that will help them understand texts on specific topics. They can learn to read a book several times, with more understanding each time. That way, they will not only progress gradually but amass concepts, words, and structures that allow their understanding to take off.

I didn’t learn how to read at school; according to my parents, I taught myself, at ages 4 and 5, and began writing before reading. But that had to do with having a lot of literature in the air. I can’t describe how I learned, since I don’t remember any more. But when it comes to learning languages, I have benefited from struggling with difficult works, works well above my level, works that I would want to reread many times. I persist with the first reading, and before I know it, I understand much than when I began, as a result of noticing roots, grammatical structures, syntax, and more. It has consistently helped me, rather than hurt me, to go beyond my level.

Not everyone benefits from the same approaches. Nor is mine foolproof, even for me; one weakness is that I have missed or sidestepped some systematic instruction along the way. For instance, I was reading Dostoevsky without a dictionary by the end of our year in Moscow, when I was fifteen, but I didn’t really learn how the Russian verbs of motion worked until late in college. I used them correctly enough to make myself understood, but my speech and writing must have been filled with mistakes.

All this said, it’s worth bringing up the weaknesses of Fountas and Pinnell, even while recognizing that it has done some good. At the same time, I can appreciate teachers who wholeheartedly encourage students in their progress (as did Luis’s teacher), even if the content and measures of said progress are flawed.

So, yes, the book affirms that it does matter what’s going on at other schools–because the fads and other weaknesses are worth criticizing, the strengths are worth learning from, and kids (at any school) deserve support and guidance. They want to learn, they want to make progress, they want to know what this means and why it matters. It is possible to hold two sides of the truth at once: that we’re all different, with different needs, and yet that we have something to do with each other, even if our paths never visibly meet.

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

Why I Like Robert Pondiscio’s Book (and Why “Main Idea” Is Duke, Not King)

how the other half learnsAfter reading many reviews and summaries of Robert Pondiscio’s outstanding book, How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice, I worried that I already knew too much of the gist and wouldn’t have much left to enjoy or think about. The worry was unfounded. I read it this weekend in several sittings, unable to stop for long. I was drawn into the descriptions, the characters, the daily life of Bronx 1 classrooms, the pedagogical and curricular details, and Pondiscio’s subtle, surprising observations along the way. That very experience–of enjoying the content of the book–points to what I see as its main blind spot. In the book itself, the “Main Idea” is not king–so I am wary of pedagogical approaches that insist that yes, it is.

Granted, I am writing from a high school and college perspective, as I usually do. Elementary school and high school differ profoundly; when people do not acknowledge this, they often end up talking past each other. Some of the greatest misunderstandings in education discussion come from failures to specify what we are talking about. Pondiscio’s book comes to life, and to meaning, through its specificity. He is talking about elementary school–and not elementary school in general, but elementary school for very poor kids whose parents are determined to give them a foothold. Elementary school is where students should be learning certain basics–and the “main idea” is surely one of them.

The refrain “Main Idea is king” rings throughout the book. It’s what the teachers tell the students over and over, and exemplify in their classrooms, at Bronx 1 Elementary School, which Pondiscio visited for a year. Bronx 1 belongs to the Success Academy, a network of charter schools, founded by Eva Moskowitz, that has won both fame for its test score success and rebuke for perceived creaming and overhype. Pondiscio argues that the Success Academy schools don’t cream students; they cream parents. Is this fair? It depends on how you look at it. But for now, back to the Main Idea.

Revering the main idea will help you, up to a point, with reading comprehension. (For instance, if there is a main idea in a text, and if you can identify it, you can then figure out how the different parts of the text support it.) Such regal treatment will also help you with ELA standardized tests, which almost always include questions about the main idea. It will not help you with the kind of discussion that you find at private high schools and in college. In many texts (Pondiscio’s book included), the main idea is only the foundation, if even that; the really interesting stuff is to be found in the subordinate clauses, the observations, the connections, the hesitations, the contradictions. This is especially true with poetry and fiction, but it applies to nonfiction as well.

The main idea of How the Other Half Learns might run as follows: “While controversial in its approaches to admissions, instruction, and discipline, and perhaps impossible to scale, the Success Academy charter schools bring their students to academic success–in terms of test scores, college admissions, and more–and therefore deserve recognition and support.” I don’t need to read a whole book to get that point–but the book did much more than argue it. I was drawn into the description of specific lessons, walkthroughs, leaders’ and teachers’ meetings, hallway activity, Pondiscio’s meetings with families, and characters so vivid that I saw and heard them in my mind.

The Success Academy’s emphasis on the main idea–and other concepts important to the standardized tests–goes hand in hand, I think, with its avoidance of “teacher talk.” For if students are supposed to be doing most of the work, and teachers are to limit their talking, then students must have specific, recognizable tasks to perform.

Third-grade teacher Steven Madan has the children continually involved in tasks, continually (in Pondiscio’s words) “engaged and on their toes.” From p. 46:

“The best learning we get in the classroom comes from other scholars, because we learn from each other,” Madan tells his students, a notion that Success drills into teachers during the network’s summer Teacher School, or T School. The feedback new staffers hear most often is “too much teacher talk.” The standard remedy is to “put the lift on the scholars”: Don’t do the work for the kids. Don’t be afraid to let them struggle. That’s how they learn.

I have heard this many times before, in public schools: that if the teacher talks, she is “doing the work” for the kids. This does not have to be so. Students should have opportunities to work out some problems and puzzles on their own. But listening to the teacher is a demanding challenge in its own right: you must focus closely, figuring out what makes sense to you and what does not, formulating questions, and finding words for disagreements, hesitations, or extensions.

Yes, I am thinking in terms of high school and college, but elementary school students can do this too, and if they can’t, they should begin learning it gradually. This does not mean that teachers should talk all the time, talk needlessly, or strain their students’ attention beyond what they can handle. But “teacher talk” should not be deplored; not only does it have an important place in lessons, but students unused to it will have great difficulty later, not only in lectures, but also in seminars, where they also need to sustain their listening and deal with complex ideas.

I will come back to the “Main Idea” shortly–but want to comment on the “Math Lesson” chapter, if too briefly. Pondiscio states that the teacher’s (Kerri Lynch’s) math lesson, “with its push to get students, not teachers, to do the thinking, and its almost complete lack of direct instruction, bears the hallmark of Success Academy’s approach and a focus–nearly an obsession–of its teacher training” (p. 142). The actual lesson is lively and productive; students figure out, among other things, that 7/8 is greater than 3/4, and arrive at a clear explanation. But what happens with a student who understands, right off the bat, that this is so, and can explain why? What challenge is left? One way to challenge such a student–and others as well–is for the teacher to present an extended solution to a problem, ask the students to pay close attention to it, and then question them to see whether they understand it, can explain it, and can take it in new directions.

For instance, in a geometry class, you might ask students how they would bisect a segment, without using any numerical measurements. They may use the length of the segment itself and the lengths and angles on a right-triangle ruler. But they may not actually measure the lengths and angles.

If they can’t figure it out, give them a helping start: Create an isosceles triangle with the segment as the base. From there they can probably figure out that all they need to do is drop a line from the vertex opposite the base down to the base, at a perpendicular to the base. If they can’t, there are ways to offer hints without giving the solution away. When they finally get it, have a student explain it from start to finish; if he or she gets stuck, others may help out.

Once they have explained it, ask: So, how do you trisect a segment, using the same tools? Let them puzzle over it for homework, part of homework, or extra credit; welcome them to work on it together if they wish. The next day, see who has figured it out; if someone has, ask for a presentation, and ask questions along the way about the steps. If no one has figured it out, give a helping start again, and see whether they can take it from there.

This example still has the students doing the majority of the work–but it is possible for the teacher to present something without turning the lesson into a sequence of procedures or robbing the students of insight. To the contrary: they must learn how to make sense of what they see on the board–not only make sense of it, but take it farther.

Or take poetry. So many poems have been ruined by lessons that insisted on a main idea or relied entirely on student discovery. What do you do with Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening“? On the surface, the poem is about taking a few minutes of quiet–but in each stanza, the quiet is subtly disturbed. Even the title, “Stopping by Woods…” suggests a temporary stopping, not a permanent one. You do not have to summarize all of this in a single statement; you can instead look at and listen to the different pulls in the poem.

I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that the Success Academy high school’s initial difficulties had to do with the elementary and middle schools’ extreme focus on reading strategies and their stance against “teacher talk.” (Pondiscio states bluntly, when describing the high school’s beginnings, that it was “a disaster.”) Students’ difficulties with seminar may have stemmed, in part, from not knowing how to listen to others at length or how to explore a text or topic on its own terms. This might not have been a matter of classroom discipline alone. It might have had to do with intellectual practices.

This does not mean that teachers should abandon group work or paired discussion (I include both in my lessons). But there is a case for teaching something directly to the students. First, they may not know it; second, it can give them some ideas of how to think about the topic; and third, it can open up discussion at a higher level than would otherwise be possible. The main idea comes up in such instruction and discussion, but it is rarely the goal.  Rather, teacher and students focus on the text’s motion, details, digressions, and uncertainties. The students come to see more than they saw before. The main idea still matters, but it does not merit a crown. Let it be duke.

Pondiscio’s book demonstrates this unwittingly. It is a bracing pleasure; it raises memories, ideas, questions. It holds much more than a main idea. What’s more, it comes from an author with experience, insight, and a gift for writing. It could not have been achieved through turn-and-talk alone.

Note: Robert Pondiscio is a good acquaintance/friend (whom I have not seen in person for some time). I have been reading and enjoying his writing for years–and contributed many guest posts to the Core Knowledge Blog when he was its editor and lead author. 

Also, after posting this piece I realized I should refer to him, after first mention, by his last name rather than his first–since this is a review, not an informal comment–so I made the change.

Learning from Others Within Judaism (Why the Mazsihisz Should Recognize the Reform Communities)

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On December 15, 2019, the General Assembly of Hungary’s Federation of Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) voted not to recognize Budapest’s two Reform communities, Szim Salom (where I serve in a cantorial role) and Bét Orim. The Mazsihisz is Neolog in orientation. While the Neolog movement differs little from the Orthodox in official stance and liturgy, the personal practices of its congregants range from secular to traditionally observant. I am disappointed by the decision (along with many others, some of whom have written about it) but hope that it is not final and that the discussion will continue. The reasons for coming together–and respecting each other, even with differences–are much more compelling than the reasons for staying apart.

The consequences of the decision are not only financial, but those are important as well. In not recognizing the Reform communities, the Mazsihisz denies any obligation to share its funds with them, including Holocaust restitution funds. Beyond that, the decision is humiliating. It is a way of saying: we are legitimate, and you are not. Still beyond that, the decision shuts off an opportunity to work together, learn from each other, and strengthen each other.

Granted, the question of recognition is much more complex than I am acknowledging here; it plagues just about any religious group. In the U.S., the Conservative and Reform movements have grown closer over time; some fear that the Conservative approach–its endeavor to be at once halakhic (roughly translated: observant of Jewish law) and responsive to modern reality–will disappear. The fear is understandable: any formal religion is founded on some combination of law, text, tradition, belief, and principle. Give up too much of it, and you give up not only your reason for existence, but your core of wisdom. On the other hand, if you refuse to let your wisdom evolve, you end up hurting people inside and outside your community. So I can sympathize with those in the Mazsihisz assembly who felt caught in a dilemma. I have less sympathy for those who refuse to consider the question.

At the December 15 meeting (which I did not attend), one Mazsihisz member stated infamously that “a rabbi should not be a woman, because everyone will just be looking at her butt.” (“Egy rabbi ne legyen nő, mert mindenki csak a fenekét fogja nézni. “) Others worried that recognizing Reform communities violates the principles of the sixteenth-century Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, which the Mazsihisz names explicitly in its statutes. If the statutes were to be amended to recognize the Reform communities, the reference to the Shulchan Aruch would have to be deleted. However, as some participants pointed out, few people read the Shulchan Aruch or know what is in it–and those Orthodox communities that do follow the Shulchan Aruch don’t recognize the Mazsihisz. (The Neolog movement initially represented a break from Orthodoxy; its original aim was to offer a more modern and assimilated form of Jewish worship and life. Today, from what I understand, this difference from Orthodoxy is reflected more in the actual practice of the members than in Neolog doctrine.)

In the U.S., I am Conservative in my Jewish orientation; I like the mixture of tradition and modernization and find no limit to my role within it. It was in the U.S.–at my synagogue B’nai Jeshurun (BJ), in lessons with the hazzan of Chizuk Amuno, and at the Jewish Theological Seminary–that I learned not only the basics and intricacies of cantillation (in all six systems–Torah, Haftarah, High Holy Day, Eichah, Ester, and Festival), but the underlying principles and structures. (BJ is independent but mostly Conservative in its liturgy and practice; Chizuk Amuno is a Conservative synagogue in Baltimore; and JTS is one of the academic and spiritual centers of Conservative Judaism.) Here in Hungary, I joined Szim Salom, a Reform synagogue, because I like what it does and because I could continue to leyn there. I did not expect to be invited into a cantorial role; when I was, in December 2017, I accepted joyfully and have continued in the role for over two years now. I admire the rabbi, Katalin Kelemen (Hungary’s first–and, so far, only–female rabbi), for her extraordinary persistence, intellect, courage, and joy. I have been warmly welcomed and appreciated by the members.

I used to think of Reform Judaism (the U.S. version, that is) as too watered down, not well versed in Hebrew or liturgy, not as solemn as I would like, not serious in its practice. This may have been true to some extent, but the situation is changing. Reform synagogues are placing much more emphasis now on Hebrew, liturgy, and knowledge of halakhah than they did in the past. As for Conservatives, they are in no way monolithic. Some members go out to restaurants after Shabbat service; others follow Orthodox practices from hour to hour. The rabbis uphold a standard while quietly recognizing a wide range. In addition, the Conservative movement as a whole has opened itself to women, LGBTQ, and people of different racial and cultural backgrounds.

I am grateful for the range. It means that I have people to learn from on all sides–people who put care into every detail of their practice, people who crack jokes, and people who do both at once. I often remember a B’nai Jeshurun member who knows the Hebrew liturgy inside out–who was “davening in the womb,” as his wife puts it–and mumbles a hilarious running commentary in English and Yiddish (and sometimes French) over the course of the service. His combination of devotion and humor inspired me from the beginning. The Shabbat services at B’nai Jeshurun are filled with people of all ages who come for the joy of it–who, regardless of their level of observance, join together in prayer, singing, and dance. (Many people get up and dance to “Lecha Dodi” on Friday evenings; for a sense of what BJ services are like, see these videos.) Within this range, I do not have to stay still or get stuck; I can grow in knowledge, understanding, and feeling. In addition, I learn not to look down on others whose practice differs from mine. They may understand something that I do not.

At this point, in my daily practice, I am closer to Reform than to anything else. This is largely because I do not do well with excessive structure or group activity; I need some unstructured time and space, as well as solitude, in my life. Also, I need the freedom to find the level and form of practice that is right for me, and to be open or quiet about it. Yet I treasure Conservative liturgy, form, and quest. I miss parts of the Conservative services that I have known (at BJ and JTS in New York, and at Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas), such as Psalm 136, El Adon (listen to this recording), the seven Torah aliyot, the chanted Haftarah, the Musaf Amidah (with its gorgeous Kedushah), and more. In Hungary, though, while I would gladly visit a Neolog service, I see no place for myself except in the Reform, since I wish to participate fully–leyning, singing, leading, studying, learning. It is a lovely place; I find the members kind, thoughtful, and serious about Jewish life and Torah.

I hope the Mazsihisz will come to embrace the range of Jewish practice in Hungary and beyond. Doing so will strengthen, not weaken, their own communities, which themselves have wide ranges. Yes, there are difficult questions of practice and law–but from its beginnings, Judaism has thrived on questioning. I know little of the long and complex history behind the vote–I have read some articles and listened to some people but realize there’s much more to learn. Yet I speak from some knowledge and experience, as well as openness. The Reform and Neolog communities could learn from each other in unforeseeable ways. I would love to be part of this learning.

With rising antisemitic violence around the world, it becomes all the more important to affirm, to ourselves and others, that Judaism abounds with contrasts, contradictions, and concordances, and that it can hold them all. Jews are not just one thing or another; Jews are not things. To the extent that we recognize each other, we fight off degradation and hatred. To the extent that we continue to learn, we fight off excessive self-certainty. It is not easy to do any of this, but it’s more than worth the difficulty. Shabbat Shalom.

The photo at the top of this post shows our 2017 Hanukkah celebration–just after I had begun in my cantorial role at Szim Salom.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it–most recently on January 5. In addition, I added to the title for the sake of clarity.

Caroling with Pizzazz

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On Friday, Class 11C (the eleventh-grade Hungarian-English bilingual class) gave spirited caroling performances all day long, visiting one class after another–and, in the long break, treating us to a special performance in the teachers’ room. I had trouble deciding which pictures to include here, but many others took pictures and videos, so anything I post here will be supplemented or superseded elsewhere.

The show was long in the making (they rehearsed weekly for over a month, and then more frequently as the day approached). Three teachers–Anikó Bánhegyesi, Mariann Banczik, and I–worked with them. First, we decided which songs they would like to sing. I taught them a few, and they suggested a few and made the final selection. Then we worked out the underlying story, which was refined over the weeks: There would be a fake Santa and a real Santa; the impostor would tell everyone that they weren’t getting any gifts, and then the real Santa would defeat the fake Santa with Rudolph’s help (but then let him rejoin the group). Then the “Christmas presents” would be brought in.

Then came the choreography, which the students worked out to the last detail. By the time the last few rehearsals rolled around, things were looking and sounding pretty good. Still a few glitches, a few things to figure out, a few things to remember not to forget.

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But I didn’t realize how much thought and care they were putting into their costumes. Everything lit up and came into color on Friday.

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And then the performances began–energetic, beautiful, funny, and full of joy. People enjoyed them so much. There were many ovations, Hungarian style (with the audience clapping in rhythm).

The teachers’ room was one of the highlights. Another was the gym. Each room had its own character and shape; the performers figured out immediately how to make the most of each space.

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Here are a few more photos, for the fun of it. Congratulations to the 11C Carolers!

 

Blasts from the Present and Past

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I have a lot to say in a short time, since tomorrow morning I leave for Germany, and then a few days later for the Netherlands. Then I come back on January 1, bring my cat to the animal hospital for surgery on January 2, and work on some translations over the weekend before returning to school. But three blog posts are on my mind; I hope to write at least two of them today. First up: last night’s concert.

Yesterday evening, after Shabbat in Budapest, I went to hear 1LIFE open for Kiscsillag in Törökszentmiklós. They had actually played in Budapest on Friday evening, at the famed Akvárium Klub, but I couldn’t go, since the Friday night Szim Salom service (including the kiddush and meal) didn’t end until after 9, well after their concert was over. So I was determined to make it to this one; to get there in time, I had to leave Budapest on the 4:28 train. I had bought the concert ticket in advance and had reserved a room at a guesthouse (the Almásy Vendégház, a lovely inexpensive place), since there are no late-night trains back to Szolnok. It was more than worth it; 1LIFE played a terrific show, the Ipolyi Közművelődési Központ is one of my favorite venues, and I enjoyed Kiscsillag too. I was left thinking about the differences between the two bands.

Kiscsillag–a famous Hungarian alternative rock band with witty lyrics, zesty musicianship, and many musical influences–drew a crowd of excited, enthusiastic fans who danced, jumped, laughed, sang along, interacted with the band members, and rollicked all around. The atmosphere brought back strong memories of Dieselhed shows in San Franciso. The music wasn’t really similar–if anything, Kiscsillag reminds me of Cake, though with more melodic vocals and a more driving sound–but the overall feel in the room was just like what I remember. Twenty years ago, I loved going to hear Dieselhed; I went whenever I could. Their songs had a mix of silliness and melancholy, their music would stay in and on your mind. Lyrically and antically, the band members wielded irony; the audience had a sense of “getting it,” of being part of the show. By irony I mean (in this case) looking askance at the world, putting a wedge between the music and yourself, so that the audience takes it as entertainment.

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Brilliant as it can be, I am not as drawn to that kind of irony as I used to be (and even back then, I had my limits–I never liked Gogol Bordello, for instance). I can enjoy it a lot–and believe I will enjoy Kiscsillag lyrics when I take some time with them–but when it goes overboard, it loses me. One reason I like 1LIFE’s songs and performances so much is that they don’t put a barrier between themselves and the music. They are fully in it. Granted, they are performing; their songs are art, not direct speech, and they play them with gusto and  superbly crafted sound. They’re serious when performing but also have lots of fun. Some of their songs are lighter than others–and sometimes the heaviness of the subject contrasts with the lightness of the music, or vice versa. The lyrics mix forthrightness with enigmas of various kinds; you come to understand them in different ways over time. There’s irony in them sometimes too. But the band doesn’t lean on irony, and I find that compelling and refreshing. They let themselves say what they want to say, through their songs and performance. Last night they seemed relaxed and revved up, still filled with the experience of the previous night’s concert (which, I gather, was fantastic). They played some of my favorites (with some slight changes and variations) and some of the less familiar ones; several of the highlights were “Sötét van,” “Kopog a szív,” and a song whose name I don’t know but that has a refrain of “Ná–ná ná ná…”

The Kiscsillag show had lots of beauty, probably more than I caught. My favorite song was the one sung by the keyboardist, Dávid Szesztay, “Ott ahol akarod.” I want to get to know their music better; I need time to learn what’s in it. My point here is that different bands (like writers, actors, and others) have profoundly different understandings of what music does, what it is for, and what is most important in it. As a listener, you come to know yourself gradually; over time, you get a clearer sense of what you are seeking out and hearing. It’s good to stay open, to avoid writing off any particular kind of music. No matter what the type, there’s something good to be found in it, maybe even a surprise or revelation. But it’s also good to find your way, even if others don’t understand or agree with it. Irony in music (or its absence, or something in between) is not just a matter of style or taste; it holds a worldview, a rhythm, a language.

All in all, it was a great evening–my first time going to a nighttime rock show in Hungary, and a comfortable adventure at that. There were people of many ages there, from kids to grandparents. The house music playing through the speakers was fantastic–one ear-catching song after another, such as David Gilmour’s “Faces of Stone.” I had a conversation with a young man from Törökszentmiklós who, as soon as I told him I was a teacher, addressed me as “Tanárnő” (literally, “woman teacher,” a respectful form of address) and tried to treat me to a beer (I insisted on a Coke instead). We had a short conversation; he had never heard 1LIFE, but he told me Kiscsillag would be the better of the two. I found that amusing; I told him that I had come expressly to hear 1LIFE but would stay for the later band as well. Then, in between the bands, a grandmother of one of the 1LIFE members (whom I have met many times before) approached me and gave me Christmas cookies! She had brought them for me, knowing I would be there. I was delighted and touched. A few minutes before the end of the Kiscsillag show, I left and went back to the guesthouse. At the crack of dawn, I took the train back to Szolnok.

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I made a few minor changes and added two photos to this piece after posting it.

A Great Tuesday Evening

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I had planned to spend most of the afternoon reading Krisztián Grecsó’s Vera, from which Grecsó will read on Thursday when he visits our school and the library. Before today, I was about thirty pages into it. I figured I would read for five hours or so. But I got home only to realize that I had left the book at school–and I was planning to see the movie Seveled at 8:15 at the Tisza Mozi. It seemed best to go back to school, pick up the book, bike on down to the Tisza Mozi, and read for a few hours at the cinema’s café. I read up to page 109, without a dictionary, and expect to reach at least the halfway point tomorrow. It’s a wonderful novel and–assuming I keep this up at a reasonable pace–the first novel I will have read in Hungarian.

Seveled (directed by Dénes Orosz) was bittersweet and funny, with some intense beauty. I read about it on blogSzolnok and decided to see it. And I understood it! That was a happy surprise, since it was the first Hungarian comedy film I had seen. In some ways, comedy is easy to understand–a comic situation is often recognizable–but in other ways, it’s more difficult than the weightier genres. So it was really rewarding to get the jokes and laugh along with others. There were many good things about this film, but I especially loved the mother character (played by Juli Básti).

And then there was the bike ride home. To return from the Tisza Mozi, I just have to go north on Szapáry (which has a generous bike lane) and then make a few short turns. It’s a five- or ten-minute ride–and where the path is clear, I pedal full speed.

Here is a photo from earlier in the day, on Batthyány Street, where the pet supply store is located (but this isn’t a photo of the shop). I got a few things for my cat Minnaloushe and then walked home in the rain, enjoying this street (I had not brought my bike to school, knowing that I would have some big things to carry home). So, come to think of it, it was a pretty good day–and I haven’t even brought up the teaching, which went well too.

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Goodbye to a Friend

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It had been a while since I had heard from my friend Johnny Strike (John Bassett), so this morning I googled him and found out that he died of cancer in September 2018. I then started reading tributes to him–by people who knew him, people who admired his music and writing, people who remembered him sharply, or all three.

We were initially colleagues in San Francisco, where we worked as counselors. He had been a legendary rock musician back in the 1970s–the frontman of Crime–but by now he had accrued a stately, slightly professorial quality (with a chuckle and a hint of dark wisdom). He, our mutual friends, and I loved to make fun of bureaucracies and buzzwords. We formed a band at work that did just that. Then I joined him in another band (Biff, Johnny, and me, as pictured above, and, in reverse order, below) that he created mostly for recording purposes. We recorded a demo.

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As the bassist, I was definitely not good enough for his band, I lacked the technique and texture, but he never said this; he seemed glad to have me there, and when I left San Francisco, he found someone else. The band came out with a recording and later morphed into a new lineup of Crime.

Once or twice, when I came back to visit, we met up for brunch. In Brooklyn, in 2002, I started a literary journal, Si Señor; not only did he contribute, but he connected me with artists and writers who became part of the journal as well. For the first issue, he submitted a piece on literary rejection. We agreed that it would be funny if I “rejected” it and publish it as a rejected piece, with a satirical editorial comment. So it turned into a combo: his piece on rejection combined with my bombastic rejection of the piece. I will post it here one day after I retrieve a copy from the U.S. (I have them in storage in NYC).

He wrote four novels and a collection of stories. I edited one of them (Name of the Stranger) and briefly reviewed another (Ports of Hell). Many of his tales came out of his long travels; he would go off to Thailand, Mexico, Morocco, and other places for months. I enjoyed his crisp, morbid, funny narration, his imagination, and his way of creating characters that you could hear in the dark.

I miss him as a friend, acquaintance, colleague, and accomplice–someone I could listen to, talk with, and joke with. The last time I went to San Francisco–in November 2016, for 20 Minute Loop’s record release–Johnny said he wasn’t sure he could get together with me, since he was having health troubles. He wrote a few times after that; the last time was a group email, in August 2018, a month before his death. It contained just a link: “Make a Suggestion–Berkeley Public Library.” (The link is broken now.)

I will. But an earlier email contained another link–to his essay “Sunrise Tangier,” which I read too quickly at the time and reread more slowly just now. I am sorry that our correspondence dwindled down to links and silence and that I didn’t understand what was happening. Even less did I know how much was in those links and silences. Now I am catching up, slowly, on my own.