Classrooms, Bach, and Trains

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IMG_3718Now rested from my trip to Hungary (see yesterday’s post on the synagogue concerts), I marvel that this was all possible and that it is just the beginning. In the space of one week, I visited the school in Szolnok where I will be teaching, attended Shabbat services (and read Torah) at Sim Shalom, met with the Hungarian director of the Central European Teaching Program, and attended three Budapest Festival Orchestra concerts in three different towns (or cities). Yet this itinerary was not frantic or rushed; rather, it introduced me to something long-lasting, something that extended far before and after me but was soon to involve me for at least a few years, possibly more. Traveling to the different towns, in this sense, was like tilting a place in the light, or rather, being tilted by it, being turned into someone slightly different from before. I will soon be walking down the corridors of this photo every weekday.

On Friday morning I took the 5:10 train from Budapest to Szolnok. (I chose this early train so that I would have ample time to walk to the school; the route was simple, but I didn’t want to risk being late.) Many students boarded the train; when we got off, we all walked in one big crowd, which dwindled as students entered this or that school. A few continued walking all the way to the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. There I spent the day visiting classes and learning the ropes from the teacher who will be going on leave.

In general, I do not blog in detail about what goes on at school; although I might mention something interesting that came up in discussion, or describe a school event, I treat the classroom as confidential. But I was impressed with what I saw: the thoughtful atmosphere, the teacher’s combination of structure and spontaneity, and the students’ interest in learning. I met many teachers and had a chance to speak with the headmaster, whose dedication and vision were immediately apparent. I am excited about teaching there.

IMG_3715I got to see a little of Szolnok too, and there is much more to explore–the Tisza, the bike paths, the side streets, and the city’s lively cultural offerings, including concerts, a theater, and an array of festivals. The street from the train station to the school has many cafes and pastry shops; it passes by the city’s main buildings and sculptures, which bring together many eras.

I returned to Budapest in time to recollect myself and go to the Friday evening Shabbat service at Sim Shalom. Here too, I do not blog about the details! I loved the warmth of the service and felt profoundly at home. At the morning service I was invited to read (i.e., chant) Torah–the first aliya (Deuteronomy 26:1-3) of Ki Tavo–and so I did. It was wonderfully fitting, as these were my first fruits.

IMG_3732In the afternoon, after a delightful kiddush lunch (which reminded me in some ways of philosophy roundtables at Columbia Secondary School), I headed by train to Szeged, to hear the Budapest Festival Orchestra play two Bach cantatas at the Szeged Alsóvárosi Ferences Plébánia, also known as the Havas Boldogasszony Church. After arrriving in Szeged, I wanted to stop off at the hotel but had a little trouble finding it, so I asked a woman for directions. She walked me all the way there. When I told her that I was attending the concert, she said that she was too. (I did not see her later, but it was very crowded.) I found my way to the church, but asked a few people, just in case, whether I had come to the right place. “Igen, igen” (“Yes, yes”) was the reply.

People were coming from all over the city–on foot, by bike, and by car. There were people in wheelchairs, small children, elderly people; one family brought a Border Collie (who barked once or twice during the introduction but was quiet throughout the performance, either because the music calmed him down or because someone took him outside). The church filled up fast. People were courteous; when it turned out that I had taken a seat that someone had been saving, others in the audience pointed me to an open seat.

I still have the sounds of the concert in my mind: the alto-soprano duet of “Jesu, der du meine Seele” (I am thrilled to be introduced to Emőke Barath’s voice), the tenor aria with the Baroque flute solo, the bass aria (“Nun du wirst mein Gewissen stillen“) of the with the repeated violin motif, pictured below in a score excerpt, and, in the next cantata, “Christus, der ist mein Leben,” that tenor aria and the brief and solemn choral “Weil du vom Tod erstanden bist” at the end, which reminds me a little of the “Passion Chorale” in his St. Matthew Passion. These are just the pieces in my mind right now; there is much more to remember and study. But look at the picture below: you see, in the second line, the first violins’ motif with the trill, and then, in the third, the shorter version of the motif. They come back again and again. I love this repetition and am intrigued that it works so well and memorably. (One would expect a repetition to be “memorable”–that’s part of what repetition is for–but I remember not just the motif itself, but the joy of it.)

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IMG_3752After the concert, and the following morning, I walked around Szeged, enjoying the architecture, sounds, parks, imaginative statues, wide bike paths, river life (I crossed the Tisza on foot and saw boats on the river and parks on either side) and overall feel. I hope to return many times to this city. It will be an easy day trip on a weekend. I then took the train from Szeged to Albertirsa for the first of two synagogue concerts.

It was easy and relaxing to get to different places in the country; the trains were generally reliable, comfortable, and not too crowded. The best part, though, was when I almost missed a connection when traveling to the synagogue concert in Baja. The train from Budapest to Dombóvár was running behind schedule; I thought I might miss the train from Dombóvár to Baja. I stood near the train exit, anxiously looking out the window. A man (who had been checking the timetable on his phone) spoke to me in Hungarian; I guessed that he was talking about the delay, but I didnt know how to respond. It turned out that he was transferring to the same train.

When we got to Dombóvár, I thought it was too late. I asked a conductor where the train to Baja was. “A piros vonat,” she said, pointing to a little red train just ahead. I began to sprint for it. Then I saw the conductor standing beside it, smiling, and gesturing with his hands for me to slow down. So I walked the rest of the way and boarded. The rest is history and still to come.

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Opening the Gates

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A piyut by R. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol (Spain, 11th century) begins, “Sha’ar asher nisgar, kuma petahehu….” (“The gate that is shut, get up and open it…”). Here is a beautiful performance. Filled with echoes of the Song of Songs, the piyut expresses a longing that is both intensely personal and communal, both immediate and bound up in history.

In Hungary, many gates to Jewish history are locked; during the Holocaust, Jewish communities throughout the countryside were destroyed. Many synagogues are now abandoned, and the unanswerable loss hidden away. The synagogue concerts I attended on Sunday and Monday–performed in Albertirsa and Baja by members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra–opened a few gates.

I begin with the ending: in Baja, at the Ady Endre Library, whose building was once the city’s synagogue. After the first piece (the first movement of Brahms’s Sextet, Opus 18), the rabbi (Rabbi Slomó Köves, I believe), who spoke in between the pieces and gave a rousing shofar demonstration, asked someone to open up the ark. It remained open for the rest of the concert and afterward, so we could see the Torah scrolls, siddurim, photographs, hanukkiah, Shabbat candles, tallit, and more. As you can see in the photo above, the musicians performed right in front of the ark. I understood this as a gesture of gratitude and hope. Here is a closer view.

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The Budapest Festival Orchestra inaugurated its synagogue concert series in 2014. This project, initially envisioned by the conductor, Iván Fischer, aims “to fill synagogues that were laid bare by the Holocaust, with life, music and culture once again.” In other words, there is more to this than “just” playing concerts in these spaces; the music and presentations, the gatherings and assemblies, gently transform the people, synagogues, and towns.

This series is one of the orchestra’s many community initiatives. Orchestra members bring concerts to the elderly, the sick, the disabled, pregnant women, disadvantaged children, and people who cannot afford to travel. They give free concerts, open to all, in cities, towns, and villages around Hungary. (On Saturday evening, in Szeged, I attended their wonderful church concert of two Bach cantatas; I will say more about that in another piece. People came from all over the city: on foot, by bike, and by car. One family brought a big Border Collie.) The orchestra hosts an annual “Dancing on the Square” on Heroes’ Square in Budapest; over 500 children of different backgrounds work with teachers for six months to prepare a dance choreography for this celebration.

On the surface, the Albertirsa and Baja concerts had identical programs: the Brahms, Alexander Glazunov’s Rêverie orientale, Jacques Ibert’s Three Short Pieces, and, for the encore, a beautiful melancholic piece, evocative of a Nishmat melody, by a Hungarian Jewish klezmer composer (I will provide both his name and the name of the piece when I learn them). But beyond that, the Albertirsa and Baja concerts differed not only in the architecture and acoustics, not only in the audiences, but in the many layers of present and past. I remember the big echoing sound of Albertirsa and the warm resonance of Baja, but those adjectives say only so much.

I took the train from Szeged to Albertirsa late Sunday morning. Arriving in mid-afternoon, I had some time to wander around and get my bearings. I found my way to the little town square, which has memorial dedicated to the residents of Alberti and Irsa who died in World War II. I sat on a bench there for an hour or two.

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Around 3:30 I saw a stream of people all walking in the same direction: children, elderly people, families. I thought they might be going to the concert, so I followed them. Indeed, that was so. We were all going to the same place.

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I later learned (from Szolongo Szani, the orchestra’s community program coordinator, that when the BFO played at this synagogue in 2015, the building was abandoned and in ruins. It seems that the concert inspired the community to restore and make use off the space, which now serves as a House of Arts (Művészetek Háza). This was a project of spirit and care.

Here’s a view of the inside. I took the photo about twenty minutes before the concert started; by the time it began, the hall was full.

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Each piece in the program had a perfect and memorable ending: the pizzicato of the Brahms, the hush of the Glazunov, the glorious final run of the Ibert, and the encore’s final notes. Those endings stay with me and tug at me. The end of a piece can be a revelation: right then, in those fleeting seconds, you grasp the piece as a whole.

A ending of this kind also seems to say, “Remember and return.” You walk away with something of the piece, and it brings you back to the listening.

After each piece, the audience clapped heartily, in rhythm (a gesture analogous to standing ovations in the U.S.). There was a reciprocity in the room: not only between the audience, musicians, and rabbi, but between past and present. The concert was part instruction, part music for the sake of music; the clarinetist Ákos Ács gave the initial introduction (about the series itself), and the rabbi spoke twice. Since this was all in Hungarian, I missed most of the rabbi’s humor but understood some of the gist: he spoke of the history of the synagogue and of certain Jewish practices (such as the blowing of the shofar). He pointed out where the women once sat and where the Torah scrolls were once kept.

after the concertAfter the concert, there was cake. People stayed and talked outside for a long time. In this photo you can see the cellist Rita Sovány (now one of my favorite cellists) and the violist Barna Juhász. Lingering was part of the spirit o the event; the music was still in our ears, and many of us did not want to leave just yet. We were welcomed to stay.

Afterward I took a leisurely walk back to the train station. I did not even have to ask, “Hol van a pályaudvar?,” which I have had occasion to ask a few times. I remembered my way and had no trouble catching the train. That night I would go back to Budapest–and then, the next morning, head out to Baja.

I have stories to tell about the trip to Baja–for instance, about the delightful little red train I caught in Dombóvár. They will have to wait a little while. When I got there, I fell in love with the townlike city: its leafy park, pastel-colored buildings, and the Stars of David rising up into the sky (from the Ady Endre Library). Here again, I did not have to ask for directions.

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The city and synagogue had a different feel from Albertirsa. The synagogue, which the city purchased from the Jewish community in 1985, bears witness to a thriving past. When converting it to a library, the city restored its many details, including artwork and lettering. When I entered and saw the library staff greeting people warmly, I sensed their pride over this concert. Members of the small local Jewish community were in attendance; during his presentation, the rabbi welcomed comments from people in the audience who knew the synagogue’s history intimately.

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Within its visual splendor, the hall had a warm and subtle feel. At the end of the Glazunov you could hear the sounds so close to silence . The encore (the name of which I will find out) felt like something that happens once in a lifetime, even among hundreds of performances of the same piece. After the concert, as I got up and headed toward the cake, I made eye contact with other audience members; their eyes told me what I would not have been able to understand in words.

I stayed for a little while, took pictures of the ark, and spoke in my bare-beginner’s Hungarian with a library staff member, for whom I recited the first four lines of Ady Endre’s poem “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm,” which seemed appropriate for this night and week.

Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok,
Számban nevednek jó íze van,
Szent mennydörgést néz a két szemem,
Istenem, istenem, istenem….

It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear,
Thy name of names is sweet inside my mouth,
And the holy thunder fills my sight,
My God, my God, my God.

(This is my own attempt at a translation; I used Leslie A. Kery’s as a starting point.)

IMG_3833The gates were opened that night, and so were the skies; that night, as I slept in a little inn in Baja, the rain came pouring down. In the morning, before sunrise, I walked back to the train station through glowing streets.

In Hebrew, HaMakom (“the place”) is one of the names of God. These synagogue concerts were not just concerts played in synagogues; the place and the music were part of each other. This is probably always true, but easily forgotten; in some way, music–the creation, playing, and listening–comes out of knowing who and where you are, even as you search your whole life for the answers, the countless answers, to these questions.

 

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it (and a few more later). Also, thanks to Jenny Golub for editing the sixth photo to make it lighter.

The Red Heifer

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I had read about Iván Fischer’s opera The Red Heifer (A Vörös Tehén), often described as biting political commentary, but did not realize until yesterday that there was a beautiful video of the October 2013 world premiere! It was performed in Budapest by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the Saint Ephraim Male Choir, students of the University of Theatre and Film Arts, and soloists and dancers; conducted by Fischer; and directed by Tamás Ascher and Kriszta Székely. Find an hour to watch it today. It’s in Hungarian (and at one point in Hebrew), but if you do not know these languages, the music will carry you along, and the unobtrusive subtitles will give you the gist.

The Red Heifer accomplishes something rare in art or life: It makes a political statement without reducing anything or anyone. It dives into the difficulty of the matter.

It has the texture of a lyric poem; with taut soul and few images, it takes up a complex historical and contemporary event: the Hungarian blood libel of 1882-1883, also known as the Tiszaeszlár affair, in which Christian townspeople and agitators accused the local Jews of ritually murdering and beheading Eszter Solymosi, a peasant girl (who had gone missing), in order to use her blood for Passover.

Móric Scharf, the teenage son of the synagogue sexton József Scharf, first denied all knowledge of the alleged events but later testified that, while looking through the keyhole of the synagogue, he had seen his own father and others commit the murder. (Many years later, in an interview, he said he had been tortured and threatened before his testimony.) A body with the girl’s clothes was found in the Tisza, with no cuts or evidence of murder–but the mother denied that this was her daughter. Fifteen people were formally accused, and news of the case spread fast and far.

The statesman and lawyer (and former Governor-President) Lajos Kossuth wrote letters of protest, from exile, against the accusations and proceedings; even this did not alter the course of events. Only later, when doctors reexamined the body, did it become clear to all that the girl had died by drowning and that no ritual murder had occurred. On August 3, 1883, all of the accused were acquitted–but the case had inflamed anti-Semitism in the country.  (There’s much more to all of this; I have given a bare summary.)

The opera (whose libretto is drawn from a 1931 novel by Gyula Krúdy) focuses on the boy. What would cause a teenager to accuse his father falsely? What might have been happening inside him, then and afterward? The music and choreography convey the questions and hint at possible answers. The musical idioms and forms–Hungarian and Jewish folklore, opera, fugue, rap, cantillation, and more–express not only cultures but minds. It is not a hodgepodge; as I listen, I find that some of these idioms are part of me, that I, like the characters, walk within many languages. Yet not all of them are home; home requires more than knowledge, more than fluency.

You see Móric (Jonatán Kovács) at the inn, watching the townspeople dance, yearning to be part of things, but moving invisibly in the room, as though not counted or seen. He sees the innkeeper (a Jewish woman, played by Orsolya Sáfár) slipping and sliding drunkenly around, humiliated and still magnificent; you feel him wishing to be included, wishing to be one of the others. But this is not just a matter of a teenager wishing to belong. The crowd and individuals seize and use him.

Móric’s court testimony has stunning musical form; as Alex Ross describes it in The New Yorker, he spits it out “in a terrifying triplet-rhythm rap, with Weill-like chords snapping behind him.” Then he turns to the cheering crowd and makes gestures of egging them on, not realizing that they are the ones controlling him.

Lajos Kossuth (Krisztián Cser) appears later, showing a dignity and a standard absent from the proceedings: something possible in this life, something to grow into. His voice resounds with conscience and experience. You sense that he has suffered.

All of this leads up to the astonishing scene between father and son, after the acquittal and release of the accused. (I will leave it at that; it’s better to watch and hear it for yourself.)

The red heifer itself has several meanings in this work. As Iván Fischer explains in his introduction (at the start of the video), it refers to (a) a cow that stepped on the toes of the girl and thereby provided evidence through which the body could be identified; (b) an inn called The Red Cow, where all the manipulation took place; (c) the innkeeper, who was nicknamed “The Red Cow”; and (d) the red heifer in the Torah (Numbers 19), used for ritual purification.

Maybe there’s a fifth meaning here as well. Maybe the red heifer is the great mistake or mistakes we make in our lives–the mistakes that will eventually teach us how to live. None of us is immune to mistakes; there is no static human purity, only purity of learning and return.

But the lessons of the historical event have not been fully learned. The girl’s symbolic grave in Tiszaeszlár has become a site of pilgrimage by extremists. The accusations were disproven and dismissed in 1883, but some wish to revive them even now. Thus the opera speaks not only to the past and its modern-day analogies, but to an urgent present.

How can art protest cultural and political trends while retaining its complexity and integrity? This opera achieves just that–by speaking in music and poetry and by going into the difficulty. True political life requires rejection of the glib. We are never just one thing or another; we live in conflict with ourselves. Even so, we are responsible for seeking understanding and moving toward the good. The Red Heifer suggests the possibility and profundity of this movement, not long ago or far away, but here and now.

 

 

Image credit: Painting by Yoram Raanan. The painting and opera are unrelated except through the red heifer.

I made some edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Back to the Map

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This coming week I go to Hungary to prepare for the move there in November and to attend several Budapest Festival Orchestra community concerts (one church concert and two synagogue concerts). These combined purposes will take me to five locations in six days: Budapest, Szolnok, Szeged, Albertirsa, and Baja, which you can see above and in Google Maps. My actual train itinerary will be Budapest-Szolnok-Budapest-Szeged-Albertirsa-Budapest-Baja-Budapest. That is, I will be stationed in Budapest but will stay overnight in Szeged and Baja as well. To put this together in my mind, I have been reading about each of the towns.

Each one is near a body of water: Szolnok and Szeged lie on the Tisza; Budapest and Baja, on the Danube. These waterways have much to do with the cities’ histories. Albertirsa is not near a body of water; its first train arrived in 1847.

Szeged was once a Roman trading post (on an island in the Tisza); its castle, a corner of which remains standing, dates back to the thirteenth century or earlier. The name Szeged may derive from the Hungarian szeg, “corner”; the Tisza bends there. The city had a massive flood in 1879; Emperor Franz Josef promised that the rebuilt city would be more beautiful than the old one. Lajos Tisza, who led the effort, fulfilled the emperor’s promise.

Albertirsa, a small town in the middle of the Great Hungarian Plain, existed first as two habitations: Alberti (mentioned by King Ladislaus IV in 1277) and Irsa (mentioned in the chapter of Buda in 1368). It became Albertirsa in 1950. The town has a rich and painful Jewish history. Moritz Goldstein, father of the mezzo-soprano opera singer Róza Csillag (1832-1892), was a hazzan of Irsa; I hope to learn more about him (and her). The synagogue, opened in 1809, has now been renovated and reopened as Művészetek Háza, House of Arts.

Since 2014, for one of its many community initiatives, the Budapest Festival Orchestra has been playing concerts in synagogues around Hungary, to bring music to local communities and to honor the Jewish history of these places. Here’s Fiona Maddocks’s article about the project (The Guardian, December 12, 2016). I intend to write a piece, possibly for this blog, possibly for another publication, after attending next week’s concerts.

The church concert in Szeged, performed by the orchestra’s Baroque ensemble, consists of two Bach cantatas (“Jesu, der du meine Seele,” BWV 78, and “Christus, der ist mein Leben,” BWV 95). The synagogue concerts in Albertirsa and Baja feature Ibert (Trois pièces brèves), Glazunov (Rêverie orientale), and Brahms (String Sextet No. 1, Op.18). I have been listening to recordings of these pieces; here’s a beautiful video of the Israeli Chamber Project performing the Glazunov.

Speaking of synagogues, I will get to attend services at Sim Shalom in Budapest this Friday and Saturday; I look forward to this with full heart.

Almost first of all, I will go to Szolnok, my first destination after Budapest. How exciting to see the school and visit a few classes! The city is just a 90-minute train ride from Budapest; the school, a direct walk from the train station. Szolnok is known as a crossroads, but it holds its own life–not only an annual goulash festival, not only mayflies, not only an airplane museum, not only a rich music culture (from what I gather), but daily life, with its many walks and ways, and strong education.

I was tempted to post a picture or two here (from other sites), but why not wait until I have taken a few on my own? My thoughts right now are preliminary and anticipatory; I don’t know any of these places yet. Next week I will only start to know them. Still, a start is farther along than a pre-start, which is farther along than no hint of a start at all. Instead of a photo, I’ll post Pál Vágó’s painting of the 1879 flood.

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Image credits: (1) Google Maps; (2) Pál Vágó, painting of Szeged flood of 1879 (Ferenc Mora Museum; image courtesy of the wonderful blog Europe Between East and West).

Update: The concert schedule has changed since my original post: the September 10 synagogue concert will be in Albertirsa, not Balatonfüred. I have changed the map and post accordingly.

Teaching in Hungary!

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It is now official: I will be teaching English–and American and British civilization–at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary, starting in November! I applied through the Central European Teaching Program and was offered this wonderful position; I will be stepping in for a teacher who is going on leave.

In addition, I hope to volunteer for the  Budapest Festival Orchestra; it would be an honor to help with the synagogue project, other community projects, and the orchestra’s work in general.

Szolnok is on Eurovelo 11, the same bike route I took for part of my expedition in May. I look forward to many long bike rides.

In the English classes, my focus will be on English conversation; in the civilization classes, on history and culture. (There may be opportunities to teach electives as well; we’ll see.) I have many ideas for topics, materials, and approaches; I will have still more once I get to know the school and students.

There is much more to say about the school, the teaching, and other projects and plans. (I may have an update on my book as well.) For the next two months I will be busy with preparations. In September I intend to make a short trip to Budapest (and four other cities) to submit paperwork, meet people, and attend concerts. At the end of October, I will be leading a seminar and presenting a paper at the ALSCW Conference in Dallas. Then off to Hungary (with my two cats) and into the classroom!

 

The photo above is of Szolnok’s former synagogue; the building now houses the Szolnok Gallery. Courtesy of the website of the Damjanich János Múzeum.

I updated this piece after posting it.

What Is Civics Education?

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After the Charlottesville violence, there will probably be renewed calls for civics education.* But what is civics education? Any initiative needs a clear understanding of it.

Here is what I would offer. Civics education conveys, develops, and enlivens the premise that a country is built on principles, structures, realities, and interpretations, and that each of these has internal contradictions and contradictions with other elements. Civics education would help students understand (a) what these principles, structures, realities, and interpretations actually are; (b) where they come from, historically and philosophically; (c) how they have coincided or conflicted with each other over time; (d) how one can grapple with these confluences and contradictions; and (e) how one can apply this understanding. In addition, such a curriculum would bring out the relation between external government (government of a country or smaller political unit) and internal government (government of the self). A civics curriculum that built this kind of knowledge, questioning, analysis, and introspection would be fine indeed!

So, for instance, the principle of “pursuit of happiness” runs into frequent conflict with the principle of equality, but both are essential to this country and part of its foundation. How does one reconcile them? Answers may be found in philosophical works, court cases, literature, and more, but such answers are not final and do not solve everything. The question stays open, continually calling for new responses, not only in the political arena, but in our minds and lives.

A civics curriculum would include but go beyond courses in government, philosophy, and history alone; it would involve arts, languages, literatures, mathematics, and sciences, since all of these help us understand who we are, who others are, what is known and unknown, and what matters.

Very well, you might say. When and how will this great education come about? I say that it already exists, in places and in pieces. The challenge is to lift it up and make it stronger. This will require, among other things, renewed dedication to secular education–that is, not education that denies or diminishes religious faith, but that builds a common basis and mode of discussion among people: a basis of knowledge and a mode of reasoning, imagining, and listening.

This may sound grand and far-fetched, but I have seen it in practice. I sensed these qualities in my best high school, college, and graduate school classes; I have found them when visiting classes taught by colleagues. I see them in the philosophy roundtables and philosophy journal at Columbia Secondary School. I experience them each summer at the Dallas Institute and look forward to reveling in them at the upcoming ALSCW Conference. In addition, I find them when reading, listening to music, visiting other countries, speaking other languages, and writing. These are some of the contexts I know; how many more there must be! This practice exists, in other words; it just needs attention, recognition, and strengthening.

Image credit: Sir Thomas More, Utopia, 1516 edition.

*The term “civics education” may seem redundant, since “civics” already denotes a field of study. I use it to refer not just to the field but to the ways of teaching it and the subjects surrounding it. 

 

More on “Free Relation”

PushkinBenchOver the past two days I struggled with the post on The Stone Guest and statues; I realized that the topics were too large and the connections too weak. After revising it many times, I finally let it stand. But something came out of it, at the end: the idea that a “free relation” to a statue or other work of art comes through a spirit of learning. This kind of freedom consists of movement beyond misconceptions, limited understandings, and errors; not only that, but it yearns for such movement. It is the opposite of ignorance, which rests on self-satisfaction and becomes a rut. As Diotima tells Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, “If someone doesn’t think he’s in need of something, he can’t desire what he doesn’t think he needs.”

I think about my relation to Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin, which I first encountered as a fourteen-year-old in Moscow, through Tchaikovsky’s opera. I loved the opera (which I saw as many times as possible) but in a limited way; I saw myself as Tatiana and understood the work primarily from that perspective.

In brief: Tatiana falls in love with Onegin and writes him a letter; he rejects her; he flirts with Olga, Tatiana’s sister, and ends up killing Lensky in a duel; and five years later, he attends a ball in Petersburg, only to discover that Tatiana is married to a prince. He suddenly falls in love with her–and writes her a letter–but she explains her resolve to be faithful to her husband forever. That’s a crude summary, with many details missing, but I was drawn, in any case, to Tatiana’s torment and courage.

While in Moscow, I obtained the sheet music for the opening duet “Slykhali l’ vy” between Olga and Tatiana and practiced it, hoping to sing it beautifully one day. Here’s a recording of a 2011 performance by the Bolshoi Theatre, with Galina Vishnevskaya as Tatiana and Larisa Avdeeva as Olga:

Seeing myself in the opera, I missed a great deal; even when I read the poem that year, I understood it in terms of the opera. But at least the opera was in my life; I would return to it many times later.

In graduate school, I read the poem carefully and came to see its subtleties, ironies, and play; it had humor and bite that the opera seemed to lack. I learned that Nabokov considered Tchaikovsky’s libretto “an absurdity and an abomination,” full of “vulgar and … criminal inanities.” I thought my teenage enthusiasm for the opera had been naive.

Still later, I came to admire Tchaikovsky’s Onegin again, but on different terms. I saw it most recently at the Metropolitan Opera last April and was moved by the entire performance, but especially by Prince Gremin’s aria, performed by Štefan Kocán, in which he tells Onegin of his love for his wife, Tatiana, whom Onegin previously rejected. This aria, rich in life and tranquility, is nowhere in the poem itself; the narrator has some of these words but gives them different meaning. The music alone conveys what Onegin lacks; Gremin’s genuine happiness upends any stereotype. I have found no recording of Kocán’s performance online, but here’s one with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and here’s the sheet music:

I outgrew both the teenage attachment to Tatiana and the later deference to Nabokov (whom I also questioned and satirized, even then). Pushkin’s novel in verse and Tchaikovsky’s opera are two distinct works, each to be taken on its own terms, over a lifetime. Sometimes the understanding is intellectual, sometimes visceral, sometimes learned, sometimes intuitive; but it builds and changes over time. I have much to learn about both works; I returned to them today to see how much I had missed before.

So a “free relation” to art is one that moves beyond error, safety, and limitation. A person returns to a work, learns from it, learns about it, and understands it in a different way from before, all the while staying alert to more. Maybe, like Gremin, the person moves toward simple joy, the joy of not needing to own or sum up what one loves, the joy, sometimes difficult, of living among things that grow in beauty and meaning and that return, again and again, with more.

 

Image: Photo of a statue of Pushkin at Tsarskoe Selo. Courtesy of the MadOpera Blog.

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

“Suspended, like a prehistoric fly”

pollux2

The title of this post is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Black Cat” (“Schwarze Katze“). Although the cat in this photo (Pollux, guardian of the Dallas Institute) is orange, not black, the poem suits him at times and through time.

I was going to post a hawk picture (taken here in Dallas), along with a quote from Robert Penn Warren’s “Evening Hawk“–but the picture was too dark. The poem is magnificent and pairs well with the Rilke.

On Friday we celebrated the conclusion of the Tragedy and Comedy course at the Summer Institute. The joy and gratitude are still all around me, in the sunlight and coffee, in the well-packed books. In just a few minutes I head out to the airport to return to New York City. My cats await.

From August 2 through 7, I will be guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs (as I have done in the past). Expect some pieces on languages, teacher education, literature, international education, pseudoscience, logic, and more. (If I write a piece on each of these subjects, there will be room for just one “wildcard,” assuming I post twice on one of those days. Let’s see what happens.) I may also post a piece or two here during this time–but look there first.

Like Pollux above, I am on a threshold, but I don’t know what’s on the other side (or on this side, for that matter). I have been applying for jobs for the fall, some within NYC, some elsewhere. Nothing definite has come through, nor do I know my chances. As the uncertainties grow, I open myself to more possibilities. I believe that something good and unexpected will come through.

But first: the flight.

“The mountains skipped like rams”

dallas moon

This is my last post (for the time being) on the topic of moving on. (You may read the introduction, first post, and second post at your convenience.)

Some of the most entrenched human conflicts and misunderstandings have to do with differing relationships to time; one person wants to look forward, while another wants to stand still or look backward. Not only individuals, but groups and cultures can come into conflict in this way.

Too often the two sides do not see or think on each other’s terms. Each tends to put the other down. The one who wishes to remember sees the other as dismissive and unreflective; the one who wishes to move on sees the other as self-indulgent and stagnant. To make things even trickier, sometimes they are right in their judgments.

It is no accident, then, that religions ritualize both memory and progress. Judaism has specific times for mourning and repentance; while not erasing an individual’s own rhythms and timings, it offers a strong counterpoint and guide. Mourning takes its own time in a person, but within the rhythms of shiva, the initial mourning period, the year of saying Kaddish, the yahrzeit, Yizkor, and other remembrances, it has both a place and a boundary. A person might not conform to this structure entirely, but it is there all the same.

So, too, with repentance. While we typically associate repentance with the period from Tisha B’Av through Yom Kippur, it has a place throughout the year, at limited times. In ancient times, Rosh Hodesh, the holiday of the new lunar month, had a sin-offering among the sacrifices; today this is mentioned in the Torah reading during the Rosh Hodesh service.

The literature about this sin-offering reveals some surprises. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Chulin 60b), the moon was unhappy about being diminished by God. After some argument, God promised to atone; this is why there is a he-goat offering “for the Lord” on Rosh Hodesh. Thus, according to this and other commentaries, there is divine atonement every month. Therefore this is also an opportunity for humans to atone. (Of course atonement is possible every day–but every month there is a special time.)

But atonement (in Hebrew teshuvah, or return) does not proceed in linear fashion; in the Litukei Halachot, Rebbe Nosson of Breslov’s interpretation and reworking of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, it is posited that we “skip” parts of the Hallel service on Rosh Hodesh precisely because repentance, too, skips backward and forward:

Rosh Chodesh itself is a time for the beginning of repentance, since the Holy One Himself said “bring me atonement,” and from then on repentance disseminated into the entire created world. For our Holy Rabbi wrote that everyone thinks of repentance on Rosh Chodesh. This is why we say the “half Hallel”, that is, we ‘skip’ parts of Hallel, since those doing Teshuva don’t ascend in a steady way, from step to step, but skip and jump over several steps… this is why the reading of the Torah on Rosh Chodesh skips back and forth. It hints at this theme of repentance which is central to Rosh Chodesh, because those doing Teshuva do not move in a straight line, but sometimes go backwards, and then forwards again.

“Skipping” can be found in the very words of Psalm 114, which is part of the Hallel service.

I love those images and rhythms of the Jordan turning backward, the mountains skipping like rams, the hills like young sheep. The psalm has thrilled me ever since I began to sing and understand it.

But now I understand it in a different way. If this turning and skipping has anything to do with teshuvah–within the liturgy, if not within the psalm itself–then it illustrates how we ourselves go back and forth during our lives, how these changes of direction may signify great moments. Each of us may be at times the skipping mountain or hill, the Jordan turning backward, or other things standing still or rushing ahead.

I take these texts as poetry, not literal teachings–but it’s poetry that opens up the understanding. If our “skipping” and changes of direction have to do with our own striving and reckoning, then there’s room for generosity and forgiveness in all directions. Those impatient to move on can look kindly on those standing still, and vice versa, at least some of the time. At the very least, we can consider that those who differ from us in their motions and directions may be doing their own kind of good.

This doesn’t solve any problems. Nonetheless, I delight in thinking that we all have times of skipping and turning, changing our currents, shaking up our landscapes, and standing still. Although (as a friend and colleague remarked to me today) adults forget the joy of skipping, we actually skip abundantly without knowing it. Viewed from far away, or from inside, our lives might look like the shaking of sheep and hills.

 

I took the photo last night (around 4 a.m.) in Dallas, through the window.

Thanks to Rabbi Adam Roffman for introducing me and others to the passages from the Talmud and Likutei Halachot. The interpretations here are my own (and subject to leaps, skips, and turns).

The text of Psalm 114 (in Hebrew and English) can be found on the Mechon Mamre website.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it and later edited it again for clarity.

Why Imagination Matters

poets walk park

Our schools have vacillated between adulating and dismissing imagination; neither attitude suffices. Imagination involves forming things in the mind; education cannot do without it. Yet to employ it well, one must understand it correctly and combine it with actual learning.

In his bracing book Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories, E. D. Hirsch Jr. explores the origins and consequences of our schools’ emphasis on “natural” creativity and imagination at the expense of concrete learning. He points to the destructive effects of this trend, both in the United States and in France (which moved from a common curriculum to a child-centered mode of instruction). In addition, he offers wise commentary on standardized tests, the teaching profession, and the Common Core initiative.

An admirer of Hirsch’s work and of Core Knowledge schools, I object to just one aspect of his argument: By opposing creativity and imagination to specific training and instruction, he limits both. Recognizing this possible pitfall, he acknowledges that a school with a strong curriculum can still encourage imagination—but he does not treat the latter as vital and endangered. Imagination, in his view, has been overemphasized; the necessary corrective lies in specific, sequenced instruction.

He writes (on p. 119): “I am not, of course, suggesting that it would be a good idea to adopt the in-Adam’s-fall-we-sinned-all point of view. Imagination can certainly be a positive virtue when directed to life-enhancing goals. But the idea that imagination is always positive and life-enhancing is an uncritical assumption that has crept into our discourse from the pantheistic effusions of the romantic period.” I dispute nothing in this statement but the emphasis (and the take on Romanticism–but that’s another subject). I would proclaim: “Imagination has been wrested apart from subject matter and thus distorted—but properly understood, it permeates all intellectual domains.”

What is imagination? It is not the same as total freedom of thought; it has strictures and structures. To imagine something is to form an image of it. Every subject requires imagination: To understand mathematics, you must be able to form the abstract principles in your mind and carry them in different directions; to understand a poem, you must perceive patterns, cadences, allusions, and subtleties. To interpret a work of literature, you must notice something essential about it (on your own, without any overt highlighting by the author or editor); to interpret a historical event, you may transport yourself temporarily to its setting.

Civic life, too, relies on imagination; to participate in dialogue, you must perceive possibility in others; to make informed decisions, you must not only know their history but anticipate their possible consequences. Imagination forms the private counterpart of public life; to participate in the world, you must be able to step back and think on your own, as David Bromwich argues in his essay “Lincoln and Whitman as Representative Americans” (and elsewhere).

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave describes the cultivation of the imagination. The uneducated mind, the prisoner in the cave, accepts the appearances of things (as manipulated by others); once embarked upon education, it slowly, painfully moves toward vision of true form. People are quick to dismiss Plato’s idealism as obsolete—but say what you will, it contains the idea of educating oneself into imagination, which could inform many a policy and school.

Schools and school systems have grievously misconstrued imagination; drawing on Romantic tendencies, as Hirsch explains, they have regarded it as “natural” and therefore good from the start. If imagination is best when unhampered and untouched, if it is indeed a process of nature, then, according to these schools, children should be encouraged to write about whatever pleases them, to read books of their own choice, and to create wonderful art (wonderful because it is theirs). Some years ago I taught at a school where we were told not to write on students’ work but instead to affix a post-it with two compliments and two suggestions–so as not to interfere with the students’ own voice.

This is silly, of course. Serious imaginative work—in music, mathematics, engineering, architecture, and elsewhere—requires knowledge, discipline, self-criticism, and guidance from others. You do not learn to play piano if your teacher keeps telling you, “Brilliant, Brilliant!” (or even, in growth-mindset parlance, “How hard you worked on that!”). To accomplish something significant, you need to know what you are doing; to know, you must learn. Mindset aside, you must be immersed in the material and striving for understanding and fluency. You must listen closely; you must acknowledge and correct errors.

Learning draws on imagination and vice versa; a strong curriculum is inherently imaginative if taught and studied properly. Students learn concrete things so that they can think about them, carry them in the mind, assemble them in interesting ways, and create new things from them. On their own, in class, and in faculty meetings, teachers probe and interpret the material they present. This intellectual life has both inherent and practical value; the student not only comes to see the possibilities of each subject but lives out such possibilities in the world.

Hirsch objects, commendably, to the trivialization of curriculum and imagination alike: for instance, the reduction of literature instruction to “balanced literacy” (where students practice reading strategies on an array of books that vary widely in quality). Conducted in the name of student interest, creativity, initiative, and so forth, such programs can end up glorifying a void.

Without strong curricula, creative and imaginative initiatives will lack meaning, especially for disadvantaged students who rely on school for fundamentals. You cannot learn subjects incidentally; while you may gain insights from a creative algebra project, it cannot replace a well-planned algebra course.

But imagination belongs at the forefront of education, not on the edges; it allows us to live and work for something more than surface appearance, hits, ratings, reactive tweets, and prefabricated success. Imagination reminds us that there is more to a person, subject, or problem than may appear at first. It enables public, social, private, economic, intellectual, and artistic life. Without it, we fall prey to shallow judgment (our own and others’); within it, we have room to learn and form.

 

Photo credit: I took this picture yesterday in Poets’ Walk Park in Red Hook, NY.