Books and Leaves

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My book—the one I have been writing over the past fifteen months—has been accepted for publication by Rowman & Littlefield! The final manuscript is due March 1; the book should appear in late 2018 or so. I will give updates as they come.

Each of the book’s twelve essays examines an overused or misused word or phrase; it plays with language while commenting on culture. The working title is still Take Away the Takeaway; the final title will be different.

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The teaching is going well; I look forward to each day. I am learning students’ names faster than I expected, though not as fast as I would like. I know the names of the students in two of my eleventh-grade and one of my ninth-grade sections; that leaves five sections where I need to learn some names. (I teach eight sections in grades 9-12; two I see just once a week, two twice a week, and the others four or five times.)

The November bike rides have been glorious. The pictures above are from Alcsisziget, I think. I followed an arrow to Üdülőtelep but ended up in Alcsisziget (or maybe biked through both towns). In the second picture, if you look carefully through the branches, you can see a fisherman in a boat. Here’s another view of the water:

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Back in town, I visited the Szolnok Gallery, which was once Szolnok’s synagogue. I was alone in the museum, except for the office manager, who sold me a ticket and cracked the first joke I have yet understood in Hungarian. It was simple; he told me the price of the ticket, “háromszáz” (300), and then added, with a chuckle, “Nem euro, hanem forint” (Not Euros, but Forints.) I thanked him, climbed the spiral staircase, and walked around slowly. I don’t think I have ever been alone in a museum before. I took time with the art and the building and the silence of it all.

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Speaking of synagogues, I have begun leyning at Sim Shalom in Budapest, which has services every other Shabbat (and many other events in between). It seems that I will read Torah at each Saturday service (or as many as possible) and will eventually teach others to do the same. Each Saturday Shabbat service is followed by a shiur (Torah teaching and discussion) over Kiddush lunch; I love the focus and gathering.

I can’t end this without mentioning Aengus and Minnaloushe. They have been wonderful sports. They have started enjoying the porch, though shyly; they like going out late at night, when it’s all quiet except for the birds and leaves. Here they are: Aengus behind the curtain, Minnaloushe on the dresser, and the two of them considering the world.

It is late here (after 11:00 p.m.), and I have much to do tomorrow. So that will be all.

Pictures from the First Day

varga katalin 1A happy first day at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium–I am delighted to be here.

Here are a few pictures: of one of the stairways, of a nearby bakery (where I picked up coffee and a pastry during one of my breaks), and of the school from the side.

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I don’t generally blog about the classroom, but once in a while I might reflect on something that took place there. It takes time to know just when and how to do this, so I’m taking the time. In the meantime, these pictures hold something of the day.

The Zagyva passes right behind the school; it isn’t visible in the photo above, but if you continue down this street, pass by the school, and turn left, you see it.

I look forward to tomorrow.

P.S. Here’s a view from the top floor of the school.

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That Iron String

sitting in cafe 2I am writing this in my favorite Szolnok cafe, Cafe Frei, which has a warm, quiet atmosphere and an internet connection. The picture’s a bit grainy, but it captures the feel of  the place. Tomorrow the teaching begins; I have put together an outline of my lessons for the week and have begun assembling the details in my mind. There’s a set curriculum for the English classes–but room to plan the lessons, add some activities, decide on the emphasis, and more, as long as the students learn the substantial material in the books. For Civilization (American and British), there are informal textbooks too, but much room for additions. I think this is just the right combination of structure and flexibility.

I will begin with introductions and a short class discussion about education itself. Then I will bring up the CONTRARIWISE International Contest; then we will go right into the lessons.

It’s the first time, in all my teaching (except for my year teaching first-year Russian as a graduate student at Yale and my summers at the Dallas Institute) that I have worked from a preestablished curriculum. In my first three years of public school teaching, there was no curriculum for my subject (ESL);  in the fourth year, the school had a curriculum, but I was teaching a subject (literature through theater) that didn’t completely fall within it. At Columbia Secondary School, I created, taught, and oversaw the philosophy sequence for grades 9-11. So there was a curriculum, but not at the outset.

Yet although I usually didn’t have a curriculum at the outset, I advocated for one and set about to create it, not just for that year, but for the longer term. I define curriculum as a general outline of the topics, works, ideas, and skills that will be taught, as well as the key assignments. It does not have to be granular, if the teacher knows the material well. In language instruction, though, it probably should lay out the details, as long as it retains some flexibility. So much goes into teaching and learning a language that you can’t teach well from a general outline unless you have years of experience. You can teach something from an outline, but you’ll probably omit or shortchange many important topics and exercises.

That said, my “ex nihilo” or “quasi ex nihilo” beginnings will come in handy here too. Teaching in an unfamiliar country is no trifle; it takes a willingness to rearrange and recast the elements a bit, not only the external ones, but the internal ones too. For example, in American Civilization I plan to introduce students to Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (in the context of the unit on the American frontier). Although Emerson was not a frontiersman in a physical sense, he expresses an intellectual frontier that has delighted and troubled me for years and that my former students have remembered again and again. I delight in its vigor, imagination, and boldness; I am troubled by its seeming rejection of predecessors, tradition, and external wisdom. Either way, Emerson’s writing makes a mark; students and teachers come back to it over the years. The ambivalence and memorability can congeal into a few questions for a class discussion.

“Trust thyself,” Emerson writes; “every heart vibrates to that iron string.” He continues:

Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

How can writing arouse such a strong Yes and No at the same time? How can words so self-sure and resounding be simultaneously right and wrong? Also, does he make a single point, or several contradicting ones? To accept the place that “providence” has found for you, you must be alert to “the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.” You cannot be entirely removed. The trustworthiness comes from both introspection and alertness, and from language, which connects one person to another.

I do not want to give too many of my own thoughts here, since there are discussions in store. “That iron string” is part of anything important I have done. Still, I have often had to stop to make sure it was in tune, and in tuning it, I had to listen to outside and inside sounds, not only from the present, but from combinations of times.

I end with a photo I took of the Tiszavirág híd, the Mayfly Bridge, which crosses the Tisza in Szolnok. It seems appropriate for the crossing into teaching (and for iron strings too).

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The Gift of Criticism

norman-rockwell1A few years ago I edited a student’s piece on Machiavelli; I had recruited it at the last minute for my students’ philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE and found that it needed clearer wording in places. When I presented him with the edits, he said that he accepted some but not all of them: that in a few places he was trying to say something else. We sat down to discuss this. In telling me what he meant, he found the right wording; by the end of our meeting, he had revised the piece to his satisfaction. This happened because he was open to the suggestions but strong enough to make his own decisions. Also, I saw past the particulars of my edits; I wanted to help him find his words, not replace them with mine.

This memory returns as I ponder two recent articles about Amy Cuddy and the power pose: Susan Dominus’s New York Times piece and Daniel Engber’s response in Slate. I find Engber’s article much clearer and more to the point–but he also has the benefit of hindsight, critique, and revision. Dominus may well follow up with some afterthoughts. She tackled a complex and heated topic and (from what I can see) did her best to present it fairly. Yet the article fails to distinguish adequately between personal attack and criticism. I posted a comment, which I am developing a little further here. This piece is not about Cuddy; it’s about criticism itself. (Regarding the power pose study, there are numerous recent comments–from many perspectives–in the article’s comment section and on Andrew Gelman’s blog.)

Here’s the key difference, as I see it, between criticism and personal attack: criticism gives you something concrete to consider, something about the issue at hand, be it your work, your actions, or even your personality. Its aim is to point out areas for improvement. It is not always correct or kind; sometimes critics can be vehement and unsympathetic, and sometimes they make mistakes or show biases. But if it is about the thing itself, if it analyzes strengths and weaknesses in a coherent way, it counts as criticism. By its nature it points toward improvement. It is not necessarily negative; it can recognize strengths and excellence.

Personal attack does not give you a chance to improve. Maybe it comes in the form of vague and veiled hints. Maybe it’s incoherent. Maybe it focuses on your personal life instead of the issue at hand. Maybe it gets said behind your back, without your knowledge. Or maybe it’s about something so fundamental to you that it’s unfair to expect you to change. In any case, when it comes to helpful content, there is no “there” there, at least no “there” that invites you in.

In that light, criticism is a gift, even when the delivery is not ideal. It offers working material. But our culture is not well attuned to criticism; we’re taught to hear the “yay” or “nay,” the “up” or “down,” not the subtler responses. For criticism to achieve its purpose, several conditions must exist.

First, institutions would have to make generous room for error, reexamination, and correction. Universities, schools, scientific organizations, publications should not only acknowledge error openly but treat it as part of intellectual life, not cause for shame or demotion.

Second, the person giving the criticism should do so as frankly and humbly as possible: laying the critique on the table without claiming superiority. There’s some disagreement over whether this should happen in private or public, by in person or online. As I see it, a published work can be criticized anywhere–online or offline, in public or private–but an unpublished work or private act should receive more discreet treatment. Published books get reviewed publicly, after all; there’s no suggestion that a reviewer should contact the author privately before saying something in the New York Review of Books. But if I send someone an unpublished manuscript for comment, I expect this person to reply to me alone (or me and my editor) and not to the world.

Third, the person receiving the criticism should learn to hear it and separate it from the emotion it may stir up. Even thoughtful, carefully worded criticism can be hard to hear. It takes some strength to sort out the upset feelings from the actual content of the words. It takes even more to decide which parts of the criticism to take, which to reject, and which to continue considering. Some criticism incites us to reconsider everything we have done; some draws attention to small (but important) details. To hear and use criticism well is to open oneself to profound improvement.

Just before the final manuscript of Republic of Noise was due, someone who read the manuscript offered me some far-ranging suggestions. I saw her points but didn’t want to apply them rashly, in a rush. To decide whether, how, and where to apply them, I would need much more time than I had. I decided to keep them in mind for the future. I am glad of this decision; the book was the way I wanted it, but her suggestions helped me with subsequent writing.

Why do I say that our culture isn’t set up well for criticism? We aren’t taught how to handle it. As a beginning teacher, I remember being told (at numerous “professional development” sessions) not to use red pen, since it could make a student feel bad; not to write on students’ work, but to use Post-its instead; and to limit the comments to two commendations and two general suggestions for improvement. While some of the gist is good (one should avoid overwhelming students or treat one’s own appraisal as the last word), it assumes students’ extreme fragility in the face of concrete, detailed suggestions. The more we treat criticism as devastating, the more fragile we make ourselves (both the critics and the recipients).

Hearing criticism–actually perceiving and considering its meaning–deserves continual practice. It requires immersion in the subject itself; you can’t practice criticism without practicing the thing criticized. It isn’t always fun, but it can lead to exhilaration: you see, on your own terms, a way of doing things better.

 

Image: Norman Rockwell, Jo and Her Publishor (this title may or may not be correct; I have also seen it as Jo and Her Publisher and Jo and Her Editor). This is one of his several illustrations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In Chapter 14, Jo publishes two of her stories in a newspaper.

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

Goodbye to a School

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Over forty years ago, for a year, I attended school in the Netherlands, in the town of Paterswolde. It wasn’t quite a one-room schoolhouse, but it came close; you can see it in the photo above. There were three classrooms; each room was shared by two grades. I think there were thirteen of us (and only five girls) in the sixth grade. Then their were the fifth graders, some of whom became my friends. I have stayed in regular contact (at least once a year) with one friend from that year and have been in touch with others off and on.

I just learned that this schoolhouse will soon be demolished so that an expensive housing project can take its place. Somehow I took for granted that this lovely building would stay. I remember our teacher, Meester van der Meer, teaching us how to find one percent of a number (“een, twee, HUP, en een, twee, HUP”). He turned math into song–not nursery rhymes, not singsong chants, but his own melodic explications.

Outside, during recess, we played marbles (“knikkers”). This was a dangerous game; we could actually lose our favorite ones, if we weren’t careful. At the end of the game, we would tally up our gains and losses. The ones who came out ahead would say, “Ik hep winst” (“I have profit”); those who lost a marble or two would admit, “Ik hep verlies” (“I have a loss”).

In the photo, you can see the bikes parked in front; there were many bike racks in back. Lunch lasted about two hours; we biked home and returned. Sometimes we had lunch at each other’s houses. No invitation was needed; we just showed up.

Several of my friends from that year will be taking a memory tour on bike, before the building is gone. They will stop and visit the school.

I don’t know which is stronger right now: sadness over the loss of the school, or awe over this memory tour. I suppose the two go together, but I still hope for a twist, a happy idea, a last-minute decision to keep the place intact.

 

Photo credit: Annemarie Machielsen (courtesy of rtv Drenthe).

 

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

hungary map 2

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.

szeged-and-the-devastation-of-the-1879-flood-painting-by-pal-vc3a1gc3b3-ferenc-mora-museum

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!

szolnok gallery

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.