Bicycling on Shabbat?


Students sometimes ask me questions about Judaism; while happy to answer, I recognize that my words will be incomplete and sometimes incorrect. Recently a student asked whether I ride my bicycle on Shabbat. I said yes and added that this was not prohibited. I later questioned the second part of my answer, looked into it, and found out that it is indeed prohibited in Orthodox Judaism and, for the most part, in Conservative Judaism as well. But the matter is complicated; there have been many disagreements over the centuries.

I continue to ride my bike on Shabbat (when I am not in Budapest), simply because it is a source of joy and because if I relegate it (along with other non-Shabbat things) to Sunday, I end up with great anxiety and pressure. At the end of my life, when I look back, I don’t think I will be sorry; there are worse ills than going out on the bike and enjoying nature.

I am nowhere near perfect in my observance, but I take the questions and traditions seriously. Also, I am still young in my Judaism; while Jewish by birth (on my mother’s side, and thus by Jewish law), I started practicing it just over five years ago. I expect that my practices and views will change over time. Maybe I will become stricter, maybe less so; in any case I hope to have more understanding.

Biking is prohibited on Shabbat (under Orthodox and Conservative Judaism) for several reasons. First of all, it is considered a form of carrying. Carrying is permitted on Shabbat only within an eruv (an enclosed private area, often an enclosed Jewish community) and then only when the particular thing being carried is not forbidden. It is permissible, for instance, to push a stroller on Shabbat within an eruv, but not outside. The bicycle, not being one of those permitted things, may not be transported even within the eruv.

Some argue, though, that if it allows a person to fulfill a mitzvah, such as leading a service or reading Torah, then it may be used for that purpose alone, even outside the eruv. Conservative Judaism permits driving to synagogue (and only synagogue) on Shabbat (see the 1950 “Responsum on the Sabbath“); some Conservative communities extend this to biking and see the latter as less problematic than the former.

There are other (more tenuous) reasons why riding a bicycle is forbidden on Shabbat. First, it is forbidden to fix things on Shabbat, and a bicycle might break on route, leaving you in a position of wanting to fix it. Second, bicycle riding is considered a weekday activity, and weekday activities are to be avoided. Third, when on a bicycle, you might find yourself leaving the eruv–whether intentionally or by mistake–or even the tehum, the 2000 cubits beyond the town’s last house. You are less likely to do this on foot. Fourth, the bike tires might make marks in the dirt, thereby violating the prohibition against plowing on Shabbat. Finally–and this comes up in many discussions–bicycle riding should be discouraged on Shabbat because many communities consider it wrong and will be upset to see it happening. Some Orthodox communities are uneasy about bikes in general.

Part of me says, “This has no bearing on you; if you want to ride your bike, ride your bike! It brings you joy and rest, and you aren’t Orthodox anyhow!” Another part admires the precision and care of these considerations, a welcome contrast to a culture of “whatever.” It is possible, I think, to combine the independence and the precision: to follow my judgment while learning more about these questions and their intricacies.

The questions are far from settled. On the website of the Judaic Seminar (a project of the Sephardic Institute in Midwood, Brooklyn), I found a fascinating argument, by Rabbi Moshe Shamah, that bicycle riding should be permitted on those holidays when it is permitted to carry–that is, when the primary objection to bicycle riding does not apply. (Riding on Shabbat is still out of the question here.)

First of all, Rabbi Shamah quotes the Ben Ish Hai, who says that we should not make additional gezerot (enactments, prohibitions) but should rely on the ones already set down in Talmud. The arguments against bicycle riding (on days when carrying is permitted) are innovations and should be avoided for this reason. Therefore it should be permissible to ride the bicycle within the eruv on Shabbat and other holidays, even for recreation.

From there, Rabbi Shamah makes the case that there are reasons to permit bicycle riding on holidays when carrying is allowed. One is that young people in Orthodox communities should not be made to feel that they are doing something wrong when they are not.

The many teenagers and young adults who inevitably will ride their bicycles on Yom Tob should not feel they are doing an issur [something prohibitedDS] when they are not. Some of them feel they cannot help but ride their bicycles on Yom Tob and, psychologically, thinking that they are doing an issur may prompt them to doing a true issur. `If I’m already doing a sin, what difference does it make if I commit another one?’. It’s a terrible way of looking at things, but unfortunately too common.

Also, by not heaping new restrictions and rules onto existing ones, rabbis in an Orthodox community can protect the people from Conservative enticement:

Our rabbis also worked long and hard to prevent the Conservative Movement from making inroads in our community. A major aspect of their success these past two generations has been their policy of not indiscriminately prohibiting what is basically permitted in areas that would make our people vulnerable to non-Orthodox enticement. Bicycle riding on Yom Tob falls into this category.

Finally, one should avoid an overly restrictive approach to Judaism, as this can turn many people away:

In our generation we have witnessed a miraculous renewal of interest in Judaism….However, we often encounter a somewhat questionable by-product of this renewed vigor, namely, halachic enthusiasm which breeds halachic competitiveness. This frequently results in an overly restrictive, inaccurate version of Judaism replete with unfounded halachic stringencies which may ironically deter others from seeking entrance into the majestic world of Torah Judaism. Often the `pleasant ways of the Torah’ seem to have become difficult to bear as a result of stringencies superimposed upon the truly pleasant ways of Torah Judaism.

These considerations apply not only to Orthodox Judaism but to other branches of Judaism and, more generally, to other religions. How do you maintain the integrity of a tradition while opening yourself to new possibilities and lessons?  Rabbi Shamah sympathizes with young people and with those who feel overwhelmed by the rules. Yes, he sees Conservatives as a threat, partly because they offer, relative to Orthodoxy, a less encumbered approach to Jewish law, an approach that he would like to emulate in part.

So, when looking into the issue of bicycling on Shabbat, I found much more than answers. I found a rabbi grappling not only with this particular question, but with the question of how to honor laws, humans, understanding–and, encompassing all of these, an essence that we only glimpse, in word, thought, and action, throughout our lives.

I took the photo in Szolnok on Friday.

Why the “Next Big Idea Club” Is a Bad Idea


I recently learned that Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Daniel Pink, and Adam Grant have started a book club called the “Next Big Idea Club,” whose goal is to draw attention to new books that are “Groundbreaking, Science-Based, and Life-Changing (Actionable).” The book selections come with “video e-courses” that “highlight key concepts” (in case readers can’t figure them out for themselves), written course materials, exclusive author interviews, and an invite-only Facebook group.

In other words, the club leaders emphasize books that appear to have not only scientific basis, but clear takeaways–immediate applications to life–and then take the additional step of distilling those takeaways for the readers, thus affirming that the books should be put into action right away rather than thought upon, questioned, disputed.

And there lies about a third of the problem. I have no issue with the idea of a book club, no matter who leads it, when it involves selecting books that one loves (or finds especially interesting) and bringing them to the club members. But books deserve time and rumination; instead of being translated immediately into “actionable” takeaways, they should take up residence in the mind for a while. It is the dialogue (an approximate term) between author and reader that makes for memorable reading. The books that influence me the most have nothing immediately “actionable” about them; rather, they get me to think, they provoke me to return to the pages.

So that’s the first problem: the emphasis on the “actionable.” The second lies in the so-called scientific basis. Some of these books may well have strong scientific grounding. But science involves dogged and keen questioning–so the most scientific books will likely have the most uncertainties. With some exceptions, they will be the ones least conducive to takeaways. For a book to be both scientific and actionable at once, the scientific aspect may have to undergo simplification. The book club leaders, apparently, hasten the process of simplification by handing summaries and key points to the readers. This not only reduces the science itself but discourages scientific thinking.

The third problem lies in the priority given to “groundbreaking” books. We often don’t know right away whether a new book is groundbreaking; it takes time to put it in proper context and observe its influence and effects. Sometimes a seemingly new idea has many unknown antecedents; sometimes a seemingly grand solution fails to pan out. Rather than look for “groundbreaking” books, I would seek books that demonstrate intellect, probing, and wit: books that allow the reader to reconsider previous assumptions without latching on to false certainties.

The book club itself is nothing new; Gladwell appears to have been running it in some form for years. Kathryn Schulz wrote of his “Big Idea Club” in 2011 (in New York Magazine):

Big Idea books have been around for a long time; see The Communist Manifesto. But the Big Idea Book Club … is a recent phenomenon. Its accidental founder and president in apparent perpetuity is Malcolm Gladwell. Its membership, like the membership of most powerful groups, is largely male. Its combined sales are stratospheric; whatever these books are hawking, we can’t stop buying it.

And then, toward the end of the article:

There is no rule, process, peer group, leader, or best seller that can absolve us of the responsibility of thinking our way through life on our own two feet. What irks me most about this infinite parade of gigundo solutions isn’t their glibness or even the borderline theology (of some) and borderline Babbitry (of others) involved in promising audiences easy, happy, profitable ideas. Nope. What irks me is that when you rigidly apply grand theories to everybody, sooner or later everybody feels like nobody, whether you’re in Communist Belgrade or the local DMV. There is a reason we call such systems soul-crushing: They ignore or annihilate individual difference and inner life.

There you have it. Some ideas are big by nature, some medium-sized, some small. It would be folly to avoid an idea on account of its size. But it is dangerous to pursue or herald an idea because it is big. The bigness should give some pause. Do we really have room in this idea? Does it hold enough truth? Or has it been swept in, like so many others, only to drift out again later?

Some of the club’s selections may well be worth reading. Of the twenty that Adam Grant listed for 2018, I would be most likely to read Melissa Dahl’s Cringeworthy. I probably would not get to it until 2020 or later; I have many books waiting and generally like to read slowly. In any case, if I do read this book, it will be to consider the ideas and stories, not to apply them directly to my life. In books, it is the indirect applications–the use of words, the gestures of wisdom–that influence my life the most. The big idea? I take it in stride.

I have criticized the American emphasis on the Big Idea many times, in many places. (See, for instance, “The Folly of the Big Idea: How a Liberal Arts Education Puts Fads in Perspective,” American Educator, Winter 2012-2013). But I now come upon a new point: no matter what the size of an idea, I expect to be able to consider it in my own terms, on my own time–and not to accept someone else’s summaries or rush it into action.

Well, then, don’t join the club! someone might retort. No one is making you join. True, true, but that’s a moot point; I don’t join book clubs in general. Through my teaching, I have many opportunities to read with others; outside of work and projects, my time for reading is so scarce that I like to choose books on my own, often old books that I have read years ago or that I have been wanting to read for years. No, my own non-membership is not the point here. Rather, I argue and long for a different kind of reading: a kind that allows for liberty of thought, judges an idea by its merits, delights in verbal courage, and suspends summary and action.

I took the photo in Szeged in May.

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

Is There a Human Project?


It is the season of cherries and ice cream, of ducklings and Scarce Copper butterflies (I think that’s the type in the picture above), of wrapping up the school year and saying goodbye for the summer. Also, the book is almost in press; the last corrections have been made, and I must now think about the release in the fall. While doing this, I find myself questioning certain phrases in the book. At one point I mention the human project. Is there a human project? Or is this yet another phrase that has lost meaning over time?

It exists but abounds with contradictions, oppositions, anomalies, impossibilities. Drawing partially on George Kateb’s Human Dignity, I would define the human project, in part, as our ongoing assumption (and abdication) of responsibility as stewards of nature, including our own. Humans alone have the capacity to act as stewards–or not. Acting as steward involves recognizing what one has done, or can do, to help or harm oneself and others–and who these others are, and why it matters. In this recognition, humans have advanced somewhat, in some ways, over time. Certain things that we recognize as wrong, such as slavery, were accepted not long ago.

Last week I introduced my eleventh-grade students to the song “Amazing Grace,” which a few already knew. I thought it was important for American civilization, especially since we were now touching on religion. I did not know the origins of the song (having missed the Broadway musical and the movie and forgotten a good bit of history); when I read about it, I heard it in a new way.

It was composed by the English Anglican minister John Newton (1725-1807), who, prior to his Christian conversion, had been forced into the slave trade. He had rebelled so often aboard the ships–not on behalf of the slaves, but on his own behalf–that he had undergone lashings, demotions, and finally slavery, when the crew left him in West Africa with a slave dealer. He was finally rescued and brought back to England; during the voyage, he had a spiritual conversion. Slowly, over time, this conversion brought him to abhor the slave trade. This did not happen linearly; he returned to the slave trade, fell ill, and underwent a new conversion. He continued in the trade a few more years, and then in 1754 renounced it completely.

His tract Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, written in 1788, thirty-four years after he abandoned the business, repudiates the enslavement and trafficking of humans. It begins:

The nature and effects of that unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce, which has long been maintained on the Coast of Africa, with the sole, and professed design of purchasing our fellow-creatures, in order to supply our West-India islands and the American colonies, when they were ours, with Slaves; is now generally understood. So much light has been thrown upon the subject, by many able pens; and so many respectable persons have already engaged to use their utmost influence, for the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out.

If I attempt, after what has been done, to throw my mite into the public stock of information, it is less from an apprehension that my interference is necessary, than from a conviction that silence, at such a time, and on such an occasion, would, in me, be criminal. If my testimony should not be necessary, or serviceable, yet, perhaps, I am bound, in conscience, to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent, or repair, the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessary.

I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was, once, an active instrument, in a business at which my heart now shudders.

Hearing those undertones in “Amazing Grace” (although the hymn preceded the tract by two decades or so), I understand the song not as a paean to the born-again experience but as the author’s recognition of profound error. To see that one has been terribly wrong and to change one’s life accordingly: this allows for something of a human project. For by writing what he saw and learned, Newton allowed others to see it too.

I don’t want to be glib about this. Looking at the picture below, I would say that ducks do a bit better with their projects than humans; they lead their little ones, which grow up to have little ones of their own. But ducks also kill ducklings that they do not recognize–and suffer no qualms of conscience, as far as I know. It is not that we humans do so well with our conscience–we continue to do things that we repudiate or simply fail to question–but our conscience also matures, not only through experience in the world, but through encounters with books, speeches, music, plays. In listening to something, we come to take ourselves in measure. Or at least we may. To the extent that we do, we participate in a human project.

I ask myself why I didn’t notice the Broadway musical Amazing Grace, which would have taught me something, even fleetingly, about John Newton. I think I unthinkingly ignored it because of the title. I had heard the song sung mockingly so many times that I had absorbed the mockery. That reminds me to be less sure of my mockeries, especially borrowed ones. Mockery has a place in writing–there would be little satire without it–but it must be informed. In this case mine, though never overt, was also ignorant until now.


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

“Lights, lights, lights”


The Shakespeare event took place yesterday: beautiful performances, a full house, a feeling of excitement and pride. I am still gathering my thoughts–and hope to gather some more photos and videos, since I was too focused on the performance to take very many, and most of the ones I did take were from the back of the room.

Just minutes before the performance, we faced a big technical problem: whoever had shut down the Technika Háza earlier in the day had also shut off all the lights. To turn the lights on, you need not only access to a special room but knowledge of its location. This, apparently, is a carefully guarded secret. At last one student–the one who had helped me ask the drama teacher for additional props–managed not only to get on the phone with someone who had the information, but to persuade this person to disclose the information to him. Ten minutes before our show, we had lights, and everything went gloriously from there. Fittingly, the last words of the performance were “Lights, lights, lights” (from Hamlet).

Congratulations and thanks to everyone–including the audience–who made this a gracious and moving occasion. I will say more later.

Speaking of events, this Sunday in New York City there will be a CONTRARIWISE celebration at Book Culture! If there were any way for me to attend, I would, but given that I teach on Monday, it’s too far away. It will be in my thoughts, and I will take part of that day to write and post a little review of the fifth issue.

Update: I added a video and two photos to this piece after posting it.

Speaking Shakespeare


Shakespeare’s language may seem daunting at first (“His discretion, I am sure, cannot carry his valor, for the goose carries not the fox. It is well. Leave it to his discretion, and let us listen to the moon“). Even after reading his work for decades, you may walk into verbal thickets. Still, through these very burrs and thorns (and leaves and petals and bugs), you find out how immediate Shakespeare’s language can be.

That has been happening in these final rehearsals: everyone has been involved, whether as listeners, actors, or supporting actors (the ones who play parts in rehearsals but not in the event). This afternoon, in the classroom, I saw that someone had written on the board, “Jó munkához idő kell” (“Good work takes time”). I don’t know whether that was a comment on the performance or a remnant from a previous class, but it applies here; day by day, the language has been catching on. I sense it in the audience as they watch their classmates perform scenes and monologues for the dozenth, twentieth time. They listen, laugh, turn pages, give cues, murmur along, call out mistakes. When the main actor is not present, they step in and read parts too.


Students have been memorizing their lines in spades–and each memorization takes the scene to another level. Yes, there are still some giggles and lapses–but even in the past two days, the performers have come far. We have practiced in classrooms large and small, in the schoolyard (as pictured in the two photos above), and in the park; each place brings out something different.


One student urged me to ask the drama teacher for additional costumes and props. He accompanied me during a break between classes and acted as interpreter–but after the beginning, we had no difficulty communicating. She took out a veil and said, “Ophelia”; she took out a sword and said, “Polonius.” Everything was clear.

We’re just a dress rehearsal away from the performance. “You shall see, it will fall pat as I told you. Yonder she comes.”


Shakespeare Around the Corner


The Shakespeare event is just three days away. A few days ago, I posted some short videos of ninth-grade rehearsals. Here are the tenth-graders (who read Hamlet this semester) heading up the stairs to our venue.

They will perform excerpts of two scenes from Hamlet: the scene where Hamlet encounters the Ghost (Act 1, Scene 5) and the scene of the play within a play (Act 3, Scene 2). Here is a rehearsal of the “dumb-show” at the start of the play within a play.

They practiced it again today (this time with the one who will play Lucianus in the actual event):


As we approach the event itself, it’s exciting to see and hear subtleties entering the performance. Students have been figuring out their words and gestures, giving them more life each time. Some have taken on the role of assistant directors, offering ideas about the blocking, costumes, delivery, and more.

Everyone has helped out in some way. In the many rehearsals where we did not have the full cast (because the two halves of each class have English at different times), students stepped in to play the parts of those who were not there. Others helped out as audience members; they listened and watched, day after day. Many contributed drawings to the classroom wall.


There is little more to say and much to do; the next few days will ascend the stairs.

“I see a voice: now will I to the chink….”


We have been practicing, day by day, for the May 31 Shakespeare event–just a week away now–which will include three excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two excerpts from Hamlet, a simple Renaissance dance, and a few introductions and interludes. The rehearsals have built and built; each time, something has improved, and the mistakes have made memories too.

It has been fun to pull costumes together; a homemade lion costume (in the works–thanks to a student’s mom), plastic wreaths and vines, a lanthorn, a not-so-thorny thornbush, a (stuffed) dog, some crowns, and other props and accoutrements.

Here’s a dialogue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1 (recorded May 17):

Here’s one from Act 3, Scene 2, with a different Hermia and Helena (recorded May 22):

Here’s the Wall (“In this same interlude it doth befall / That I, one Snout by name, present a Wall….”)


I don’t have any Hamlet photos or videos yet (aside from the drawings I posted recently), but that may change soon.

Birches and Books

William Blake got something right in his ruminative “Auguries of Innocence“:

The Princes Robes & Beggars Rags
Are Toadstools on the Misers Bags
A Truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent
It is right it should be so
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know<
Thro the World we safely go

What a strange and persistent poem; it seems like a long procession of lanterns. I think of it in light of the sad international news of the past few weeks, the joys in my life, the mixture of meanings everywhere.

Today many students were out of the classroom, attending a special event, so I took my eleventh-grade classes to the park, where we went in different directions, looked at something for five minutes, and then converged again to show each other what we had seen. In one session I found roses blooming upward; in another, a weeping birch in the wind.


During this time, things have been coming along with the book, which now has a jacket design:


To top it all off, or to lift it up from the foundation, the CONTRARIWISE copies arrived here in Szolnok today! A copy goes to each of the contest winners from my school, another one to the school, and one to me. CONTRARIWISE prevails. I will say more soon.



Forms and Meanings of Praise

Last week, while some of my tenth-grade students were taking a make-up test, the others illustrated scenes from Hamlet, in preparation for our event. I had compiled a list of possible quotes; many students chose quotes of their own. There were drawings of Ophelia, the ghost, King Claudius, the play within a play, the slaying of Polonius, the “Words, words, words” scene, and many more.

As I walked around the room and pointed out what I saw in certain pieces, I often met with the response, “No, it’s terrible! I can’t draw!” Some students explained what was wrong with their pieces; some burst into giggles; some stared at the emerging arm on the page, erased it, and stared at the blank page. Here I saw a cultural difference between the U.S. and Hungary; while everywhere you will find students who take pride in their work and students who do not, the proportions differ, with American students being, in my experience, a bit prouder of their work than Hungarians. This difference has something to do with the messages they receive from teachers and others.

First of all, in American schools, just about anything may go up on the wall. Teachers are required to display student work on bulletin boards around the classroom and in hallways–so anything from a Venn diagram to an algebra proof to an essay can end up in public view. Second, there’s an underlying belief that all student work–at least in its final form–should be celebrated. Every student has talent and a voice, according to popular wisdom; all voices should be seen. (I am channeling Pyramus here: “I see a voice.”) Here in Hungary, from what I have seen, not everything gets displayed and celebrated; overall, student work receives more criticism than praise. There’s a basic assumption that all students need to improve (and that they have a long, long way to go). There are exceptions to this–but that’s the overall tendency, at least in comparison with what I have seen in the U.S.

I see promise and problems in both ways. The American attitude (or collection of attitudes) can become too blithe and exuberant, too fixated on the “wonderful.” (When everything is “wonderful,” there’s not much more you can say.) The Hungarian attitude (or collection of attitudes), in contrast, can leave some students thinking that they can’t draw, write, etc., at all. Yet both approaches hold a possible middle way: looking at what is actually going on in the students’ work and considering how to challenge it. Here, in this class assignment, I found an abundance of interesting things. (All the pieces that appear here are posted with the students’ permission.)

Consider the clowns: I am struck by the symmetry between cross and spade, the contrast between the standing and sitting clowns (one big, one little; one with spade, the other with flower); the solemnity of their faces, the colors, and the quote itself. Or the two praying scenes–how did those stick figures become so evocative (in the first) and the crown and cross so luminous (in the second)? Or Hamlet and Horatio: Hamlet with his eyes closed, as though he were seeing a world no one else could see, and Horatio, troubled, looking askance. Or the ghost scenes, ordered and unnerving. Or Ophelia, her thoughts full of water.

If I were an art teacher, I would have more to say, possibly, about the proportions, shading, and so forth–but I am bad at drawing and have little sense of how to improve it. Rather, as a language and literature teacher, I would take cues from the pictures and devote lessons to Shakepeare’s clowns and ghosts. Here, given our time constraints and upcoming event, I have worked to incorporate “pictures” into our rehearsals–that is, to help students imagine and work out the details of the scenes, with attention to every word in the text.

What kind of praise is appropriate in the classroom? Those of the “growth mindset” persuasion often say that teachers should praise students for effort, not for ability or accomplishment. That strikes me as too rigid; different situations call for different kinds of praise. Sometimes students do need to hear that they have a particular ability or that their work stands out. What matters is that the teacher praise and criticize thoughtfully, not automatically, and that she avoid using praise (or criticism) as a way of exerting control. When students depend too much on teachers’ praise or take it too much to heart, they lose their own critical sense. A teacher’s praise should help students find their way.

Praise, like criticism, can do good or harm; what matters is that both teacher and student keep it in perspective and turn it toward the good. It is not an ultimate decree. A teacher can point out what she sees without claiming the last word.

Image credit: The eight drawings are by students in class 10C at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok; they are posted with the students’ permission.

“Sunrise, sunset”


As I enjoy coffee, birdsong, and breeze (the balcony door is opened wide) and think about the coming week, I thrill over the extra bundle of time that got dropped into my lap. Last week, we had the graduation ceremony; this week, the seniors take their finals. While I have many things to do at school, this Monday through Thursday I have no classes until afternoon. Thus I have some morning time for two big projects: reviewing the page proofs for my book and learning the liturgy and texts for Shavuot.

There were two graduation ceremonies: one in school (on Thursday), and one outdoors, throughout Szolnok (on Saturday). I couldn’t attend the second, since I was in Budapest–but the first was unlike any I had seen or heard before. With their form teachers at the front of the line, the seniors walked hand in hand, class by class, through the halls, carrying flowers and singing songs in unison (including “Gaudeamus igitur”). The faculty stood outside the teachers’ room and listened to them as they wove by. It was so beautiful. Then we went out into the schoolyard for the speeches and awards.

These rites of passage have meaning, but only if we recognize that life does pass by.

In the U.S., women (and men) over 30 are continually urged to conceal their age, to make themselves seem younger than they are, to knock off a decade somehow, as though one’s true age were a source of shame. I reject this shame. It is in my fifties that I find things coming together: meaningful work and projects, self-knowledge, a few insights into the world around me, a sense of fun, and a tolerance for the many things that I do not know or understand. I was not there in my twenties, thirties, or forties; why hide from my age, when it has allowed me to build things? One day I will be older still. In fact, that will happen right now.

Each age comes with its responsibilities too. They are not spelled out and absolute–they vary from person to person–but they make themselves clear. I see the fifties as a time of ordering. The house is built; now put things in place. For some, this happens much earlier; for others, later; or maybe different parts happen at different times.

When preparing the Torah portion for this last Shabbat, I struggled with the text (Leviticus 21), which discusses how the priest must keep himself pure. For example, he may marry only a virgin, not a profaned woman, a harlot, or a woman banished from her husband. The judgments of women seem archaic–but as I worked with the text, I saw greater meaning. The priest, in his role, has an obligation to conduct himself in a holy manner, for the sake of the holiness itself. Others might be at liberty to marry a “profaned” woman–but he may not, even if he wishes. There could be many reasons for this: the relationship should not stir up gossip, its status should not be ambiguous, the children should be born into good reputation, etc.–but the larger point is that he must restrict himself for the sake of his role, which in turn serves something larger.

Today’s rules are more flexible–and can vary considerably from one culture or position to another–but like ancient rules, they carry principles. Each office in life comes with its obligations and strictures. In most cultures, a teacher does not socialize with students outside of school, since this would break the integrity of the classroom. Facebook “friending” between teachers and students is common in some places (for instance, here in Hungary) but comes with boundaries. Friendships between teachers and parents are a trickier matter; in some cultures and communities they are common and accepted, whereas in others they break the norm. Yet even where accepted, they must be conducted properly. Even collegial relationships can be tricky, since they come with many unspoken and unofficial rules.

With all the supposed liberties of our era, one of the great challenges is to glean and apply the rules, allowing for appropriate variation. No profession, no way of life can survive long without structure, but what kind does it need? Some parts are obvious at the outset; others take time to figure out but hold equal importance. Part of the beauty of Leviticus (along with its harshness) lies in its offering of structure.

Those who flagrantly disrespect structure (such as President Trump) affect not only themselves but others. The structure is never only for oneself; it sets an example and hints at a form. Throughout my life I have learned from others’ structures and lack thereof.

Back to the question of age: I see the fifties as a time of knowing one’s structure, arranging one’s life within it, and treating others with dignity. This does not have to be rigid or final; there will be many mistakes, openings, bendings, and rebuildings. But one comes to see structure for what it offers and means. This can happen earlier and later too–but there’s a special time when structure comes into focus.

This brings me to the title: “Sunrise, sunset.” The days go by too fast; you barely get your structure together, and it starts to creak. All the more reason, I think, to give it honor.


I took the photo on my bike trip.

I revised this piece in several stages after posting it.