CONTRARIWISE Continues!

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Way back in the spring of 2014, the first boxes of CONTRARIWISE arrived at Columbia Secondary School. I was on alert for the shipment–but when it came, I would not open a box; I wanted to wait until the editors in chief were available, so that they could do the honors. I remember standing nearby as they cut the box open (with a key, I think, or maybe with scissors) and took out a volume–elegant, crisp, and colorful. All the work that had gone into this journal was now in their hands. The rest of the day was filled with signings, distribution of gift copies, sales, congratulations, exclamations.

Soon they received their first review: “NYC Techie Kids Buck Trend, Take On Humanities,” by Cynthia Haven. In May 2014, we had our first CONTRARIWISE celebration, at Word Up Books in Washington Heights. I have a short video of the part where I sang the “Contrariwise song“–based on the Major General’s Song–which I had written just for the event. (Thanks to Mr. Gerald Pape, who shot the video.) After the song, the editors in chief close out the ceremony, and a member of the audience–then in sixth grade–reminds them, “You were supposed to answer my question about time.”

That audience member is now in twelfth grade and—for the second consecutive year–one of the editors-in-chief of CONTRARIWISE. I just received a message from him that the sixth volume is at the printer–to be released very soon–and that the contest and writing prompts for Volume 7 are now available. I will copy the prompts below in just a moment. Right now I am contemplating what it took, from many people, to keep the journal going and lively all this time. I initiated it and was the faculty advisor for its first three years. Then Kim Terranova advised it for two years, and then John Beletsky stepped into the role. There have been four pairs of editors in chief: Ron Gunczler and Nicholas Pape, Kelly Clevenson and Alan Rice, Zosia Caes and Melany Garcia, and the current editors, Amogh Dimri and Theo Frye Yanos. In addition, CONTRARIWISE has had an editorial board throughout its history–students who read, discuss, and select submissions, judge the contests, help with sales, and plan events. Beyond that, CONTRARIWISE has been enlivened by its readers–people who buy copies, read them, enjoy them, and maybe even submit an Infrequently Asked Question or two (or five or ten).

Here are the new prompts and submission information, courtesy of the editors-in-chief. Everything except for the first one (the National Contest) is open to high school students around the world. Submissions must be in English. The new deadline is January 20. The information will soon be up on the CONTRARIWISE website (which will be restructured as well as updated, according to my sources).

National Writing Contest (select one) — for students in the U.S.

  • How should crimes be punished in the ideal society, and should they be at all? What is the purpose of “punishment” — an act of enforcing individual justice, or of maintaining the cohesion of the broader society? You may relate your argument to history or current legal systems as well if you would like. (Below is a scenario that might inspire you along this line of thinking.)

    • You have been accused of a high-profile crime, but you have no memory whatsoever of the time you supposedly committed it. Moreover, none of your friends or family believe it is possible that you could have done it because they know you to be a very good person. Supposing that you did actually do the crime, should your punishment be any less?

  • Write about an idea that is impossible for humans to understand or a problem that is impossible for us to solve.

International Writing Contest (select one) — for students outside the US

  • Why do we laugh? Can all the causes of laughter, varying from dark humor, to simple gags, to tickling, all be explained by one theory? In whatever sense you take it, what is the purpose of laughter?

  • Can violence be justified to achieve political ends? If so, why, and to what extent can it be used?

Writing Open Call — for all students

  • Write whatever you want!

Remember, your submissions for the writing contests or open call can be in whatever form you want: reflection, short story, poem, dialogue, letter, or whatever else you can think of! Feel free to take the prompts in whatever way you are inspired to!

Art Contest — for all students

  • Many artists use abstract or surreal art forms in order to express philosophical ideas, purposefully subverting the confines of the real. Make a piece of art that does this. (Below are two ideas that might inspire you on the ideas of surrealism and abstraction.)

    • Surrealism — French writer André Breton: “The purpose of surrealism is to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, or super-reality.”

    • Abstraction — Vietnamese monk Thích Nhất Hạnh: “The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.”

Art Open Call — for all students

  • Make whatever you want!

Cover Contest — for all students

  • For this year’s cover contest, draw two abstract representations of non-mammal animals. Other than this guideline, be as creative as you want. Preferred width-to-height ratio is 2 : 3.

All submissions are due on January 20, 2020.

  • For writing, please share a Google Doc with editors@columbiasecondary.org. Do not forget to put a title and write out your full name as you want it to appear (or say that you would like it to be published anonymously).

  • For art, if it is digital please send an email with the file to editors@columbiasecondary.org, or for CSS students you can also give physical art to Prof. Beletsky, Theo Frye Yanos, or Amogh Dimri in person, or put it in Prof. Beletsky’s mailbox.

Don’t forget to credit any inspirations or inclusions of other works in your submission! (That is, cite sources and quotes, and credit any works that inspired or contributed to your own work.) An added comment from Diana Senechal: Borrowed/adapted art and photographs can lead to tricky copyright problems (and, in some cases, hefty fees). It’s better if your art is entirely original–that is, created from scratch, not a digital adaptation or direct copy of someone else’s work. But if you do adapt someone else’s work in some way, please provide the source, so that the editors can look into the copyright issues. As for writing, cite your sources accurately and thoroughly.

I hope many students in Hungary–and Turkey and around the world–submit their work!

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Image credits: The photo at the top was taken by Shirley Reynozo at the inaugural CONTRARIWISE celebration on May 18, 2014. The video was recorded at the same celebration by Gerald Pape. I took the second photo at a CONTRARIWISE editorial board meeting (in October 2015).

The SzolnokTV Interview

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SzolnokTV interviewed Gyula Jenei, Marianna Fekete, and me about the Dallas Institute events. You can see the video here: http://www.szolnoktv.hu/hirek/?article_hid=56533. Today Gyula had a second interview, which I will add here as soon as I can.

Thanks to Judit Kassainé Mrena, the librarian at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, for the interview location (the beautiful new library)! And thanks to SzolnokTV.

Packed Days, Words, and (Now) Bags Too

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How do you pack a few days like these into a blog post? For the past week, my colleagues Gyula Jenei, Marianna Fekete, and I were guests of the Dallas Institute and Cowan Center; these days keep opening into more.  The Education Forum on Monday and Tuesday evening, the various introductions and conversations, the visits to various places in the city, the assembly yesterday morning at the Terrell Academy, the luncheon, the sightseeing in Fort Worth yesterday–all of this was so full, warm, and brimming that we will be thinking about them for a long time. Not only that, but new projects and ideas are coming out of them; I have a lot to do over the coming months and years.

On Sunday we visited the Dallas Museum of Art, and on Monday during the day we walked around a lot and visited the Aquarium and Sixth Floor Museum.

Both evening events were terrific; the audience took genuine interest, and we enjoyed the readings and discussions. On Monday, Gyula Jenei read seven of his poems, and I read my translations of them; afterward, he, Marianna Fekete, and I held a panel discussion and took a few questions from the audience.

On Tuesday, I read aloud my translation of Marianna’s essay about the haiku poetry of Béla Markó; then Gyula, Marianna, and I had a panel discussion, followed by a Haiku haiku workshop, in which Marianna taught the audience how to pronounce several of the haiku poems, and I explained the individual words. You can see the Flickr album of the Tuesday night event here; I have included just a few below (and at the top of this post).

Things kept getting better and better. On Wednesday morning we gave an assembly at the I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM and VPA, which is one of the Dallas Institute’s Cowan Academies. We spoke in a huge, elegant auditorium to several hundred students, who listened attentively and asked sharp questions at the end. Then we went on a tour of the school and saw (for instance) the music room and several classes in progress. We were moved and impressed.

Then we returned to the Dallas Institute for a luncheon with special guests, including the poet Frederick Turner–who, with Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, has translated many Hungarian and other poets–and the publisher Will Evans. (Dr. Ozsváth was unable to be in town for the event, but I felt her presence anyway.) The conversations and readings brought us together not only around the table, but for something ongoing too. Nothing I say right now will do it justice; I can only thank everyone who was there. Much more will come of it, visibly and invisibly.

I am in a rush now, so I will finish with a few pictures from yesterday (at the steakhouse–Larry Allums is wearing a bib, one of two that I brought for him and Claudia MacMillan, from our faculty trip to Serbia last August), on the golf cart at the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens, where Claudia took us for a long and lovely walk, and in South Dallas last night). I am grateful for all of this. More thoughts and photos soon.

Photo credits:
Monday night event: Marshall Surratt;
Tuesday night event: James Edward (Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture);
Halloween photo: Marianna Fekete;
Terrell assembly photos: Jerrett Lyday;
Group photo outside Terrell Academy: Claudia MacMillan;
All other photos: Diana Senechal.

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

If Only

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Often in my English classes we work with counterfactual conditionals: “If I hadn’t overslept this morning, I wouldn’t have arrived late”; “If I knew that you would be waiting, I would have called you”; etc. The curious thing about all these statements is that we have no idea whether they are true. We think that if we had done such-and-such, things would have turned out differently, but we don’t know precisely how. All we know is what actually did happen, and (to a lesser extent) what choices went into it. So when I look back on the past sometimes, and think, for example, “If I had taken a class with Harold Bloom, if I had majored in English while also taking Russian literature classes….” my conclusions, though appealing, come down to speculation.

I tried positing this–the unreality and uncertainty of the things that didn’t happen–in a one-session workshop on the philosophy of time (which I taught at school last year on Katalin Day). I didn’t talk about my own experience but focused on the texts I had brought and on the discussion in the room. A few students protested vigorously that my argument denied free will. But it doesn’t; it merely posits that we have no way of knowing what would have happened if we had done this or that differently. This doesn’t make the choices unimportant or unreal. To the contrary: by choosing an action, we give it a reality that the other hypothetical possibilities can never attain, except in the mind. It is true that we can return to, and embrace, a rejected option later. But we are now doing it as a different person from before, with the accumulated experience.

Well, I take that back. There are certain physical certainties, or relative certainties. If I take a book out of the bookshelf in my apartment, it will stay out until I put it back in; if I do not take it out, it will stay there. I can say, with some confidence, “If I hadn’t taken that book out of the bookshelf, it would still be there.” But as soon as other people and complex situations are involved, the alternative possibilities and their outcomes become less definite.

Let’s take the example of majoring in English. I see now that my reasons for not doing so were foolish. I paid too much attention to the amateur advice-givers around me. People were saying that the English major was overcrowded and that you “couldn’t do anything” with a degree in English. I don’t know about the first assertion, but the second was false. English majors can become writers, editors, scholars, critics, and much more; if they decide to change fields–for instance, to go into law–their studies will serve them well. Moreover, they will carry many of the works they read, and memories of the lectures and discussions, for the rest of their lives.

Why do I sometimes wish I had majored in English? Part of the reason is that I wanted to do this, early on, but let myself be dissuaded. Part of it is that I had a difficult time choosing a major at all; I finally chose Russian, but this came after I entertained many other possibilities. And there lies the catch. There are many reasons why I had difficulty choosing a major: a multitude of interests, contradictory and confusing advice, too many opportunities to change my mind, and profound uncertainty about what I was doing. There is no guarantee that any of this would have abated if I had chosen a different major.

Moreover, I loved the study of Russian literature and excelled in it. The one problem was that I didn’t want to go to Russia to study for a semester or year. I wasn’t required to do this, but it would have helped my Russian greatly. I wanted to stay put–having traveled and moved a lot in childhood–and this placed a limit on my Russian. My Russian was considered proficient at the time, but it wasn’t fluent. I could express myself well in certain areas, write essays, and read Dostoevsky without a dictionary, but there were swathes of vocabulary and colloquial expressions that I didn’t know. My deficiencies were even more basic than that; I made mistakes with perfective and imperfective verb forms and was far from mastering the prefixes.

Over the long term, I learned and accomplished things I never would have predicted–but beyond that, this is the only life I know. All those things that might have happened, that might have turned out differently, stay part of the imagination. Like any human, I take them up in the mind, but I can be certain of none of them.

Back to my students’ objections: If there is only one way for things to turn out, what happens to free will? I question the question’s premise. There are many ways that things can turn out, but only one way that they actually do. But even that is only partly true. Do we ever know, with certainty, how things turned out? To a degree, we can state what happened. But the meaning of what happened is continually changing; our perspectives change, and we learn from others’ perspectives. So, in a sense, an event many turn out in many ways at once. We have more free will than we even know: we not only make choices in life, but later choose how to interpret what we and others did. In this interpretation, the things that did not happen play a large role. There is still a distinction between things that happened and things that did not, but both sides involve the imagination, and the choices are infinite. (I didn’t manage to say all of this in class; these thoughts, provoked by the students’ challenges, came later.)

I am very sorry that I never took a class with Harold Bloom (or even met him in person). That’s on my mind now, since he died last week. But in ways I didn’t realize, I was learning from him indirectly. My friends and professors (and later my colleagues) spoke of him often; I picked up and returned to his books, which I read in passages and parts. He was in my life in some way, and he remains.

I have a similar (though different) feeling about Toni Morrison, who died in August. I would have learned so much from being in the room while she was speaking. I thought the day would come, but it did not. Still I continue to learn from her.

I didn’t miss out, though, even in terms of English courses; I had the great joy of taking two classes from John Hollander, as an undergraduate and a grad student. I think that was how things were supposed to be, since I sought those classes out. There was nothing like them in all my years of school; I return to them often in my mind. I am so far from missing out in life that a regret seems frivolous. But regrets have a place, when not taken too far. They help us perceive things that did not come to pass and that never will. Without such imagination we would fall for a much more dangerous illusion: that we are always justified, right, and complete.

Babits and Beyond

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Today, for the first time in months, I visited my favorite bookstore in Szolnok, the Szkítia-Avantgard Könyvesbolt és Antikvárium. I walked out with an armful of books: some literature textbooks (I want to understand better what students are reading in literature class and what they are learning about these works), a volume of Mihály Babits’s poems, and a big, thick book of Hungarian folk and historical songs.

I first opened up the Babits to p. 48, “Egy szomorú vers” (A Plaintive Poem), narrated by a poet with no friends, which amazed me when I got to here:

barangoló borongó,
ki bamba bún borong,
borzongó bús bolyongó,
baráttalan bolond.

which looks like nonsense syllables, but it isn’t–this not only means something in Hungarian, but makes sense in context. Still, it sounds almost like nonsense, and that brings the loneliness home, because when you’re at the extremes of loneliness, even your own words feel foreign. I have not yet read anything like this in Hungarian, and I see, looking through the rest of the volume, that Babits often plays with words and sounds.

This is the first weekend in months where I haven’t been in the midst of intense preparations- I have much to do–the trip to Dallas is just two weeks away, and I have some other projects–but things are in good shape.

It all came together–Rosh Hashanah, the ALSCW Conference, and Yom Kippur–but I know I took on too much. Even before the conference, before Rosh Hashanah, I had felt a slight sore throat, but I thought I had overcome it, and the conference itself was thrilling. Yet during my flight back to Hungary on Sunday night (with a transfer in Istanbul), I started feeling distinctly sick. This affected my voice badly at the Kol Nidre service on Tuesday evening, which I was co-leading with the rabbi and another lay cantor. By the morning of Yom Kippur, though, I was already a bit better, and halfway into the morning service I had come back into full swing. (The rabbi led most of the morning service so that I could give my voice a break, but it became clear that I could re-enter without qualms.) Shacharit, Mazkir, the afternoon shiur–things became fuller and fuller, and at the end of the day, in the Neilah service, when we all gathered in a circle and sang “El Nora Alilah,” I knew that we had built something together.

My colleagues at school were helpful and kind–those who covered my classes on the days that I was gone, those who asked how everything went, and others too.

I have more thoughts about all of this than I could put down here, or that I even want to put down–but I learned and thought a lot over these past two weeks. More thinking lies ahead, and more learning, and some rest.

Honors, Arts, and Travels

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This is a short post, since I leave early in the morning for the U.S. (for the 2019 ALSCW Conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I will be leading a seminar and presenting a paper). I will get to see my friend Joyce, who lives in Worcester, tomorrow evening.

Last Friday I had the great honor of being interviewed by Zsolt Bajnai, author of the wonderful blogSzolnok (which I read daily) and many other articles, essays, interviews, and stories. it was my first interview in Hungarian. Here it is.

Rosh Hashanah at Szim Salom was beautiful. Lots of people came. Now I have to stay strong and healthy for Yom Kippur (and beyond). I have many more thoughts about the holidays than these brief jottings convey.

Last night I saw a film that doesn’t leave my mind: Akik maradtak (Those Who Remained), directed by Barnabás Tóth. I recommend it to everyone and hope to say more about it another time. It was followed by a discussion between Zsolt Bajnai and the director and producer. They talked about how the film differed from the movie, how the actors were chosen, and more.

The week was filled with performances and other good things. Yesterday, during our long break in the morning, the music teacher (Andrea Barnáné Bende) and a group of students put on a short concert in honor of the school’s 90th anniversary. They sang and played a selection of songs from the past 90 years.

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And today (see the picture at the top) the ninth-grade bilingual class, under the direction of the drama teacher (Zsuzsanna Kovácsné Boross), rehearsed a short play on the theme of libraries and humanity, which they will perform this week (and next, I think). Since the rehearsal took place during our regular English class, I got to see it–in the beautiful new school library, curated and maintained by the school librarian, Judit Kassainé Mrena.

Also, Issue 12:1 of Literary Matters came out! It contains my translations of Gyula Jenei’s poems “Piano,” “Cemetery,” and “Madeleine“; my review of John Wall Barger’s The Mean Game; and much more.

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Finally, I am grateful to my colleagues for covering my classes during my absences. Speaking of absence, it is now time for sleep.

Unhyped

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In Hungary I am relieved of the pressures of hype. Here, by and large (with exceptions and shadings), people care more about the quality of a thing than about the publicity surrounding it. It is more important to write a good book, song, or play than to “succeed” in terms of sales and numbers.

Not that this is always true here, or always false in America. Here in Hungary, artists have to promote their work just to keep on going; to make a living off of it, they have to win a large audience. Conversely, in the United States, people are not always impressed with big publicity; especially with music, they look beyond the fame.

But often, in the United States, you are judged by your external success. If you want to be considered–yes, even considered–by a major publisher, you must find a literary agent. To persuade a literary agent to represent you, you must usually show that you have a “platform”–that is, a built-in audience that will guarantee sales. Or you must have connections with the big media outlets. Or else your idea must look like a big hit–something that will sweep the country and the world. Once the book (or other work) is out, you are judged by the splash that it makes–even though that splash, in many cases, has been pre-engineered. “Everyone’s talking about such-and-such”–people forget that sometimes the strongest reaction to a book is silence.

Beyond all of that, in the United States there is a fantasy of “making it”–of hitting upon something that makes you famous and rich and that tells the world that you matter after all. Many people believe that if they make it, they are legitimate human beings, and if they don’t, they aren’t. I know musicians who were profoundly and widely appreciated and who still believed they hadn’t made it. Some quit out of discouragement. Some shifted their attention to other things. Some switched to other kinds of music, where the “scene” didn’t matter any more. (Granted, this wasn’t always out of discouragement; sometimes they just wanted to take a new direction.)

In Hungary, from what I have seen, people recognize that life is difficult and bounded, that external success involves a lot of luck (and sometimes privilege too), and that you are better off focusing on your work itself than on the attention it is or isn’t receiving. Every writer or artist wants an audience that grows over time; audiences are necessary. Everyone wants recognition–awards, positive reviews, and so forth. But a small audience is not taken as a judgment against the work or its creator. Or maybe it is sometimes, in some places, but not everywhere.

Also, in Hungary there is intense emphasis on quality, sometimes to a fault. People readily criticize their own and others’ work, not always to put it down, but to point out how it can be better. The adjective “good” is a serious compliment, not freely given. People do not often laud creativity in the abstract; that is, they do not respect it as much as they respect a created thing, if it comes out well, and its creator. This has a negative side: judgments can be harsh, inaccurate, and overly self-assured. But in the best circumstances they can encourage discernment.

Take, for instance, the band contest in Törökszentmiklós. I had never seen anything like this before. The bands were being judged by a jury on the quality of their musicianship, lyrics, uniqueness, and overall stage picture. The results made sense. Contests abound in Hungary–academic, artistic, athletic contests of talent and accomplishment. These contests have limitations and imperfections, but they can bring out the good. In the U.S., there are contests aplenty, but one contest reigns supreme: the “buzz” tournament, the challenge to produce something that everyone will be talking about for months to come. As though talk were a measure of anything.

This topic could be the subject of a book, but it wouldn’t be easy to write. I would have to go much farther into the essence of the matter. Right now I am dissatisfied, knowing I have barely touched the surface. Much remains to be asked, considered, probed, rethought. We shall see.

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

Szolnok’s First Golden Age

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This evening I went to a lecture by Zsolt Bajnai on Szolnok’s first golden age (from 1867 to 1914). I learned about buildings I see every day, buildings I have never seen (because they don’t exist any more), buildings that have partly remained, and the ways of life associated with them. Mr. Bajnai showed photographs and postcards of the buildings that now house the Varga Katalin Gimnázium and the Ferenc Verseghy Library; the County Hall and City Hall, the building, which I often admire in passing, on the corner of Kossuth Square and Arany János Street; the buildings on Szapáry; the churches and synagogue; the train station; the old Szabadság bridge; the water tower, and much more. It was exciting to follow along; I understood at least 85 percent of the lecture and could figure out much of the rest. Besides learning about Szolnok, I was in awe of the occasion: a lecturer who knew and cared so much about this city, an inviting venue (the community center on Napsugár Street, right by the Alcsi-Holt-Tisza), and a rapt audience. This wasn’t just “worth” the bike ride to the outskirts of the city; the bike ride, lecture, audience, and surroundings were all part of the event.

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Afterwards, I bicycled in the wrong direction at first–but realized my error quickly and saw some lovely things along the way. Within minutes, I was back home. I have more to say, another time, about this event and about Zsolt Bajnai’s story “From the Pelikán to the Sugar Factory,” which I first read yesterday morning and which swiftly changed my life.

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The Immensity of Language

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While the Varga graduates of 2019 are off to their university orientations, we teachers are having orientations of our own: meeting new colleagues, participating in meetings, and getting ready for the school year, which starts on Monday. As I contemplate the coming year, take part in meetings in Hungarian where I really understand what is being said (not just in general, but in detail), and recover from a few recent language embarrassments and mishaps (where I misunderstood what was being said and responded accordingly), I think about the immensity of language.

You can study a language for a decade, study it well, study it with vigor and openness and play, and still not reach fluency in it. That’s what makes it worthwhile! Languages would be dull if they could be mastered in a year. Learning a language takes patience, not only with the language, but with others and the self. Especially the self. Supposedly young people learn languages faster than older people, but even for them, it is not easy.

After our year in Moscow (when I was fourteen), and even in college three years later, some people called me fluent in Russian. I was not fluent. I had good pronunciation. I could read Dostoevsky without a dictionary (and with only a few lapses in understanding). I could speak confidently (albeit with mistakes) on familiar topics. But put me in an unfamiliar situation, and I might not know what to say at all. This came clear in graduate school, when I had to take a proficiency test. I reached a level that qualified me to teach the language, but the last task stumped me completely. I was given a situation: “You come home to your apartment but find that your doorknob is broken. You have to go to the neighbor to ask for some tools to fix it.” I didn’t know the words for this–or rather, I knew them, but didn’t know to use them here. A basic situation that left me speechless!

Remembering this–and this was after I had majored in Russian in college–I can forgive my level of Hungarian right now. I am making lots of progress, but there is a huge amount to learn, and I still get stumped sometimes in basic situations.

The reason is this: A language is life, history, thought, and art. It is not simply a set of words and structures, although those are essential; many other things can affect your expression and understanding. First, the more you know of the context–the background information, the situation at hand–the better you will fare. Second, in the early stages there’s a good deal of luck. A single word you don’t know, or a grammatical construction that you don’t immediately grasp, can throw you off. It takes time to get beyond that uncertain stage. Even then, there are nuances that you might miss. Third, even when you border on fluency, you make mistakes. Mistakes are part of it all; they bring out not only the differences between languages, but language complexity in general.

Isn’t this part of the reason to learn a language in the first place? To go into that immensity–not only the grammar and vocabulary, not only the countless variations, but also the literature, songs, plays, and films? These would not exist if language were a simple, compact matter. If we made no mistakes, there would be no poetry either.

Given all of this, how does one go about improving? A language, being a combination, demands one too. I have to be immersed in the language–with no one translating for me, no one stopping me from listening, listening, listening. I attend literary events and take in as much as I can. I speak the language whenever I can, with colleagues, friends, and strangers, even making mistakes, because that is how I learn. I have wonderful “language exchanges” where we meet regularly and speak first entirely in English (for the other person’s practice) and then entirely in Hungarian (for mine). I also read every day, sometimes without looking anything up, sometimes slowly, with a dictionary. I write, too, and learn songs and poems.

Systematic study is also necessary. Recently I have started a vocabulary log, since vocabulary is my main obstacle right now. I watch and listen especially for words that I hear often but don’t know, or words that I really like for some reason. I look them up and write them down(or vice versa). That helps a lot. The grammar is in better shape; I understand how much of it works and am getting more adept at using it. Hungarian grammar is thrilling; once you start using the -hoz, -ként, and other cases with ease, you can say all sorts of things. And don’t get me started on the translative case, my favorite of them all!

If someone were to ask my advice on how to learn a language, I would say: do it all. Listen, speak, read, write, sing, learn vocabulary, study the rules, take in as much literature as possible, listen to songs. Do these last two for their own sake; they will bring the language with them. Beyond all of this, don’t be afraid of the difficulty, don’t be afraid of things you don’t yet understand. And above all, don’t be afraid of mistakes.

An Early Answer to a Difficult Question

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Friends, acquaintances, and strangers in the U.S. often ask me, “How much anti-Semitism is there in Hungary today?” To answer, I would need much more knowledge than I have right now. I would need to be fluent in Hungarian to understand the many layers of conversation around me. I would need to know Hungary’s history; my knowledge right now is elementary and spotty at best. Beyond that, I would need to speak with a range of people, of different backgrounds and walks of life. Here I will try to convey (much too briefly) what I understand as of now: that Jews in Hungary have a rich and painful history, as does Hungary itself, and that my personal experiences so far have been of profound kindness.

First, for those who do not know it, a little about my ancestry. My mother is Jewish (of Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian origins); my father is not (his ancestors came from France, Norway, Ireland, Holland, and elsewhere). I consider myself fully Jewish but not only Jewish; I am heritage, experiences, education, choices, practices, languages, and the millions of things that make up a person. I was not brought up Jewish; how I came to it six years ago is a longer (and wonderful) story, possibly for a much later time. But yes, I am a Jew, by lineage and practice–not strict practice, but practice nonetheless.

From what I understand, Jews in Hungary date back at least to the Kingdom of Hungary in the Middle Ages. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Jews had assimilated into Hungarian life, occupying a range of professions and trades, attending school with non-Jews, and intermarrying. At the same time, undercurrents of anti-Semitism could erupt in violence at any time. I don’t know what drove my great-grandfather’s family to leave Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia) in 1890–but their lives may have been affected by the Tiszaeszlár Affair–the blood libel of 1882–and its repercussions.

The Hungarian Holocaust was swift and brutal, but with long antecedents. Jews and non-Jews–or many, anyway–are now grappling with what happened during those years. There are memorials, commemorations, studies, but also efforts to forget or to deflect responsibility–and bitter controversies over the way history is portrayed or apportioned. There are new beginnings, too. At Szim Salom (my synagogue in Budapest) we sometimes have newcomers who are looking into their heritage, or exploring their Judaism, for the first time; some are Holocaust survivors or children of survivors, while others may have just discovered that a parent or grandparent was Jewish.

But what about anti-Semitism today? Is it strong? I have heard varying responses to this, from Jews and non-Jews alike. I have met only one person who said anything anti-Semitic in my presence: an old man in the village of Pácin, who was standing with me under the eaves of a grocery store, waiting for the downpour to stop. He began ranting about Jews and the Holocaust until he realized I was Jewish. His theory (if I understood it correctly–this was all in Hungarian, and his speech was slurred) was that Jews didn’t really die in the Holocaust, and that Viktor Orbán was now bringing them back.

Orbán is contradictory, for that matter, as is his milieu; his anti-Soros posters have obvious anti-Semitic tropes, as do some of his anti-liberal statements. Yet he also supports Israel (in some way) and Jewish life in Budapest (in some way). Jewish life in Budapest is thriving–with about 22 active synagogues, kosher stores, Jewish festivals, Jewish schools, and more. It may be one of the safest places in Europe, or even in the world, for Jews today.

But Orbán’s policies and statements do not account for everything; there are also rules, spoken and unspoken, in workplaces and elsewhere, with long histories of their own. Some people have told me that they never bring up being Jewish, except among other Jews or others they especially trust. There is still a fear of abrupt loss, or subtle ostracism and exclusion. It is also rude, I am told, to ask people whether they are Jewish (or Roma, or any other Hungarian minority); if they are, it’s up to them to decide whom to tell. Many people keep their heritage under wraps, from what I understand.

Compared to Hungarian Jews, I am in a fairly secure position; as a foreigner, I am already different, and as a teacher of English, I am needed and appreciated. So far I have felt genuinely respected for who I am and what I do. In Szolnok as well as in Budapest, I have been open about my Jewishness, and here are some things I have seen.

My colleagues–and other adults I know–show respect for Jews and Jewish history in their words and actions. On the day of the Holocaust commemoration, two colleagues arranged for a chorus of students to sing at the main event at the gallery (the former synagogue, shown in the picture above). Another colleague told me about the Holocaust memorial run at the end of that day; we both joined the run, along with another colleague. Two more colleagues introduced me to the people in charge of the gallery so that I could discuss the possibility of holding an event there. The event took place, and it was beautiful. I have colleagues who wish me well at the time of the Jewish holidays–and the school has allowed me, every year so far, to take a day off each for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Around me I hear people discussing Judaism, Jewish writers, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and more–and the discussion is thoughtful and searching. There are people who readily admit–with shame and pain–not only to Hungary’s role in the Holocaust, but to Szolnok’s as well.

As for students, I am reluctant to repeat their words on this blog, especially on sensitive subjects–but they often bring up Jewish writers, films, and musicians, as well as Jewish history. They are curious about Judaism as well; they ask questions about it and read about it on their own. Several students cited Miklós Radnóti’s “Nem tudhatom” (“I cannot know”) as a favorite poem; one recited it from memory. I later memorized it too and recited it for one of my classes one day; a student said, “That was amazing. But do you know what it means? Do you know what it means?” I began to explain what I thought it meant, and I saw the vague nods, meaning, yes, yes, but there is much more.

Jews and non-Jews are not entirely separate or separable here; as I mentioned before, many non-Jews have someone Jewish in their family, and the synagogues–many of them now used as galleries, concert halls, libraries, museums–stand side by side with the churches. During the Holocaust, some courageous Hungarian gentiles risked their lives to save Jews; Zsuzsanna Ozsváth describes one such person in her memoir When the Danube Ran Red. In addition, Hungarians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, have suffered sieges, wars, relocations, regime changes, impoverishment; it is a lot to put together in the mind and heart. One should not relativize history–the suffering of Jews and other Holocaust victims cannot be likened to anything else–but Hungarians are familiar with trauma. An outsider comes to understand it in glimpses; a story, a saying, or even a bitter joke lets you see, for a split second, what people here have gone through.

I will not be surprised if I eventually encounter negative attitudes toward Jews, even coming from people I like. In the U.S. I have met people who are resentful of certain Jews’ money and power, or baffled by certain Orthodox practices, or critical of certain Israeli government policies. The dangerous error here–as with all prejudices–lies in turning a particular criticism, dislike, or misunderstanding into a judgment of an entire people, or even an entire person. Criticism has its place, but generalized criticism loses the very faculty of discernment and becomes tragically uncritical.

Here in Hungary people have told me, again and again, how much they appreciate my open-mindedness–and have shown me kindness and openness too. But how people treat me is just a fragment of what I want to learn and understand. The experience in a country is inevitably personal, but it can also be more–not through abandonment of the personal aspect, which is there no matter what, but through attention to things outside the self. Give me a few years. I will come back to the question that started off this piece, perhaps with more of an answer.

I took the photo of the Szolnok gallery (formerly the synagogue) on Friday.

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