On Audienceship

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Of the ways of taking part in the arts and in intellectual life, audienceship deserves far more recognition than it receives. In the classroom I continually emphasize the importance of the audience member, the one who is there to listen and watch, to love, to hate, to adore, to doubt, to remember. As audience, you are not obligated to like what you see and hear, but by taking it in, by bringing yourself to it, you give life to the performance. Yet few people describe audienceship as “creative” or even as worthy of mention.

A curious New York Times article (“Forget a Fast Car. Creativity is the New Midlife Crisis Cure” by Laura M. Holson) discusses creativity as the “cure” for “midlife crisis.” People at midlife restore meaning to their lives by taking up the paintbrush, joining creative groups, and so forth. The article seems to presume that midlife crisis is universal; that midlife marks the beginning of retirement; that a midlife crisis, when it happens, takes the same form for all; and that creativity can be pursued in the first place. I took up these assumptions in a comment–but then, after reading another comment, thought about how the article didn’t once mention or hint at audienceship. Supposedly “being creative” means taking tap dance classes, singing on stage, making collages, doing, doing, doing–but not sitting in an auditorium and taking in a performance.

But if one defines creativity as the act, process, or potential of bringing something into being that did not exist before, then audienceship has everything to do with it. Moreover, audienceship brings honor, respect, and income to existing artists, many of whom have been working at their art for years.

The commenter (“SB”) argued that the industry of dabbling–the industry that encourages people to be “creative”–resembles (or even forms part of) the industry that pushes older artists out. It is ever on the lookout either for the hot new thing or for those willing to pay for a sense that they, too, can create. I would add that this industry (or its corrupt manifestation) thrives on hypocrisy. It sends out a double message: that everyone can be an artist, and that someone removed from us, some invisible force of the market, will decide who is worthy.

Audienceship casts both of those messages into question. Yes, many actors and musicians attend concerts and plays (when they can), but by attending a performance, you acknowledge that you could not have been in it (or at least are not in it). You get to receive it instead. What a treat! And by being there in the audience, you are calling it worthy (whatever you happen to think of it). You have made time for it in your life and room for it in your mind.

Concert-going and play-going can become pretentious, if you go to earn social status. Some people must have attended Hamilton primarily to say that they had seen it. But the great thing about audienceship is that you don’t have to justify it to anyone. Except at TED and other exclusive events, you don’t have to apply to attend; all you have to do is present your ticket, and you can take your seat. You might go out of curiosity, or because you are fond of the piece or play, or because you want to see a particular performer, or because something about the description drew you in. By the time you walk out, your reasons may already have changed.

I love attending performances alone. When alone, I don’t have to talk about the performance right away (or at all), I don’t have to talk during intermission, and I can enjoy the privacy of the work. Music and theater (and dance and other arts) are at once communal and private; they reach many people at once but bring each of us out of our usual thoughts into something else, something unknown to anyone else.

People are sometimes embarrassed to love a performance–or not to love it as much as others do. What a shame! By loving it, by not loving it, you have given something to it, as long as you were there with it, not removed through your own cynicism or prefabricated praise.

I do not see midlife as a time for seeking something new to do. I have plenty to do as it is–responsibilities and commitments that I care about. But I dream of auditoriums, of those few hours face to face with someone’s invisible work, now wrapping into form. If I were to regret something far later on in life–besides various human mistakes–it would be my failure to be there, in one of those numbered seats, when the curtain rose and fell.

 

I took the photo here in Dallas last week. Also, I made a few revisions to this piece after posting it.

“I’ll deal with it upon my return”

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The recent days have been flying. I wandered around the Tiszavirág Fesztivál, went to Budapest for shul, began preparing my Dallas lectures (on Homer, Dante, and Melville), and sat on the panel of faculty administering the graduating seniors’ oral exams.

With my trip to the U.S. only four days away, I couldn’t help thinking of the Roches and their song “The Troubles” (“We’re going away to Ireland soon….”).

I first heard them live in the spring of 1982, at Toad’s Place in New Haven, at the insistence of a friend. He especially loved Maggie Roche, the one with the contralto voice. Maggie died in February 2017. Here’s a beautiful photo memorial of her with her song “Quitting Time” (a Roche favorite of mine):

It is strange to be on the brink of visiting my own country, which has been turning into something unrecognizable, though I suspect I’ll recognize it anyway. (Which is the return–the trip there or back? And what is going on over there?) Yet just as here, I see more than one tendency at once. Trump’s decision to separate detained immigrant parents from their children–and to place the children in detention centers around the U.S.–drew such strong rebuke that he had to backtrack. Not only that, but individuals and organizations are persisting in their protest and seeking ways to help the children and families. I have barely begun–I signed two petitions and made a small donation to the Florence Project–but have received a wealth of information on how to do more.

I have also read good critique of how Americans speak to each other (or not): not only how Democrats speak to Republicans and vice versa, but how people overall handle difference and discontent. After Maxine Waters called on people to harass and heckle Trump administration officials (telling them that “they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere”), many objected to her call (while others applauded her).

A few days before Waters’s speech, one of my friends and colleagues had already written a terrific post arguing that when we write others off, in political and other contexts, we harm them, ourselves, and the structures our lives. I won’t quote the piece here–I don’t think it is intended for public broadcast at this point–but I hope to return to it in the future.

Frank Bruni argues that public shaming, while viscerally satisfying, fails miserably as a strategy. “It’s possible that public shaming will have no effect on voters’ feelings and decisions, which are largely baked in by now,” he writes. “But it’s also possible that public shaming intensifies an ambient ugliness that sours more Trump skeptics than Trump adherents, who clearly made peace with ugliness a while back. And those adherents, nursing a ludicrous sense of persecution, could turn out in greater numbers this November as a result.”

I would go even further. If any of us cannot treat a human being decently–whoever that person might be–then all our protest comes to nothing. Treating a person decently does not mean kowtowing or conceding. You can disagree fervently with someone, make that disagreement known, and still retain respect. Take that respect away, and you may not find it again; it falls out of language, out of the general way of thinking. People feel more and more justified in putting others down, writing them off, describing them as “toxic,” and hiding in their own rarified views and groups.

But we have not disappeared down the toxic tunnel. Many people have been calling for greater respect in speech, whether for strategic, ethical, or existential reasons. Respect is not a formality or embellishment; it requires perceiving and listening to another person. It also requires speaking up; you show no respect if you hide what you think and want. When our own president does not set an example of respect–when he tears respect apart day after day–there is all the more reason to repair and uphold it.

“Respect” seems insufficient as a word–too pat, too easy, overused–until one looks at its root. It derives from the Latin respectus, “the act of looking back at someone”; thus it carries the connotation of thinking again, not jumping to conclusions, not presuming to know who another is. In that sense, it is indeed the right word, or one of many. I am encouraged by the renewed respect for respect itself.

I took the photo at the Tiszavirág Fesztivál. The title of the post is a quote from the Roches’ “The Troubles.” Suzzy Roche would often say it near the beginning of the song, in performances but not on the album.

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

Dances and Departures

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On Sunday the rabbi and I went to the glorious Dancing on the Square, performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra–with special guests on cymbalom and violin–and schoolchildren, Roma and non-Roma, from all over Hungary. The seating area outside Saint Stephen’s Basilica was packed; the performance filled the air with good things, from music to tolerance to joy. There will be an online broadcast tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. Central European Summer time (12:30 p.m. EST); it will be available over the following two days.

I decided, close to the last minute,  to spend the night in Budpest (at the wonderful Baross Hotel) and then, in the morning, take a day trip to Subotica, Serbia. It all worked out–a long day, but worthwhile down to the second.

Staying at the Baross (where I stayed last September,  during my preparatory visit to Hungary) allowed me to ride the glass elevator.

The train ride to Subotica took four hours; about 30 minutes were spent at the border, where “border police” boarded to check passports. I had to show my residence permit as well (because it was clear that I had been in Hungary for a while); once I showed it, the officers had no more questions.

Subotica is unlike any border city I have visited before. Not only are street signs in several languages (Serbia, Croatian, Hungarian, English), but you sense the old presence of Serbian and Hungarian cultures. Bunjevci were once a majority here. In many ways Subotica looks like a Hungarian city–but the Secessionist (Art Nouveau) architecture is especially prominent and colorful. Overall the city showed crumbling elegance: shady parks, towering churches, long terraces of cafes and shops, a famous theater, and some falling apart here and there.

 

 

I wanted to see the synagogue (which reopened in March, after a detailed restoration); having no map, I walked around in circles for a couple of hours before overhearing a couple heading to the tourist information office. I walked along with them, benefited from their sense of direction (they found the office), and received a map. From here I found the way.

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The synagogue, designed in the 1890s and built in 1902, is one of the great Art Nouveau monuments of Subotica. Outside, the Holocaust memorial reads, in five languages, “In memory of 4000 Jewish citizens with whom we lived and built Subotica. They perished in the fascist death camps during the World War II. — Citizens of Subotica, July 10, 1994.”

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After this, I headed back to the train station; the trip home took seven hours, since it involved going back to Budapest and heading from there, on a different train, to Szolnok. In the later part of the trip, the wind and mist rolled through the windows; the train grew emptier, and I thought back slowly on the day.

Is There a Human Project?

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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.

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

“Where are you, my beloved land?”

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The synagogue concerts in Szeged and Békés keep breaking past my phrases; they will not be held back by summaries. Since its inauguration in 2014, the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s synagogue project has brought music to one synagogue after another, in cities, towns, and villages across Hungary–synagogues that once thrived but that were laid bare by the Holocaust. Fiona Maddocks writes:

One is now a table-tennis hall, another a furniture warehouse. A third has been ransacked, all the windows broken, birds flying in and out during the concert. In many cases the locals had never seen inside. The doors of one had not been unlocked since last closing, during the German occupation.

By bringing music to these places, the orchestra not only revives their memory but brings people together, in the present, for something beautiful. I attended two synagogue concerts in September and two this week; as I attend more, I not only love them more, but come to understand their meanings.

Every seat was filled. It all went by too quickly, but I remember the acoustics in Szeged, where every texture could be heard, and the intimate sound in Békés (where even those in the back row were just a few meters away from the musicians).

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They played the first movement of Schubert’s Octet in F Major (D803), the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-Flat Major (Opus 20)–for four violins, two violas, and two cellos–and and Glazunov’s Rêverie orientale (which, as the clarinetist Ákos Ács commented in his introduction, has something of a klezmer feel). I think back on the subtle tones and changes of the Schubert; the cellos in the Mendelssohn; the dialogue between cello and clarinet, and then viola and clarinet, in the Glazunov; and then the laughing, crying, dancing, shrieking klezmer music that took us to the end. 

Between the pieces, a rabbi (a different one each time) spoke about synagogues in general and about the history of Jews in the particular place. In Szeged, someone else spoke as well–perhaps the person in charge of the performance space. Then Ákos Ács led the exhilarating klezmer encores–one encore in Szeged, two in Békés. He then invited us all to stay for cake; people lingered and talked and then slowly went their different ways.

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The Szeged synagogue is now a performance space; the Békés synagogue, a plum pálinka center. Each place shows its loss: the first through its bareness and the second through its refurbishment.  Upstairs in the pálinka center, the bar counter has two menorahs (you can see one of them in the photo above); are they always there, or were they put there in honor of the concert? A few minutes in these places, and you can get overwhelmed; the history is so difficult that even the brave might walk away.

These concerts make it possible to sit still here, or somewhat still–to sit with some knowledge of what happened, but more than knowledge alone. The music does something to us; we live through something together and know it when we look around afterward. We are no longer separated. Maybe we will be tomorrow, but we will still remember being here. We will remember the musicians’ gifts to us.

I biked through beautiful Békés, stopping when I saw or heard something I couldn’t ignore: the river, farmhouses, the sunset. Here’s a chicken strutting across a roof, with farm sounds in the background.

And here is a field–not a bad end to the day.

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I later learned that for the first movement of the Octet, Schubert adapted a theme from his lied “Der Wanderer” (whose words are from a poem by Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck). I had to listen to both compositions several times to figure out which theme this was, but think I found it at last. In the first movement of the Octet, it is the main theme of the Allegro. In “Der Wanderer,” it is the piano part during these lyrics:

Wo bist du, mein geliebtes Land?
Gesucht, geahnt, und nie gekannt!
Das Land, das Land so hoffnungsgrün,
Das Land, wo meine Rosen blühn.

Where are you, my beloved land?
Sought for, dreamed of, but never known!
The land, the land, so green of hope,
The land where my roses bloom.

So even the bike ride was not remote from the music.

Biking from Békéscsaba to Békés and Back

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Tonight, with time and a keyboard, I will say something about the Budapest Festival Orchestra concerts in Szeged and Békés. The trip to Békés could not have gone better; as I had planned, I took the bike on the train to Békéscsaba—a colorful little city in southeastern Hungary—and then found a bike path that transported me to Békés. Sweeping me through groves and fields, it landed me in the center; I wended my way to the synagogue—now the town’s Szilvapálinka Centrum—and arrived about ten minutes early. The photo above is from the ride back to Békéscsaba; the one below, from the ride to Békés. The music cannot be summed up in a flash; “glorious” and “moving” won’t do, although they are true. I look forward to looking for better words later today.

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From Szolnok to Szeged to Szolnok to Békés and Back

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Last night’s chamber concert by members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, at Szeged’s Old Synagogue (now a performance space), had such clear, rich acoustics that I imagined the sounds of the services there long ago. It was as if old sounds were rising up into the new. I have more to say about this event but will wait until after tonight’s synagogue concert in Békés. I am on the train back to Szolnok (from Szeged) now; this afternoon, after school, I will take the bike on the train to Békéscsaba, bike from there to Békés, attend the concert, bike back to Békéscsaba, spend the night there, and return to Szolnok in the morning. When such things are possible, and when they bring joy and learning, why not do them? They will not always be possible, so I am grateful for these days.

Music of Fire and Water

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Yesterday, after a wonderful lunch with friends from New York City and their cousin, I went to hear a Baroque concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra with guest conductor Jordi Savall. I think this was my first time walking down the leafy Liszt Ferenc tér; it was certainly my first time at the Zeneakadémia Koncertközpont. But those were minor firsts, relatively speaking; when it came to the music, I was in for surprises of soul.

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Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4 sounded fresh and alive; I was immediately caught up in it. Then came Rameau’s Les Boréades Suite, which opened up the imagination in new ways. I think I have listened to it before, but not in a long time; my favorite movement was the Contredanse en rondeau, strange and gracious at once. Here’s my favorite of the performances I found online–by Les Ambassadeurs, conducted by Alexis Kossenko–but Savall and the Budapest Festival Orchestra captured something different.

That is what happens in a concert: you become part of a special instantiation of a piece. I was sitting all the way on the left, in the fourth row; this gave me a perfect view of the French horn section (they were playing Baroque horns, I think).

Then Muffat’s Impatientia Suite was sweet perfection: seven movements in about ten minutes. I think the third movement (Canaries) was my favorite, but it’s hard to tell now; each one proceeded like a raindrop on a string. In the last piece of the program, Händel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, the woodwinds took the concert to still another level of beauty in the first Menuet at the end. Here’s a gorgeous performance by The Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Christopher Hogwood–but again, it doesn’t sound quite like what I heard yesterday.

Then came three encores! For the first, the orchestra played the first suite of Händel’s Water Music; for the second, the last movement of the Rameau, the Contredanse très vive, with audience participation. Then, for the last one, I think it was the Gavotte I that they played (in honor of the ticking clock). I made it to the train just in time–a hot train, with no open windows, but with a view of rain and crepuscular rays. Fire and water: a fitting end to the day.

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I took the top photo from the train and the second when walking home from the train station and looking back westward.

Biking in Serbia (Almost)

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Yesterday, just before returning to Szolnok from Budapest, I thought of taking a train to another country, just for the day. It was too late in the day for that, so I decided to take the bike to Szeged the following morning (today) and bike down to Serbia from there.

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Well, biking to Serbia isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. First, there was a big street festival in Szeged, so I had some trouble figuring out which road to take. I didn’t want to ask, in the midst of these festivities, “How do I get to Serbia?” So I listened to a delightful musical duo–on the Belvárosi bridge–and then tried to wend my way south. (Here’s a short video I recorded.)

There are few border crossings; you have to know where they are. I biked for several hours down a dirt road right along the border–with the Tisza and Serbia to my left, and Hungary to my right–but saw no roads going into Serbia. A couple of times I followed a path in the Serbian direction, but the first one led to the Tisza (and no further), and the second led into a dense wood.

 

A police car came my way; the policemen told me that I was essentially biking on the border between the two countries. I asked them if this was permitted; they said yes. So I continued on, only to reach a dead end eventually. (That was where I turned onto the path that led to the Tisza; that’s Serbia across the river.) On my way back, I saw the policemen again; we waved at each other.

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Although I didn’t make it into Serbia, I could not have wished for a more glorious bike ride. I saw many storks, a spotted deer, a hare, horses, and sheep. I undulated through dirt and mud. Clouds started to tower in the sky, but not a raindrop splattered my way (or even in my vicinity).

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When I returned to Szeged, I discovered the route to Beograd–one of two ways to get to Serbia from the city. Next time I will know what to do; by the time I figured all this out, it was mid-afternoon, and I didn’t want to stretch the day too far. I watched a folk dance performance for a few minutes and then headed back to the train station.

In a week I will return to Szeged for a synagogue concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Later in June, I hope to try the Serbia trip again.

Image and video credits: The map is from Google Maps; I took all the other pictures and videos today.

Update: I am not the only person who found the border crossing tricky.

“If I should say I have hope”

amos211Most of the time I do not know the full meaning of what I and others do and say. These actions and words have many rungs; even at my strongest, I climb only a few. The Book of Ruth has something to do with these levels.

Shavuot involved many preparations. People brought food, flowers, and more; they helped with setup, cleanup, and details of the service. I prepared to lead a study session and two services (Kabbalat Shabbat and Shavuot). The Shavuot service included a Hallel (with many melodies, including Shlomo Carlebach’s “Ma Ashiv“), the Aseret haDibrot (Ten Commandments), and the first chapter of Ruth. So I was studying and practicing up to the last minute.

When preparing to chant Ruth, I came to understand Naomi’s words in new ways. She pours out grief and despair but also, without knowing it, keeps hinting toward hope.

She loses first her husband, then, about a decade later, her two sons; on the way back from the fields of Moab (where they had been living) to Bethlehem, her home, she urges her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, to go back to their mothers’ homes, since there is nothing for them here.

ח  וַתֹּאמֶר נָעֳמִי, לִשְׁתֵּי כַלֹּתֶיהָ, לֵכְנָה שֹּׁבְנָה, אִשָּׁה לְבֵית אִמָּהּ; יעשה (יַעַשׂ) יְהוָה עִמָּכֶם חֶסֶד, כַּאֲשֶׁר עֲשִׂיתֶם עִם-הַמֵּתִים וְעִמָּדִי. 8 And Naomi said unto her two daughters-in-law: ‘Go, return each of you to her mother’s house; the LORD deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me.
ט  יִתֵּן יְהוָה, לָכֶם, וּמְצֶאןָ מְנוּחָה, אִשָּׁה בֵּית אִישָׁהּ; וַתִּשַּׁק לָהֶן, וַתִּשֶּׂאנָה קוֹלָן וַתִּבְכֶּינָה. 9 The LORD grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband.’ Then she kissed them; and they lifted up their voice, and wept.

 
She probably does not understand, as she speaks, that her words can be heard in more than one way. Orpah hears the literal meaning of “mother’s house” and eventually obeys Naomi’s command. Ruth perhaps hears the words differently; perhaps she sees Naomi as her mother–not the mother who gave her birth, but her mother in adulthood. She insists on staying. So, both Orpah and Ruth obey Naomi, but at different levels of her words.

Before Orpah and Ruth part ways, Naomi continues to make her case (in verses 11-13). “Turn back, my daughters, go your way,” she says, “for I am too old to have a husband.” And then: “If I should say: I have hope, should I even have an husband to-night, and also bear sons; would ye tarry for them till they were grown? would ye shut yourselves off for them and have no husbands? nay, my daughters; for it grieveth me much for your sakes, for the hand of the LORD is gone forth against me.”

“I am too old to have a husband” (“ki zakanti mihyot le’ish”)–those words immediately bring to mind Sarah’s words–and especially God’s paraphrase of them (“Ha’af umnam eled, va’ani zakanti”)–in Genesis 18:12-13. Through this echo, Naomi suggests unwittingly that she might have a second husband (and a child) yet; in the second part of the verse, her hint grows even stronger, “If I should say: I have hope….” We know from the last chapter that she will have another child–not her own, but Ruth’s, whom she will nurse.

Naomi’s words may also carry a trace of Psalm 37, verse 25, (“I have been young, and now am old [na’ar hayiti–gam zakanti]; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread”). This allusion seems likely especially given the importance of Bethlehem, the “house of bread,” in the first chapter, and given Naomi’s very gesture (mentioned in Ruth 1:6) of returning to Bethlehem because she had heard “that the LORD had remembered His people in giving them bread.”

Her words of despair in verse 13–“ki yatz’a vi yad [Hashem]” (“for the hand of the Lord has gone out [to/for/against] me”)–suggest a direct relation with God, not a state of abandonment. In her grief she feels God physically touching her. It is these relations between two–between Naomi and God, between Naomi and Ruth, between Ruth and Boaz–that bring forth unexpected joy.

In this sense, Ruth’s words bring out hidden meanings of Naomi’s own:

טו  וַתֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה שָׁבָה יְבִמְתֵּךְ, אֶל-עַמָּהּ, וְאֶל-אֱלֹהֶיהָ; שׁוּבִי, אַחֲרֵי יְבִמְתֵּךְ. 15 And she said: ‘Behold, thy sister-in-law is gone back unto her people, and unto her god; return thou after thy sister-in-law.’
טז  וַתֹּאמֶר רוּת אַל-תִּפְגְּעִי-בִי, לְעָזְבֵךְ לָשׁוּב מֵאַחֲרָיִךְ:  כִּי אֶל-אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ, וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין–עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי, וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי. 16 And Ruth said: ‘Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God;
יז  בַּאֲשֶׁר תָּמוּתִי אָמוּת, וְשָׁם אֶקָּבֵר; כֹּה יַעֲשֶׂה יְהוָה לִי, וְכֹה יוֹסִיף–כִּי הַמָּוֶת, יַפְרִיד בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵךְ. 17 where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.’

 
Naomi says, essentially: “Do what your sister-in-law is doing: return to your people and your god.” Ruth replies with both a “no” and a “yes”; she asks Naomi to stop entreating her to leave, but then explains that Naomi’s home will be her home; Naomi’s people, her people; and Naomi’s god, her god. In other words, she is returning home, just as Naomi begged her to do; she is joining with Naomi so that the two will  be one.

Now the two proceed to Bethlehem, where all the city take notice of them, and the women ask, “Is this Naomi?”

Here Naomi invokes a Biblical motif of renaming; she asks them to call her not Naomi, but Marah, since the Lord has dealt bitterly with her. This request carries hubris–who is she to rename herself?–but also a recognition. To my knowledge, renamings happen only three times in the Torah: in Genesis 17, when God tells Abram that he will henceforth be Abraham and that Sarai will be Sarah; and in Genesis 32, after Jacob wrestles with God all night long, and God tells him that his name from now on will be Israel. In asking for a renaming, Naomi senses not only the presence of God but the catastrophe of the moment (“catastrophe” not only in the sense of “terrible occurrence” but also in the sense of “overturning”). The renaming does not occur, but the overturning does. A new life begins to form, but not as she imagined it.

Thus Naomi does not hear the full meaning of her own words; they hold more than she can know in the moment. Some might dismiss her as a complainer, as a bitter old woman, but in Hebrew her words break  the heart: “Al b’notai,” “no, my daughters.” She carries not only grief, not only hidden hope, but tenderness. I imagine her magnificence and courage. Ruth recognizes something in her; so do the people who have not seen her in years.

In the Shavuot service, as I have done before, I brought into the liturgy the melody of “Szól a kakas már” (“The Rooster is Already Calling”)–following the example of Rabbi Ariel Pollak, who leads services at Szim Salom about once a month.

This is no ordinary song. The lyrics are in Hungarian and Hebrew. According to legend, the first Kaliver Rebbe, Yitzchak Isaac Taub (1751-1821), learned and purchased it from a shepherd, who, after teaching it to him, forgot it completely. The Rebbe (once a shepherd himself) would often walk among the shepherds and learn songs from them. Because of its Messianic longing and grief, the song later came to be associated with the Holocaust. Still it goes beyond time and place. Once you have heard it, it goes where you go.

Here’s a beautiful rendition by Zalán Lehner (listen also to Márta Sebestyén and read some history and commentary).

I sang the melody only briefly; after I stopped, I could hear people still humming it. The humming lingered, turning thinner and thinner. Then it disappeared into the quiet.

I have known this for some time, but now I understood it more fully: to lead a service, you listen to it. You hear and carry what it already holds: the day and its meaning, the cadences of the text, the dimensions of the words, the people in the room, the person in front of, behind, or beside you, the hope in Naomi’s cries, the thing you awkwardly call faith (when you call it anything), and histories, melodies, losses, yearnings that go so far beyond you, on all sides, that all you can do is walk along and learn.


Art credit: Hajnalvárás (Waiting for Dawn) by Imre Ámos (1907-1945). Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The quotations from Ruth are courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website. The interpretations are my own, but I imagine that many others have made similar points.

I have recorded Ruth 1:11-13 so that anyone interested can listen to these verses.

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