“And wet snow, and music, and nothing ever”

Poetry has been filling the week. This morning I recorded and submitted an entry–“Six Poems About Endings”–for The Missouri Review’s Miller Audio Prize. Today is the commemoration of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, so we have no school. (Boldog forradalom napot!) It also seems to be Home Repair Day; I heard sawing and hammering for a good two hours in the morning. After that, I was able to record and re-record for an hour or so. Then a neighbor’s stereo started to thump.

Speaking of interludes, my ninth-grade students finished A Midsummer Night’s Dream this week. Here is the Wall performing her monologue (“In this same interlude it doth befall / That I, one Snout by name, present a wall; / And such a wall, as I would have you think,  / That had in it a crannied hole or chink ….”).

midsummer final scene

The previous evening, at our school’s biennial gala performance of music, poetry, theater, and dance, a student from this same class recited János Arany’s poem “Él-e még az Isten?” which I hope to learn over time. There were many beautiful  performances that evening: Hungarian folk dancing and folk songs, classical guitar, rock bands, an brass band, improv comedy, and more.

Late this afternoon I watched a delightful twenty-minute film of Tomas Venclova reciting six of his poems and speaking in English about his work. As he recites his poems in Lithuanian, the screen shows English translations–two by me and four by Ellen Hinsey.

One of the poems ends, in English translation, “And wet snow, and music, and nothing ever.” (Hence the title of this post.)

What holds this all together is the blackbird at the top, not quite at the center, but not far from it either. I took the photo this afternoon when searching for a celebration that had ended two hours earlier. After some walking around–not in wet snow, but in wetter rain–with an enthusiastic neighbor, I came home to the quiet, which now was complete except for stray voices and footsteps.

Quiet doesn’t require completion; it thrives on slight imperfection. It isn’t total absence of sound that makes quiet; rather, it’s a wrapping into rest.


(Photograph by Endre Szabó.)

This morning, before five, I heard a bird song I had never heard before, or at least never noticed. I opened up the balcony door to hear more; the cats stepped outside and looked intently through the opening. The melody was slightly arpeggio-like; the sequence almost always ended in a high-pitched whistle, but no two phrases were identical. I recorded about thirty seconds of it (unfortunately there’s a machine noise too). When I played it back, I could hear the recording against the actual singing, which went on and on. For a long time I still heard it, until other sounds drowned it out.

I didn’t recognize the song, so I listened to various recordings. I believe that it may have come from a feketerigó (sometimes spelled as two words)–that is, a “black thrush,” known in English as a “common blackbird” or “Eurasian blackbird,” a species of true thrush. If so, then I might not have heard it before.

I thought about what it meant to hear this bird for the first time. Now there’s another reason to open the balcony door early in the morning.

I also thought back on an opinion piece I wrote eight years ago about teaching Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush.” I objected (and still object) to the overemphasis on objectives and strategies in schools. I argued for going right into the poem, posing questions along the way. I hold to almost all of this; I would adjust the questions and observations but would teach the poem more or less the way I described. I revise one thing I said, though. At the time, I believed that students did not need to see any pictures or hear any sounds before reading the poem;  the poem would speak for itself. Now I think differently.

There is a difference between knowing the sound of a thrush and not knowing it. It isn’t just any bird song. It stops you in your tracks. If you know the sound, or one of the sounds, then the word “thrush” will bring those sounds to mind. If you don’t, then it won’t. Hardy knew the sound and expected his readers to know it too. Today I would play not just one, but several recordings of thrushes; I would encourage students to listen for them, if they lived near any.

How much a word can hold. Thrush, blackbird, feketerigó–these are just words for birds, until they become words for sounds, and beyond that, for the the encounter with the sounds, since any word, heard in its fullness, holds an encounter, except for those words that dismiss and disparage encounter, that reduce language itself. I have thought recently about how we live in a war of words–but it’s not just a battle of simplistic language against subtle language, or of crass words against noble ones. Anyone, no matter how rich in vocabulary, must stay alert to language in order to use it well. The “war” is against the forces, internal and external, that dull the alertness, that make language rushed or sluggish; imitative or solipsistic; crammed or empty; abusive or noncommittal. To use language well, you must seek not just words, but their histories, structures, and rhythms; both within and without you must seek them.

There is something to be learned from a bird. I mean this not in a naive or silly way. I don’t mean that we should go around imitating them, or that they hold any life solutions. I mean only that a birdsong can change a life slightly; you hear it, and from then on you listen for it (and reject those things that would not have let you listen before). Through the casting off, waiting, searching, and listening, you find your way into form.

The photograph of the blackbird looking in the mirror is by Endre Szabó. The video is by Liza Bakos.

A Street with Gold in It


The Hungarian word aranyos means both “cute, dear, charming” and “golden” (or, more precisely, “having or containing gold”).* Here, on the street sign, it probably has the latter meaning, but with the cat perched on top of the post, it switches back to the first. I was thrilled to take the picture at that exact moment. The cat jumped down immediately afterward.

According to Miles Lambert-Gócs, author of Tokaji Wine: Fame, Fate, Tradition, several historical Tokaj vineyards had the word aranyos in their names, “whether as a euphemism for quality; or an allusion to sunny exposure; or even a suggestion of the old Hegyalja myths about vines containing gold.”

So here we have a street containing gold; at any moment, something beautiful can occur, a fleck in the air.

Speaking of authors, I sent my book manuscript to the editor just before 8 p.m. on Thursday evening. I should be hearing about a title soon; I have made several suggestions and will see what the editor and board choose.

My Purim was quiet–because I had no way of making it to Budapest on Wednesday evening, I celebrated at home by chanting Chapters 7 and 8 of the Megillat Esther. I now have much to prepare for next Shabbat–melodies, instruments (guitar and recorder), transitions, texts, and trope (which should really be spelled trop).

It is exciting to finish a stage of a long project (in this case, the book) and emerge from the den of the mind. I think the Mole in The Wind and the Willows:

It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said ‘Bother!’ and ‘O blow!’ and also ‘Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gavelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

Out in the air, I find people playing in the snow and ice, frolicking over the most recent Arctic burst. The other day I saw two kids breaking ice in the river so that they could watch it float downstream.


Snowmen and snowwomen stand staunch and proud:


It isn’t just that people look for ways to cheer themselves up in cold weather. Snow by its nature invites play; you can frolic in it, make things out of it, playfight with it, make angels in it, sled or ski through it, and enjoy the sound of it crunching under your feet. Snow is never far from water and ice; when out in the snow, you may hear ice breaking and water dripping. The seasons hint at each other.

Work and play speak to each other; one without the other grows wan. In the density of my deadline crunch, I found little jokes; walking around outside, I get ideas for the classroom and for writing. Certain kinds of play (including music, acting, and sports) require intensive work; they are recreation in a profound sense of the word. That is, through learning and performing something, you create it all over again. But even everyday errands (a walk to the store, for instance) can scintillate the air.

That is where the gold can be found: in the work and recreation, in the walking down a street, in the ear for things melting and creaking.


*Aranyos is not to be confused with arányos, “proportional, well-proportioned.” It appears that the “golden ratio” is sometimes called az arany arány.

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

Phases and Counterpoints


Popular psychology often describes human life in terms of stages: the five stages of grief, the four stages of culture shock, and so on. Such formulations are simplistic and untrue, except as general templates. Our lives cannot be chunked; we may go through phases, but they blend and combine and sometimes appear out of order.

Still there are reasons to mark points in time, to honor life events, whether of the past, present, or future, whether our own or someone else’s. The point is not to dictate joy and sorrow but rather to create a counterpoint. My own thoughts and feelings do not disappear during a ritual, but I hear them alongside something else; in this way they turn into something new. Ritualized mourning will not match my own mourning, nor ritualized celebration my own joy; so the ritual lifts me both out of and into myself.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that one can think of Jewish ritual as “the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.” He notes that the first time that the word qadosh, “holy,” is used in the Bible, it is applied to the seventh day–that is, to time. Shabbat is art and architecture of time in that we ourselves shape it. It is artifice in the best sense of the word; it comes out of intention and imagination.

Jews vary widely in our observance of Shabbat. Many do not observe it at all, many observe it strictly, and many do something in between (or change over time). Differences aside, even an awareness of this day can affect how we go about our lives. It contrasts with our everyday timing, urges, and impulses. Moreover, it is we who have to build it; it has been observed and described for centuries, but we contribute to its structure, not just once, but again and again. We lay down a block or beam; we set a window.

Something similar can be said for other holidays (inside and outside of Judaism). They are ways of honoring and structuring time: not our personal time, but the time of a larger entity.

This Friday and Saturday, as Szim Salom, we celebrated Shabbat Shira, the special Shabbat that includes the Shirat Hayam (the Song of the Sea) in the Torah reading. Shabbat Shira takes place once a year. Traditions vary from place to place, but it is common for the entire congregation to rise for the Song of the Sea and to sing certain verses responsively.

In the cantillation course I took at JTS last year–taught by the wonderful Cantor Perry Fine–we devoted much time to the Song of the Sea because of its importance and complexity. The leader must know how to alternate between regular Torah trope and the responsive melody; moreover, he or she must be steeped in the text, capable of giving it cadence and tone.

800px-Song_of_the_seaFor this responsive reading at Szim Salom yesterday, we made many preparations; on Friday night, after service, we went over the melody and verses; the rabbi spoke about the significance of the responsive verses and their difference from the rest of the text. On Saturday morning, we invited everyone to come up to the scroll to see the Shirat Hayam, which has a different layout from the rest of the text. Before beginning the Torah reading, we reviewed the melody and verses again. From there, things swelled; the reading was truly responsive and joyous. It is not for description here; it happened there and is now wrapped up in memory.

Shirat Hayam (in Chapter 15 of Exodus) tells how Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, which parted left and right for them, and how Pharaoh’s horses, riders, chariots, and captains perished in the waves. While most of the text relates a succession of events, the responsive verses have a sound of eternity. They are part of Jewish (and sometimes Christian) regular liturgy, hymns, and piyutim; people readily recognize verse 15:11, “Who is like unto Thee, O LORD, among the mighty? who is like unto Thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” and 15:18, “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.”

In this way, right there in the Shirat Hayam, you feel the counterpoint of timelessness and time: a song rising up out of a tale, or a ritual out of history.

As I thought about this, before and afterward, I remembered Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (“That is no country for old men. The young…”) I started thinking about some lines that I had not given as much attention before. When I think of the poem, I usually remember the second stanza first of all:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

All of this I thought I understood. But just a little later, at the end of the third stanza, a phrase takes me by surprise: “the artifice of eternity.”

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

This is supposed to be strange, I think; it goes against notions that eternity just happens. Eternity is created, magnificently created; it opposes nature, which “is begotten, born, and dies.” The speaker yearns to become artistic form and creation; the fourth stanza begins,

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,

“Once out of nature”–this phrase is peculiar too. What does it mean? Perhaps “released from the phases of life,” released from the body and its decay. Once out of nature, I will take a new kind of form, the speaker suggests, and it will not be “from any natural thing.” But there are still more surprises to come:

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

There is a lot to say about the repetition of “gold” (“goldsmiths,” “hammered gold,” “gold enamelling” and “golden”) and the sardonic “keep a drowsy Emperor awake.” But it is the ending that catches my thoughts: “Or set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” How is it that the golden form, “out of nature,” sings of time and passing, “Of what is past, or passing, or to come”? It is the singing that sets it apart; to sing of time is to gather it up.

This singing is not only external; it involves studying “monuments of its [tjat is, the soul’s] own magnificence.” Here, to study is to sing; through study you rise up into form. This poem invites its own study; it seems easy to understand but keeps startling you (as though you were a drowsy emperor). It draws you into a continuous puzzle that, with each solution, brings new meanings to the whole. Its iambic pentameter (with aberrations) both lulls and wakes the ear; the stresses and counter-stresses make the song.

That’s only the beginning, though; if you read the poem along with its companion, “Byzantium,” you understand it in still more lights and tones.

So it is with the phases of life; they exist not on their own, or even in combination with each other, but in counterpoint with the things we read and sing, the time we honor, the words we slowly come to understand.

Dave Pearson, Sailing to Byzantium (gouache and ink)

Dave Pearson’s Sailing to Byzantium is part of his Byzantium series.

The image of the Shirat Hayam in a Torah scroll is borrowed from Wikipedia. As for the photo at the top, I took it last week on my way to school. The gold behind the trees looks like a sea or a lake, but it isn’t. That morning, there was a straight cloud line that hung low over the horizon; where the cloud line ended, the sun’s rays spread. A few minutes later, this sea of gold vanished, as the sun rose up past the line, into the clouds.

There was a problem with the formatting of this post; it is now fixed.

The Dare of Beauty


Over the centuries, many have claimed that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (or something similar), but this formulation seems simplistic. If beauty exists only in the viewer, then it has no ability to bring people together, except haphazardly or by persuasion. But beauty does bring people together, and while it can’t always be explained, it has some principles and paragons.

I find the above picture beautiful: not only the only the shapes of the branches, not only the snow, not only the curves of the river against the line of the wall, but the adult pulling the child in a sled, an accident of timing, since a few seconds earlier they were hidden behind the tree to the right. There was also surprise here; before opening the curtains, I thought, “Today I’ll go out on a long bike ride.” Then, when I saw this scene, I reconsidered and took two photos instead.

A scene can change in seconds from humdrum to songworthy. When crossing the river recently, I saw, from a certain angle, a string of lights reflected in the water; when I took a few more steps over the bridge, these reflections disappeared from view. So I backtracked a little and found the reflections again.


Beauty comes through at certain angles and times. That doesn’t make it transient; once you find beauty in something, you can find it again. Sometimes–for instance, in a favorite literary work or musical recording–you find it every time you return to it. But even then, it demands your alertness–maybe even more, the better you know it.

Alexander Nehamas writes in Only a Promise of Happiness (2007) that “beautiful things don’t stand aloof, but direct our attention and our desire to everything else we must learn or acquire in order to understand and possess, and they quicken the sense of life, giving it new shape and direction.” Some might take this to subordinate beauty to purpose–beauty is important because it gives shape to our lives–but I see it in reverse: beauty demands that I live up to the seeing. Being an audience member is no easy task; it does not stop when the performers take their last bow. I am responsible for everything I have seen.

Perceivers of beauty cannot be dismissed as naive dreamers or timid escapists; they know (sometimes painfully) what this perception requires of them. Whenever you find something beautiful–be it a film, place, or person–someone else is sure to deride it. How do you respond? Stubbornness will not do; if your defense is too brittle, it cracks. Capitulating is no better; you can’t let others dictate what you see, since there would then be no point in seeing at all. Instead, you must be able to hear others while holding your ground. In this way, the beauty draws you into counterpoint; you hear and see more than one thing at once (and more than you did before).

Someone looking at the picture above might say, “Yes, but look at those ugly apartment buildings.” Yes, the apartment buildings look drab (from the outside), but they seem to answer the trees. The same can be said for the picture below, in which people are gathering with sleds. The high-rise has added some lights of its own to the string.


To honor those amazements, while also learning and changing: that is the dare of beauty. Not everyone will see beauty in everything, but our glimpses go beyond the personal. They add something to human capacity. There are poems, stories, plays, songs I remember not only for themselves, but for the way they were introduced to me. There are people I remember not just for their stories and jokes, not just for their kind or mixed deeds, but for the things they pointed out.


I made a minor change to this piece after posting it.


“Hold on there, Evangeline”


This photo I took yesterday of tracks in the Szolnok snow (on the Zagyva promenade) reminded me of Mark Twain’s Whittier Birthday Dinner Speech, delivered on John Greenleaf Whittier’s seventieth birthday, at the Hotel Brunswick, Boston, on December 17, 1877—that is, 140 years and a week ago. I hadn’t read it since high school, but I remembered how Twain mocked Longfellow. The speech is a story within a story. It begins with Twain tramping through the southern mines of California and then resolving “to try the virtues” of his “nom de guerre,” that is, his pen name. He knocks on the door of a miner, who, after letting him in and feeding him, reports dejectedly that he is “the fourth”—that he just hosted three “littery men” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) the previous evening. The miner proceeds to tell Twain what a difficult lot they were; toward the end of his deluge, he comes to this:

“They were pretty how-come-you-so by now, and they begun to blow. Emerson says, ‘The nobbiest thing I ever wrote was ” Barbara Frietchie.”‘ Says Longfellow, ‘It don’t begin with my “Biglow Papers.”‘ Says Holmes, ‘My “Thanatopsis” lays over ’em both.’ They mighty near ended in a fight. Then they wished they had some more company — and Mr. Emerson pointed to me and says:

“‘Is yonder squalid peasant all
That this proud nursery could breed?’

He was a-whetting his bowie on his boot — so I let it pass. Well, sir, next they took it into their heads that they would like some music; so they made me stand up and sing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” till I dropped — at thirteen minutes past four this morning. That’s what I’ve been through, my friend. When I woke at seven, they were leaving, thank goodness, and Mr. Longfellow had my only boots on, and his’n under his arm. Says I, ‘Hold on, there, Evangeline, what are you going to do with them?’ He says, ‘Going to make tracks with ’em; because:

“‘Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime;
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.’

As I said, Mr. Twain, you are the fourth in twenty-four hours — and I’m going to move; I ain’t suited to a littery atmosphere.”

The whole speech is pugnacious and funny, but the newspapers reported it as an “attack.” Longfellow then replied in Twain’s defense, stating that everyone present understood the speech as humorous and that the newspapers themselves had caused the “mischief.” That’s sublime, in my view: to take such mockery in good spirit and even speak up for the lampooner.

I think about that kind of goodwill and how it can’t be taken for granted. It comes not  only from individuals but from ways of thinking and living.

At school, the calendar year of 2017 ended with an abundance of goodwill. Friday was filled with treats and caroling. Here are the videos of the eleventh-graders’ first caroling visit of the day. (They went from classroom to classroom all day long and performed for the teachers as well.)

I end with three photos from Thursday and Friday: one of a funny student skit (the scene took place in a restaurant and involved the flashing of credit cards), one of the students rehearsing the carols, one of me in the classroom, and one of the eleventh-graders in the hallway before their first caroling visit. Reverence and irreverence combined to make this a day that will leave tracks in the snows and staves of time. Boldog Karácsonyt, Kellemes Új Évet, és Kellemes téli szünetet!

Singing in Szolnok

I begin with these pictures of mist because this is how the day began. I walked along the frosted bank of the Zagyva and kept stopping to look at the inscrutable river. I think that set the stage, so to speak, for some good listening.

The day proceeded with rehearsals, lessons, a movie (I showed my students Citizen Kane), and cheer. Then we had a Christmas concert in the evening–mostly by students, but also involving faculty. It was a profoundly lovely performance, with joyous musicians (mainly students, but also teachers in two of the pieces); music ranging from classical and sacred pieces to Hungarian folk songs to modern compositions; and a hushed and eager audience, some leaning over the balcony for better sight and sound.

Eight teachers (including our director and our accompanist) performed “Hymne à la nuit.” A kind colleague made a video. My solo begins just after the two-minute mark. I’ll eventually figure out how to fix the rotation of that later part; to see the whole video rotated, go here.

It was beautiful to be in this concert with colleagues and students–to have so much to listen to while being part of two songs. (The other one we sang was Pachelbel’s Canon; there we joined the students.) I have many more thoughts but am in need of sleep, so I’ll let silence have a turn. Here’s a photo I took during dress rehearsal.


Update: Here’s a closer view and recording of the same performance.

“Le calme enchantement de ton mystère”


This evening, at the Református Templom (Reformed Church) in Szolnok, students and teachers (including me) will be giving a little concert. I was assigned the solo for Joseph Noyon’s Hymne à la nuit, based on a theme from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera Hippolyte et Aricie. I will see whether someone can make a video during rehearsal today; if that works out, I’ll post the video. We have rehearsed daily during breaks between classes. Music dissolves language barriers; during rehearsal, we all understood what we were supposed to do and shared the thrill when we improved. It has been wonderful to prepare these pieces with my colleagues, under the direction of the music teacher, who leads us so generously and well.

Here are the lyrics (by Édouard Sciortino):

Ô Nuit ! Viens apporter à la terre
Le calme enchantement de ton mystère.
L’ombre qui t’escorte est si douce,
Si doux est le concert de tes voix
Chantant l’espérance,
Si grand est ton pouvoir transformant tout en rêve heureux.

Ô Nuit ! Ô laisse encore à la terre
Le calme enchantement de ton mystère.
L’ombre qui t’escorte est si douce,
Est-il une beauté aussi belle que le rêve?
Est-il de vérité plus douce que l’espérance?

There are additional lyrics, but these are the ones we sing. The second stanza is the solo.


I love the willow trees here, especially at night when they pick up the glow from the lights around. This one (not the same as the one in the first picture) has a swing.

Today’s the last day of Hanukkah, so yesterday evening I lit all the candles. Last weekend, in Budapest, I taught Hanukkah songs, led Kabbalat Shabbat service for the first time ever, in a big hall with many people, and then, the next morning, led a cozy Shacharit service, read Torah, and commented on the relation between trope and meaning. All this together was slightly too much but a good plunge; now I have time to learn my way into the role.  The details and subtleties take time. But that’s what draws me; the davening opens up slowly, adding candle to candle, color to color, word to velvet, secret to sound.


“But not to call me back or say good-bye”

My nighttime pictures rarely come out well, but here are three that I like. The first one shows the branches’ reflections and brings to mind Robert Frost’s poem, which I have read many times but now reread (“re-reed” and “re-red,” present and immediate past) in awe. Hence the title of this post.

The second is mostly shadow, but it led me somehow to Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” I am not sure how that happened, but I’m glad.


The third, taken on Klauzál utca in Budapest, brings to mind Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song,” or maybe it’s just that I want to remember that song (and Cohen, who died just over a year ago).


These are not exact matches, just associations; the night is limber in that way, bringing things together with ease and by surprise. It has been a full and rich weekend, with Hanukkah, songs, celebration, services, Torah, and more, so today I reveled in a bit of slowness, worked on the book, and took an evening walk. That led to photos, which led to poems and songs, which led to evening daydreams, which in turn will lead to sleep.

“But I have promises to keep”


Today the first December snow fell on Szolnok—this is a view of my street—so it’s fitting that I will be teaching my ninth-grade students “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” this week. But it’s fitting in other ways, too; I think of the poem’s gentle contemplation and humor, its tension between digression and direction, its humor and questions, and its final dreamy turn toward duty.

The teaching is going beautifully; I am grateful for the school and hope to stay there a long time. I am in no way ready compare schools here with schools in the U.S.; one school is not the same as schools in general, and I am still learning how things work. But besides that, I have something else to tell right now.

On November 22, the rabbi called me with a question. The shul was badly in need of a chazzan (cantor); would I be willing to serve in this role every other Shabbat (when I already come to shul)? I said yes, not because I felt ready, but because I would take on the learning. It isn’t just a matter of singing well, or knowing Hebrew, or even knowing the nusach and melodies.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the cantor’s responsibilities in his essay “The Vocation of the Cantor,” which must be read slowly and carefully. The cantor does more than sing; he or she communicates with the congregation and the people of Israel, goes deep into prayer, senses the right melodies for the right times, responds to the text and the moment, and brings out internal truth.  But there’s a heimish side to it too; often the chazzan is someone in the shul who has taken on the role. That’s the case here.

The role sounds daunting, but no, it’s just immense. If we don’t confront immensity at some point, what are our lives for? Life is dreary and delusive if we’re always looking down at tasks we’ve finished and packaged up, things we can check off a list or click on a phone. So I said yes and started preparing, and realized, early on, that I could not check anything off a list. I learned melodies; I started learning a new nusach. I went over familiar and unfamiliar text again and again. I remembered chazzanim and melodies and chants. It still seemed too big for me, and then I  realized that was how it should feel.

It went beautifully, and so the beginning has begun. The rabbi introduced me warmly as the new chazzanit (female chazzan), and everyone gave me a “Shehecheyanu.” As soon as I started and  heard people joining in, I knew things would be fine. I also had a chance to leyn Torah (the first three aliyot of Vayishlach: that is, Genesis 32:4-13) and to speak about these verses.

Verses 10 through 13 of Genesis 32 are sometimes my favorite in all of Torah. Jacob has just started heading home from the house of Laban, with his two wives, servants, and animals. He has crossed the Jordan. But after hearing from his messengers that Esau is coming to see him with four hundred men, he becomes afraid and divides his company into two camps. But then he has a crisis of doubt:

י  וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב, אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי אַבְרָהָם, וֵאלֹהֵי אָבִי יִצְחָק:  יְהוָה הָאֹמֵר אֵלַי, שׁוּב לְאַרְצְךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתְּךָ–וְאֵיטִיבָה עִמָּךְ. 10 And Jacob said: ‘O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who saidst unto me: Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will do thee good;
יא  קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים, וּמִכָּל-הָאֱמֶת, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ, אֶת-עַבְדֶּךָ:  כִּי בְמַקְלִי, עָבַרְתִּי אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה, וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי, לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת. 11 I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown unto Thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two camps.
יב  הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי, מִיַּד עֵשָׂו:  כִּי-יָרֵא אָנֹכִי, אֹתוֹ–פֶּן-יָבוֹא וְהִכַּנִי, אֵם עַל-בָּנִים. 12 Deliver me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children.
יג  וְאַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ, הֵיטֵב אֵיטִיב עִמָּךְ; וְשַׂמְתִּי אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ כְּחוֹל הַיָּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִסָּפֵר מֵרֹב. 13 And Thou saidst: I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’


Part of what I love is that Jacob can stop himself in a big mistake. The trope brings this out; in verse 11, the first word is “katonti,” which means “I am not worthy,” “I am insignificant,” or “I have fallen short.” The first half of the verse has to do with the goodness that God has shown him; the trope etnachta sets this off from the second part, which has to do with Jacob himself. The second part divides again into two parts, the first having to do with Jacob’s crossing of the Jordan (which God commanded him to do, in commanding him to return home) and the second with his becoming two camps (which he did out of fear). So this “katonti” can be felt in the very division of the verse; he himself has been divided in two. The trope indicates these halves through the zakef katon melodic phrase. This Jacob sees his division and puts it into words, not only his own, but words of God; through quoting God twice (in verses 10 and 13), he enters into dialogue.

If he had not stopped to think about what he was doing, to remember the promises and his shortcomings, then he might not have wrestled with God that night or reconciled with Esau the next day. Who knows? I can’t say this for sure. But to me these verses suggest, among other things, the power of seeing one’s own errors, of pausing, thinking, and remembering. They have extraordinary beauty in Hebrew and have been made into a song. I have returned to them many times over the past few years; when I first read them, I understood the thirteenth verse as God’s response to Jacob in the moment. Now I read it differently but still sense Jacob hearing the holy words in their full  life, through remembering them and speaking them aloud. In that sense he does what a chazzan does.

Now I turn my thoughts to the week: to teaching, the move to a new apartment, and much more. I have not even mentioned the wonderful Budapest Festival Orchestra concert I attended last night! But I still lack internet access at home, the cafe time has flown by, and I have much to prepare for tomorrow.


The Hebrew text and JPS translation are courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website.