One of my favorite scenes in A Serious Man is the one pictured above, about 25 minutes into the film, where Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff) is practicing his Torah portion with the help of a recording by Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. He listens, imitates, listens again, imitates. That’s not how you’re supposed to learn your portion–you’re supposed to work with the text and trope–but this fits his character and allows us to hear the great cantor. But what gets me is how well he imitates. It’s transcendent. He picks up not only the melody, but the subtle textures, the ornamentation, the timing. (I have not found a video of this particular scene–but the bar mitzvah scene gives you an idea.) I was so intrigued by the excellence of this scene that I looked up the actor and learned that he is a cellist. In addition, this was his actual Torah portion when he became a bar mitzvah.
Here is a recording of him at age 15 playing Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody. There’s a funny interview afterward, too. The point is not, “Wow, how amazing that he could play that at age 15,” but rather: This is serious musicianship. The little scene in A Serious Man is no fluke; there’s some exceptional listening in it.
Listening is the beleaguered art or skill; again and again I hear it described as “passive.” Egad! Listening is not passive. It’s some of the most active activity in action. It requires intense concentration and attention to subtlety. You must be alert to the structure, tones, rhythms, transitions, and those qualities that aren’t as easily specified, in the collection of sounds you take in. It takes practice, too; if you have never listened to a symphony from start to finish, you might not know what to make of it, or you might get restless; but if you are used to it, you enter a welcoming country (unless the performance or piece is horrible).
In education discussion people often oppose “active learning” to “passive listening.” Such an opposition is not only false but destructive. Yes, students need opportunities to discuss their ideas in the classroom–but if they do not also learn to listen to a sustained piece or presentation, they will miss out on a great deal. It is in a lecture, for instance, that one can lay out an argument and draw attention to its less obvious details. Putting it together, and forming questions in the mind, a student becomes involved with the subject in a particular way. There’s a dialogue in listening; you make sense of what you hear, and you find your responses.
Now, some may say that music and lectures–and the kinds of listening that accompany them–are so different that they shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same discussion. I recognize their differences but also see a lot in common. In both cases, something is conveyed through sound, over an interval of time; its various parts come together in a whole. When you listen, you basically travel through it in time, exercising your memory and anticipation all along the way. Your reactions may be analytical, emotional, or both, but they will not be complete until you have listened to the whole piece, and even then they may be in formation. You carry away not only the content, but the sound, which can play in your mind for a long time afterward.
Yesterday I put this to the test. On Tuesday I revised the fourth chapter of my book, the chapter on listening–so yesterday I treated myself to a day of listening. In the morning I went to an open rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic; in the evening I attended a lecture by Christine Hayes, “Forging Jewish Identity: Models and Middles in Jewish Sources.” In both of these, in different ways, I was absorbed in the details and the whole. After both, I walked away with sounds and thoughts.
The New York Philharmonic played Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (with pianist Stephen Hough). Both of these I remembered from many listenings in the past; in addition, I remembered playing the Brahms in symphony in college. I had that distinct sense of it from the inside; not only that, but I remembered some of the places where we played it (we toured England and Wales in the spring). With both the Brahms and the Beethoven, I was alert to the interpretation–the many tiny differences from what I remembered, the dynamics, the dialogues between instruments.
As for the lecture, I immediately understood the three-part structure (Dr. Hayes discussed Jewish identity in terms of memory, covenant, and Qedushah, and went on from there to explore different historical responses to crisis.) Understanding the shape and motion of the lecture, I was able to enjoy and think about the details. When she read texts aloud in English, I would follow along in Hebrew, not only for the additional challenge, but for the sake of the Hebrew text itself. This allowed me to encounter, for the first time, the wonderful line from Mishnah Sotah 7:8: “Fear not, Agrippas, you are our brother, you are our brother, you are our brother!”
אל תתיירא אגריפס אחינו אתה אחינו אתה אחינו אתה
I walked away not only with the lecture’s ideas (and my slowly forming questions), but with these words.
In short, listening is not passive, simple, or easy. But just a little bit can add serious riches to a life, and the lack of it can lead to grief. (That’s a different subject for another time.) I end with one of my old poems, “Jackrabbit.”
This land has never been painted properly.
Mix clumps of juniper with moonbeam blue,
Throw in a bit of tooth, a bit of song,
to fill the silhouette with bite and tongue.
This is a real dirt road with imagined rocks,
senses, insensate dangers, destinations.
Headlights sweeping the long floor of the mind
pan a jackrabbit back and forth in time.
Caught in the blank emergency of beams,
he dodges his dilemma with a brisk
“what if, what if” that dances him to death.
He could not find a way out of the way.
Earlier that day I was on the phone,
missing all your relevant advice.
A wire had got caught up in my throat,
an answer-dodger. It distracted me.
It trembled so fast that it numbed my tongue.
It did this while you were trying to talk.
I couldn’t listen well because the dance
had blurred all trace of consonant and sense.
I think now that this may have been a crash
of my old givens against your offerings:
new junipers, or ways of seeing them,
new countries, or ways of getting there.
When I hung up, there was no wire or word.
The moon was gone, the road a long fur coat
on some unwitting wearer, blissed and hushed.
I forgot all about it until years later.
You had said: “You can go left or right.”
Take me straight! I shouted. Straight to the remedy.
Gallop like the nineteenth century
down to the police station or cemetery.
Striding answerless, a station incarnate,
a cop ticketed me for not listening.
Now I can bear the rabbits and the wires.
I inch through forks and roadkill, listening.
Note: I made a few little corrections to this piece after posting it.