“Za kaplishchei kaplishcha”


After yesterday’s post on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem “Хорошее отношение к лошадям” (approximately “Kindness to horses”), I was left thinking of the lines,

Подошел и вижу –
за каплищей каплища
по морде катится,
прячется в шерсти…
И какая-то общая
звериная тоска
плеща вылилась из меня
и расплылась в шелесте.

which I translate (differing substantially from Andrey Kneller here):

I step close and see —
drop after drop
falls down the face,
hides in the fur,
and some kind of common
animal yearning
splashing spilled out of me
and shook into stream.

The “face” of the horse (морда) is beautifully ambiguous; the word typically means “face of an animal,” but it can also refer to a “mug,” or unappealing face of a person. The horse is not named here, so already horse and human seem to overlap. The horse’s tears are matched by “какая-то общая / звериная тоска” (some kind of common (universal, general) / animal yearning.”

But most beautiful of all (in these lines) are the words “за каплищей каплища,” “drop after drop,” or, more accurately, “after drop, drop,” because of the way they sound, and the way they echo the earlier “за зевакой зевака.”

As for the photo above, I took it this morning in Dallas.

“I alone did not mix my voice with the howl”


This Thursday, at the Dallas Institute (at the Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers), I will give faculty remarks on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1918 poem “Хорошее отношение к лошадям,” translatable as “Good Treatment of Horses,” “A Good Relation with Horses,”  “Kindness to Horses,” or something similar. I will not duplicate my remarks here; instead, I will comment on what came out of memorizing the poem.

To memorize a poem, you have to learn its architecture and interior; you learn to find your way in the dark. You know what comes next, because it must come next; moreover, you know where it may pivot, sweep upward, or drop down. Some lines and words hold up the entire structure; when you know them, you know the rest.

For me, these were the lines in which the speaker separates him from the crowd laughing at the fallen horse. They change the rhythm and direction of the poem.

Лишь один я
голос свой не вмешивал в вой ему.

I alone
did not mix my voice with the howl.

“Лишь один я” is difficult to translate. It has triple emphasis; “Лишь” means approximately “only”; “один,” “one” or “alone”; and “я,” “I.” Each of the three words suggests singleness and separation; together, they proclaim it. This separation from the crowd opens up into introspection and relation, where the horse and speaker shed tears in parallel, and the speaker tells the horse that “each of us is in his own way a horse” (каждый из нас по-своему лошадь).

Then the horse comes with new strange vigor–maybe, the speaker thinks, she didn’t need this nursing at all, maybe even the idea seemed vulgar to her–but all the same, she dashed, stood on her feet, neighed (“rzhanula”), and took off. (The words for “vulgar” and “took off”–пошла–are homophones and homonyms, one of various kinds of twins in the poem). Maybe the horse is independent of the speaker; maybe the words meant nothing–but all the same, something has happened, a lift back onto the feet, into the stall, into work and life and youth. But this becomes the speaker’s own song; the near-homophones “стойло” (“stall”) and “стоило” (“it was worth it”), coupled with “встала” (stood up) and “стала” (“stood”) create a secular yet mysterious hymn of dignity.

So my recitation (recorded just now; to be perfected later, when I am back in NYC) has a quieter tone than some. I love the performance by the actor Georgy Sorokin (and was somewhat influenced by it); it sounds to me the way Mayakovsky himself might have wanted it. It makes pictures of sounds; it bursts through the usual and dares us all to do the same. But the poem can be heard in many ways; much depends on the phrases that the reader singles out, which in turn bring out the others and the whole.

I keep coming back to the beginning, with its ablaut-filled play on sounds and words:

Били копыта.
Пели будто:
– Гриб.

The hoofs beat.
It seemed they sang:

Each of those syllables (grib, grab’, grob, grub) suggests (or is) a word with meaning; they suggest mushrooms, the imperative “rob,” a grave, and something or someone coarse, respectively. But because of the vowel gradations, they seem like pure sound as well, the sound of hoofs on slippery streets. From the outset, there are two poets: the speaker and the horse, trading roles, joining together, interpreting each other.

You can read the poem in Russian and English here. Thanks to Andrey Kneller for translating so many poems and posting the Russian and English together.

As for my recitation, when I re-record it (in early August), I intend to refine the pronunciation and maybe the interpretation too. This one is a start.


Image credit: David Burliuk, Peasant and Horse (Крестьянка и лошадь), 1910.

“The mountains skipped like rams”

dallas moon

This is my last post (for the time being) on the topic of moving on. (You may read the introduction, first post, and second post at your convenience.)

Some of the most entrenched human conflicts and misunderstandings have to do with differing relationships to time; one person wants to look forward, while another wants to stand still or look backward. Not only individuals, but groups and cultures can come into conflict in this way.

Too often the two sides do not see or think on each other’s terms. Each tends to put the other down. The one who wishes to remember sees the other as dismissive and unreflective; the one who wishes to move on sees the other as self-indulgent and stagnant. To make things even trickier, sometimes they are right in their judgments.

It is no accident, then, that religions ritualize both memory and progress. Judaism has specific times for mourning and repentance; while not erasing an individual’s own rhythms and timings, it offers a strong counterpoint and guide. Mourning takes its own time in a person, but within the rhythms of shiva, the initial mourning period, the year of saying Kaddish, the yahrzeit, Yizkor, and other remembrances, it has both a place and a boundary. A person may not conform to this structure entirely, but it is there all the same.

So, too, with repentance. While we typically associate repentance with the period from Tisha B’Av through Yom Kippur, it has a place throughout the year, at limited times. In ancient times, Rosh Hodesh, the holiday of the new lunar month, had a sin-offering among the sacrifices; today this is mentioned in the Torah reading during the Rosh Hodesh service.

The literature about this sin-offering reveals some surprises. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Chulin 60b), the moon was unhappy about being diminished by God. After some argument, God promised to atone; this is why there is a he-goat offering “for the Lord” on Rosh Hodesh. Thus, according to this and other commentaries, there is divine atonement every month. Therefore this is also an opportunity for humans to atone. (Of course atonement is possible every day–but every month there is a special time.)

But atonement (in Hebrew teshuvah, or return) does not proceed in linear fashion; in the Litukei Halachot, Rebbe Nosson of Breslov’s interpretation and reworking of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, it is posited that the reason we “skip” parts of the service on Rosh Hodesh is that repentance, too, skips backward and forward:

Rosh Chodesh itself is a time for the beginning of repentance, since the Holy One Himself said “bring me atonement,” and from then on repentance disseminated into the entire created world. For our Holy Rabbi wrote that everyone thinks of repentance on Rosh Chodesh. This is why we say the “half Hallel”, that is, we ‘skip’ parts of Hallel, since those doing Teshuva don’t ascend in a steady way, from step to step, but skip and jump over several steps… this is why the reading of the Torah on Rosh Chodesh skips back and forth. It hints at this theme of repentance which is central to Rosh Chodesh, because those doing Teshuva do not move in a straight line, but sometimes go backwards, and then forwards again.

“Skipping” can be found in the very words of Psalm 114, which is part of the Hallel service.

I love those images and rhythms of the Jordan turning backward, the mountains skipping like rams, the hills like young sheep. The psalm has thrilled me ever since I began to sing and understand it.

But now I understand it in a different way. If this turning and skipping has anything to do with teshuvah–within the liturgy, if not within the psalm itself–then it illustrates how we ourselves go back and forth during our lives, how these changes of direction may signify great moments. Each of us may be at times the skipping mountain or hill, the Jordan turning backward, or else these things standing still or rushing ahead.

I take these texts as poetry, not literal teachings–but it’s poetry that opens up the understanding. If our “skipping” and changes of direction have to do with our own striving and reckoning, then there’s room for generosity and forgiveness in all directions. Those impatient to move on can look kindly on those standing still, and vice versa, at least some of the time. At the very least, we can consider that those who differ from us in their motions and directions may be doing their own kind of good.

This doesn’t solve any problems. Nonetheless, I delight in thinking that we all have times of skipping and turning, changing our currents, shaking up our landscapes, and standing still. Although (as a friend and colleague remarked to me today) adults forget the joy of skipping, we actually skip abundantly without knowing it. Viewed from far away, or from inside, our lives might look like the shaking of sheep and hills.


I took the photo last night (around 4 a.m.) in Dallas, through the window.

Thanks to Rabbi Adam Roffman for introducing me and others to the passages from the Talmud and Likutei Halachot. The interpretations here are my own (and subject to leaps, skips, and turns).

The text of Psalm 114 (in Hebrew and English) can be found on the Mechon Mamre website.

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

Reading and Rereading

kosice bookstoreThis is the first of three blog posts on the pitfalls of moving on. (See the introduction here.) Of all the examples of fruitful return, rereading stands out as both obvious and splendid. For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed rereading more than first-time reading; in remembering and rediscovering the book (or poem or play), I not only see new things in it but grasp a different whole. For this to happen, the work does not have to present explicit difficulties; I can reread Lorca’s poem “La guitarra” (in his Poema del cante jondo) and find new clarities and darknesses in it, even though nothing seemed to stump me on the first round.

Continual rereading has its own pitfalls; if you never get around to new books, you will limit the rereading itself. To reread a book, you must have read it in the first place; you must put those old favorites aside and take up this bulky thing that you do not yet know. This is my main “reading difficulty”: those stacks of unread books in my good intentions.

Rereading, then, can only accompany first-time reading. But our culture and economy seem tipped toward the latter: the latest book, the book club selections, the titles that everyone is talking about for a short while. Many of these books disappear as quickly as they come, but if they manage to squeeze some fame and sales out of the air, the publishers and publicists will not complain. Publishers do care what comes out of their presses, but they have to prosper too. So they will publish many urban daylilies along with a few bristlecone pines.

One possible measure of literary quality is longevity: how many times, or over how much time, a work can be read with new understanding and pleasure. A few publishers base their entire work on this principle. Library of America “champions our nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s greatest writing in authoritative new editions and providing resources for readers to explore this rich, living legacy.” Thus the Library of America’s work consists not only of republishing but of rereading too–and reading works that have been there for decades or centuries but that we barely acknowledged with a soporific quote.

A spirit of rereading makes room for first-time readings too. When you look back, you make room for those works you missed. Cynthia Haven’s “Another Look” book discussion series, which she founded with Tobias Wolff, focuses on books that deserve more attention than they have received. For many, these books may be first-time reads, but the club’s name, “Another Look,” suggests return. The series kicked off with William Maxwell’s short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow. I had not read it before; although I could not attend the discussion, I purchased a Library of America edition, read it in time for the event, brought it into my life, and now look forward to a third reading.

So returns and rereading can dissolve the highways of popularity and bring newness out of dust. But it is a complex matter. Exclusive rereading (with no new books) and exclusive first-time reading (with no returns) both constrict. Nor is there a perfect proportion; the balance or imbalance may vary. But rereading can offer a strong corrective to a culture bent on “moving on” to the next new thing. What just came out is not necessarily more important than what came out years ago.

Each summer, at the Dallas Institute, my colleagues and I teach literature: epic in the odd-numbered years and tragedy and comedy in the even-numbered years. This year, when returning to King Lear, I admired the scene where Edgar (in the guise of a stranger) pretends to assist his blinded father, Gloucester, in jumping off a cliff but actually saves him. Having attained the make-believe cliff, which actually is nothing, they have the following exchange (Lear 4.6.25-41):

Edgar. Give me your hand: you are now within a foot
Of th’ extreme verge: for all beneath the moon
Would I not leap upright.

Gloucester.                            Let go my hand.
Here, friend, ‘s another purse; in it a jewel
Well worth a poor man’s taking. Fairies and gods
Prosper it with thee! Go thou further off;
Bid me farewell, and let me hear thee going.

Edgar. Now fare ye well, good sir.

Gloucester. With all my heart.

Edgar. [Aside] Why I do trifle thus with his despair
Is done to cure it.

Gloucester says farewell to the world, jumps, “falls,” and is rescued by Edgar in the guise of another stranger, who speaks of his miraculous survival.

Edgar. Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipatating,
Thou’dst shivered like an egg: but thou dost breathe;
Hast heavy substance; bleed’st not; speak’st; art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.

I have read and loved this scene many times. But on this reading, Edgar’s aside stood out: “Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it.” This may seem an unnecessary explanation; the audience can already guess that Edgar intends to save his father’s life. But Edgar speaks here not of saving a life, but of curing despair; he makes a striking connection between “trifling” with the despair and “curing” it. He invents a lightness, which then surrounds Gloucester’s unfatal fall. “Thy life’s a miracle,” says Edgar–but what makes it a miracle is this very trifling, this creation of precipice, fall, and survival out of level land.

That’s what happens with rereading: it is choreography of words, where the dancers surprise you even after you think you know the whole dance. Rereading holds you up to the book and says, “There’s more, there’s more.”


I took the photo in Košice on May 29.

“Ta Bahare Delneshin”

IMG_3281This has been a beautiful quest! On May 19, in Istanbul, I heard two musicians play a song that kept coming back to my mind. (I recorded a video, so I was able to learn the melody). It felt subtle and melancholic; I understood none of the words but was enchanted by their sounds.

I hoped to hear the duo again, but during my many walks, I did not run into them. Then, on May 26, my last day in Istanbul, I saw them standing right where they were before. They played a different song; when they finished, I requested this one by humming the melody. When they played it, people gathered around and sang along. I recorded it and learned their names (but not the name of the song). They are Sherko Hoseini and Fali Talebi.

Back in New York City, I tried to look up the song by googling some of the phrases. I didn’t know how to spell them; some of the vowels and consonants sounded different from their counterparts in any languages I know. Also, I wasn’t sure of the word divisions. I tried different possibilities (“tava hare teleshin,” “trova har e teleshin,” etc.), again and again, but nothing came up.

Then I decided to do the simplest thing of all (which I’m often slow to do): ask. I wrote to Sherko last night; this morning I received his reply. The song is “Ta Bahare Delneshin” (or simply “Bahare Delneshin”) an old Persian song. He sent the lyrics too; I will  give them below. I looked for translations; this one (from someone named Afsaneh) seems particularly careful. I have included only the verses that are in Sherko and Fali’s performance (and have kept Sherko’s transliteration). What a beautiful poem and song.

Bahare delneshin
(The Pleasant Spring)

Music: Ruhollah Khaleghi
Poem: Bijan Taraghi

Ta bahare delneshin amade soye chaman
since the pleasant spring had come towards the grass

Ey bahare arezo bar saram saye fekan
oh the spring of wishes spread your shadow on me

Chon nasime nobahar bar ashianam kon gozar
like the breeze of the newly come spring visit my home

Ta ke golbaran shavad kolbeye virane man
so that my ruined cottage would be showered by flowers

Baza bebin dar heyratan beshkan sokote khalvatam
come and see me in astonishment, break the silence of my solitude

Cho laleye sahra bebin bar sine daghe hasratam
see my sorrow on my hot face which is like a lonely tulip

Ey roye to ayineam eshghat ghame dirineam
oh you, whose face is my mirror, your love my old grief

Baza cho gol darin bahar sar ra beneh bar sineam
in this spring come like a flower, put your head on my bosom

Here are the lyrics in Persian:

تا بهار دلنشین آمده سوی چمن
ای بهار آرزو بر سرم سایه فکن
چون نسیم نوبهار بر آشیانم کن گذر
تا که گلباران شود کلبه ویران من

تا بهار زندگی آمد بیا آرام جان
تا نسیم از سوی گل آمد بیا دامن کشان
چون سپندم بر سر آتش نشان بنشین دمی
چون سرشکم در کنار بنشین نشان سوز نهان

تا بهار دلنشین آمده سوی چمن
ای بهار آرزو بر سرم سایه فکن
چون نسیم نوبهار بر آشیانم کن گذر
تا که گلباران شود کلبه ویران من

باز آ ببین در حیرتم
بشکن سکوت خلوتم
چون لاله تنها ببین
بر چهره داغ حسرتم

ای روی تو آیینه ام
عشقت غم دیرینه ام
باز آ چو گل در این بهار
سر را بنه بر سینه ام

listenersThe lyrics seem to match what I heard and saw. When people gathered around and sang along, I sensed that this song was special to them. They didn’t respond the way people do to a recent hit; they were held in a dreaminess for a little while. So was I, though differently.

There is something astonishing about the poem: the way seemingly opposite words come close together, even joining at times: images of brokenness and renewal, sadness and rejuvenation, solitude and love. The sounds hold many textures: I can follow them now, from word to word.

I am glad it took me some time to learn the name of the song; through searching for it, I found myself returning to it, refusing to give up the question. Even now that I have a translation, I realize there is more to understand in the images, phrases, allusions. Something has been opened here, not closed.

Partly through its difference, the poem reminds me of Petrarch’s sonnet “Solo et pensoso i piú deserti campi”:

Solo et pensoso i piú deserti campi
vo mesurando a passi tardi et lenti,
et gli occhi porto per fuggire intenti
ove vestigio human l’arena stampi.

Altro schermo non trovo che mi scampi
dal manifesto accorger de le genti,
perché negli atti d’alegrezza spenti
di fuor si legge com’io dentro avampi:

sí ch’io mi credo omai che monti et piagge
et fiumi et selve sappian di che tempre
sia la mia vita, ch’è celata altrui.

Ma pur sí aspre vie né sí selvagge
cercar non so ch’Amor non venga sempre
ragionando con meco, et io co llui.

And in the English translation of A. S. Kline:

Alone and thoughtful, through the most desolate fields,
I go measuring out slow, hesitant paces,
and keep my eyes intent on fleeing
any place where human footsteps mark the sand.

I find no other defence to protect me
from other people’s open notice,
since in my aspect, whose joy is quenched,
they see from outside how I flame within.

So now I believe that mountains and river-banks
and rivers and forests know the quality
of my life, hidden from others.

Yet I find there is no path so wild or harsh
that love will not always come there
speaking with me, and I with him.

I took the first photo on Eurovelo 11 in Hungary; the second, while listening to Sherko and Fali. For a short video playlist of Istanbul musicians, go here. Also, Sherko pointed me to Ali Zand Vakili’s recording of the same song.

New Poem: The Swing


The Swing

There stood a swing by the edge of town
that lifted us over our plight.
It graced the ragged grass of a farm,
and the hired hand would pause and watch
as we kicked off into the blue,
one at a time, over the years,
swinging with nothing else in our eyes
but the edge of town and the sky.

This man had seen people come and go
and whole populations go.
Such memories rob your mind, he said;
they steal on you at any old hour
unless you have toils and cares.
So he tended the hens and watched the swing.
It was the swing, he said, that creaked
his ragged mind to repose.*

I came here when in doubt of the world
or in need of a tilt of soul.
Dozens of others have done the same:
we swang and thought, swang and thought
our way into gilded mind.
All of us yearned for an edge of town,
a place to sit in the wind and song,
a place that stood against time.

Inside, the owners looked on the scene,
their gladness seething with pride.
It is good, they screamed, with our children grown,
that the swing has carried on for so long,
but look at the filth and the noise.
Tomorrow we’ll take it down, they vowed.
And so it happened: overnight
a canticle ceased to be swung.

Not long ago I saw a swing
much like the one I had known.
It stood on a farm, removed from the road,
so I watched from afar, and it eyed me too,
as though we were both on display.
I shook my head and headed on.
The cost of speaking was far too harsh;
the hush, too awesome and true.


*He may not have found the hens as calming.

Image credit: I took the photo during my bike trip in northern Hungary.

In the Thick of It (or Not)

midsummerLast night I woke up with the beginnings (or rather the ending) of a poem; within half an hour, I wrote the whole thing. It’s a sonnet, like many of my others.

I want it to begin below this picture, so I’ll go on here for another sentence or two. Why a sonnet? What’s so appealing about this form? I am drawn to the conciseness, the logic, and especially the volta; but beyond that, the more sonnets I write, the better I know their language. I am not sure that sonnets should tell stories, as this one does, and some of my others do–but since this is a story about telling a story, I think the form fits. (Why am I ambivalent about sonnet-stories? That’s a discussion for another time.)

The Misunderstanding

The room was loud, so after spurts of whats
and I-can’t-hear-yous, I declaimed a tale,
doused with illusion, of a bowl of kale
all crinkly somber green, sprinkled with nuts
and lush tomatoes…. where from here? A klutz
with small talk, stumped beyond the pale,
I nailed the salad part, but when the frail
rundown ran out, I flailed in ands and buts.

And while you smiled, and while the windowsill
cracked open into breeze, and I believed
that every nod of audience you meant,
that, just as I poured forth with the intent
of giving, so with soul was I received,
a fragile evening glittered in goodwill.

With poetry, as with music and other things, I am either in the thick of it or not; when immersed, I have one idea after another–no trouble with “writer’s block,” yet a strong sense of how to improve, where to go from here, what to try, what to refine.  I am not good at “sort of” doing things; I have to be surrounded by the idiom.

When not in the thick of it, I have trouble doing it at all; a poem might come now and then, but scrapingly.

This one didn’t scrape, though. Maybe there will be more soon.

Art credit: Henry Towneley Green, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1895.

The Movement Around the Edges

eurovelo 11 photo 2Was it a great experience, this week in Hungary and Slovakia after the rich two weeks in Istanbul? Of course, but it was more than experience. Experiences can get in the way. Martin Buber places experience in the I-It realm; to experience, in his view, is to extract knowledge and impressions, and thus to possess and degrade. Even “inner” and “secret” experiences belong to this domain:*

I experience something. If we add “inner” to “outer” experiences, nothing in the situation is changed. We are merely following the uneternal division that springs from the lust of the human race to whittle away the secret of death. Inner things or outer things, what are they but things and things!

I experience something. If we add “secret” to “open” experiences, nothing in the situation is changed. How self-confident is that wisdom which perceives a closed compartment in things, reserved for the initiate and manipulated only with the key. O, secrecy without a secret! O accumulation of information! It, always It!

sunsetHow, then, do you go beyond “experience” into an actual encounter with a place? I thought of putting away the camera (phone) but knew I would regret coming back without pictures. So I tried to stay aware of the movement around the edges, the impossibility of capturing a place or saying anything definitive about it.

durkovIn Budapest I attended two chamber concerts, a jazz concert (by the band Nigun), and an opera (The Tenor by Ernő Dohnányi); visited the Dohány Street Synagogue; and walked all over the place, In Slovakia I went on a private walking tour in Košice and took a bus on my own to Ďurkov (where my great-grandfather Max Fischer lived before coming to the U.S. with his parents and seven siblings). The picture to the right is of Ďurkov, with a stork presiding over it all. In addition, I spent two days biking in northern Hungary. All this in one week; the days spill out of the frame.

Language (or rather, the language barrier) kept me firmly lodged in the ineffable, because I couldn’t say much in Hungarian. One day I was walking through a playground in Budapest. Two little girls (around age six or seven) ran up to me and asked me for something in Hungarian. I had no idea what they wanted and replied that I spoke English. Their eyes lit up. “Yes?” one of them said. They repeated their words more slowly, and one girl touched her knee. I asked (in English) whether they needed a band-aid. “Yes,” the girl replied. I said I didn’t have any. “No,” the other girl said. They started alternating–randomly, it seemed–between “Yes” and “No.” Then they ran away giggling; one of them called out “Have a nice day!”

Nigun bandThere was also the language of hands. In Budapest, I noticed that audiences were much less exuberant with their applause than in the U.S. They clapped but did not cheer. But this initial reserve, I soon realized, allowed for a crescendo. Audiences would clap quietly at first, then build into a rhythm (a sign of enthusiasm), then possibly erupt into a cheer or two. If the audience kept clapping (as it did at the Nigun concert, pictured here), then an encore was in order. In any case, you could sense the gradations of excitement. Yet applause is just one expression of enthusiasm or appreciation; attention is another. The audiences seemed extraordinarily attentive, but how do I know that, really? What do I know about another person’s mind?

swingsetNot only the outside world, but a traveler’s thoughts and moods can become an “experience” (or not). If I think, “I felt melancholy when looking at the swing set,” I deceive myself, because the melancholy, like the swing set, came with so much more. I thought about the engineering; whether the asymmetry was intentional here, because there is only one swing. I thought about what it would be like to swing in this swing; I remembered swings of childhood, the Robert Louis Stevenson poem, and the rope swing in Charlotte’s Web. I imagined the rhythmic creaking sound and the push of feet against grass.

liberty bridgeIn the contrasts between city and country, I sensed all kinds of things below and beyond the appearances. Budapest seemed dormant at first, after the throbbing bustle of Istanbul, but by the end I was walking in liveliness. The towns seemed enclosed, as towns anywhere can be, but everywhere there were histories and stories. With more time and language, I could have learned some of them.

But with all its limitations, the traveling opened up something extraordinary. Before my trip, many people worried that I was putting myself in danger. Yet while I took precautions and stayed alert, I felt distinctly safe. Even traveling alone, a woman, in countries where I did not speak the language (or, except in Slovakia, any language in the same family), I could move confidently on foot, on bike, or by train.

Except for two walking tours, I traveled independently; as I went along, I saw more and more to see. By the end, my toes had barely inched into new and ancient places, but that in itself was something: to see the inches (or centimeters) and the dim shapes beyond.

haftarah scroll from prossnitz

*Quote from Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Scribner, 1986), 21.

The last photo here, taken at the Jewish Museum in Budapest, is of a 1732 Haftarah scroll from Prossnitz, Moravia (now Prostějov, Czech Republic). It is opened to the Haftarah reading for Shabbat Hazon (Isaiah 1:1-27), which we studied in cantillation class this spring for its alternation between Haftarah and Eicha trope. In the left column, seventeen lines down, you can see the great words “Limdu heiteiv” (roughly “learn to do good”).

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

Havel havalim (Koheleth)


Reading Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), I sit up in awe, drop stray thoughts, and listen again and again to the second verse (translated as “vanity of vanities,” etc.). Then I start hearing its cadences everywhere: in Shakespeare (as do others), in Mahler, in poem after poem, song after song, film after film. This poem holds millions of breaths.

I was first introduced to Koheleth as a teenager, through Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” via Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Here’s Orwell:

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

For a long time, that was all I knew of it. I understood that its language was vivid and lilting and that it looked askance at the world. I read parts of it here and there–but did not begin to understand the whole until I first heard it chanted in Hebrew (just a few years ago). Then I sensed its coherence–not quick meaning, but unity and movement–and a joy mixed in with the sadness, a joy of walking through life.

Just a week ago I started learning the first few verses, with trope and all. It was then that I fell in love with the second verse.

Havel havalim, amar Koheleth; havel havalim, hakol havel.

The whole verse sounds like a sigh; this is no coincidence, as “hevel” originally meant “vapor” or something similar.

The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament states (in volume 3, p. 315): “In virtue of its supposed onomatopoeic origin, hebhel consistently retains the meaning of “breath” and, especially with reference to the visible aspect, although possibly delimited by the stronger ruach, “vapor, mist, smoke.” … Ideas of transitoriness and fleetingness are associated with the word when it means “breath,” and these tend to point toward an abstract connotation (cf. the LXX). This tendency is aided by the capability and openness of onomatopoeic words for new meanings.” This paragraph continues–and it’s part of a much longer entry–but I want to get back to the second verse and the joy.

The noun hevel (or hebel), with root heh-bet-lamed, appears in this verse in three forms:

  1. havel (with a long “e” and a stress on the second syllable): the construct form of hevel. This indicates that it accompanies the noun that follows.
  2. havalim: the plural of hevel.
  3. havel (with a short “e” and a stress on the first syllable): the pausal form of hevel.

This verse not only shivers with alliteration (not only of havel, havalim, and havel, but also of hakol and Koheleth), but takes a single word and turns it around and around.

Vapor of vapors, says Koheleth; vapor of vapors, all is vapor.

But even this does not recreate the morphology and cadences. Here is my recording of the first three verses. Here, also, is a wonderful recording (and video of the text) by Rabbi Moshe Weisblum.

What is it about this verse (and the poem as a whole) that brings joy?

Koheleth is not conducive to takeaways. Its message is not “enjoy life” or “fear God”; it holds up both. In terms of theology and philosophy, it stands out as one of the most puzzling Biblical texts. (I would love to take Stephen Geller’s course on it; I have taken his course on the Psalms.)

Still, for all its complexity, the poem has a gesture of learning, of seeing beyond illusions.

If success, fame, power, labor, even wisdom are all vapors, then life is anything but futile. It is possible to understand a little more each day and to walk with understanding. Koheleth is a long and wistful walk.

Image credit: I took this photo today in Fort Tryon Park. It reminded me of the second verse.

Leviticus 13: Complexity and Simplicity

The other day I related the complexity of Leviticus 13 (which I had read, i.e., chanted, on the previous Shabbat) to the complexity of the human condition. In my mind, at the time, it was all complexity, complexity of complexities. In this complexity I found beauty. Now I see, at the same time, a logical and structural simplicity.

Leviticus 13, which forms part of the Torah portion Tazria, describes the diagnosis, treatment, and ritual purification of people with various skin disorders, which may or may not be “nega tzaraat,” or “the plague of [leprosy]” (it is commonly translated as “leprosy,” but we don’t know what the disease actually was).

As I discussed before, these verses present special challenges for the readers. Words and phrases repeat many times, but within different grammatical structures (and thus with different trope, or melody). It does not work to associate a phrase with a melody. You have to learn both trope and text in a different way.

Today we have our last cantillation class. We were supposed to bring some pedagogical materials that we use when teaching cantillation to others. (Most of the students are preparing to be cantors.) Since I have never taught anyone else how to leyn, I thought about how I might go about learning Tazria, if I were to do it again.

Then it came to me. In the earlier part of chapter 13, in many of the verses, the first part of the verse has to do with the symptoms and general diagnosis; the second, with the action or treatment (and sometimes the reason as well). The two parts are divided by a melodic phrase called etnachta, which indicates a pause analogous to our semicolon. (It appears under its corresponding syllable and looks somewhat like a curved caret.)

So there you have it: symptoms and diagnosis in the first half, and treatment or action in the second.

But you can break it down still further. Within the first half, the symptoms are sometimes grouped in phrases; these phrases are separated by a zakef katon, a trope that indicates something like a strong comma–not quite an etnachta, but closer than many of the other disjunctives, or melodic separators. (It appears above the syllable and looks like a colon.) In fact, sometimes this zakef katon separates specific symptoms from a more general diagnosis. In the second part of the verse, the zakef katon may separate two possible actions.

I am not doing justice to the topic of parsing; there’s much more to it than this, both within these verses and in general. I am just looking at a particular relation between structure and meaning. When you consider it in this way, everything falls into place–if not in this particular way, then in other ways.

Take, for example, Leviticus 13:2 (I have set the etnachta phrase in blue and the zakef katon phrases in green; the quoted text is courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website):

ב אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֤ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ֙ שְׂאֵ֤ת אֽוֹ־סַפַּ֨חַת֙ א֣וֹ בַהֶ֔רֶת וְהָיָ֥ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂר֖וֹ לְנֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת וְהוּבָא֙ אֶל־אַֽהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֔ן א֛וֹ אֶל־אַחַ֥ד מִבָּנָ֖יו הַכֹּֽהֲנִֽים׃

“When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.”

Up through “bright spot,” you see a description of the symptoms; in the next phrase, the larger condition (the plague of leprosy); and after “leprosy,” the possible actions: bringing him to Aaron the priest (pause) or to one of his sons.

You can hear Hazzan (Cantor) Rob Menes of Congregation Beth Shalom read this verse. He announces the verse numbers in English as he goes along, so just listen for “two” (and continue listening after that, of course).

Of course this is not the pattern throughout; but once you see how it works, you can find other patterns too. Many Biblical verses have a kind of semantic symmetry; once you see the relation between the two main parts, you can see other relations as well.

If I were teaching this portion (to myself or anyone else), I would encourage the person to think in terms of the logical patterns and their meaning: in this case, in terms of symptoms, diagnosis, and subsequent treatment or action. We would start with this pattern and then find some of the others. We would parse a few verses systematically and completely, for the practice and understanding–but other verses we would view in terms of cadence, movement, symmetry, and meaning.

The portion still requires hours of practice (for me, at least), but it’s much easier when I not only see the smaller and larger structures at once but relate them to the narration.

This leads to a subject that might seem off-topic at first: “growth mindset.” In a group of previous posts, I questioned the assertion (now widely popularized) that people have either a “fixed mindset” (an assumption that their abilities are fixed) or a “growth mindset” (a belief that they can improve) and that a “growth mindset” is conducive to success, while a “fixed mindset” is not. I argue that we both have and need a mixture of mindsets.

After stumbling over this reading last Saturday, I was definitely not in “growth mindset.” I felt terrible. I thought it was the worst I had ever done (even though it was the longest and trickiest portion I had tried to learn in a short time). My disappointment was unreachable; people’s kind and encouraging words barely grazed my skin. But I had no doubt that I wanted to persist with cantillation. Also, I knew I wanted to figure out what went wrong. So as soon as the distress passed, I went back to the verses. That is when I saw the pattern.

Someone might say, “But with a total ‘growth mindset,’ you can skip over the distress altogether; that way, you’ll be more productive.” The distress has an important place, though; it comes from longing. When I am discouraged by my own performance (in the sense of carrying out a form), it’s because it matters to me to do well. The mattering carries me forward.

That brings out another possible meaning of the portion and the next one. Sarah Krinsky, a rabbinic fellow at B’nai Jeshurun, gave a magnificent D’var Torah (commentary, interpretation, sermon) on the purification process for the leprous person. Once the priest has pronounced him unclean, his clothes must be torn, he must let his hair loose, and he must cry, “Unclean, unclean” (Leviticus 13:45). On the one hand, this seems like humiliation; why should the person be forced to cast such stigma on himself? On the other, it can be taken as a statement of truth and a call for help and compassion. The person does not stay “unclean” forever.

My discouragement was much like a cry of “Unclean, unclean.” I knew I had not done well. By seeing and feeling this, without mitigation or immediate “positive thinking,” I could then proceed to do better.

I am glad for human complexity and structures of simplicity; I am grateful for cadence and mattering.

Note: I revised this piece in several stages after posting it. For much more on trope and how it works, I recommend Joshua Jacobson’s 965-page book Chanting the Hebrew Bible.