Song Series #2: Csík, Art of Flying, Waits


On this blog I recently started a song series, in which I intend to present songs I have introduced in class, am planning to introduce, or wish to include for any reason. My main purpose is to draw attention to songs themselves and what they can hold and do–but purposes aside, this is fun. The first post focused on songs that I had brought to various classes and that we had sung along with cello.

This time, I will introduce three songs that remind me of each other in some way, whether musically, lyrically, or otherwise. All three are tremendous (they come up to you slowly and then shake something up in you); all have to do with love in a broken and transitory world. They all convey hope in some way without sidestepping loss and sadness. The Csík and Art of Flying songs remind me of each other melodically and rhythmically (in the chorus); the Csík and Tom Waits, lyrically. The Art of Flying lyrics stand apart–but all the correspondences and similarities are slight anyway. The songs seem to belong together in some way, but their differences are even more interesting than what they share.

The Csík song “Te majd kézenfogsz és hazavezetsz” (“You will take my hand and take me home”) has to do with two people staying together even after everything and everyone else leaves them–youth, money, comfort, health, family. The lyrics are beautifully structured, with clear patterns and changing images. Here are two different renditions, each of which brings something different out of the song. It was Marcell Bajnai’s cover that introduced me the song; I then heard it in a Csík concert (this past Saturday night). Although I love the instrumental part of the Csík original (and the musical contrasts it brings into the song), Marcell’s cover brings out the lyrics and gives them room. The mood is different too: more reflective or matter-of-fact than exuberant.

Now listen to Art of Flying’s “Tomorrow” (one of my favorite songs in the world, on their wonderful album “Garden of Earthly Delights“); you will hear how the two choruses remind me of each other. As far as I know, there’s no video of the song; the recording is up on their Bandcamp site, where you can listen to all of their music. I am proud to have played cello on one of their songs. Here, by following the link below (in an image of the record cover), you can listen to “Tomorrow” and read the lyrics, which begin:

I leaned my back against an oak
I thought it was a trusty tree
& first it bent & then it broke
my true love had forsaken me
my dream of peace could not come true
the wind had swept our hearts away
& so I sing this song to you
tomorrow blows us all away


Finally, here is Tom Waits’s “Time.” The similarity between these lyrics and the Csík ones lies not just in the theme, but in the relation between verse and chorus; in both, the verses (mostly) hold the brokenness, in vivid detail, and the choruses the simple affirmation, though this division is not absolute. Also, both speak of the future in some way; although Csík refers to physical action (taking a person’s hand and bringing the person home) and Waits to some metaphysical state (it being time for something), they point to something similar. It was the Csík song, in fact, that reminded me of the Waits song and how great it is.

That wraps it up for the second installment of the song series. Next time, unless some other ideas occur in the meantime, I intend to present a few songs that have had special importance to me over the decades, songs that have stood out as favorites over time.


I took the photo by the Zagyva river on Sunday night.

From Hamlet to Csík: Bring the Bringa!


My laptop is still in repairs (I should get it back tomorrow), so I am writing on the phone. To make this easier, I wrote a draft on paper first, a good idea in general. The pen is a kind of mediator, the typewriter too. The electronic keyboard somehow shirks this role. Moreover, the pen and typewriter are messy in an enjoyable way. You get to cross things out, squeeze things in.

First of all, congratulations to everyone who took part in the Hamlet performance—three scenes and discussion—at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár on Friday! I was sitting next to Katalin Cserfalvi, who works at the library and made this event possible. At moments we gaped at each other in awe. These scenes came alive, not only in the actors’ expressions and gestures, but in their rendition of the language. Last year’s performance was full of spirit and enjoyment, but this year’s reached a new level.

This took long and intense work. We have been rehearsing for about two months (mostly in class, and not in every class session), but before that, we read the entire play and then reread a few scenes multiple times. The students who weren’t in the performance—who served as audience members during our classtime rehearsals—deserve commendation too, because without their attention, listening, and comments, not only would we have been unable to rehearse, but we would have missed some of their insights. Also, the two students who introduced each scene at the performance, Luca Regina Gazdag and Dorina Kata Nagy, helped out in numerous ways behind the scenes, as did Petra Rónafalvi, who provided some of the costumes. When putting on a play, even a few scenes, one becomes aware of the different kinds of work that go into it and the importance of each.

After Hamlet, I went upstairs to hear a performance by Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (father and son): stories and songs alternating in a kind of dialogue. There seemed to be connections between Zsolt Bajnai’s stories and Marcell Bajnai’s songs; while not explicit or obvious (to me), they brought the separate works togethet into something new. I didn’t understand everything—some songs were familiar, some not, and I had read just one of the stories, the wonderfully satirical “Korrupcióterápia,” but I loved the different tones and the atmosphere of enjoyment in the room. Next time, whenever that may be, I will understand much more. (I didn’t take pictures, but there should be some coming from the library soon; when they appear, I will add the link.)

One exciting thing: the last song that Marcell played was one I hadn’t heard before. I was so taken by it that I tried to find it online later (by looking up the few words and phrases that I remembered). I had no luck, so I wrote to him to ask about it. He replied that he had written the song a week before and that this was the first time he played it in public! I now realize that he said this when introducing the song, but I didn’t catch it at the time. I hope to listen to the song many times.

All of this would have been enough for me for a weekend, but the festivities continued at full tilt. Yesterday, late in the afternoon, after a quiet day at home, I took the teain to the nearby village of Zagyvarékas for the Margaréta folkdance festival, followed by a concert by the band Csík. One of my students, an accomplished folk dancer and a member of the Rákóczi dance group, was in three of the dance performances—and I was eager to see them all and hear the band. It was my first real folkdance event in Hungary. I have seen a few short performances here and there, but nothing like this. I eas moved not only by the dancets’ skill (in singing as well as dancing), not only by the colorful costumes, not only by the gorgeous rhythms and melodies, but by the vitality and “nowness” of it all. Folkdance in Hungary is not some relic of a dying tradition; people of many ages put their hearts and lives into it.

What to say about the Csík concert? It was fantastic; they played so many instruments, and combined musical styles with such ease and in such interesting ways, that I wanted to rush home and start playing too. Their music opens up possibilities. The audience adored them (except for one disgruntled drunk man on the sidelines who ranted in a few brief sputters about how he wanted pure Hungarian music, not music from all over the place). Many songs were the band’s own, others by others; many had folk motifs, while others had a jazz, blues, rock, or other feel, or a mixture. One song I had heard before; Marcell Bajnai had played it in his recent solo concert, at the very end. It was exciting to recognize it and hear it in these two different ways.


Mosquitoes were swarming all around—it has been a bad few weeks, mosquito-wise—and audience and musicians alike were getting bitten every split second, from every angle. But we stayed until the end and beyond, cheered for an encore (which they played), and kept on applauding after that.

It was a long journey home (but a pleasant one, except for the mosquitoes). I had made the uncharacteristic mistake of leaving my bike at the Szolnok train station (or rather, train stop), thinking that the Zagyvarékas train station would be near the village center. Wrong! They are about four kilometers apart; in fact, you have to leave Zagyvarékas and then enter it again. The walk didn’t feel long, but on the way back I just barely missed the train I had hoped to take and had to wait an hour for the next one. Lesson learned: bring the bringa!*


*”Bringa” is one of many Hungarian words for “bicycle.”

P.S. On top of it all, this evening I went to Pest for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s annual Dancing on the Square event, which brings Roma and non-Roma, economically advantaged and disadvantaged children together from all over Hungary to dance to music played by the orchestra. This year, the BFO played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7; in the final movement, the children performed a dance. This Beethoven symphony, and especially the outdoor performance, brought back strong memories of playing it in high school, at Tanglewood—the thick summer air, the feeling of being in the middle of the music, all of this came back—but the performance made me hear the work in a new way. It is hard to describe, but I have it in my ears. The dancing worked so well with the fourth movenent, the children danced with such glee, that it turned into something more than I can name, something that goes with the rest of the weekend. We do not have to hold back in music, stories, poems, dance, plays. So much is waiting to be created, performed, and heard. So much is already here, in the air, on stages, in books and notebooks, in the feet and hands, in the mind. The train back to Szolnok has stopped, the window is open, and I hear the loud wind in the leaves. They are there too, the  songs..


Translations from the Hungarian


I woke up too early, but with good reason: some of my first translations from the Hungarian have been published in Literary Matters, a superb online literary journal! You can now read Gyula Jenei’s “Standing Point” (“Ahol állnék”) and “Chess” (“Sakk”) in English translation, as well as Marianna Fekete’s essay “A Crack in Eternity? Béla Markó’s Grass Blade on the Rock.” The latter quotes 21 haiku poems, which I translated as haiku. I hope you enjoy them! There will be more.

Different Kinds of Rest


Rest will be scarce over the coming months (or plentiful, from some perspectives), so I will be looking to make the most of it. I have three different translation projects ahead and am excited about them all. I am participating in two literary events in the U.S. in October: the ALSCW Conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a series of events at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture featuring two of my Hungarian colleagues (more about that soon!). In addition, I have a few writing deadlines, will continue my synagogue responsibilities as usual, and may hold another event at the Szolnok Gallery/Synagogue in September. The event on May 23 went beautifully. The audience was enthusiastic, everyone joined in the singing, and the acoustics lifted the voices.

Yes, and there’s the upcoming Hamlet performance and discussion–by some of my tenth-grade students–at the Ferenc Verseghy Public Library on June 14! They will perform three scenes from Hamlet, followed by discussions and interviews with the characters. We are now heading into our final rehearsals.

All of this is in addition to regular teaching, which is in an irregular state right now, since I am meeting frequently with seniors to help them prepare for their oral exams.

The next few weekends will be packed. Next Saturday I go to Esztergom to enjoy the Comedium Corso festival–where 1LIFE will be performing–and explore the surroundings, which look stunning in the photos I have seen. (I will take my bike on the train so that I can explore more easily.) From there I go to Budapest to lead Szim Salom’s Shavuot service on Sunday. The following weekend, we have the Hamlet performance on Friday; right after that, also in the library, there will be a performance by Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (father and son)! On Saturday, June 15, I plan to attend a folk dance festival in Zagyvarékas; one of my students, Dániel Lipcsei, will be performing in three groups, and there will be many more groups from all over the country. Some of it might look and sound like this:

Then on Sunday, June 16, I go to Budapest for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s annual Dancing on the Square event. Later in the week, Szolnok’s Tiszavirág Fesztivál begins; I look forward to its concerts–including an acoustic show by 1LIFE–and other festivities. The following Shabbat (on June 22) I lead a service–with a bat mitzvah ceremony–in Budapest; on June 30, I leave for the U.S.  I will be teaching, for the ninth consecutive summer, at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers; this year we focus on tragedy and comedy, as we always do in the odd-numbered years (the even-numbered summers are devoted to epic). Those will be an intense, focused three and a half weeks, with lectures, seminars, panel discussions, films, and more. A few days on either end for visiting people–and then back to Hungary on August 5!

Back to the topic of rest: there are different levels and kinds. One of the reasons that I find Shabbat challenging (and important) is that it takes me about a day to wind down from the week. Resting on Friday evening and Saturday takes planning, focus, and determination (and I don’t always succeed at it). On Sunday, a greater calm sets in, but by then it’s already time to gear up for Monday. I have found it difficult, even in “free” time, to read books unrelated to my teaching, projects, and other preparations; several books have been waiting for months, not because I lacked time for them, but because my mind would not fit them in. I have now returned to The Book of Why by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie; this time I hope to stay with it instead of letting more months go by. It gets more and more interesting as I get farther into it; I will have more to say about it later. I am also overdue with Cynthia Haven’s biography of René Girard, Evolution of Desire, not to mention books in Hungarian, which I read especially slowly.

Reading a long book (for pleasure and interest) takes a particular kind of  restfulness. It’s different from reading a poem or short story; while these require intense focus and attention (and time), they tend to take less time on the initial reading than a novel or nonfiction book; thus you can reread them many times. I enjoy rereading more than I enjoy first-time reading, because of the new understandings that come with the repetition. To come to know a long book, you have to be willing to dedicate many hours just to the first reading. This is especially true for slow readers like me. I know people who can read a 350-page book in an afternoon or two; I am not one of these.

So there’s the rest that involves unwinding and the rest that makes room for reading. What other kinds are there? Writing, playing music, and other creative activities require stretches of time for trying things out, going back and revising, etc. There’s also the rest that comes through exercise: biking, for instance, over long distances. There’s the rest that comes from spending time with others: laughing with them, playing music with them, sitting down for a meal with them. There’s the rest that comes from doing something different: going somewhere on vacation, for instance. There’s the rest that comes from attending a concert, reading, or other performance. There’s the rest that comes from sorting things out in the mind: reflecting on the week, remembering important things, and putting less important things in their place. Then there’s the rest that comes with pure laziness: puttering around, doing what you feel like doing, whether or not it’s productive. There’s the rest that comes from sitting quietly and doing nothing. There’s structured, time-bound, hallowed rest, such as the rest of Shabbat. Finally, or near-finally, there’s sleep, and, at the end of life, death.

These all overlap, yet they are distinct, taking different forms and playing different roles. Yet each one can be well or poorly carried out. It’s all too easy to compromise rest, to try to make it serve something else. To rest well, you have to rest with all your heart. Or maybe that’s what makes something restful in the first place: doing it with all your heart, instead of pulling it this way and that.

I end with Walt Whitman, “A Clear Midnight“:

THIS is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

Thoughts on “Kapcsolj ki!”


The immediate occasion for this post is a new online vote–and while I don’t trust in online votes or their results, I vote for 1LIFE, because they deserve the chance to play at East Fest–Mezőtúr (in July). I will not get to hear them, because I will be in Dallas for the month–but others will be able to enjoy the occasion. Enough of that; I am here to say a few things about “Kapcsolj ki!,” a song that has intrigued me for months. In particular, I see an interesting relationship between the poetic form–particularly the stanzas and rhymes–and the meaning. Parts of the song are especially difficult to translate–and it’s always hard to convey music in words–so anything I say will be a rough approximation. (The lyrics are by the band’s lead singer, guitarist, and lyricist, Marcell Bajnai.)

The video, by the way, is my favorite of all of theirs, because it’s taken in the studio, and it’s so well put together, from different times and moments in the recording session. Over the course of the video, the recording comes into being, and yet you’re listening to the finished thing all along.

Now for the song: it moves from looking outward toward looking inward (though both are present throughout); it seems to speak, at first, of a relationship where the other person is afraid to notice the speaker–and if only that person were willing to take the risk, things would become possible. But then it shifts; in the second verse and the bridge, the speaker begins to see the obstacle in himself. This gives the chorus (and the entire song) a new meaning. By the end, you hear everything in a new way.

The translation is rough, intended just to give some access to the original. I want to draw attention to the rhyme pattern and its relation to the meaning. The song’s rhythm breaks the lines into stanzas of three, with clearly audible line divisions. The first stanza has a strict rhyme (the “án” sound) throughout; in addition, the three lines sound like a tight unit:

Monoton mozdulatok során,
Zavaros gondolatok taván,
Úgy érzem elnyel az óceán

(In the course of monotone motions,
In the lake of confused thoughts,
I feel the ocean swallow me)

The next stanza has slant rhyme; the vowels rhyme, but the consonants do not:

Hajóm süllyed még egyszer
Engedd meg, hogy megértsem
Ne tégy úgy mintha féltenéd

(My boat is sinking once again
Give me a chance to understand
Don’t pretend to be afraid)

In the third stanza, there is slant rhyme once again, but for the first time, the stanza’s unity is broken, since the sentence is incomplete; the final word, “könnyedén,” leads directly into the fourth stanza (and gets repeated there). This is especially difficult to translate because of the incompleteness of the thoughts; I hope that I have conveyed the overall gesture. (See the first footnote for a comment on “kérdeznék.”)

Tudom jól, ha kérdeznék*
De inkább nem mert én,
Azt is tudom, hogy könnyedén

(I know well, if I would ask
But I would rather not, since I
know too well how easily)

And then, in the fourth stanza, the rhyme falls away, just as it says that “the dream easily evaporates” (“Könnyedén elillan az álom”). So the evaporation of the dream is accompanied by the slipping away of the rhyme–and the breakdown of the stanzas–over the course of the entire first verse. (I took some liberties in the translation to capture the repetition of “könnyedén.”)

Könnyedén elillan az álom
Amit annyira vártunk
Mintha nem is lenne rég

(How easily it turns to air,
The dream we waited for so long,
As if it were not long delayed)

Then, in the pre-chorus and chorus, a new pattern gets set up, that also gets broken slightly, at just the right time.

Valamit akkor is mondanék
Valamit az égbe kiáltanék
Csak hogy te is halld a hangom
Valamit akkor is kérdeznék
Érted bármit megtennék
Csak hogy te is észrevedd

(Something then I would say
Something I’d shout into the sky
Just so you would hear my voice
Something then I would ask
I’d do anything for you
Just so you would notice [me])

It works really well in the ear to have “Valamit” occur three times here but not four; if it were “Valamit” instead of “Érted,” it would be too much, but here it’s just right. Similarly, in the chorus:

Kapcsolj ki mindent, nézz fel az égre
Legyél most bátor, én várok rád
Dobd el a kulcsot, kezedben a sorsod
Legyél most bátor én várok rád
Kapcsolj ki!

(Turn off everything, look up at the sky,
Be brave now, I am waiting for you
Throw away the key, your fate is in your hand
Be brave now, I am waiting for you
Turn [it all] off!)*

The chorus has a series of commands (“turn everything off,” “look up at the sky,” “be brave now,” “throw away the key”), three of them with a different preposition in the verb (ki, fel, el), and one with no preposition at all. But “kezedben a sorsod” breaks the pattern; it’s a declaration rather than a command. This variation, once again, works well in the ear. (See the second footnote for a little more about “kapcsolj ki.”)

Now for the second verse. If the first verse represents a breaking down, the second verse represents a building up, but only in the imagination, in the apprehension of possibility. Here the rhymes and verse structures move in the opposite direction, from dissociation to unity. At first the lines do not rhyme (well, there’s off-rhyme in the first two, but not in the third, unless you listen to the middle of the line as well):

A nap szárítja a könnyeket
Áradnak már a tengerek
De mi lesz ha betörnek a házba?

(The sun is drying up the tears
By now the seas are swelling up
And what if they break into the house?)

Then the rhyme begins to build up: you hear the “o” and “a” sound.

Víz folyik be az ablakon
Hallok egy távoli dallamot
Hallom pedig messze van

(Water flowing through the window
I hear a distant melody
I hear that it is far away)

Notice the difference between “hallok” (indefinite) and “hallom” (definite). Both mean “I hear.” Since it is “a” distant melody, not a specific one, “hallok” is required in the first instance–but in the second instance, something specific is heard, namely, the fact that it is far away; hence “hallom.” This seems just a grammatical detail, but it adds to the musicality and richness of the verse.

From here on, for the rest of the verse, the off-rhyme with the “e” sound prevails. The phrase and line repetitions give a sense of building and climbing, but then, once again, loss and absence. (“Bárcsak most is itt lennél,” “I wish you were here”).

Közelebb nem is lehetne
Akár el is érhetem
Akár el is tehetném

Akár el is tehetném
Többé el sem engedném
Bárcsak most is itt lennél

(It couldn’t get closer
If I could reach it
If I could preserve it

If I could preserve it
I would no longer let it go
If only you were here)

This was by far the most difficult part to translate. I am not sure that I have conveyed “akár” correctly. “Akár… “akár” usually means “whether … or,” but that sounds awkward here. “Akár” can also indicate an emphasis, something along the lines of “even.” But here, in the song, its meaning seems to shift as it repeats, and the best way to convey that, I think, is through a simple “if,” even  though that isn’t as emphatic as “akár.”

Then come the pre-chorus and chorus again, followed by the bridge, which (as I hear it) holds a key to the whole song–somewhat buried in vocal distortion effects, so you have to pay even closer attention than usual. (“Mi van ha tényleg velem van,” “What if it really is with me?”)

Mi van ha tényleg velem van
A baj csak nem látom magam
Szó nélkül elmenni hagytalak
Mi van ha mást is tehetnék?
Rögtön hozzád rohannék
Talán te is megértenéd

(What if it really is with me
The problem is I can’t see myself
I left you without a word
What if I could do something else?
I would rush to you right away
Maybe you would understand)

In more than 1500 words, I have barely grazed the surface of the song. “Kapcsolj ki!” tells itself through the music; one can analyze it up to a point, but from there it takes off. This is probably my favorite 1LIFE song after “Maradok ember” (though there are other close contenders); while I don’t expect to play it on cello, I can’t wait to hear it live for the first time. I may have heard it at the school gala last year, but at that point I did not know who the band was and did not understand any of the lyrics. The upcoming Esztergom show (at the Comedium Corso festival) will be the first time that I knowingly hear them in concert. I wish many others this joy, and I wish 1LIFE many more shows and songs!

*The lyrics posted with the YouTube video–which I take as the official lyrics–show “kérdeznék,” but in the recording and video I hear “kérdezném,” the definite form of the verb. This alters the meaning slightly, since it suggests asking something specific.

**(“Kapcsolj ki” can also be translated as “disconnect,” which is both transitive and intransitive. I thought, though, that this translation would distort the meaning slightly, since at the end of the chorus, “Disconnect!” would seem purely intransitive, pointing back to the subject. “Disconnect!” also has connotations that I don’t think are present in the Hungarian. In the Hungarian, as I hear it, “Kapcsolj ki!” still implies a direct object.)

The photo appears courtesy of 1LIFE’s Facebook page.
I made a few edits to this piece after posting it–and added a rough translation of the song, which I subsequently revised in a few places. I will likely continue revising this over time. If you see any glaring errors or misinterpretations, please do not hesitate to let me know.


A Perfect Imperfection

The Veszprém drama festival and the surrounding trip still fill the air; we will be thinking about them, talking about them, resting from them for a while. In the meantime, my thoughts amble back to translation.

Last fall, whenever I had a substantial break in the day, I would go to a quiet café, take out the book, notebook, and thick dictionary, and work on the first draft of a translation (of poems and prose). Over the following weeks, I would revise the translation and begin new ones. The poems are by one of my colleagues, the poet Gyula Jenei; the prose, an essay–about Béla Markó’s haiku, with 21 haiku poems quoted–by my colleague Marianna Fekete. I undertook this project because I admire their work and understand what is involved. In the past I translated many poems of Tomas Venclova; those poems appear in two books, Winter Dialogue and The Junction.

Now the Jenei/Fekete translations, or most of them, are on the brink of publication! My translations of Gyula’s poems “Ahol állnék” and “Sakk,” and of Marianna’s essay, will appear in the spring issue of Literary Matters (in June); three more translations (of “Temető,” “Teasütemény,” and “Zongora”) will appear in the fall issue. These will be my first published translations of Hungarian poetry and prose.

I intend to continue translating Gyula’s and Marianna’s work–and to take on a new project as well. Over the summer, I plan to translate Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok, with hopes that it will be performed at the Veszprém festival next year.

To translate is to seek out a perfect imperfection. You can’t convey the work exactly, so you work with approximations–but these have to sing. You must immerse yourself in the original work: listen to it, read it over and over, and come to know its rhythms and tones. You must be bold and shy: bold enough to undertake the project, take risks with it, and see it through to the end; but shy enough to hesitate, correct yourself, and return again and again to the listening. In that sense, translating is like playing music. You live out the sounds.

Reading, Concert, Translations


The weekend so far was filled with good things. I led services at Szim Salom, attended “Esőnap,” a literary event in Budapest hosted by Eső and the Mersz Klub (pictured above), and returned to Szolnok in time to hear Marcell Bajnai play a solo concert on an outdoor stage at Kossuth tér, as part of Európa-nap.* I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of these events and was glad to be able to attend them all. At the literary event, I listened to the readings, enjoyed the atmosphere (the Mersz Klub is a great place to spend an evening), met a few people afterward, and later remembered a few titles of works for immediate and future reading. As for the concert, wow. Some of the songs I knew from 1LIFE’s CD–a few favorites were among them–but here they opened up in a new way (“Nincsen kérdés” in particular). Other songs were new to me: some of Marcell’s songs and two (?) covers. A rich selection and terrific show. We in the audience were fortunate.

Now for a slower and slightly lazy day of preparations, practicing, writing. Speaking of writing, I have some exciting news about a translation project–but I’ll say more about that a little closer to the first publication date (in June). A few translations of poetry and prose–my first translations from Hungarian–will soon be published in a literary journal, in two different issues, in June and September. Continuations of this project, as well as new projects, lie ahead.

*”Nap” in Hungarian means “day” (as well as “sun”); there was no napping involved.

I renamed this post from the humdrum though apt title A Good Weekend. Also, I later embedded a video from the concert.

“Pici koncert” highlights

pozovi menya
The long-awaited “pici koncert“* took place this morning. (“Long-awaited” in this case means “anticipated for two weeks.”) Many students and teachers gathered to listen, out in the hallway, during the long break between the second and third periods. We sang three songs in three languages: “Позови меня” by Любэ, “Maradok ember” by 1LIFE, and “Champs-Elysées” by Joe Dassin. Here is a video of the highlights. (Please note that it is unlisted: that is, viewable only by those who have the link.)


Afterwards I was delighted with the concert but disappointed that I hadn’t done better with “Maradok ember” (one of my favorite songs in the world). Its lyrics are by Marcell Bajnai, the lead singer, guitarist, and lyricist of 1LIFE; I hope to read and hear much more of his work over the coming decades. I had wanted to play it perfectly but instead said two words wrong, didn’t pronounce things well overall, didn’t play quite in tune, hit a couple of dud notes, and went a little too fast. “Jaj, emberiség!” (as opposed to “jaj, istenem!”). But later I saw things more clearly: we had set out to do our best and have fun, and we accomplished both. The atmosphere in the hall was upbeat: people listened and applauded heartily. Thanks to everyone who took part–performers, composers, and audience! Thanks also to the 9.AJTP class, whose “pici koncert” earlier in the month inspired this one. And thanks to my colleagues Judit Kéri and Nóra Csiffáryné Fegecs, who taught the songs to their students and helped bring all of this about, and my colleague Anikó Bánhegyesi, who recorded the video.

aux champs elysees

*“Pici” in Hungarian means “tiny.” The concert, like the previous one, was called a “pici koncert a nagy szünetben,” that is, a “tiny concert in the big break.” The “big break” is the fifteen-minute break between the second and third periods.

After posting this piece, I re-edited and re-uploaded the video; the new version (embedded here) fades in and out of each segment.

“While Suzanne holds the mirror….”

Today I was thinking of Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne” for its fearless understanding, its way of lilting through the mind. It isn’t religious, but it devotes a verse to Jesus. Its main character, Suzanne, seems a Miriam of the 1960s, a prophet by the river. But Suzanne is in many places; I have known a few people who seemed Suzanne-like, and sometimes I have a bit of Suzanne in me too. What and who is she? She is song itself, and this song in particular; “you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind.”

Through the song, you taste “tea and oranges that come all the way from China”; you let her guide you: “And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers / There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning / They are leaning out for love and they wil lean that way forever / While Suzanne holds the mirror.”

“But the song is about a real Suzanne,” some will protest; “she and Cohen really drank tea and ate oranges together!” Yes, that’s what a good song can do: take something from life and wrap it into the music, so that it becomes real for the listener, part of the listener’s life. You think you’ve been there, you think you know Suzanne, but it’s the song you’ve lived and known.

I didn’t bring this song to class on Tuesday (I brought “Story of Isaac” instead), but if I had, it probably wouldn’t have worked any better than the others, because it has to catch you unawares. I remember the first time I noticed it. I had heard it before, perhaps many times, but this time I was having brunch at a friend’s place, and the sun was streaming through the windows, and this was playing, and I suddenly heard it and asked what it was. That was probably in 1993 or so. Since then, it has been in my life.

I am now on the train to Budapest, for the Szim Salom Passover seder, which I will be co-leading. On Sunday I head to Kisvárda (by train, with bike), and then from there by bike to the Zemplén region. I look forward to the return; it will be my third time there with bicycle, but my first time biking from Kisvárda (and my first time in Kisvárda, for that matter, except for the time I passed through by train).

I wish everyone good holidays and a restful break.

The Ungivable Advice


Yesterday was not a typical Saturday or Shabbat. In the morning, in Budapest, I co-led a synagogue service hosted by Szim Salom, Bét Orim, and a the West London Synagogue. It was a great occasion: some people in the room had never met before, while others had known each other for decades. We came together without effort (at least in the moment–there was effort in the preparations), and layers of voices filled the room. If someone were to ask me why I believe in God, I would reply, “Because of the human voice.” It’s only a sliver of a reason, and it’s as hard to explain that as to explain what it means to me to believe in God in the first place (even saying this much gets my words tangled), but even so, there’s something to it. In some way the human voice, especially the singing voice, does not die. Also, voices carry other voices; we bring memories into our singing, sometimes centuries of memories. There are moments in a Jewish service, and services of other religions too, when different levels of the past come together with the present. That’s what it was like all morning–but I wasn’t thinking of that. I was happy to be together with so many people, to be co-leading the service in a way that felt like being carried up and along.

Saying this, I understand a little better what happened six years and a few months ago, when I learned my first words in Hebrew. I listened to a cantor’s recording of the Blessing Before Haftarah, and something drew me in, something more than a beautiful voice or melody. It shook some kind of memory, though of what, I couldn’t say. I don’t mean anything mystical by this; I just mean that a few things happened at once. First, I knew that this was profoundly mine; second, I knew it belonged to many others too, of many centuries; third, I wanted to learn what it was all about, what the words meant, what on earth a Haftarah was; and fourth, there was something about it that went beyond explanation, maybe something mystical after all. All of this together launched the learning that carried me up to the present.

Afterward, after lingering for a little while to speak with people, I walked to the train station, caught the intended train, returned to Szolnok, biked home, dropped off my backpack, fed Minnaloushe, and then biked to the Verseghy Ferenc Library for the events I had been awaiting: a reading by László Darvasi (wonderful–very funny at moments, even to me, though I understood only a fraction of the humor), and then the Varga Katalin Gimnázium Drama Club’s performance, in a packed hall, of Farkasok (Wolves), a play by one of their members, Kata Bajnai. Many of my students were in the cast. There too, I didn’t understand everything, but I was taken by the clarity and starkness of the play and by the intensity of the acting. Each word and motion mattered. The audience was rapt. I hope to see it again and hope that the text will be published.

After that, I went back upstairs with two of my colleagues to hear a poetry slam performance. I don’t always like poetry slams (to put it mildly), but this one won me over. The performer, Kristóf Horváth, got the audience to  come up with multi-syllabic words and phrases that fit a given meter. Then he put them together and had us chant the whole improvised poem. People of many ages cheerfully pitched in.

But I was going to write about something else (related, though, in some way, to all of this). I have been thinking about how some of the most important advice is essentially ungivable. There is no way to understand it except in retrospect, and no way to phrase it in time. If I were to give advice to my former self (my teenage self, for instance), it would be something like this: “Do not doubt the worth of that essential, unchanging part of you. That is your contribution to the world; it is supposed to be there.” So many young people (and older people too) wish part of themselves away, especially those parts that stand out, that don’t seem to mesh with the surroundings.

But how do we know which parts of ourselves are essential and changeless, and which parts are changing? This takes time and participation in the world. We learn about ourselves through doing things, getting to know others, making mistakes, making our way through life. Also, the relation between the changing and the changeless is complex. I think I have always been both bold and shy, but over time I have gotten better at acknowledging both. A person does not have to be just one thing. Nor are boldness and shyness inherently good or bad; they can be shaped in many ways.

Moreover, the “changing” part is not necessarily less important than the “changeless” part; there’s vitality and loss in the transformation.

Back to the supposed advice: what does it mean that the unchanging part is “supposed” to be there? Despite believing in God in some way, I do not imagine a divine power creating and watching over each of us. It is likely that through evolution, humans became different from each other; these differences and distinctions gave us an advantage, since we could learn from each other and had to find ways to communicate. So from this standpoint, each person has something to contribute to the whole, even negatively.

But there is more to life than contributing to humanity as a whole. Yes, each of us is a tiny part of an immense field of action, which is in turn a tiny part of a more immense one. But we were given this strange gift of “I,” a self that eventually learns that it is not the center of the universe, but still never shakes its own importance entirely. What is this self for? If we were really supposed to serve humanity as a whole, shouldn’t the self have phased itself out? Wouldn’t we be better off as highly skilled and somewhat diverse carpenter ants?

The self brings with it a paradox: it (the self) prevents us from seeing others fully, but only through the self can any of us see another. Without a self, there would be no listening or speaking. But the self also blocks things out; it’s at once the keenest and dullest of instruments. So it sometimes needs a good shaking. Everyone, having a self, has something to work with and an infinity of things to take in (or not). The ungivable advice is that this is all worthwhile. Or at least some of it is, and that part requires the rest.

I took the photo on Friday morning. Also, I revised the piece on April 18.