On Giving Things Up

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Last week, in a conversation about my upcoming move to Hungary, a friend asked me, “How could you give up your apartment here?” I found this question difficult to answer; after all, we are defined in large part by our willingness and unwillingness to give up certain things. For me, giving up an apartment (under these circumstances) is easy; for someone else, it may be unthinkable. But I struggle with other material attachments. When sorting and packing my things, I have paused for a long time over books. I can’t bring many books with me, but I find more and more that I don’t want to leave behind. I am just putting them in storage–they won’t be gone–but I won’t be able to take them out of the shelf whenever I want.

Extreme circumstances–a war, flood, earthquake, fire, or other calamity–can force a person to give up things that otherwise would have seemed indispensable. Even a minor life change requires relinquishment of some kind. All the same, in large and small situations, each of us has a unique response to things that stay and go. Whether in times of ease or difficulty, no two people attach in the same way to their possessions, surroundings, and relationships.

Why is it easy for me to give up my place? After selling my apartment in Brooklyn, I chose to rent (rather than buy) an apartment so that I would have greater flexibility. I wanted to be open to future possibilities. So in a way the departure was already built in; I just didn’t know what form it would take. I love the neighborhood–particularly Fort Tryon Park–and am grateful for the two years here. It was an ideal place for writing my book (which is inching toward publication, by the way; there’s no concrete news yet, but I see light ahead).

So one answer to the question is, “This was part of the plan, before I even knew what the plan would be.” But another answer has to do with my sense of home. In my adult life I have spent years in one place or another–over a decade in New Haven, seven years in San Francisco, thirteen years in Brooklyn, two years in upper Manhattan, and seven Julys in Dallas. I am not one to move around continually. But I have no single home; each of these places is still a home for me, and there will be more.

Home does not exist for me without homesickness and longing for unknown places. Those are two different longings, though they combine at times; homesickness is a longing for a real or imagined home, while that longing for other places–places that aren’t home–pulls a person away from home, away even from homesickness, into travel and exploration. In his video introduction to his Shudh Sarang-sextet, Iván Fischer describes his search for a single word for such longing, something along the lines of “farsickness.” He had a wonderful Hungarian word, elvágyódások, but could not find a title in English that conveyed what he wanted.

So to answer the question, I would have to explain my sense of home, homesickness, and longing for the faraway. That could take a few years; in the meantime, the relations might have altered or shifted. For most of my adult life, I have not traveled much abroad, but the few trips I took on my own (to Kyrgyzstan, Argentina, Lithuania, Turkey, Slovakia, and Hungary) became part of my daily thought. The move to Hungary is more than travel; I don’t know what it will become, and I look forward to finding out.

Isn’t this true for everyone? Doesn’t each person have a sense of home that is difficult to explain to others, that changes shape over a lifetime, and that gets pushed and pulled in unexpected ways?

Back to the sorting and packing….

 

I took this photo in Baja, Hungary.

Classrooms, Bach, and Trains

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IMG_3718Now rested from my trip to Hungary (see yesterday’s post on the synagogue concerts), I marvel that this was all possible and that it is just the beginning. In the space of one week, I visited the school in Szolnok where I will be teaching, attended Shabbat services (and read Torah) at Sim Shalom, met with the Hungarian director of the Central European Teaching Program, and attended three Budapest Festival Orchestra concerts in three different towns (or cities). Yet this itinerary was not frantic or rushed; rather, it introduced me to something long-lasting, something that extended far before and after me but was soon to involve me for at least a few years, possibly more. Traveling to the different towns, in this sense, was like tilting a place in the light, or rather, being tilted by it, being turned into someone slightly different from before. I will soon be walking down the corridors of this photo every weekday.

On Friday morning I took the 5:10 train from Budapest to Szolnok. (I chose this early train so that I would have ample time to walk to the school; the route was simple, but I didn’t want to risk being late.) Many students boarded the train; when we got off, we all walked in one big crowd, which dwindled as students entered this or that school. A few continued walking all the way to the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. There I spent the day visiting classes and learning the ropes from the teacher who will be going on leave.

In general, I do not blog in detail about what goes on at school; although I might mention something interesting that came up in discussion, or describe a school event, I treat the classroom as confidential. But I was impressed with what I saw: the thoughtful atmosphere, the teacher’s combination of structure and spontaneity, and the students’ interest in learning. I met many teachers and had a chance to speak with the headmaster, whose dedication and vision were immediately apparent. I am excited about teaching there.

IMG_3715I got to see a little of Szolnok too, and there is much more to explore–the Tisza, the bike paths, the side streets, and the city’s lively cultural offerings, including concerts, a theater, and an array of festivals. The street from the train station to the school has many cafes and pastry shops; it passes by the city’s main buildings and sculptures, which bring together many eras.

I returned to Budapest in time to recollect myself and go to the Friday evening Shabbat service at Sim Shalom. Here too, I do not blog about the details! I loved the warmth of the service and felt profoundly at home. At the morning service I was invited to read (i.e., chant) Torah–the first aliya (Deuteronomy 26:1-3) of Ki Tavo–and so I did. It was wonderfully fitting, as these were my first fruits.

IMG_3732In the afternoon, after a delightful kiddush lunch (which reminded me in some ways of philosophy roundtables at Columbia Secondary School), I headed by train to Szeged, to hear the Budapest Festival Orchestra play two Bach cantatas at the Szeged Alsóvárosi Ferences Plébánia, also known as the Havas Boldogasszony Church. After arrriving in Szeged, I wanted to stop off at the hotel but had a little trouble finding it, so I asked a woman for directions. She walked me all the way there. When I told her that I was attending the concert, she said that she was too. (I did not see her later, but it was very crowded.) I found my way to the church, but asked a few people, just in case, whether I had come to the right place. “Igen, igen” (“Yes, yes”) was the reply.

People were coming from all over the city–on foot, by bike, and by car. There were people in wheelchairs, small children, elderly people; one family brought a Border Collie (who barked once or twice during the introduction but was quiet throughout the performance, either because the music calmed him down or because someone took him outside). The church filled up fast. People were courteous; when it turned out that I had taken a seat that someone had been saving, others in the audience pointed me to an open seat.

I still have the sounds of the concert in my mind: the alto-soprano duet of “Jesu, der du meine Seele” (I am thrilled to be introduced to Emőke Barath’s voice), the tenor aria with the Baroque flute solo, the bass aria (“Nun du wirst mein Gewissen stillen“) of the with the repeated violin motif, pictured below in a score excerpt, and, in the next cantata, “Christus, der ist mein Leben,” that tenor aria and the brief and solemn choral “Weil du vom Tod erstanden bist” at the end, which reminds me a little of the “Passion Chorale” in his St. Matthew Passion. These are just the pieces in my mind right now; there is much more to remember and study. But look at the picture below: you see, in the second line, the first violins’ motif with the trill, and then, in the third, the shorter version of the motif. They come back again and again. I love this repetition and am intrigued that it works so well and memorably. (One would expect a repetition to be “memorable”–that’s part of what repetition is for–but I remember not just the motif itself, but the joy of it.)

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IMG_3752After the concert, and the following morning, I walked around Szeged, enjoying the architecture, sounds, parks, imaginative statues, wide bike paths, river life (I crossed the Tisza on foot and saw boats on the river and parks on either side) and overall feel. I hope to return many times to this city. It will be an easy day trip on a weekend. I then took the train from Szeged to Albertirsa for the first of two synagogue concerts.

It was easy and relaxing to get to different places in the country; the trains were generally reliable, comfortable, and not too crowded. The best part, though, was when I almost missed a connection when traveling to the synagogue concert in Baja. The train from Budapest to Dombóvár was running behind schedule; I thought I might miss the train from Dombóvár to Baja. I stood near the train exit, anxiously looking out the window. A man (who had been checking the timetable on his phone) spoke to me in Hungarian; I guessed that he was talking about the delay, but I didnt know how to respond. It turned out that he was transferring to the same train.

When we got to Dombóvár, I thought it was too late. I asked a conductor where the train to Baja was. “A piros vonat,” she said, pointing to a little red train just ahead. I began to sprint for it. Then I saw the conductor standing beside it, smiling, and gesturing with his hands for me to slow down. So I walked the rest of the way and boarded. The rest is history and still to come.

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Opening the Gates

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A piyut by R. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol (Spain, 11th century) begins, “Sha’ar asher nisgar, kuma petahehu….” (“The gate that is shut, get up and open it…”). Here is a beautiful performance. Filled with echoes of the Song of Songs, the piyut expresses a longing that is both intensely personal and communal, both immediate and bound up in history.

In Hungary, many gates to Jewish history are locked; during the Holocaust, Jewish communities throughout the countryside were destroyed. Many synagogues are now abandoned, and the unanswerable loss hidden away. The synagogue concerts I attended on Sunday and Monday–performed in Albertirsa and Baja by members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra–opened a few gates.

I begin with the ending: in Baja, at the Ady Endre Library, whose building was once the city’s synagogue. After the first piece (the first movement of Brahms’s Sextet, Opus 18), the rabbi (Rabbi Slomó Köves, I believe), who spoke in between the pieces and gave a rousing shofar demonstration, asked someone to open up the ark. It remained open for the rest of the concert and afterward, so we could see the Torah scrolls, siddurim, photographs, hanukkiah, Shabbat candles, tallit, and more. As you can see in the photo above, the musicians performed right in front of the ark. I understood this as a gesture of gratitude and hope. Here is a closer view.

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The Budapest Festival Orchestra inaugurated its synagogue concert series in 2014. This project, initially envisioned by the conductor, Iván Fischer, aims “to fill synagogues that were laid bare by the Holocaust, with life, music and culture once again.” In other words, there is more to this than “just” playing concerts in these spaces; the music and presentations, the gatherings and assemblies, gently transform the people, synagogues, and towns.

This series is one of the orchestra’s many community initiatives. Orchestra members bring concerts to the elderly, the sick, the disabled, pregnant women, disadvantaged children, and people who cannot afford to travel. They give free concerts, open to all, in cities, towns, and villages around Hungary. (On Saturday evening, in Szeged, I attended their wonderful church concert of two Bach cantatas; I will say more about that in another piece. People came from all over the city: on foot, by bike, and by car. One family brought a big Border Collie.) The orchestra hosts an annual “Dancing on the Square” on Heroes’ Square in Budapest; over 500 children of different backgrounds work with teachers for six months to prepare a dance choreography for this celebration.

On the surface, the Albertirsa and Baja concerts had identical programs: the Brahms, Alexander Glazunov’s Rêverie orientale, Jacques Ibert’s Three Short Pieces, and, for the encore, a beautiful melancholic piece, evocative of a Nishmat melody, by a Hungarian Jewish klezmer composer (I will provide both his name and the name of the piece when I learn them). But beyond that, the Albertirsa and Baja concerts differed not only in the architecture and acoustics, not only in the audiences, but in the many layers of present and past. I remember the big echoing sound of Albertirsa and the warm resonance of Baja, but those adjectives say only so much.

I took the train from Szeged to Albertirsa late Sunday morning. Arriving in mid-afternoon, I had some time to wander around and get my bearings. I found my way to the little town square, which has memorial dedicated to the residents of Alberti and Irsa who died in World War II. I sat on a bench there for an hour or two.

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Around 3:30 I saw a stream of people all walking in the same direction: children, elderly people, families. I thought they might be going to the concert, so I followed them. Indeed, that was so. We were all going to the same place.

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I later learned (from Szolongo Szani, the orchestra’s community program coordinator, that when the BFO played at this synagogue in 2015, the building was abandoned and in ruins. It seems that the concert inspired the community to restore and make use off the space, which now serves as a House of Arts (Művészetek Háza). This was a project of spirit and care.

Here’s a view of the inside. I took the photo about twenty minutes before the concert started; by the time it began, the hall was full.

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Each piece in the program had a perfect and memorable ending: the pizzicato of the Brahms, the hush of the Glazunov, the glorious final run of the Ibert, and the encore’s final notes. Those endings stay with me and tug at me. The end of a piece can be a revelation: right then, in those fleeting seconds, you grasp the piece as a whole.

A ending of this kind also seems to say, “Remember and return.” You walk away with something of the piece, and it brings you back to the listening.

After each piece, the audience clapped heartily, in rhythm (a gesture analogous to standing ovations in the U.S.). There was a reciprocity in the room: not only between the audience, musicians, and rabbi, but between past and present. The concert was part instruction, part music for the sake of music; the clarinetist Ákos Ács gave the initial introduction (about the series itself), and the rabbi spoke twice. Since this was all in Hungarian, I missed most of the rabbi’s humor but understood some of the gist: he spoke of the history of the synagogue and of certain Jewish practices (such as the blowing of the shofar). He pointed out where the women once sat and where the Torah scrolls were once kept.

after the concertAfter the concert, there was cake. People stayed and talked outside for a long time. In this photo you can see the cellist Rita Sovány (now one of my favorite cellists) and the violist Barna Juhász. Lingering was part of the spirit o the event; the music was still in our ears, and many of us did not want to leave just yet. We were welcomed to stay.

Afterward I took a leisurely walk back to the train station. I did not even have to ask, “Hol van a pályaudvar?,” which I have had occasion to ask a few times. I remembered my way and had no trouble catching the train. That night I would go back to Budapest–and then, the next morning, head out to Baja.

I have stories to tell about the trip to Baja–for instance, about the delightful little red train I caught in Dombóvár. They will have to wait a little while. When I got there, I fell in love with the townlike city: its leafy park, pastel-colored buildings, and the Stars of David rising up into the sky (from the Ady Endre Library). Here again, I did not have to ask for directions.

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The city and synagogue had a different feel from Albertirsa. The synagogue, which the city purchased from the Jewish community in 1985, bears witness to a thriving past. When converting it to a library, the city restored its many details, including artwork and lettering. When I entered and saw the library staff greeting people warmly, I sensed their pride over this concert. Members of the small local Jewish community were in attendance; during his presentation, the rabbi welcomed comments from people in the audience who knew the synagogue’s history intimately.

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Within its visual splendor, the hall had a warm and subtle feel. At the end of the Glazunov you could hear the sounds so close to silence . The encore (the name of which I will find out) felt like something that happens once in a lifetime, even among hundreds of performances of the same piece. After the concert, as I got up and headed toward the cake, I made eye contact with other audience members; their eyes told me what I would not have been able to understand in words.

I stayed for a little while, took pictures of the ark, and spoke in my bare-beginner’s Hungarian with a library staff member, for whom I recited the first four lines of Ady Endre’s poem “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm,” which seemed appropriate for this night and week.

Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok,
Számban nevednek jó íze van,
Szent mennydörgést néz a két szemem,
Istenem, istenem, istenem….

It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear,
Thy name of names is sweet inside my mouth,
And the holy thunder fills my sight,
My God, my God, my God.

(This is my own attempt at a translation; I used Leslie A. Kery’s as a starting point.)

IMG_3833The gates were opened that night, and so were the skies; that night, as I slept in a little inn in Baja, the rain came pouring down. In the morning, before sunrise, I walked back to the train station through glowing streets.

In Hebrew, HaMakom (“the place”) is one of the names of God. These synagogue concerts were not just concerts played in synagogues; the place and the music were part of each other. This is probably always true, but easily forgotten; in some way, music–the creation, playing, and listening–comes out of knowing who and where you are, even as you search your whole life for the answers, the countless answers, to these questions.

 

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it (and a few more later). Also, thanks to Jenny Golub for editing the sixth photo to make it lighter.

Before Dawn in Baja, Hungary

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At 5 a.m., in a gentle rain after a night of downpour, I walked down this street toward the Baja train station. What a beautiful week this has been. I will soon write two pieces: one about the trip overall, particularly the visit to Szolnok, and one about the Budapest Festival Orchestra concerts in Szeged, Albertirsa, and Baja.

Routes of Passage

budapest1Someone getting to know a new country may go through many rites of passage, which sometimes take the form of routes. For example, it’s important to learn how to take public transportation from the airport to your destination. Why? It’s about one-tenth the cost of a cab, it’s more fun, and once you know how to do it, it’s easy (or can be). So I was excited to take the bus to the Budapest city center.I was going to take the metro from Astoria to Keleti, but I walked instead. This picture, taken from the bus, gives a sense of the ride.

Another important route has been vertical, through a glass elevator at the Baross City Hotel. When I ride, I feel swept up into an unassuming elegance. The Baross is low-key, as far as hotels go–comfortable but not fancy, gracious but not unctuous, and one of my favorite hotels yet. It seems to hold several eras simultaneously, through its neoclassical architecture, mechanical and electrical engineering, internet connections, and daily comings and goings. Here I am not sure what the rite of passage means, or where the route may take me, other than up and down in glass–but I’m enjoying it. I have some jet lag but must get some more sleep, as I leave for Szolnok early in the morning.

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The Red Heifer

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I had read about Iván Fischer’s opera The Red Heifer (A Vörös Tehén), often described as biting political commentary, but did not realize until yesterday that there was a beautiful video of the October 2013 world premiere! It was performed in Budapest by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the Saint Ephraim Male Choir, students of the University of Theatre and Film Arts, and soloists and dancers; conducted by Fischer; and directed by Tamás Ascher and Kriszta Székely. Find an hour to watch it today. It’s in Hungarian (and at one point in Hebrew), but if you do not know these languages, the music will carry you along, and the unobtrusive subtitles will give you the gist.

The Red Heifer accomplishes something rare in art or life: It makes a political statement without reducing anything or anyone. It dives into the difficulty of the matter.

It has the texture of a lyric poem; with taut soul and few images, it takes up a complex historical and contemporary event: the Hungarian blood libel of 1882-1883, also known as the Tiszaeszlár affair, in which Christian townspeople and agitators accused the local Jews of ritually murdering and beheading Eszter Solymosi, a peasant girl (who had gone missing), in order to use her blood for Passover.

Móric Scharf, the teenage son of the synagogue sexton József Scharf, first denied all knowledge of the alleged events but later testified that, while looking through the keyhole of the synagogue, he had seen his own father and others commit the murder. (Many years later, in an interview, he said he had been tortured and threatened before his testimony.) A body with the girl’s clothes was found in the Tisza, with no cuts or evidence of murder–but the mother denied that this was her daughter. Fifteen people were formally accused, and news of the case spread fast and far.

The statesman and lawyer (and former Governor-President) Lajos Kossuth wrote letters of protest, from exile, against the accusations and proceedings; even this did not alter the course of events. Only later, when doctors reexamined the body, did it become clear to all that the girl had died by drowning and that no ritual murder had occurred. On August 3, 1883, all of the accused were acquitted–but the case had inflamed anti-Semitism in the country.  (There’s much more to all of this; I have given a bare summary.)

The opera (whose libretto is drawn from a 1931 novel by Gyula Krúdy) focuses on the boy. What would cause a teenager to accuse his father falsely? What might have been happening inside him, then and afterward? The music and choreography convey the questions and hint at possible answers. The musical idioms and forms–Hungarian and Jewish folklore, opera, fugue, rap, cantillation, and more–express not only cultures but minds. It is not a hodgepodge; as I listen, I find that some of these idioms are part of me, that I, like the characters, walk within many languages. Yet not all of them are home; home requires more than knowledge, more than fluency.

You see Móric (Jonatán Kovács) at the inn, watching the townspeople dance, yearning to be part of things, but moving invisibly in the room, as though not counted or seen. He sees the innkeeper (a Jewish woman, played by Orsolya Sáfár) slipping and sliding drunkenly around, humiliated and still magnificent; you feel him wishing to be included, wishing to be one of the others. But this is not just a matter of a teenager wishing to belong. The crowd and individuals seize and use him.

Móric’s court testimony has stunning musical form; as Alex Ross describes it in The New Yorker, he spits it out “in a terrifying triplet-rhythm rap, with Weill-like chords snapping behind him.” Then he turns to the cheering crowd and makes gestures of egging them on, not realizing that they are the ones controlling him.

Lajos Kossuth (Krisztián Cser) appears later, showing a dignity and a standard absent from the proceedings: something possible in this life, something to grow into. His voice resounds with conscience and experience. You sense that he has suffered.

All of this leads up to the astonishing scene between father and son, after the acquittal and release of the accused. (I will leave it at that; it’s better to watch and hear it for yourself.)

The red heifer itself has several meanings in this work. As Iván Fischer explains in his introduction (at the start of the video), it refers to (a) a cow that stepped on the toes of the girl and thereby provided evidence through which the body could be identified; (b) an inn called The Red Cow, where all the manipulation took place; (c) the innkeeper, who was nicknamed “The Red Cow”; and (d) the red heifer in the Torah (Numbers 19), used for ritual purification.

Maybe there’s a fifth meaning here as well. Maybe the red heifer is the great mistake or mistakes we make in our lives–the mistakes that will eventually teach us how to live. None of us is immune to mistakes; there is no static human purity, only purity of learning and return.

But the lessons of the historical event have not been fully learned. The girl’s symbolic grave in Tiszaeszlár has become a site of pilgrimage by extremists. The accusations were disproven and dismissed in 1883, but some wish to revive them even now. Thus the opera speaks not only to the past and its modern-day analogies, but to an urgent present.

How can art protest cultural and political trends while retaining its complexity and integrity? This opera achieves just that–by speaking in music and poetry and by going into the difficulty. True political life requires rejection of the glib. We are never just one thing or another; we live in conflict with ourselves. Even so, we are responsible for seeking understanding and moving toward the good. The Red Heifer suggests the possibility and profundity of this movement, not long ago or far away, but here and now.

 

 

Image credit: Painting by Yoram Raanan. The painting and opera are unrelated except through the red heifer.

I made some edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Back to the Map

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This coming week I go to Hungary to prepare for the move there in November and to attend several Budapest Festival Orchestra community concerts (one church concert and two synagogue concerts). These combined purposes will take me to five locations in six days: Budapest, Szolnok, Szeged, Albertirsa, and Baja, which you can see above and in Google Maps. My actual train itinerary will be Budapest-Szolnok-Budapest-Szeged-Albertirsa-Budapest-Baja-Budapest. That is, I will be stationed in Budapest but will stay overnight in Szeged and Baja as well. To put this together in my mind, I have been reading about each of the towns.

Each one is near a body of water: Szolnok and Szeged lie on the Tisza; Budapest and Baja, on the Danube. These waterways have much to do with the cities’ histories. Albertirsa is not near a body of water; its first train arrived in 1847.

Szeged was once a Roman trading post (on an island in the Tisza); its castle, a corner of which remains standing, dates back to the thirteenth century or earlier. The name Szeged may derive from the Hungarian szeg, “corner”; the Tisza bends there. The city had a massive flood in 1879; Emperor Franz Josef promised that the rebuilt city would be more beautiful than the old one. Lajos Tisza, who led the effort, fulfilled the emperor’s promise.

Albertirsa, a small town in the middle of the Great Hungarian Plain, existed first as two habitations: Alberti (mentioned by King Ladislaus IV in 1277) and Irsa (mentioned in the chapter of Buda in 1368). It became Albertirsa in 1950. The town has a rich and painful Jewish history. Moritz Goldstein, father of the mezzo-soprano opera singer Róza Csillag (1832-1892), was a hazzan of Irsa; I hope to learn more about him (and her). The synagogue, opened in 1809, has now been renovated and reopened as Művészetek Háza, House of Arts.

Since 2014, for one of its many community initiatives, the Budapest Festival Orchestra has been playing concerts in synagogues around Hungary, to bring music to local communities and to honor the Jewish history of these places. Here’s Fiona Maddocks’s article about the project (The Guardian, December 12, 2016). I intend to write a piece, possibly for this blog, possibly for another publication, after attending next week’s concerts.

The church concert in Szeged, performed by the orchestra’s Baroque ensemble, consists of two Bach cantatas (“Jesu, der du meine Seele,” BWV 78, and “Christus, der ist mein Leben,” BWV 95). The synagogue concerts in Albertirsa and Baja feature Ibert (Trois pièces brèves), Glazunov (Rêverie orientale), and Brahms (String Sextet No. 1, Op.18). I have been listening to recordings of these pieces; here’s a beautiful video of the Israeli Chamber Project performing the Glazunov.

Speaking of synagogues, I will get to attend services at Sim Shalom in Budapest this Friday and Saturday; I look forward to this with full heart.

Almost first of all, I will go to Szolnok, my first destination after Budapest. How exciting to see the school and visit a few classes! The city is just a 90-minute train ride from Budapest; the school, a direct walk from the train station. Szolnok is known as a crossroads, but it holds its own life–not only an annual goulash festival, not only mayflies, not only an airplane museum, not only a rich music culture (from what I gather), but daily life, with its many walks and ways, and strong education.

I was tempted to post a picture or two here (from other sites), but why not wait until I have taken a few on my own? My thoughts right now are preliminary and anticipatory; I don’t know any of these places yet. Next week I will only start to know them. Still, a start is farther along than a pre-start, which is farther along than no hint of a start at all. Instead of a photo, I’ll post Pál Vágó’s painting of the 1879 flood.

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Image credits: (1) Google Maps; (2) Pál Vágó, painting of Szeged flood of 1879 (Ferenc Mora Museum; image courtesy of the wonderful blog Europe Between East and West).

Update: The concert schedule has changed since my original post: the September 10 synagogue concert will be in Albertirsa, not Balatonfüred. I have changed the map and post accordingly.

On Being Welcome

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Yesterday I treated myself to two films at Film Forum: Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (an old favorite) and The Teacher (by Jan Hrebejk, the director of Divided We Fall, with Csongor Kassai in one of the lead roles). Not having seen The Teacher before, I was taken with its subtle treatment of a rather flat premise: a new teacher, who happens to be chair of the Communist Party at her school, begins extorting services and favors from the students and parents. Ben Kenigsberg’s New York Times review does not do the film justice; there’s much more to it than he suggests. The texture of Hrebejk’s films–the music, pacing, dimness, gentleness–stays with me long afterward, and this film lent itself to a kind of soul-searching, not only through its subject, but through its moods and ambiguities. Kassai has become one of my favorite film actors, and I loved the others too. Each parent and child shows a mixture of confusion and principle, timidity and strength.

The soul-searching: I would never extort things from my students or their parents; all the same, do I always use my power justly? This question does not end; I must ask it again and again. Also, when witnessing abuses of power (in any setting), have I spoken up, or have I accommodated the situation? The film brings out how mixed we are: how easy it is for any of us to justify our comforts and push difficulty away, even believing that we are doing the right thing. I could have been one of the parents objecting to the petition; I could have been the head teacher in her state of relief when the meeting, which she reluctantly called and led, seems to come to nothing.

But that’s not what this post is about. While waiting in the lobby (an ample wait, since I had purchased my tickets earlier in the week and had arrived early), a boy of about thirteen or fourteen years asked me, “Are they letting people in yet for Pierrot le Fou?” He held a big bag of popcorn in one hand and a soda in the other. I told him that we were on standby; he nodded and stood by. He was all by himself. When we were let in, I went ahead; he came along and sat down two seats away from me. He seemed absorbed in the film; now and then I heard him laughing. At the end of the film, either he or someone else nearby exclaimed “Cool!” He got up and left.

I was tempted to ask him (before or after the film) what had brought him there; it isn’t every day that you see a twelve-year-old attending Pierrot le Fou alone. (Of course it isn’t  every day that you see Pierrot le Fou, so here we have the un-everyday within the un-everyday.) Did he know someone in it? Was he a young director? Did he know what he was getting into? Why didn’t he laugh during the “Est-ce que vous m’aimez” scene (or did he, maybe)? This time, I found the scene wildly silly and sad, but I don’t know how others took it.

I decided not to ask him any questions or bother him at all. I remember what one of my former students said a few years ago: “You know you’re accepted when people don’t make a big fuss about your presence–for instance, when you can go to a play and just be part of the audience.” I remembered, also, what it was like to be a kid and have people coo over me, just because I was a kid. (It wasn’t fun.) Why should kids have to justify themselves wherever they go, sit, or stand? So I left him alone. I was delighted, though, that he had the gumption to go to a movie–this particular one, no less–on his own.

But then, I must have looked rather young when, at age fourteen, I went on my own to concerts and plays in Moscow. No one bothered me, and that was grand; I could enjoy them on my own terms. Sometimes I invited classmates (or they me), but most of the time I went by myself.

Those times of liberty, of being able to explore not only your physical surroundings but works of art, music, theatre, dance, and film, help give you a foothold in the world, and not only a foothold, but a way of loosening it, a lift into the unknown.

 

Image credit: From a YouTube video of the “Est-ce-que vous m’aimez” scene, acted by Raymond Devos and Jean-Paul Belmondo. (I prefer the Vimeo one because it’s a little longer and shows Pierrot escaping at the end.)

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

Packing and Unpacking

koraI have moved from house to house, borough to borough, state to state, and even country to country. But I have never moved to another country on my own. At age 10 and 14, I lived in the Netherlands and Soviet Russia, respectively, but with my family. This is different. Planning for Hungary, I sharpen to my surroundings.

This afternoon, in the 77th Street subway station (6 line), I heard a kora player. (See the picture above.) Some people walked by as though nothing extraordinary were happening. How can that be? He sounded a little like Toumani Diabaté (who sounds a little like heaven, probably, if it exists):

A little earlier in the day, when heading to a doctor’s appointment, I passed through Central Park and saw a sweet scene with a tire swing. I shot an eight-second video:

I don’t usually relish doctors’ and vets’ appointments, but I am finding a thrill in taking care of things. Even Aengus and Minnaloushe have bonded. (Here they are at the vet’s yesterday, hiding together under a chair.)

at the vet

It seems at first glance that packing is tedium; unpacking, excitement. But that’s not true. The packing and unpacking happen together and depend on each other. When you say goodbye to a place, it spills open. When you open your suitcase, you see where things might go.
After posting this piece, I muted the sound on the tire swing video; it’s better that way.

What’s in a Map, and What Isn’t?

hungary map

As I look at the map of Hungary (something I’ve been doing a lot lately), I see how it can be understood only through its history. The country is surrounded by Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria; from 1869 to the Treaty of Trianon (1920), Austro-Hungary (the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary) encompassed most of this region. After Trianon, many Hungarian speakers found themselves cut off from Hungary. Hungary lost over two-thirds of its territory, while new countries (the Kingdom of Romania, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and the Czechoslovak Republic) gained sovereignty.

One of the principles of the Treaty of Trianon was the “self-determination of peoples”–but who and where are the peoples? Should countries be defined ethnically, and is this even possible? Eva S. Balogh argues that the new borders did not correspond closely with ethnic lines–and that, given many Hungarians’ belief that the only solution lay in the full restoration of the former Kingdom of Hungary, “it was almost inevitable that Hungary would end up on the side of Germany, the country dissatisfied with the status quo.” Or was it? Balogh herself suggests that if the situation had been presented and approached more carefully, things might have turned out differently.

IMG_3359To understand Trianon, one has to go back farther still, and then farther still, and forward too, and back again. Also, one cannot look at the “big picture” alone. If you zoom in on the map (which I obtained through Google Maps), you will see, to the southeast of Košice, a town called Sátoraljaújhely. Keep zooming in (you have to do so about five more times), and you will see, just over the Slovak border, another town, Slovenské Nové Mesto. These together were once a great town, a center of Jewish culture and the capital of Zemplén county. As of Trianon, the Ronyva stream has separated the Slovak (formerly Czechoslovak) side from the Hungarian side; that was neither the beginning nor the end of the sorrows. From the photo here on the left (which I took at the end of my bike trip in May), one would not know the town’s grief and losses: the World War II bombings, the deportation of nearly all the Jews to Auschwitz, the Soviet occupation. Even reading the history, I only begin to grasp parts, and only from a distance. I can zoom in further and further, I can visit the town and walk over the border, but still it will take years to understand, as a beginner, what happened here. It is worth the long, slow study.

 

The map image above is courtesy of Google Maps.