Bike Rides and Their Layers

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One thing I love about long bike rides is that they allow me to think without interference. I can sift through many things over those hours. Another thing I love is the discovery: exploring towns and countryside, taking detours here and there. A third is the return: coming to know a place better through visiting it again and again. Then these three things start to play with each other in counterpoint: the thinking, exploring, and return, so that the bike ride becomes a kind of music.

Music! someone might say. What are you doing talking about music? There’s no time for that. You should be out on the streets protesting.

But music is not an escape. It is protest of its own kind. It demands and allows truth.

I stayed in Vajdácska, at the bed-and-breakfast I have visited four times now, in four consecutive years. The owners are welcoming, the food is delicious, and the place is lovely and full of original touches. The photo at the top was the view from my window. Here, below, is a view from about 300 meters away. (The church on the left is Hungarian Greek Catholic; the one on the right, Protestant.)

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In 2017, when I first visited, I biked around the surrounding towns and villages. In 2018 and 2019, I bicycled up to Kassa (Košice) and took a train back; this time, I biked to Tokaj and back. Tokaj is famous for its wines, especially sweet white wine–but it is the dry Furmint that especially appeals to me.  Anyway, I had more than one reason for going to Tokaj: I wanted to stay within Hungary, see Tokaj itself, see what this southbound route was like, and start figuring out a future bike trip–about two and a half days long–from Szolnok to Vajdácska.

But this bike ride took me beyond what I had expected. In Vámosújfalu, I noticed that every house had a well next to it. That is, everyone drew their own water. The next village, Olaszliszka, had something magical about it, but I didn’t start to understand it until the way back. Then in Szegilong there were storks in nests, one after another, all of them feeding their young. (There had been storks before, but this was the first time that I saw them in a row.)

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As I drew closer to Tokaj, I started seeing wineries and vineyards, one after another.

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Then Tokaj itself–a place where you were invited to take a rest and enjoy yourself. A statue of Bacchus, by the sculptor Péter Szanyi, sets the mood in the town square. (Tokaj legends include a cult of Bacchus, thanks in part to the Jesuit teacher and poet Imre Marotti.)

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I had some goulash at the Bacchus Restaurant, then visited a wine cellar (the Borostyán Pince, over 350 years old), where I bought some Furmint and talked for a while with the owner, who showed me the currency he had received from visitors from around the world and asked me many questions about how I ended up coming to Hungary to live and teach. (All the conversations on this trip were in Hungarian.)

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So far, this sounds more or less like a typical tourist trip, or tourist bike trip. But I had been noticing some other things too. When I entered Tokaj, I passed by a large Jewish cemetery, larger than the one in Sátoraljaújhely. It was closed, so I just looked at it for a few minutes. (To take this picture, I passed my hands through the gate.)

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On the way back, I was thinking about how some of the villages were entirely inhabited by Roma people (“Gypsies”), others by white Hungarians, others by both. I thought about how each village had its own history–sometimes a violent history–of ethnic conflict. I didn’t know anything yet about Olaszliszka, but on the way back, I took a little more time to look at it. It seemed to be all Roma–I saw children playing in the streets, parents pushing their babies in strollers, teenagers chatting outside a corner store. I saw medieval ruins overgrown with greenery.

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I saw a sign pointing the way to a Jewish synagogue and cemetery–and biked in that direction but found nothing. Later I learned that this was a famous center of Hungarian Hasidism–where the first Lisker Rebbe, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Friedman, lived. The village apparently still has a memorial synagogue site.

The village was also the site of a murder in 2006, which became part of the subject of a play by Szilárd Borbély. A white Hungarian biology teacher, Lajos Szögi, was driving through with his two daughters when his car hit a little Roma girl, who fell down but was unharmed. The family attacked the man and beat him to death in front of his daughters. The father of the little girl later received a life sentence; all the others involved received stiff punishments. There have been some discussions of why this happened, but for many, the incident confirmed existing prejudice and hatred. (There has been repeated violence against Roma people too.)

A village like this keeps everything secret and tells all. Knowing nothing of this yet, I stopped to listen to the swooping birds. I hope to go back and see more, including the synagogue memorial.

Before and after, I was thinking about the U.S., about police violence, about the protests. I support the protests in that they call out truths and necessities. I do not stand with protesters who shame and debase people who disagree with them even in part (for instance, those who booed and shamed Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis when he said that he did not support abolishing the police force). This leads to no good; it alienates some possible allies and coerces others into false agreement. It makes deliberation impossible.

On the other hand, protests need their fire. Many protesters are understandably tired of moderate arguments; too often moderation has squirmed away from its promises.

The next day, on my way to the Sárospatak train station, I passed by a rose garden. It was beautiful, so I stopped. The gardener saw me and cut a rose for me. I thanked him and headed on. Then I turned back and asked him if he would take a picture. He obliged. (There is much more to say about Sárospatak, and far more to learn.)

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I wondered, throughout the trip, whether my own uncertainty (over politics and many other things) was a sign of strength or weakness. I don’t think I can answer that yet (or maybe ever). But for better or worse, uncertainty is part of what I do, what I have to offer. I know that I don’t know the entirety of another person, a country, myself, or a crumbling building. But I want to come back and learn more.

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I made a few small additions to this piece after posting it.

“And he said….” (pause)

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Jewish life in Budapest is evolving in exciting ways. The two Reform congregations, Szim Salom and Bét Orim, are working out a schedule of joint services, which officially began this Shabbat. It isn’t clear exactly what shape this will take in the future, but it’s off to a good start. Because of this change, at least for now I will no longer lead services on Friday evenings; instead, I will focus on Saturday mornings (on alternate Shabbatot). That means I don’t stay overnight in Budapest on Friday night; instead, I take the train in on Saturday morning. It worked well; I like this new arrangement because it gives me just a little more time to practice my leyning, and because I can sleep at home. Also, it reminds me of the BJ (B’nai Jeshurun) days in some ways; in New York City I was a Saturday morning regular, but I only occasionally went to services on Friday evenings. It was important to me to have some quiet time at home. For me, Saturday was when it all came together: the beautiful liturgy, the Torah reading, the Haftarah, and everything else. Yesterday was like that. In addition, Szim Salom has a shiur, a Torah study, after the Shacharit service on Saturday; I always stay for that and enjoy being part of it.

As I discussed in a recent post, the Mazsihisz’s (Federation of Jewish Communities) has deliberated over the possibility of recognizing the Reform communities. So far, the Mazsihisz has voted against this, but the discussions are ongoing.

But I came here to bring up something interesting from the Torah reading and leyning. Israel (Jacob) is on his deathbed, and he tells Jacob that he wishes to be buried not in Egypt, but where his forefathers are buried. And Joseph answers that he will do as his father has said. This is in the second half of Genesis 47:30: וַיֹּאמַר, אָנֹכִי אֶעֱשֶׂה כִדְבָרֶךָ. “And he said: ‘I will do as thou hast said.'”

The word “vayomar” (“and he said”) is in pausal form (the regular form is “vayomer”). The cantillation phrase is a zakef gadol, which typically accompanies a word that constitutes a phrase on its own. It is a medium-level disjunctive; there is a slight pause after it.

Just a few verses later, in Genesis 48:2, there’s another zakef gadol, but this time with “vayomer” instead of “vayomar.” וַיַּגֵּד לְיַעֲקֹב–וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה בִּנְךָ יוֹסֵף בָּא אֵלֶיךָ; וַיִּתְחַזֵּק, יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֵּשֶׁב, עַל-הַמִּטָּה. “And one told Jacob, and said: ‘Behold, thy son Joseph cometh unto thee.’ And Israel strengthened himself, and sat upon the bed.” Why is “vayomer” in the non-pausal form here, when it seems to have an equivalent place grammatically to the previous one?

Then, a few verses later, in Genesis 48:9, there’s a zakef gadol again, this time with “vayomar” again! וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף, אֶל-אָבִיו, בָּנַי הֵם, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן-לִי אֱלֹהִים בָּזֶה; וַיֹּאמַר, קָחֶם-נָא אֵלַי וַאֲבָרְכֵם. “And Joseph said unto his father: ‘They are my sons, whom God hath given me here.’ And he said: ‘Bring them, I pray thee, unto me, and I will bless them.'”

What is the difference between the two instances of “vayomar” and the one instance of “vayomer,” given that they have the same cantillation phrase and therefore (more or less) the same grammatical and syntactic function? I looked all over for answers but found nothing specific. I see two possibilities here. First, both instances of “vayomar” indicate a response to another person: Joseph responding to Jacob, and Jacob responding to Joseph. The word is separated from what precedes it as well as what follows it. In both cases, the cantillation phrase that precedes it is an etnachta, which separates the two halves of the verse.  “Vayomer,” in contrast, continues the idea of “vayaged,” “told.” It isn’t separated as strongly from what precedes it (melodically, a zakef katon).

Another (related) possibility is that both instances of “vayomar” are moments of great emotion: Joseph promising to bury Jacob with his forefathers, and Joseph asking to see his grandsons. The instance of “vayomer” is not as emotionally charged. This is connected with the previous points in that the emotion is a response to what was said before. I can imagine a pause both before and after “vayomar”–slightly longer than the pause before and after “vayomer.” Pauses in cantillation can be extremely subtle; only the most advanced readers know just how long to pause.

The difference in sound between “vayomar” and “vayomer” is not just that of one vowel; in “vayomar,” the last syllable is stressed, whereas in “vayomer,” it’s the second syllable. I don’t know how often “vayomar” occurs in Torah with a zakef gadol, but there’s something arresting about it. For these verses, you can hear the first “vayomar” here, the “vayomer” here, and the second “vayomar” here. (These recordings are by Hazzan Robert Menes, former cantor of Beth Shalom in Kansas City.)

These fine distinctions–who notices them? Some people spot them right away; when I was in New York City last summer and read Torah at B’nai Jeshurun, Sharon Anstey, a fellow congregant and Torah reader (and an extraordinarily dedicated BJ member) noticed the special trop (cantillation melody), the karne parah, which occurs only once in the Torah. She even mentioned it in a beautiful piece she wrote.

But people at other levels of knowledge pick up on the trop as well. I remember when I first heard a shalshelet and had no idea what it was. After the service, I ran up to Shoshi, then the cantorial intern, and asked, “What was that I heard?” She told me, and added that the young woman who had read that Torah portion loved the shalshelet so much that she had a pendant in its shape (it looks like a zigzag, a lightning bolt). Later I wrote to a cantor about this experience, and he sent me an article about the shalshelet.

And even without that kind of awareness, even without knowledge of Hebrew or cantillation, we pick up on the phrasings and cadences that we hear. It is possible to be moved by a text without even understanding the words–not because the reader chanted it with emotion, though that might also be true, but because the very rhythms and cadences of the words convey something. Over time, meanings start to come through, then more, then more.

 

The photo shows a kiosk with a video advertisement for an upcoming one-woman operatic production of Anne Frank naplója (Anne Frank’s Diary), to be performed at the Budapesti Operettszínház in February.

 

 

Learning from Others Within Judaism (Why the Mazsihisz Should Recognize the Reform Communities)

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On December 15, 2019, the General Assembly of Hungary’s Federation of Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) voted not to recognize Budapest’s two Reform communities, Szim Salom (where I serve in a cantorial role) and Bét Orim. The Mazsihisz is Neolog in orientation. While the Neolog movement differs little from the Orthodox in official stance and liturgy, the personal practices of its congregants range from secular to traditionally observant. I am disappointed by the decision (along with many others, some of whom have written about it) but hope that it is not final and that the discussion will continue. The reasons for coming together–and respecting each other, even with differences–are much more compelling than the reasons for staying apart.

The consequences of the decision are not only financial, but those are important as well. In not recognizing the Reform communities, the Mazsihisz denies any obligation to share its funds with them, including Holocaust restitution funds. Beyond that, the decision is humiliating. It is a way of saying: we are legitimate, and you are not. Still beyond that, the decision shuts off an opportunity to work together, learn from each other, and strengthen each other.

Granted, the question of recognition is much more complex than I am acknowledging here; it plagues just about any religious group. In the U.S., the Conservative and Reform movements have grown closer over time; some fear that the Conservative approach–its endeavor to be at once halakhic (roughly translated: observant of Jewish law) and responsive to modern reality–will disappear. The fear is understandable: any formal religion is founded on some combination of law, text, tradition, belief, and principle. Give up too much of it, and you give up not only your reason for existence, but your core of wisdom. On the other hand, if you refuse to let your wisdom evolve, you end up hurting people inside and outside your community. So I can sympathize with those in the Mazsihisz assembly who felt caught in a dilemma. I have less sympathy for those who refuse to consider the question.

At the December 15 meeting (which I did not attend), one Mazsihisz member stated infamously that “a rabbi should not be a woman, because everyone will just be looking at her butt.” (“Egy rabbi ne legyen nő, mert mindenki csak a fenekét fogja nézni. “) Others worried that recognizing Reform communities violates the principles of the sixteenth-century Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, which the Mazsihisz names explicitly in its statutes. If the statutes were to be amended to recognize the Reform communities, the reference to the Shulchan Aruch would have to be deleted. However, as some participants pointed out, few people read the Shulchan Aruch or know what is in it–and those Orthodox communities that do follow the Shulchan Aruch don’t recognize the Mazsihisz. (The Neolog movement initially represented a break from Orthodoxy; its original aim was to offer a more modern and assimilated form of Jewish worship and life. Today, from what I understand, this difference from Orthodoxy is reflected more in the actual practice of the members than in Neolog doctrine.)

In the U.S., I am Conservative in my Jewish orientation; I like the mixture of tradition and modernization and find no limit to my role within it. It was in the U.S.–at my synagogue B’nai Jeshurun (BJ), in lessons with the hazzan of Chizuk Amuno, and at the Jewish Theological Seminary–that I learned not only the basics and intricacies of cantillation (in all six systems–Torah, Haftarah, High Holy Day, Eichah, Ester, and Festival), but the underlying principles and structures. BJ is independent but mostly Conservative in its liturgy and practice; Chizuk Amuno is a Conservative synagogue in Baltimore; and JTS is one of the academic and spiritual centers of Conservative Judaism

Here in Hungary, I joined Szim Salom, a Reform synagogue, because I like what it does and because I could continue to leyn there. I did not expect to be invited into a cantorial role; when I was, in December 2017, I accepted joyfully and have continued in the role for over two years now. I admire the rabbi, Katalin Kelemen (Hungary’s first–and, so far, only–female rabbi), for her extraordinary persistence, intellect, courage, and joy. I have been warmly welcomed and appreciated by the members.

I used to think of Reform Judaism (the U.S. version, that is) as too watered down, not well versed in Hebrew or liturgy, not as solemn as I would like, not serious in its practice. This may have been true to some extent, but the situation is changing. Reform synagogues are placing much more emphasis now on Hebrew, liturgy, and knowledge of halakhah than they did in the past. As for Conservatives, they are in no way monolithic. Some members go out to restaurants after Shabbat service; others follow Orthodox practices from hour to hour. The rabbis uphold a standard while quietly recognizing a wide range. In addition, the Conservative movement as a whole has opened itself to women, LGBTQ, and people of different racial and cultural backgrounds.

I am grateful for the range. It means that I have people to learn from on all sides–people who put care into every detail of their practice, people who crack jokes, and people who do both at once. I often remember a B’nai Jeshurun member who knows the Hebrew liturgy inside out–who was “davening in the womb,” as his wife puts it–and mumbles a hilarious running commentary in English and Yiddish (and sometimes French) over the course of the service. He and his wife inspired me from the beginning. The Shabbat services at B’nai Jeshurun are filled with people of all ages who come for the joy of it–who, regardless of their level of observance, join together in prayer, singing, and dance. (Many people get up and dance to “Lecha Dodi” on Friday evenings; for a sense of what BJ services are like, see these videos.) Within this range, I do not have to stay still or get stuck, nor do I have to define my version of Judaism exactly. In addition, I learn not to look down on others whose practice differs from mine. They may understand something that I do not.

At this point, in my daily practice, I am closer to Reform than to anything else. This is largely because I do not do well with excessive structure or group activity; I need some unstructured time and space, as well as solitude, in my life. Also, I need the freedom to find the level and form of practice that is right for me, and to be open or quiet about it. Yet I treasure Conservative liturgy, form, and quest. I miss parts of the Conservative services that I have known (at BJ and JTS in New York, and at Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas), such as Psalm 136, El Adon (listen to this recording), the seven Torah aliyot, the chanted Haftarah, the Musaf Amidah (with its gorgeous Kedushah), and more. In Hungary, though, while I would gladly visit a Neolog service, I see no place for myself except in the Reform, since I wish to participate fully–leyning, singing, leading, studying, learning. It is a lovely place; I find the members kind, thoughtful, and serious about Jewish life and Torah.

I hope the Mazsihisz will come to embrace the range of Jewish practice in Hungary and beyond. Doing so will strengthen, not weaken, their own communities, which themselves have wide ranges. Yes, there are difficult questions of practice and law–but from its beginnings, Judaism has thrived on questioning. I know little of the long and complex history behind the vote–I have read some articles and listened to some people but realize there’s much more to learn. Yet I speak from some knowledge and experience, as well as openness. The Reform and Neolog communities could learn from each other in unforeseeable ways. I would love to be part of this learning.

With rising antisemitic violence around the world, it becomes all the more important to affirm, to ourselves and others, that Judaism abounds with contrasts, contradictions, and concordances, and that it can hold them all. Jews are not just one thing or another; Jews are not things. To the extent that we recognize each other, we fight off degradation and hatred. To the extent that we continue to learn, we fight off excessive self-certainty. It is not easy to do any of this, but it’s more than worth the difficulty. Shabbat Shalom.

The photo at the top of this post shows our 2017 Hanukkah celebration–just after I had begun in my cantorial role at Szim Salom.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it. In addition, I added to the title for the sake of clarity.

What’s in a Country?

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One thing I have learned from living in various places is that no country can be pinned down or reduced. The Hungarian election results dismayed many, including me, but they do not sum up the times. There are many opinions, many layers of life; visible trends do not make up the whole. Yes, there’s reason to be vigilant, but neither the Prime Minister nor his party, Fidesz, represents everyone here.

Why, then, did so many people vote for Orbán? Some genuinely support his platform and believe his campaign promises. Some prefer him (or continuity, anyway) to the alternatives. Some don’t think much will improve, in general, no matter who gets elected. (Apathy can be a mighty force.) I don’t think many are surprised that he won. The greater disappointment, for those disappointed, is over the parliamentary win; it will be hard to oppose or even mitigate Fidesz’s legislative agenda.

How will this affect daily and institutional life? I do not know yet; for many, it’s a continuation of the familiar, but taken to new extremes. Orbán has promised elégtétel, something like “revenge” or “retaliation”) against his opponents, so there probably won’t be open dialogue among political leaders and constituents any time soon.

Will there be a rise in anti-Semitism? There’s probably more than one answer to that question. In many ways, Jewish life in Budapest seems to be thriving (there were some 130 people at the Szim Salom seder, for instance, and we are a small shul). On the other hand, one can see and feel the effects of the Shoah, the decades of Soviet rule, and the more recent right-wing attitudes. Many Jews keep their identity private; they don’t speak about it in the workplace or with people they don’t know well. Some people have even buried it for a generation or two; there are young people today discovering that they are Jewish. At the same time, many non-Jewish people are starting to learn about Judaism for the first time; from what I gather, it was for years an unbroachable subject. I don’t know what direction (or directions) things will take from here. The question is not about Hungary alone; around the world there are movements toward and away from understanding.

On this blog I don’t bring up everything I hear and see; for example, I don’t report individual or classroom conversations. I don’t think people would feel comfortable seeing their own words (even without their names, even in paraphrased form) on a blog. I do hear a range of political and other views, almost every day; in my experience so far, people are unafraid to speak openly and disagree with each other. I hope this openness continues.

In the meantime, this is the most beautiful spring I have seen in years. Biking home from school, I see trees in bloom, people rowing, people fishing, dogs running around, and a whole spate of greenery. At school, much is going on; my students, colleagues, and I are starting to plan for a Shakespeare event at the end of May. Last week, thanks to a colleague’s planning, we had a wonderful event at a local Russian restaurant, where one of the chefs taught us how to make a Russian salad. One of my eleventh-grade classes is reading Ionesco’s Rhinoceros; we are sure to have some interesting discussions. Across the seas, the fifth issue of CONTRARIWISE should be out in a few weeks.

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How do you put all that together: the beauty, the good things, the disappointments, the danger? You try to hold it all, but how? I think the answer, or part of it, lies in resisting false summaries and reductions. That’s in large part what my book is about–and, to an extent, my life. I am far from perfect at it–but rather than strive for perfection, I work for better judgment within the imperfection. Summaries are essential to good reasoning; it would be a mistake (and an impossibility) to give them up entirely. Still, they can be kept in perspective and held in doubt. If we treat our words and conclusions like testimony, if we ask ourselves, “Is this the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” the answer will usually be “No.”

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I took all three pictures in Szolnok: the first one at school, the second when crossing the Zagyva, and the third at the Russian event organized by my colleague Judit. The sign in the first picture means roughly “Caution: Danger of Falling/Crumbling Objects.” Speaking of the book, it is now available for pre-ordering; the projected publication date is October 15. I hope to have copies available for signing at the ALSCW Conference in November and possibly at an earlier event as well. I will post details on my website.