Radio

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The radio joins mystery with clarity. We take it for granted today, with all the alternatives out there, but I remember the awe that came from rotating the dial in and out of sound and fuzz, sometimes even tuning in to stations in foreign countries, with broadcasts in French, Spanish, German… Also, from a young age I thought of the radio as something you could make at home, and even broadcast on from home. My various electronics kits allowed me to make basic crystal radios and to broadcast signals, even voice. (Once the neighbors came over to complain because my signals were being picked up by their TV.)

My paternal grandfather, who died when I was six or so, had a ham radio station in the basement of their house in Chicago. My one memory of him is from there: he was in his radio broadcasting room, fiddling around with things and singing along.

We actually didn’t listen to radio much at home; my parents listened to classical music and were content to stick to their record collection and informal musical gatherings with friends. In fact, radio listening stood out through its absence. Once I was home with a fever, and my cousin (who was living with us at the time) put the radio in my room. I heard two songs I had never heard before: Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” They played at least twice that day, maybe more. I would hear those songs many more times over the years; today they are popular classics.

Many years later, when I lived (for about seven months) in Tucson, I signed up to be a volunteer DJ at KXCI, Tucson’s community radio station. There I learned how DJs get to be DJs, what the various rules are, and how to set up a good sequence of songs, with announcements in between. I learned, also, that people will tell you if they like what you’re doing (and if they don’t). My time there was so short that I didn’t get my own slot, but I filled in for people a few times. Twice, I think, I took on the early-morning show “Breakfast Cafe.” I thought some of my favorite songs would be perfect for it, but about twenty minutes in, the phone rang, and someone asked in an aggrieved voice, “Could you play something that isn’t so depressing?” But then another time, when filling in for someone in a prime time slot (around 11 a.m.), I confused the “heavy” and “medium” rotation categories–and thus ended playing songs that people don’t hear very often (and that I happened to like). I got an excited phone call: “This is great! Can we have more music like this?” The thing is, during prime time you are supposed to play mostly “heavy rotation” songs–that is, songs that are already being played all the time. A smaller portion of the time goes to “medium rotation,” and only a tiny portion to “low rotation.” To me, that’s backwards–but anyway, I got it wrong, had a great time, and received no complaints from anyone.

But back to radio itself and what it can be. People used to gather around it for news, radio theatre, songs, talk shows, and more; it was through the radio that people heard the breaking news in the world. Sometimes those broadcasts changed lives. I have brought some recordings of old radio broadcasts to my students here in Hungary; we listened to a few episodes of the Aldrich Family, as well as one of the broadcasts when John F. Kennedy was shot. A radio broadcast about Kennedy (John or Robert) is the opening event of Gyula Jenei’s poem “Rádió” (which I translated and hope we will include in the Dallas events). Listening to old radio shows, I am brought into a time when this device was an opening to the world, or else a tiny world of its own. (In Jenei’s poem, a version of which can be found here, the child imagines little people in the box.)

One of the great traditions of radio is the “call-in” show or the phone request. It was something exciting to find yourself on the air, even for a few seconds, to request a song, ask a question, or enter a contest. For some, this was (and still is) a way of life; Irving Feldman conveys this trenchantly in his poem “Interrupted Prayers,” which begins:

The sun goes, So long, so long, see you around.
And zone by zone by zone across America
the all-night coast-to-coast ghost café lights up.
Millions of dots of darkness—the loners,
the losers, the half alive—twitch awake
under the cold electronic coverlet,
and tune in their radios’ cracked insomnia.

Today radio has distanced itself from us, through streamlining and corporatization; there are fewer request and call-in programs, fewer independent stations, fewer people taking up broadcasting with a passion. Or maybe that’s my imagination–maybe there are more than ever, but they have to be sought out. There’s a lot of controversy about whether radio is dying; some say yes, others say no. To a great extent it is giving way to Spotify, YouTube, etc. But there are still radio shows and DJs discovering, uncovering, loving, broadcasting music. Art of Flying’s new album Escort Mission is getting all sorts of radio play; that right there attests to the vitality of the medium.

Why am I fond of radio sometimes? Is it just nostalgia? I don’t think so. With radio, first of all, you’re focused on sound; there are no visuals, and so you can get caught up in the listening. Second, it’s there to bring you something you don’t already know, like, or have. Sure, you hope your favorite songs will get played, but in between them, something else catches your ear. Your trusted DJs will bring you things worth hearing. And even news broadcasts seem more intimate than TV; the updates are less polished, more spontaneous, and since you don’t have to see the reporters in suits, with layers of makeup, they seem closer at hand somehow.

I say “sometimes” because I am not always fond of radio; sometimes all the available broadcasts are mediocre, or sometimes I want something that doesn’t skip so quickly from song to song, topic to topic. Giving the choice between listening to a full album and listening to the radio, I will usually go for the former. But the radio has many delights.

It fascinates me when I am taking the cab to the airport (in NYC) and the cab driver has a classical radio station on. And the driver himself is very quiet, listening. Classical music (a broad category, and a misnomer) can give people something to stay their minds on and be staid, to paraphrase Robert Frost. But it’s also full of adventures–twists and turns of melody, many shades of chord. Many people listen to popular music in this way too: who treat it not as background music, but as the center of attention, something worth listening to again and again.

I listened to radio (KXT 91.7 FM) sometimes when driving in Dallas. I enjoy that station; everything I heard on it was interesting, and I intend to keep on listening to it. Just before returning to Hungary, I mailed a copy of 1LIFE’s CD Nincsen Kérdés to KXT 91.7 FM in Dallas. “Maradok ember” is the 8th track. Dallas readers, if you would like to hear the song played on KXT, here’s the online request form. The form allows for three requests–so you can ask for other songs too! It would be great to hear “Maradok ember” on KXT, not only because it’s a great song, but because the song already has a presence in Dallas. I’m not trying to organize a request blitz, since that would go against the whole purpose of requests: to bring hosts and listeners closer together. But if you listen to KXT and would like to hear the song there, you can help bring this about.

That, to me, is part of the fun and meaning of radio: hoping that a particular song will be played, requesting to have it played, listening to hear whether they play it, and in the meantime, getting surprised by things you haven’t heard before.

Image credit: Courtesy of Plymouth Voice (Michigan).

What’s Not to Like About Likes?

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I do my share of “liking” online (on Facebook and elsewhere). Like many deplorable things, it isn’t all bad. Or even if it is, it’s unavoidable. Liking, like it or not, is part of life, at least for likers.

But its not being all bad does not mean that it is “all good.” Something there is that doesn’t love a like. The problem with “likes” is not just their invertibility, inverness, insincerity, insouciance. No, their greatest problem is their statue effect: their way of propping “liking” up too high.

Liking isn’t all it’s lifted up to be. There are things I respect or love but don’t like. There are things I don’t like because I don’t yet understand them. Liking is pleasant, accommodating, satisfying, convenient, streamlined; it’s the hotel room of the soul.

The people who taught me the most, throughout my life, were not the most likable in the usual sense of the word (though they might have had stores of wit, kindness, and what have you). They had something to say and said it–or, if they didn’t, they said nothing. Today there is far too much emphasis on pleasing others: counting among the affable, sociable, cooperative, team-fashioned, pre-approved. That is the problem with “likes”: their mild demeanor, their cheery dominion, their wan wish to prevail as units of measurement and worth.

The title of this piece was inspired by Lex maniac. The photo is of Minnaloushe.

The Grip of Nonchalance

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In a beautifully concise 1956 review of Saul Bellow’s novella Seize the Day (a work I especially love, and about which I have written), Alfred Kazin writes,

Tommy finds himself prowling through a New York day searching for a place of support or rest. By the end of it, he has tossed away the last of his money on the market and is desperately frightened. Yet he gains an unexpected release when he is swept by the passing crowd into the funeral of a man he has never known — and, looking down at the dead man’s face, at last finds himself able to feel, to accept his own suffering. Thus, at last, he is able to confront that larger suffering which (as we can see only at the end of the story) has been the dead weight of existence pressing on him without any release or passion in him of understanding.

People often ask me how I could live in Hungary, a country whose leaders have taken a turn toward the far right. My replies–“not everyone supports Viktor Orbán and his party”; “there are other things going on here”; “people here are very kind”–seem inadequate. That isn’t quite it. In any country, you will find people who disagree with the prevailing ideology. You will find kind people too. No, there is something else. Through a series of events, a combination of circumstances, I found my way to just the right place. I don’t think I would be as happy living in Budapest, though I go there regularly for synagogue, which I love. The people I am getting to know, the the school where I teach, the place where I live (just a few steps away from the swan I photographed this morning) are more than dreams come true; they teach me about who they are, who I am, what matters in life, what questions lie open. I can take on these questions without embarrassment. The Hungarian language is now coming to me in spades, and I am still at the cusp of speaking. Much more lies ahead.

What I miss from the U.S. are my dear friends, my family (though any of them can tell you that I have an independent streak), my former school, and the Dallas Institute. But there’s something I don’t miss at all: the American pressure toward nonchalance, casualness, lightness, changing the subject when it gets too serious, cutting off people who seem too intense. Do not get me wrong: I love humor and do not like to wallow in gloom. But in the U.S. I have found a pressure to curb myself with every sentence, to watch carefully in case the other person thinks the conversation is getting too “heavy.” (I do not find this with my friends, which is part of the reason the friendships have lasted. But it has put a strain on some acquaintanceships throughout my life.)

In the U.S. I have been told, from a young age, that I am very intense and “intellectual,” yet I did not receive that comment from people in other countries. It was a particularly American descriptor. “Intense” and “intellectual” are not meant as compliments. It’s acceptable to be intense about politics–when you know exactly what you think and can express it with vehemence–but any kind of extensive searching threatens people, unless they happen to be drawn to that kind of thing. I found my home here and there–at the philosophy roundtables I led, in some of my classes, etc. But overall I learned to be wary of myself, to accept that my way of thinking and speaking would be too much for some people. There is a certain American ideal expressed in Edie Brickell and Kenny Withrow’s song “What I am,” “I’m not aware of too many things, I know what I know if you know what I mean….” I could not attain that ideal if I tried, and it does not interest me anyway.

The pressure to be light, to avoid taking things too seriously, does not exist in the same way in all cultures. Here I have found not only a release from it, but a welcome into serious thinking and conversation (which has plenty of wit and humor wrapped up in it). Intellect is not frowned upon; intensity (if that is even the right word) carries no shame. Granted, Hungary has its anti-intellectuals; just look at some of the politicians! In addition, the economic conditions are driving many thoughtful people to leave the country; this will change the culture (and not for the better). I do not see Hungary as anywhere near perfect; it has massive problems. But in this particular way, in the room people make for grappling, in the honor they give to literature, I am not only at home, but in the middle of a new way of living.

It makes teaching a joy. When we returned from winter break, I introduced my students to Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” (The link points to a page with both the original text and István Jánosy’s Hungarian translation). Eleven different classes, from grades 9 through 12, read the poem with me; each discussion brought something different out of the poem. One student heard, in the final two lines “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” a kind of insistence and self-persuasion, as though the speaker wanted to believe that sleep (and death) were still far away. Some students detected fear in the poem; the speaker could only stay in that dark wood for so long before it became too much. Some found meaning in the punctuation at the end: the difference between a comma and a period is greater than appears on the surface. Over the course of these discussions, I noticed something for the first time: throughout the poem, despite the tranquility of the scene, there is a slight disturbance of some kind, a disturbance so subtle that you might not notice it. At first, it is the disturbance of being on someone else’s property:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Next comes the horse’s disturbance, his sense that something is different, his shaking of the harness bells:

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Finally, there is the disturbance of time: the speaker’s knowledge that this moment must come to an end, that he must go on to other things.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

What is it that unites these various disturbances, these various rattlings of the mind and wind? Could it be that they are necessary to the beauty? Could it be that without them, there would be no stopping by woods?

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I took both pictures this morning. Also, I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Myth as a Form of Question

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Serving, for the eighth consecutive summer, on the faculty of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers (this summer’s  texts include the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Moby-Dick, Theogony, Popol Vuh, Book of the Hopi, Mwindo, Monkey, and more), I think about our many discussions of myth over the years. Myth is no easy matter. People often define it as “something that isn’t true” or “something that people used to believe but no longer do”–or even “something that people use to explain the world around them”–but myth goes beyond the wearable and worn. It allows for common yet solitary understandings; we come together over myth yet experience it in privacy. To gather the good of myth, one must approach it in a strong and questioning spirit.

“Myth is a term of many turnings,” writes Louise Cowan in her essay “Myth in the Modern World.” The word “myth” is often used in a derogatory, dismissive sense–yet others have found that “myth does indeed represent a mode of truth, that it codifies and preserves moral and spiritual values, that, in fact, a civilization without myth fosters a way of life not fully human.”

She goes on to say that myth does not impose “rigid uniformity” but rather “supports and enhances diversity and endows ordinary acts with purpose and grace.” That is, when people come together over a common belief, form, or expression, they can find their own relation to it, precisely because it calls for contemplation and integrity. I recommend reading the full essay; I have barely touched on it here.

Myth  can go wrong when contorted to serve a specific agenda or when mistaken for literal truth or falsehood. It can be understood only through imagination; even then, it requires skepticism along with trust. Maybe the trust consists, simply, in taking time with the myth and resisting the urge (from within or without) to dismiss it offhand.

In his commentary on Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again,” Roger Cohen shows how Hughes “punctures the myth” of America yet resists tearing it apart. He comments, toward the end, “Hughes, at the last, does not descend into despair. His, as Dan Rather has observed, is ‘a rallying cry for inclusion.’ The poem leads to an oath to an unrealized idea, battered but alive, not to blackness against whiteness, or whiteness against blackness.”

In my own reading, the poem gives the myth its full life. By casting the myth in doubt, by declaring, in parentheses, “(America never was America to me),” by pounding out the despair–

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

–and then, after all that, reaffirming America, Hughes exalts the myth, not as illusion but as dimension, as time layered on time, resolution on heartbreak.

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

The future collapses into the present, through the word “oath,” which implies freedom to act. If he, the speaker of the poem, can declare, “America will be!” then America already exists, through his act of promising. (If he can promise America, then the promise has in some way been fulfilled.) The myth comes to life through the protest and questions, through the patience with possible meanings.

In that sense, myth demands more than full mind; it “asks a little of us here” (Frost), as we wrestle with what is and what is not.

“But this poor microscopic item now!”

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I recommend to everyone–not just to a recent commenter–Robert Frost’s poem “A Considerable Speck,” which begins:

A speck that would have been beneath my sight
On any but a paper sheet so white
Set off across what I had written there.
And I had idly poised my pen in air
To stop it with a period of ink
When something strange about it made me think,
This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
But unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.

The poem continues onward–I would quote it but for copyright worries–and then ends (I’m pushing my luck even with this):

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind where I meet with it in any guise.
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

Oh, but read it in full. The middle is fantastic. “But this poor microscopic item now!” He could have said “creature,” but “item” makes you think; who ever says “poor item”? Isn’t “item” beyond the usual line of empathy, and isn’t that part of the point?

Also, in observing the mite’s “mind,” Frost rejects the silly proposition that the “item” might be recoiling at the content of the words on the page. No such thing:

It seemed too tiny to have room for feet
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn’t want to die.

The mite is concerned with life and death–what else?–and runs, and pauses, and falters, and surrenders. Observing it, Frost thinks, too, in pauses and asides, which, though not fueled by terror, perhaps also have something to do with life and death (and wit).

But enough! I must be off.

 

Springtime in the Mind

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When you’re surrounded with a language that you’re learning, there comes a “springtime” when it starts opening up all over the place–where everything around you starts to make sense in greenings and unfurlings. So  yesterday, at the store, when the grocer asked me “még valamit?” I didn’t just figure out his meaning from context, as I have done so many times; I understood the words themselves. (“Anything else?–or, more literally, “More something?”) This is happening not just once in a while, but all over the place, throughout the day; while I still understand less than half of what I hear (maybe a fifth to a fourth), the amount increases by the minute.

Spring is here in more ways than one. Over the past two days I have seen kids kayaking on the Zagyva (alongside a coach in a quiet motorboat).

Also, spring can lead to springs. One challenge in a new country is figuring out where to get specific things you need, such as nails, which I needed to mount my Chas. Fischer Spring Co. hat rack on the wall. But in springtime, you find yourself ambling around instead of just heading straight home; and so, biking this way and that, I found a little gardening store with hardware supplies. Delighted, I bought some nails. Here is the hat rack (with one of the springs showing).

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And Pesach is just two days away… I will get to celebrate it at Szim Salom in Budapest–such a happy and profound holiday, and such a great way to celebrate it here.

Speaking of the near future, the forthcoming issue of CONTRARIWISE will come forth in four weeks or so; according to inklings and industry rumors, it will be gorgeous. More about it when it appears.

But back to springtime in the mind–there are times when one finds oneself in intense mental activity, thinking about all kinds of things, working on big and small projects, and listening to music, literature, and everyday speech.  This is usually true for me, but lately especially so. I like this way of life, especially when I can also take off on the bike. But the mind needs its other seasons too; each one brings something that the others cannot.

I thought the phrase “the mind has its seasons” might be a cliché; but then I couldn’t remember hearing it before. Looking it up, I found few occurrences: one in an interesting passage in Sarah Ellis’s Temper and Temperament (1846). I won’t quote it here; the quote would need to be too long.

But why would such an expression not be a cliché? People think in terms of moods, it seems, but not mental seasons; there’s little acceptance of the idea that the mind might need something other than constant, untrammeled growth and productivity. The thoughts grow even when they do not–but growth is not the only good of life. If all we could do was grow, we would become impossible monsters–where even our little toe would crush our best-laid plans. No, the mind needs not only growth; it needs “that other fall we name the fall.” It needs, moreover, something beyond its needs.

 

Taking a Walk Without Time

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Sometimes when I’m busy, I forget to take walks for enjoyment. It seems that I don’t have time. But time doesn’t always have to be “had”; sometimes you can do without it. It’s even better that way; you’re not wasting it, since you aren’t in a position to dole it out at all, to yourself or anyone else. In this way I managed to take a walk through the wet snowfall of Szolnok. “Új nemzedék” (above) means “new generation”; “zeneiskola” (below), “music school.”

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I also passed by the beautiful old synagogue (now a gallery) and crossed halfway over the Tiszavirág híd (Mayfly Bridge). It felt like the first day in Szolnok, only snowy and wet, with more Hungarian whirling around in my mind.

That leads to the point of this post. Teaching all day, and then working on the book in the evening, I have been so steeped in English that my progress in Hungarian has been slow. The language barrier has started to get to me; people are kind and generous with translation, but I know that I will not understand the country, or fully take part in life here, until I can speak the language. To learn the language, I have to immerse myself; to immerse myself, I have to finish the book!

But the book is not just some task to complete; it has been at the center of my life. It was my reason for leaving Columbia Secondary School in June 2016; I needed stretches of time for it. I drew on savings to write it, since my only income was from the Dallas Institute’s Summer Institute. Day after day, I put thought, research, work, and afterthought into it. The final revisions can be the most important ones, since the pressure gives the words a healthy scare.

Nor will I be “done” when the book is sent in; there will still be proofreading, indexing, and much more, not to mention the book release party and other readings. But I will have a little more time to take long bike rides, speak and study Hungarian, go to plays and concerts, and get to know people. I have committed to another full year here–except for a month in the summer–so there will be time for these things.

A few people have asked me whether I might tutor them or someone else in English (for pay). It’s supposedly lucrative work, but not appealing right now. The more time I spend speaking English, the less I will hear Hungarian. Even a tutoring exchange (English and Hungarian) would not be satisfying for me, since I am not asking for a tutor. I do not do well with excessively structured time; I need some time for exploring and thinking.

This brings me back to the subject of time: needing certain kinds of time, not “having” time, making do without time. Sometimes when we speak of time, we really refer to form; “not having time” for something really means excluding it from our form. Sometimes the form breaks open, and suddenly that thing for which there was no time ends up in time, a thing taken up and done, a person met.

I end with Robert Frost’s sonnet “Meeting and Passing“:

As I went down the hill along the wall
There was a gate I had leaned at for the view
And had just turned from when I first saw you
As you came up the hill. We met. But all
We did that day was mingle great and small
Footprints in summer dust as if we drew
The figure of our being less than two
But more than one as yet. Your parasol
Pointed the decimal off with one deep thrust.
And all the time we talked you seemed to see
Something down there to smile at in the dust.
(Oh, it was without prejudice to me!)
Afterward I went past what you had passed
Before we met, and you what I had passed.

“But not to call me back or say good-bye”

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My nighttime pictures rarely come out well, but here are three that I like. The first one shows the branches’ reflections and brings to mind Robert Frost’s poem, which I have read many times but now reread (“re-reed” and “re-red,” present and immediate past) in awe. Hence the title of this post.

The second is mostly shadow, but it led me somehow to Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” I am not sure how that happened, but I’m glad.

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The third, taken on Klauzál utca in Budapest, brings to mind Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song,” or maybe it’s just that I want to remember that song (and Cohen, who died just over a year ago).

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These are not exact matches, just associations; the night is limber in that way, bringing things together with ease and by surprise. It has been a full and rich weekend, with Hanukkah, songs, celebration, services, Torah, and more, so today I reveled in a bit of slowness, worked on the book, and took an evening walk. That led to photos, which led to poems and songs, which led to evening daydreams, which in turn will lead to sleep.

“But I have promises to keep”

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Today the first December snow fell on Szolnok—this is a view of my street—so it’s fitting that I will be teaching my ninth-grade students “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” this week. But it’s fitting in other ways, too; I think of the poem’s gentle contemplation and humor, its tension between digression and direction, its humor and questions, and its final dreamy turn toward duty.

The teaching is going beautifully; I am grateful for the school and hope to stay there a long time. I am in no way ready compare schools here with schools in the U.S.; one school is not the same as schools in general, and I am still learning how things work. But besides that, I have something else to tell right now.

On November 22, the rabbi called me with a question. The shul was badly in need of a chazzan (cantor); would I be willing to serve in this role every other Shabbat (when I already come to shul)? I said yes, not because I felt ready, but because I would take on the learning. It isn’t just a matter of singing well, or knowing Hebrew, or even knowing the nusach and melodies.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the cantor’s responsibilities in his essay “The Vocation of the Cantor,” which must be read slowly and carefully. The cantor does more than sing; he or she communicates with the congregation and the people of Israel, goes deep into prayer, senses the right melodies for the right times, responds to the text and the moment, and brings out internal truth.  But there’s a heimish side to it too; often the chazzan is someone in the shul who has taken on the role. That’s the case here.

The role sounds daunting, but no, it’s just immense. If we don’t confront immensity at some point, what are our lives for? Life is dreary and delusive if we’re always looking down at tasks we’ve finished and packaged up, things we can check off a list or click on a phone. So I said yes and started preparing, and realized, early on, that I could not check anything off a list. I learned melodies; I started learning a new nusach. I went over familiar and unfamiliar text again and again. I remembered chazzanim and melodies and chants. It still seemed too big for me, and then I  realized that was how it should feel.

It went well, and so the beginning has begun. The rabbi introduced me warmly as the new chazzanit (female chazzan), and everyone gave me a “Shehecheyanu.” As soon as I started and  heard people joining in, I knew things would be fine. I also had a chance to leyn Torah (the first three aliyot of Vayishlach: that is, Genesis 32:4-13) and to speak about these verses.

Verses 10 through 13 of Genesis 32 are sometimes my favorite in all of Torah. Jacob has just started heading home from the house of Laban, with his two wives, servants, and animals. He has crossed the Jordan. But after hearing from his messengers that Esau is coming to see him with four hundred men, he becomes afraid and divides his company into two camps. But then he has a crisis of doubt:

י  וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב, אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי אַבְרָהָם, וֵאלֹהֵי אָבִי יִצְחָק:  יְהוָה הָאֹמֵר אֵלַי, שׁוּב לְאַרְצְךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתְּךָ–וְאֵיטִיבָה עִמָּךְ. 10 And Jacob said: ‘O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who saidst unto me: Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will do thee good;
יא  קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים, וּמִכָּל-הָאֱמֶת, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ, אֶת-עַבְדֶּךָ:  כִּי בְמַקְלִי, עָבַרְתִּי אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה, וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי, לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת. 11 I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown unto Thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two camps.
יב  הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי, מִיַּד עֵשָׂו:  כִּי-יָרֵא אָנֹכִי, אֹתוֹ–פֶּן-יָבוֹא וְהִכַּנִי, אֵם עַל-בָּנִים. 12 Deliver me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children.
יג  וְאַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ, הֵיטֵב אֵיטִיב עִמָּךְ; וְשַׂמְתִּי אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ כְּחוֹל הַיָּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִסָּפֵר מֵרֹב. 13 And Thou saidst: I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’

 

Part of what I love is that Jacob can stop himself in a big mistake. The trope brings this out; in verse 11, the first word is “katonti,” which means “I am not worthy,” “I am insignificant,” or “I have fallen short.” The first half of the verse has to do with the goodness that God has shown him; the trope etnachta sets this off from the second part, which has to do with Jacob himself. The second part divides again into two parts, the first having to do with Jacob’s crossing of the Jordan (which God commanded him to do, in commanding him to return home) and the second with his becoming two camps (which he did out of fear). So this “katonti” can be felt in the very division of the verse; he himself has been divided in two. The trope indicates these halves through the zakef katon melodic phrase. This Jacob sees his division and puts it into words, not only his own, but words of God; through quoting God twice (in verses 10 and 13), he enters into dialogue.

If he had not stopped to think about what he was doing, to remember the promises and his shortcomings, then he might not have wrestled with God that night or reconciled with Esau the next day. Who knows? I can’t say this for sure. But to me these verses suggest, among other things, the power of seeing one’s own errors, of pausing, thinking, and remembering. They have extraordinary beauty in Hebrew and have been made into a song. I have returned to them many times over the past few years; when I first read them, I understood the thirteenth verse as God’s response to Jacob in the moment. Now I read it differently but still sense Jacob hearing the holy words in their full  life, through remembering them and speaking them aloud. In that sense he does what a chazzan does.

Now I turn my thoughts to the week: to teaching, the move to a new apartment, and much more. I have not even mentioned the wonderful Budapest Festival Orchestra concert I attended last night! But I still lack internet access at home, the cafe time has flown by, and I have much to prepare for tomorrow.

The Hebrew text and JPS translation are courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website.

On Human Harm and “Isms”

poet-robert-frost-in-affable-portrait-axe-slung-over-shoulder
Yesterday a friend reminded me of Robert Frost’s “The Wood-Pile,” which contains these lines:

A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather—
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.

 

I have been thinking about the recent string of accusations, outings, confessions, public shamings, around sexual harassment, not a trivial matter. I am in no position to judge others’ situations. In the overall movement, I see both good and harm: good in the increased awareness of the problems, and harm in the lumping together of profoundly disparate situations, the reduction of human relations to “isms.”

Two thoughts come to mind. First, people harm each other in all sorts of ways. Not all can be interpreted as sexism, racism, or any other “ism.” People judge others unfairly, act on these judgments, cut people off, write people off, say unkind things about others, and overall treat their own perspective as correct and righteous. Sometimes this takes the form of a recognizable social injustice (e.g., racism, sexism, classism); sometimes it does not. To address human injustice, one must look beyond the “isms” into a basic cruelty, callousness, or carelessness, which starts with the failure to see another as a person. (I don’t mean that one should ignore the “isms”–but the “isms” are not enough.)

Second–a more difficult point–often the people who hurt us do not mean to do so. That doesn’t excuse their actions, but it requires imagination of us, imagination to see that perhaps there was something more going on, something not to take personally. As in Frost’s poem (which has subtlety upon subtlety and will not be reduced), “one flight out sideways” would be enough to change a view.

This point could easily be misread; I am not condoning any kind of human harm or suggesting that all kinds are alike. Nor am I disparaging calls for justice. I suggest only that in some cases we can expand our understanding and perception of the possible. This takes imagination; we do not know what another person means, wants, or thinks. Our knowledge is incomplete at best. To exercise imagination is to see ourselves more fully; each of us, has hurt someone without wanting to do harm–or even consciously wanting and trying to do good. This isn’t just a matter of “good intentions” gone wrong but of our limited knowledge and vision. Seeing our own unintended wrongs, we can conceive of goodwill in others, and vice versa.

I’ll go even farther: We can do harm when trying our darndest to do good. I think of the sweet little song “Too Much Giving” that I co-wrote with Mahlah Byrd, who died in 1994. Sometimes the very effort can overwhelm and upset others; it can come across as a demand or grand show. Generosity requires a certain lightness. There must be a spirit of forgetting, looking away, continuing into the day.

Frost brings up the bird as a kind of “by the way”–and that “by the way” becomes the subject of the poem, as he marvels that someone could have left the wood-pile behind. Frost’s “by the ways” are full of wit and sadness; it’s in those pauses and deflections that the reader gets to see and hear–not fully, not permanently, but with a short gift of clarity.

 

Image credit: Photo of Robert Frost, courtesy of the blog A Bright, Unequivocal Eye.

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