The Synagogue Concert in Szentes

After all this time, we are so happy to come back together for concerts; by “we” I mean last night’s musicians and audience at the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s concert at the former Szentes synagogue, now the town library. Szentes is a beautiful town by the Tisza river in Csongrád county; I have only been there once before, to make a train transfer, but had never walked around until yesterday.

Jews have lived in Szentes at least since the mid-eighteenth century; a Jewish community was officially established in 1800. The synagogue was built in 1871. The community flourished, from what I can tell (though the detailed history is probably much more complicated), and contributed in numerous ways to the town. During World War II, Jews in Szentes were increasingly restricted by new laws, subjected to vandalism and violence, and then confined to a ghetto. In June 1944, they were sent in cattle cars to Szeged, and from there either to Auschwitz or to labor camps in Austria. Some survivors returned to Szentes; others left for Israel or America.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra began its synagogue concert series in 2014 with the goal of playing in every synagogue in Hungary and bringing life to these spaces through music. Some of them, like the one in Szentes, have been converted to libraries or cultural centers, some into stores or other buildings (the synagogue in Békés is now a pálinka distillery). A few still function as synagogues; still others have fallen into disrepair. They all, to different degrees and in different tones, evoke a way of life in which Jews and Christians lived side by side. Those days should not be idealized; they had their conflicts and troubles. The Holocaust did not occur in a void.

These concerts bring people together for the music and for the memory of the synagogue. Life and memory mix. These are joyous events; the musicians put all their heart into it. The first part of the program is not specifically Jewish in nature (last night, it was Donizetti’s Sinfonia for Winds in G minor and the first movement of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B minor); the second part consists of rapturous klezmer. But you can feel continuity between the two parts, so in the music, too, different traditions, different livelinesses come together.

In the picture to the left, you can see Ákos Ács’s clarinet on a chair, and behind the chair, to the right, the synagogue’s Torah scroll in a case. It is open to the end of Parashat Beshallach and the beginning of Parashat Yitro–the transition between the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and God’s revelations at Mount Sinai.

This was the seventh synagogue concert that I had attended since 2017; the others were in Albertirsa, Baja (before I had moved to Hungary), Szeged, Békés, Gyula, and Mátészalka. Looking back, I remember that this concert series was part of what inspired me to come to Hungary. I had learned about it in some way or another and had written to the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s conductor, Ivan Fischer, to offer my support. I said that I would gladly help the orchestra with English-language proofreading (which I did for a while, maybe a year or so, until I got very busy in Hungary with teaching, translating, and more). Then, when I decided to come teach in Hungary, I planned a short visit to Hungary, my second, before the official start date. During this visit, I spent a day at Varga and also attended the Albertirsa and Baja concerts.

I love going again and again, to the extent possible: hearing some of the same pieces, some different ones, in different synagogues and towns, with different acoustics and angles of light, different exuberances and melancholies. I love hearing the introductions by Ákos Ács and the and the short lectures by the rabbis. Over time, I have understood more and more of the Hungarian; last night I understood almost everything, except that a few names escaped me, so I don’t know who the rabbi was and still don’t know who composed the klezmer pieces. But all of that in good time. I learned last night that at previous concerts, they have served kosher flódni afterwards, so I have had flódni without even realizing it!

The rabbi spoke of the Jewish traditions in Szentes: the Shabbat traditions, including the meal (which on Friday nights consisted of fish) and the drosé (the rabbi’s commentary on the Torah portion). He spoke of how not only Szentes but the entire region was overwhelmingly Neolog (the Hungarian Jewish movement, still predominant in Hungary, that broke away from Orthodox Judaism in the late nineteenth century out of a desire to modernize and assimilate somewhat). He pointed out architectural features that reflect this: for instance, in Orthodox synagogues, the bima, from which the Torah is read, is in the center of the room, whereas in Neolog synagogues it is in front, as you would find in Christian churches.

I have loved Rita Sovány’s and Ákos Ács’s musicianship from the start, but last night had moments where I felt the whole room’s jaw drop. In the Brahms, there was one particular exchange between cello and clarinet that I have to track down and listen to again. Throughout the concert, the ensembles brought this about; the music was filled with play and soul, with conversations that have no translation.

After the concert, I headed down the stairs and saw the beautiful arch of books under the archway; then walked outside and took a backward glance; then walked around Szentes for a while and stopped for a chicken burger dinner; then took the train back home. I thought this would be my only synagogue concert this spring, but now, if possible, I intend to go to the one in Szekszárd on Sunday. It’s a bit of a trip, and I am very busy with translating, but I can work on the train. That will be the last concert in this series until fall, and I have never been to Szekszárd, so everything in me says: go.

For more blog posts in the synagogue concert series, go here.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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