Were our mouths filled with song as the sea….

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In all the world’s stress, danger, and fear, it is easy to lose sight of the extraordinary beauty in our lives: the things that rise up, against all expectation or dread, and show us a different way of perceiving and living. When I came to Szolnok at the end of October 2017, on my very first day, I walked to the synagogue (and also got a bike across the street). I knew that it was now a gallery; what I didn’t know was that there were people in Szolnok who treasured its history and worked to keep its heritage alive. Nor did I know that one day I would attend an event devoted to the synagogue’s history, and then, a few days later, hold an event there devoted to the sounds of Shabbat.

But yes, these things happened and are about to happen: On Sunday I attended a day-long event commemorating the synagogue’s 120th anniversary. The hall was packed; a warm and eager audience listened to speeches, presentations, and music (a chamber group from the Szolnok Symphony, and later a klezmer band, whose singer, Judit Klein, began with a solo rendition of “Szól a kakas már“).

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The day was marked with festive and joyous moments: a champagne toast, a delicious kosher lunch, and a special visit to the little synagogue a few meters away, next to the Tisza Mozi movie theatre. (Szolnok once had three synagogues: these two and a third one where a memorial now stands.)

I was left with a desire to hear more: in particular, I hope to hear the rabbi and scholar Alfréd Schöner speak again.

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Tomorrow evening I return to the synagogue, this time to lead an event. I will teach three “songs”–that is, one piyut, one psalm, and one zemer–that have a profound role in Shabbat: “Lecha Dodi,” Psalm 150, and “Eliyahu Hanavi.” The first two I will teach with more than one melody (three for the first and two for the second). I hope that this, too, will be a beginning–but of what, I do not yet know.

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The title of this blog post is a quotation from the Nishmat.

What’s Happening on the Ground in Hungary?

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People sometimes ask me what’s happening on the ground in Hungary–that is, what people think of Orbán and Fidesz. I get puzzled by the question; why assume that political opinions tell us much at all? Political slogans and stances involve so much reduction that they don’t come close to representing life. That said, a rally took me by surprise today.

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I was having a restful afternoon when all of a sudden I heard a sound that I have never heard in Hungary before (except in performances): the sound of slogan-chanting. I looked out the window and saw people marching over the bridge. I ran out the door and across the river to see what was going on. Mind you, there have been many rallies since I arrived here over a year ago, especially in Budapest, but I have not seen or heard them. I usually learned about them after the fact.

I caught up with the crowd and looked around. There were people and flags from at least five political parties ranging ideologically from right to left: Jobbik, Demokratikus Koalíció, Lehet Más a Politika (Politics Can Be Different), Momentum, and MSZP (Magyar Szocialista Párt). I am not sure what exactly they were protesting (beyond Fidesz and Orbán), but my guess is that it had to do with the new “slave labor law.” As I stood on the outskirts and listened, a woman complained to me that they were doing the wrong thing, that this would only lead to confrontation. Then they marched onward, chanting “Orbán takarodj!” (“Orbán, get out!”). 

“Orbán, get out,” but then what? I don’t deplore this kind of action, but I see it as a rough draft of something to come. Many young people are astute observers of the situation; they analyze the problems, arguments, and flaws on all sides and deliberate over solutions. I often get keen news analyses from students: commentary on current events in Hungary, the future of the EU, Brexit developments, the situation in Venezuela, and more. In ten years or so, a new generation of adults will point out new possibilities, if they have not left the country and if Europe has not fallen apart.

But back to my original point: as understood currently, politics only grazes the surface, if even that. Because of its pressure toward certainty and allegiance, political speech often disregards human complexity. Point the finger at others, and you get all sorts of approval; question yourself, and you fall into obscurity or even ridicule.

This does not have to be so; politics can involve discernment and probing. To reach this level, it must be informed by literature, history, philosophy, and arts, by mathematics and science, by practical experience and wisdom, and by difficult introspection. This kind of politics is even more daring than slogans and platforms, but it takes courage and knowledge.

So, although the rally represented more than I know, it did not encompass life on the ground this week, which was full of literature (in particular, two readings by the poet Béla Markó, on one of his rare visits to Szolnok), music, language, work, bike rides, dilemma, speech, translation, silence, theatre, sleep, waking, and thought. 

 

The two pictures of the end are of my bike ride to school on Friday morning and the opening moments of the Varga Katalin Gimnázium drama club’s performance in the annual Ádámok és Évák theatre celebration at the Szolnoki Szigligeti Színház on Thursday night.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it, and then a few more later.

Along the Dirt Road

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In the late afternoon I got on the bike, pedaled north on the Zagyva walkway, crossed the railroad tracks, and continued onto the dirt road, which goes on and on. Here and there, with long stretches in between, I came across walkers (including one of my students), runners, bikers, and a slow jeep–as well as horses, sheep, cows, chickens, and cats.

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I saw swans for the first time this fall; approaching them, I saw someone sitting by the water, absorbed in thought. (That person does not appear in the picture.)

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Earlier on, before the swans, I dipped my foot in the Zagyva for the first time; here is the ripple.

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Soon I will have been here for a year. My two favorite seasons here are late spring (when the sour cherries spill over the crates) and the entire fall, from start to finish. There’s still a good bit of fall left, and while I will be away for part of it, I still hope for some hearty bike rides.

More soon on other things. I meant this post to be about books, but the dirt road had its own say. Speaking of say, here are some sounds from the bike ride.

Shakespeare Around the Corner

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The Shakespeare event is just three days away. A few days ago, I posted some short videos of ninth-grade rehearsals. Here are the tenth-graders (who read Hamlet this semester) heading up the stairs to our venue.

They will perform excerpts of two scenes from Hamlet: the scene where Hamlet encounters the Ghost (Act 1, Scene 5) and the scene of the play within a play (Act 3, Scene 2). Here is a rehearsal of the “dumb-show” at the start of the play within a play.

They practiced it again today (this time with the one who will play Lucianus in the actual event):

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As we approach the event itself, it’s exciting to see and hear subtleties entering the performance. Students have been figuring out their words and gestures, giving them more life each time. Some have taken on the role of assistant directors, offering ideas about the blocking, costumes, delivery, and more.

Everyone has helped out in some way. In the many rehearsals where we did not have the full cast (because the two halves of each class have English at different times), students stepped in to play the parts of those who were not there. Others helped out as audience members; they listened and watched, day after day. Many contributed drawings to the classroom wall.

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There is little more to say and much to do; the next few days will ascend the stairs.

“I see a voice: now will I to the chink….”

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We have been practicing, day by day, for the May 31 Shakespeare event–just a week away now–which will include three excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two excerpts from Hamlet, a simple Renaissance dance, and a few introductions and interludes. The rehearsals have built and built; each time, something has improved, and the mistakes have made memories too.

It has been fun to pull costumes together; a homemade lion costume (in the works–thanks to a student’s mom), plastic wreaths and vines, a lanthorn, a not-so-thorny thornbush, a (stuffed) dog, some crowns, and other props and accoutrements.

Here’s a dialogue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1 (recorded May 17):

Here’s one from Act 3, Scene 2, with a different Hermia and Helena (recorded May 22):

Here’s the Wall (“In this same interlude it doth befall / That I, one Snout by name, present a Wall….”)

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I don’t have any Hamlet photos or videos yet (aside from the drawings I posted recently), but that may change soon.

Birches and Books

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William Blake got something right in his ruminative “Auguries of Innocence“:

The Princes Robes & Beggars Rags
Are Toadstools on the Misers Bags
A Truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent
It is right it should be so
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know<
Thro the World we safely go

What a strange and persistent poem; it seems like a long procession of lanterns. I think of it in light of the sad international news of the past few weeks, the joys in my life, the mixture of meanings everywhere.

Today many students were out of the classroom, attending a special event, so I took my eleventh-grade classes to the park, where we went in different directions, looked at something for five minutes, and then converged again to show each other what we had seen. In one session I found roses blooming upward; in another, a weeping birch in the wind.

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During this time, things have been coming along with the book, which now has a jacket design:

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To top it all off, or to lift it up from the foundation, the CONTRARIWISE copies arrived here in Szolnok today! A copy goes to each of the contest winners from my school, another one to the school, and one to me. CONTRARIWISE prevails. I will say more soon.

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Life near the Zagyva

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Every day, when I bike or walk to school along the Zagyva, something catches my attention: a blackbird’s song, a stork, a row of fishermen, a family of ducks, a red poppy among the dandelions. There’s a fisherman in the picture above. The bridge is the one I cross to do my basic shopping; I just walk across the river.

Right now a storm is starting; here’s the balcony view from just a few minutes ago. I have the balcony door open and am enjoying the sounds of thunder. Minnaloushe is relaxing on the coffee table.

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There’s a strange simplicity about life (along with a complementary complexity) when you don’t really know the language that is spoken around you. On the one hand, you walk in beauty. On the other, you know you’re missing a few fathoms of reality. I am understanding more and more, but it’s like taking an eyedropper to the sea. I would rather have the eyedropper and sea, though, than one without the other, or neither.

But certain things, like the strutting of a stork, speak their own language, leaving us poor humans agape in equality.

 

Image comment: Some of the trees in the first picture appear in the blog’s banner photo. A month ago they stood in water. Now they are grounded and green.

“Sunrise, sunset”

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As I enjoy coffee, birdsong, and breeze (the balcony door is opened wide) and think about the coming week, I thrill over the extra bundle of time that got dropped into my lap. Last week, we had the graduation ceremony; this week, the seniors take their finals. While I have many things to do at school, this Monday through Thursday I have no classes until afternoon. Thus I have some morning time for two big projects: reviewing the page proofs for my book and learning the liturgy and texts for Shavuot.

There were two graduation ceremonies: one in school (on Thursday), and one outdoors, throughout Szolnok (on Saturday). I couldn’t attend the second, since I was in Budapest–but the first was unlike any I had seen or heard before. With their form teachers at the front of the line, the seniors walked hand in hand, class by class, through the halls, carrying flowers and singing songs in unison (including “Gaudeamus igitur”). The faculty stood outside the teachers’ room and listened to them as they wove by. It was so beautiful. Then we went out into the schoolyard for the speeches and awards.

These rites of passage have meaning, but only if we recognize that life does pass by.

In the U.S., women (and men) over 30 are continually urged to conceal their age, to make themselves seem younger than they are, to knock off a decade somehow, as though one’s true age were a source of shame. I reject this shame. It is in my fifties that I find things coming together: meaningful work and projects, self-knowledge, a few insights into the world around me, a sense of fun, and a tolerance for the many things that I do not know or understand. I was not there in my twenties, thirties, or forties; why hide from my age, when it has allowed me to build things? One day I will be older still. In fact, that will happen right now.

Each age comes with its responsibilities too. They are not spelled out and absolute–they vary from person to person–but they make themselves clear. I see the fifties as a time of ordering. The house is built; now put things in place. For some, this happens much earlier; for others, later; or maybe different parts happen at different times.

When preparing the Torah portion for this last Shabbat, I struggled with the text (Leviticus 21), which discusses how the priest must keep himself pure. For example, he may marry only a virgin, not a profaned woman, a harlot, or a woman banished from her husband. The judgments of women seem archaic–but as I worked with the text, I saw greater meaning. The priest, in his role, has an obligation to conduct himself in a holy manner, for the sake of the holiness itself. Others might be at liberty to marry a “profaned” woman–but he may not, even if he wishes. There could be many reasons for this: the relationship should not stir up gossip, its status should not be ambiguous, the children should be born into good reputation, etc.–but the larger point is that he must restrict himself for the sake of his role, which in turn serves something larger.

Today’s rules are more flexible–and can vary considerably from one culture or position to another–but like ancient rules, they carry principles. Each office in life comes with its obligations and strictures. In most cultures, a teacher does not socialize with students outside of school, since this would break the integrity of the classroom. Facebook “friending” between teachers and students is common in some places (for instance, here in Hungary) but comes with boundaries. Friendships between teachers and parents are a trickier matter; in some cultures and communities they are common and accepted, whereas in others they break the norm. Yet even where accepted, they must be conducted properly. Even collegial relationships can be tricky, since they come with many unspoken and unofficial rules.

With all the supposed liberties of our era, one of the great challenges is to glean and apply the rules, allowing for appropriate variation. No profession, no way of life can survive long without structure, but what kind does it need? Some parts are obvious at the outset; others take time to figure out but hold equal importance. Part of the beauty of Leviticus (along with its harshness) lies in its offering of structure.

Those who flagrantly disrespect structure (such as President Trump) affect not only themselves but others. The structure is never only for oneself; it sets an example and hints at a form. Throughout my life I have learned from others’ structures and lack thereof.

Back to the question of age: I see the fifties as a time of knowing one’s structure, arranging one’s life within it, and treating others with dignity. This does not have to be rigid or final; there will be many mistakes, openings, bendings, and rebuildings. But one comes to see structure for what it offers and means. This can happen earlier and later too–but there’s a special time when structure comes into focus.

This brings me to the title: “Sunrise, sunset.” The days go by too fast; you barely get your structure together, and it starts to creak. All the more reason, I think, to give it honor.

 

I took the photo on my bike trip.

I revised this piece in several stages after posting it.

Shakespeare in the Park

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With the Shakespeare event quickly approaching–the ninth-graders will perform excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the tenth-graders from Hamlet–I thought it would be fitting to go practice in Verseghy Park, for a “Shakespeare in the Park” experience. So yesterday one of my ninth-grade classes trooped across the street to the rose garden, and there the rehearsal began. “God speed fair Helena! whither away?”

On Monday, one of my tenth-grade sections finished Hamlet (that is, they performed the final scene in class). Excitement was in the air; even before I began assigning parts, hands of volunteers went up. Today the other section will finish the play. Then we will devote ourselves to preparing for the event.

Throughout this Shakespeare work I have seen several things. First, the multiple rereadings do lots of good; with each iteration, students understand and appreciate more. Second, it has helped to go slowly; although it took the whole term to read Hamlet (with reading in class only, and just one Shakespeare lesson a week), the momentum was not lost; this slowness gave students a chance to take in the language and think about what they had just read. In other settings I would go faster, but here this pace worked well.

There were other things I learned, but I see no need to round off the list; we are not done yet, and even when we are, we will not be. Few projects of this kind are ever “done”; they carry on somehow.

 

 

A Street with Gold in It

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The Hungarian word aranyos means both “cute, dear, charming” and “golden” (or, more precisely, “having or containing gold”).* Here, on the street sign, it probably has the latter meaning, but with the cat perched on top of the post, it switches back to the first. I was thrilled to take the picture at that exact moment. The cat jumped down immediately afterward.

According to Miles Lambert-Gócs, author of Tokaji Wine: Fame, Fate, Tradition, several historical Tokaj vineyards had the word aranyos in their names, “whether as a euphemism for quality; or an allusion to sunny exposure; or even a suggestion of the old Hegyalja myths about vines containing gold.”

So here we have a street containing gold; at any moment, something beautiful can occur, a fleck in the air.

Speaking of authors, I sent my book manuscript to the editor just before 8 p.m. on Thursday evening. I should be hearing about a title soon; I have made several suggestions and will see what the editor and board choose.

My Purim was quiet–because I had no way of making it to Budapest on Wednesday evening, I celebrated at home by chanting Chapters 7 and 8 of the Megillat Esther. I now have much to prepare for next Shabbat–melodies, instruments (guitar and recorder), transitions, texts, and trope (which should really be spelled trop).

It is exciting to finish a stage of a long project (in this case, the book) and emerge from the den of the mind. I think the Mole in The Wind and the Willows:

It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said ‘Bother!’ and ‘O blow!’ and also ‘Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gavelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

Out in the air, I find people playing in the snow and ice, frolicking over the most recent Arctic burst. The other day I saw two kids breaking ice in the river so that they could watch it float downstream.

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Snowmen and snowwomen stand staunch and proud:

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It isn’t just that people look for ways to cheer themselves up in cold weather. Snow by its nature invites play; you can frolic in it, make things out of it, playfight with it, make angels in it, sled or ski through it, and enjoy the sound of it crunching under your feet. Snow is never far from water and ice; when out in the snow, you may hear ice breaking and water dripping. The seasons hint at each other.

Work and play speak to each other; one without the other grows wan. In the density of my deadline crunch, I found little jokes; walking around outside, I get ideas for the classroom and for writing. Certain kinds of play (including music, acting, and sports) require intensive work; they are recreation in a profound sense of the word. That is, through learning and performing something, you create it all over again. But even everyday errands (a walk to the store, for instance) can scintillate the air.

That is where the gold can be found: in the work and recreation, in the walking down a street, in the ear for things melting and creaking.

 

*Aranyos is not to be confused with arányos, “proportional, well-proportioned.” It appears that the “golden ratio” is sometimes called az arany arány.

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