Life near the Zagyva


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.


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.

Singing in Szolnok

I begin with these pictures of mist because this is how the day began. I walked along the frosted bank of the Zagyva and kept stopping to look at the inscrutable river. I think that set the stage, so to speak, for some good listening.

The day proceeded with rehearsals, lessons, a movie (I showed my students Citizen Kane), and cheer. Then we had a Christmas concert in the evening–mostly by students, but also involving faculty. It was a profoundly lovely performance, with joyous musicians (mainly students, but also teachers in two of the pieces); music ranging from classical and sacred pieces to Hungarian folk songs to modern compositions; and a hushed and eager audience, some leaning over the balcony for better sight and sound.

Eight teachers (including our director and our accompanist) performed “Hymne à la nuit.” A kind colleague made a video. My solo begins just after the two-minute mark. I’ll eventually figure out how to fix the rotation of that later part; to see the whole video rotated, go here.

It was beautiful to be in this concert with colleagues and students–to have so much to listen to while being part of two songs. (The other one we sang was Pachelbel’s Canon; there we joined the students.) I have many more thoughts but am in need of sleep, so I’ll let silence have a turn. Here’s a photo I took during dress rehearsal.


Update: Here’s a closer view and recording of the same performance.

Ways of Walking to Work


Yesterday morning, on my way to school, I ran down into the grass to take the photo above. You can see the swans right in the middle. I haven’t seen the cygnets since early November; they have probably gone off on their own.

I have been thinking (again) about solitude, the subject of my first book. People speak in terms of needing a lot of solitude or not needing much at all, but it doesn’t come in quantities. It does not translate into “time spent alone.” Everyone has a form of it; it’s these forms that differ.

On the surface, Judaism does not  emphasize solitude; most practices and life cycle events are communal. Yet the texts could not exist without solitude; their authors, situations, and stories have to do, again and again, with standing apart from the crowd, thinking alone, going through things alone, relating alone to God, saying things that others would rather not hear. From Noah to Rebecca  to Hannah to Jeremiah to Solomon, from the Psalms to the Prophets to Koheleth to Genesis to Deuteronomy, solitude fills the words and sounds–solitude in its fullness and with all its contradictions.

How do you find your way in a tradition that is so profoundly solitary on the one hand and so strongly communal on the other? You do just that: find your way. It won’t be the same as another person’s, but it will be founded on the texts and practices. There is solitude (and commonality) in that search and study. Some have devoted themselves to the study of solitude in Judaism (see, for instance, the blog Jewish Contemplatives); others learn about it in passing and repassing.

Solitude may involve long retreats, but it often takes the form of a brief cocoon of thought. Sometimes, no matter where I am, I need to step aside in my mind to reconsider things; this can happen within seconds, but it’s still solitude. Those few seconds can make the difference between understanding something well or poorly, handling something gracefully or ungracefully, or acting wisely or unwisely. Solitude allows us to exist in full dimension.

Some will object that this is just reflection, not solitude, but no, it’s solitude too. You can’t reflect in this way without standing and thinking apart. Solitude affirms that there’s something beyond the first appearance of things, something that calls for introspection, analysis, feeling, creation, and relinquishment, or some combination of these. Solitude wraps and unwraps itself; it retreats and returns.

That’s why it makes little sense to describe someone as “solitary” or “social.” We are all complex combinations of both. Some may seem aloof but have strong daily relationships. Some may seem gregarious but keep most of their thoughts to themselves. For some it depends on context, time of day, and stage of life. But whatever shape our associations and detachments take, they influence each other. It is our ability to step back that allows us to shape our actions, to listen to others, and to protect ourselves from sheer impulse and reactivity.

Some see “thinking” and “doing” as mutually exclusive; in their view, the “doers” are the real people, the ones getting the work done, while the “thinkers” are just inconvenient clods of contemplation. To those people I would say: if that were so, you would not have a house to live in, for there can be no architecture without thought. You may not particularly enjoy thinking (any more than some others enjoy making things with their hands), but that does not mean you can do without it. Someone has to do the heavy lifting, someone the light; sometimes it’s a lifting of planks, sometimes of ideas. Give respect to both, and life will have meaning and housing.


Bikes, Rivers, and Challenges

bike ride to school

Bikes and rivers have this in common: they are both good for the soul. Put the two together, and you have a tonic for any time of day. I took this picture last week during a bike ride to school; it takes me only five minutes to get there (or back home), but during those five minutes, I get to see the sunrise (or whatever the skies might hold) while zipping along the Zagyva promenade. A quieting and thrilling commute.

The first month in a new country may hold sunsets and paperwork, but whether it’s dreamy, signature-laden, or both, it’s just the first stage. I am here not for a lark, an extended vacation, a nap in a hammock (see the bear below), or even a sabbatical, but for something more substantial. That means challenges. For instance, I try every day to apply my basic Hungarian to a new situation, but it will take much more practice, study, and experience–and many more mistakes–to learn the language well. It doesn’t happen overnight, overweek, or overmonth; but over time the structures and words will take hold. I look forward to this.

bear in hammock

I took both photos here in Szolnok.

The River’s Neighbor


The move this morning went more easily than any other I can remember. The people who helped me were full of cheer and good suggestions; we managed to communicate in basic Hungarian and gestures. They not only brought my things to the new place (in one trip, in a truck) but installed all the things that needed installing and brought over the cable technicians to set up the TV and internet. Although I haven’t watched TV at home in years, I think I will start doing it now (I mean, not tonight, but soon), as it will help me learn Hungarian.

After unpacking some things, I biked along the Zagyva to school; upon spotting the swans and big brown cygnets, I parked the bike, ran down the hill, and took pictures. The river is full of birds; you see them in big clusters along the banks or around the river-trees. On my ride home, I heard thick clusters of ducks.

In the morning, all I have to do is step outside, carry my bike a few steps up to the promenade, and take off; it takes five minutes to get to school, unless I take a few extra minutes to run down the bank and see the river up close. I have never lived so close to a river; at night I can step out onto the balcony and see the lights shivering in the water.


It’s so quiet that I can let my thoughts unwrap. And there’s time unwrapping, too; I look forward to seeing the river at different times of day and year, and setting out and coming home at different times.

Three Sentences

IMG_4513I will get to the three sentences in a minute. Today, around noon, I went biking along the Tisza; all the photos and the video in this piece are from the ride. There’s a long promenade that runs along the river all across town and beyond; I started exploring the path beyond but turned around when I saw an animal that looked from a short distance like a wolf. He stopped and stared; at one point he seemed ready to charge in my direction, but then, when I started to turn around, he slunk away. I figured I wouldn’t push the matter.

People were out biking, running, and thoughtfully walking; it was like Riverside Park, but with about one-hundredth of the crowd. There were solitary walkers, couples, and families; people with dogs, people fishing, and ducks paddling along with the current, which seemed to sweep them along.

Exactly at noon, when the church bells were ringing, I happened to be biking over the Tisza, on the Tiszavirág híd (the Mayfly Bridge). I decided to make a short video. You can see the old synagogue (now a gallery) ahead; you can hear the bells and the clattering of bike on planks. The biking seems a little wobbly because I was holding the phone up at the same time. Because of the angle, it also seems that I’m about to run into the people walking my way, but this was not so.

When I came to the Zagyva, I saw someone fishing right there, at the corner where the two rivers meet. If you look closely (and zoom in), you can see him too.


But that’s not what this piece is about. I brought in this long preface so that I could include and explain the photos. Here are a few more, all taken on this ride.

So, on Friday, right after school, I went to Budapest for Shabbat; I stayed until Saturday late afternoon. I had prepared to leyn (chant) Torah on Saturday morning; in addition, the rabbi had asked me to give a little D’var Torah (teaching) on the relationship between the trope and the meaning of this Shabbat’s text. For the sake of simplicity and time, I limited myself to just a few remarks, which I did not write down. In addition, I decided at the last minute to say the first sentences of my D’var in Hungarian, so I prepared and memorized them.

I do not want to describe the service—that is not for the blog—but I’ll give those three sentences, since they mark an important moment in my life here. This was not only my first D’var Torah ever (except for a few short remarks at Morning Minyan in NYC), but my first time trying to say something in Hungarian beyond greetings and basic questions.

A Biblia legtöbb versje két részre osztható. (Most of the verses in the Bible can be divided into two parts.)

I saw people nodding; my Hungarian was intelligible! This is nothing to take for granted; if I had gotten one of the vowels or consonants wrong, the whole meaning might have been lost. I continued:

A trop “etnachta” osztja őket. Ez a két rész gyakran tükrözi egymást. (The etnachta trope divides them. These two parts often reflect each other.)*

From there I went on to discuss, in English and Hebrew, the word “anochi” (“I”) in Genesis 25:22 and 25:30: its  prominence in the etnachta position, and the contrast between the two occurrences (one is spoken by Rebecca, the other by Esau, with different tone and implications, and different conclusions of the verses). People jumped in; it turned into a stimulating discussion in three languages, with translations going every which way.

Now, I am not sure that my Hungarian was completely correct; in particular, I suspect that my use of the word tükrözi (“mirror,” “reflect”) was somewhat off. But the meanings came through as we talked.

I am nowhere near being able to form such sentences spontaneously—but this was a true beginning. Things will build from here.

*P.S. In retrospect, I see that I should have said, “The trope etnachta signals their division” (possibly A tropus “etnachta” jelzi megosztottságukat), not “The trope etnachta divides them”; such precision comes with language and time. (Also, it seems that the word for “trope” is tropus—but trop may be clearer in this context.)


On Confluences


The photo (not taken by me) shows the Zagyva flowing into the Tisza in Szolnok. As it happens, my flat will be near the bank of the Zagyva, so I will get to know this river well.

There’s strength in knowing one’s rivers: where they come from and where they go, what towns lie on them, what fish live in them, and what their histories are. A river starts on a mountain or in a body of water; it ends in another waterway (sea, river, or lake) or breaks into two or more. No river comes from nowhere; like humans, they all have their origins and endings. (In other ways, they are quite unlike humans, or they put humans to the test; thus the godly but mortal Achilles could not outrace the river Scamander and needed the help of the gods.)

The Zagyva begins near Salgótarján in Nógrád county (a place I hope to visit) and flows south-southeast, ending in Szolnok, where it joins with the Tisza. The Tisza begins near Rakhiv, Ukraine, and courses southwest and then south, ultimately flowing into the Danube near Novi Slankamen, Serbia. The Danube, the second-longest river in Europe (after the Volga), starts out in Donaueschingen, in the Black Forest of Germany, and passes through or along ten countries before emptying into the Black Sea. In Hungary, it flows south, but its overall path is east-southeastward. Here is a river map of Hungary.

This is probably my last blog post in New York City (for a long time, anyway). This afternoon I return the modem; that means my only internet access (until Dallas and then Hungary) will be by phone. I will not blog by phone; I have tried it before and don’t enjoy it. I’ll wait until that little tributary flows into the larger stream of laptop with Wifi connection.

On Monday I led a philosophy roundtable on the subject of human dignity. It marks the end of my leadership of the series, which began in 2012. I hope that others will continue it. I think about the association with Columbia Secondary School and the surprising forms it took; when I began working there, I had no idea that I would be teaching philosophy, starting a roundtable tradition, and helping my students found a journal. Even less did I know about the collegial relations I would build and the things I would learn from others.

But humans are not rivers. In saying this, I’m being partly silly but also serious. A river does not decide its course, moment by moment; to some extent, humans do. Rivers do not react emotionally to events; yes, they respond to forces, but only in accordance with physical laws. That’s why Psalm 114 has such awe and surprise:

מַה-לְּךָ הַיָּם, כִּי תָנוּס; הַיַּרְדֵּן, תִּסֹּב לְאָחוֹר.

“What is with you, sea, that you flee? And you, Jordan, that you turn backward?”

Still, it’s tempting to see a soul in a river: a light soul, a brooding soul, a pained soul, a soul filled with laughter and light and sometimes litter. It’s likewise tempting to think of life as water in motion, water filled with fish of many colors, water that passes through fields and towns and lives, water that breaks and comes together. It’s good to give in to this temptation at times. There are songs in it.

To what extent humans have free will, to what extent they exist and act beyond physical laws, I don’t know; it seems an unanswerable question. But our meetings and partings seem as unpredictable–and as catalytic–as anything in our lives. Who knows who will be around the corner; who knows what junctions lie ahead; who knows how they will shape and influence us. In this light, on a good day, even losses are bearable. Even they leave something with us. We gather up our many streams (sort of like a river, but not really) and take them into the new place, whose real rivers meet with the imagination and then break away again. In my new home, I will get my feet and soul wet.

I leave off with Franz Schubert’s “Auf dem Wasser zu singen,” performed by Elly Ameling and Irwin Gage. (Speaking of confluence, see Benjamin Ivry’s article about Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92.)


Image: “The Zagyva meets the Tisza River in Szolnok” (courtesy of Wikipedia).

I changed two words in this piece after posting it. One of my upcoming pieces will be about revision.