Coming Full Circle
As the sun sets on our last day in Budapest, I huddle in the frigid air with my Beth Tfiloh colleagues on the east bank of the Danube River as we say goodbye to Shabbat. The moment should be – and is – achingly beautiful; the bridge and centuries old architecture of the buildings surrounding it light up the river like a scene stolen from a fairy tale.
And yet I cannot focus on the beauty of the approaching nightfall or on the spiritual magic of the Havdalah service we share. As in my first night in Budapest, I am, again, standing in front of a Holocaust memorial – this time “Shoes on the Danube Bank”: all manner of bronzed shoes – men’s, women’s and children’s shoes, worker’s worn shoes, ladies’ fashionable shoes, delicate petite shoes – cemented into the concrete surrounding the river bank in the slightly haphazard positions of shoes that one has just stepped out of. Each pair of these shoes stands for the Budapest Jews who were ordered to take off their shoes and then shot into the Danube River by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen on January 8, 1945. Some victims were killed instantly while others drowned as the freezing water carried them away. The shoes demand my attention, reminding me of why I have traveled with this team of Beth Tfiloh teachers to Budapest to connect with the teachers and students at the Scheiber-Sandor School to help them breathe life into the tenuous flame of their Jewish community.
Our visit to the Shoe Memorial ends a Shabbat that began on Friday evening with the young people living at the Moishe House in Budapest, a shared home for Jewish young adults who use their rent subsidy and program budget from the non-profit organization Moishe House International to create their own ideal Jewish communal space. Our Shabbat dinner hosts included a young woman in medical school, another studying veterinary medicine and a young man who just ended what he jokingly termed his “funemployment” to take a technology job. Daniel, another of our young hosts, and I spoke with shared excitement about the new Jonathan Safran Foer novel Here I Am that we are both currently reading, and I promised to send him my list of book titles and discussion questions from the Jewish Book Club I run for Mercaz, Beth Tfiloh’s adult education program, to help him create his own Jewish Book Club. These Moishe House residents, so bright and passionate about their work, so warm and welcoming to our group, so committed to reclaiming their Jewish identity in a place where such an identity once proved fatal, represent the future of the Hungarian Jewish community, the role models for our Scheiber Sandor students, many of whom have named leaving Hungary as the goal for their own future.
Now, as I look at these shoes against the beauty of the Danube, I think of all of the young people I have met during the past week — some brimming with hope and optimism, others with cynical bravado — but all wanting the same things that young people everywhere want: the opportunity to become who they are meant to be, the freedom to explore every aspect of their own identity, the chance to belong to something greater than themselves. I leave Budapest to travel home to my own school in Baltimore recommitted to these ideals, not just for the students in my own community, but to those who I now think of my students at the Scheiber Sandor School.
Day – 5 A Dog, a Dance and a Discussion
The running joke among the Beth Tfiloh group in Budapest is that any time I see a dog walking along the street, sitting at a crosswalk, waiting for a traffic light to change or playing in the park, I am going to stop to ask his owner if I can pet him. And since a lot of people seem to own dogs in Budapest, this has happened so many times that my colleagues now shout out, “Halaine! A dog!” whenever they spot one. And while the group patiently indulges my passion for pets, I’m fairly certain that they do not know this: today, I found a dog when I actually needed one.
After three intensive days of teaching adolescents and teenagers at the Scheiber Sandor School, my fellow BT teachers and I shifted gears and visited the residents of the only Jewish nursing home in Budapest, Holocaust survivors who would share their stories with us. Like everyone else, I felt honored to sit in the presence of these survivors, their dignity and resilience evident on their faces and in their words. But a feeling of dread also followed me through the halls of this building: the last time I had been in a nursing home was seven years ago in Baltimore, when my father died in one after a long, sad year of suffering from dementia and then finally succumbing to congestive heart failure.
So as I watched and listened to these gentle senior citizens, clearly so proud and happy to receive their American visitors, my mind kept wandering back to my father and my last conversations with him, moments when I tried to wring out few more precious memories. Pulling myself back into the present as I walked down the hallway to attend a music program at the Israel Sela Disabled Home in the same building, I noticed on the partially opened door of a resident a photo of her dog and, in her room, the dog himself.
“Is there a dog in there?!?” I asked as I poked my head in, and I could almost feel the silent groans of my group, but at this point, I needed to see a dog. An elderly woman motioned me in, and I gestured toward a small black poodle standing in the corner. “Bonifac! Bonifac!” she called to him, and I sat on her floor and began to pet her ancient dog. Despite our language barrier, she was able to gesture that the dog was deaf and very old, but he looked well fed and had food and water bowls and his own dog bed in her room. My heart lifted a little, imagining Bonifac and his owner facing each new day together, commiserating about their aches and pains, but at least not lonely.
Late for our next activity, I hurried down the hallway to the music program, where about 20 adults, all developmentally disabled, gathered to sing and clap along to Jewish songs with a pianist who was also their teacher. When she played Hava Nagila, we joined the residents, one-by-one getting up to dance, our collective experience at b’nai mitzvahs, weddings and Day School celebrations propelling us into the most raucous and lively hora that we could manage, and I danced with abandon as joyful optimism made its way back into my heart.
Later that evening, we came full circle at dinner with Linda Vero-Ban, a Jewish educator who, with her husband, a rabbi, runs synagogue programs for families in Budapest and camp sessions for children at the international Jewish Camp Szarvas, about 80 miles away. As we discussed the state of Jewish education in Hungary, we debated how to meet the need for effective Day Schools and programs to sustain the next generation of Jews. As we talked, my mind returned to the generation we had left only hours earlier, who had both seen and experienced the most unimaginable evil at its most destructive. And yet they continued their lives with meaning and purpose, told their stories with dignity and strength and even shared the company of an old dog with a visitor who needed one. I thought about our holy mission, which we had spent the evening discussing with such passion and conviction, and knew, somehow, that my own parents were watching me with pride.
Day 4 Telling Our Truths
On my last day of teaching at the Scheiber Sandor School in Budapest, I have asked my 7th year students to do what many adults find impossible – reveal their truth. Perhaps because they are in the thick of their most intensive year of English language study, these students quickly grasp the difference between telling the truth and telling their truth, understanding that I want them to do nothing less than to define themselves for me. In a sense, everything we have done in our last three class sessions has led to this moment when they will take the pieces of their brainstorming lists, journal entries and first person stories, weave them into a tapestry of their values and beliefs and present them like a gift to their departing American teacher.
We define the terms objective and subjective, and I try to simplify the concepts by explaining that an objective observation is not usually up for debate while the subjective can be rife with opinion. One young man casually observes that “I am a boy” is an objective truth unless “you are a girl hiding inside of a boy,” and I am reminded that nothing involving adolescents is ever simple. I model for them by attempting to write my own truths on the board.
My truth is that I am a teacher. My truth is that I am kind. My truth is that I care about others.
I write the statements that I work each day to make into truths. I have brought these goals with me to Budapest and hope that my students and partner teachers have found these truths in me.
My students write their truths with great concentration in the journals I have brought to them from my school in America: “My truth is that I love animals.” “My truth is that I play sports.” “My truth is that I feel free when I paint.” “My truth is that I am emotional, but I feel better after I cry.” Their responses reflect their different levels of maturity and insight, their reluctance or willingness to open up to their classmates, to me, to themselves. They are responses I would find in my classroom in America as well, and, again, I am reminded of the universal nature of students.
I am still thinking about our truths as I go to my next class, the last one of the day before I will pack up and say goodbye to the host teachers who have opened their classrooms, minds and hearts to us this week. My next group, a small class of six 12th year students, waits for me with hopeful expectation. They have enjoyed writing about their thoughts and feelings, exploring their ideas in a journal as a way to practice their English writing and speaking skills. One student writes that as a young child learning that her mother was going to have a baby “all of my body parts inside me danced around, and I could not sit still.” A boy who reminds me of a young John Lennon writes of the day that “I met the guitar I was meant to have.” They had grasped the concept of figurative language in English, a foreign language, and I watch in wonder as they share with me the pivotal moments in their lives.
At the end of this last day at Scheiber Sandor our partner teachers gather us together for a farewell party. They thank us with trays of food, gifts of Scheiber Sandor tee shirts and bottles of wine and their genuine heartfelt thanks. We have taken only the first step on our journey with these new colleagues and friends as we create our truths together.
Day 3 Falling in Love
The young man in my 10th year English class slinks down in his seat at the back of the room and looks out at me from under the lid of his NY Yankees baseball cap. The Yankees? Seriously? Does he not remember that I am from Baltimore?
“Are you a Yankees fan?” I ask him, and he nods and utters, “Yes, I am,” almost defiantly.
“Well, then you and I may have to fight,” I joke, pulling out my Baltimore Orioles calendar featuring players with their pets and various shelter animals from BARCS, but he only shrugs.
The Yankees Fan is one of four boys in my 10th year class at the Scheiber Sandor School in Budapest who are determined to convince me that they are too cool to be impressed, even by an English teacher who has traveled all the way from America to help them express their ideas in writing. But I have been teaching longer than these boys have been alive so even The Yankees Fan cannot put a dent in my enthusiasm and resolve.
“Today I am going to talk to you about falling in love.” As I announce this, my class sits up a bit straighter, and I notice I have captured the attention of The Cool Boys. Gabor, my Hungarian co-teacher looks nervous, having cautioned me that his students may not be mature enough for this lesson plan. But I plough ahead, knowing that the lesson could go down in flames, yet determined to encourage my Budapest partner teachers to take creative risks in their classrooms.
I read a quote by Georgia Heard, writer, poet and founding member of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project: “I’m in love with light and everything the sun brushes. I look around for what else I can fall in love with. The tulips, orchids and roses in water buckets, and the man who tends them – changing water and dripping buds. Inside the market walls are stacked with vegetables –unhusked corn, ripe tomatoes, the green and red next to each other make my eyes dance.” I watch the students as I read, all looking at me, transfixed by the rhythm of the phrases, mesmerized by the colors that the words paint across their mind’s eye, wondering what it means to “make my eyes dance.”
Falling in love, I explain, is not merely a romantic idea, but an intensity of feeling, an excitement that someone or something inspires in you, a yearning that you do not want to quench. They look at me – The Cool Boys, The Yankees Fan, the rest of the students who sense that they are standing on the precipice of learning something important. I know I need to bring this concept back around to an example that they can understand, so I tell them the story of when I adopted a kitten for the first time, and how in her tiny trusting innocence, she made me fall in love. Worried that they will now label me The Crazy American Cat Lady, I look around and notice heads nodding in understanding. The Cool Boys won’t quite look at me, but they have begun to write in their journals. I have made an inroad, something on which my class can hang our collective hats, even a Yankees baseball cap.
Emily, a vivacious 11th year student with flawless English, ushers me up and down hallways, in and out of the classrooms and library and stops in a spacious lobby adorned with a row of lovely stained glass windows. She is my tour guide this morning on my first day at the Scheiber Sandor School in Budapest where I have come to teach English along with six of my colleagues from Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. With her long curly hair and denim jeans, Emily could easily have been one of my own American students, I think, a moment before she reveals that she is, in fact, “half American” on her father’s side and has lived in Virginia, DC and Connecticut. I greet this news with the same sense of pleased familiarity that I might greet a stranger wearing an Orioles cap on the subway in Manhattan. We chat about the schools she has attended in the States and her hopes to go to university in the U.K., and the ease of our conversation fills me with confidence before I face my first class.
Moments later, I stand before my sixth year students, who regard me with curiosity – the American teacher has arrived, and they are not sure what to expect. I share their uncertainty, but my Hungarian co-teacher, Violetta, brings into her classroom energy and enthusiasm, and soon I am introducing myself in slow and precise English and listening as each student attempts to do the same. I ask them to share something about themselves, and I learn who has a pet, a sibling, a hobby. I meet several “football” (soccer) players, a swimmer, video gamers, a dancer, and many who like to read and spend time with their family and friends. I hand out writing journals that I have made for them – former Blue Examination Books redesigned as journals through the magic of bright blue and white BT stickers.
Violetta and I circulate around the room and help students with their writing prompt: what things do you surround yourself with and how do those things reflect who you are? The students regard their task with a great deal of seriousness; they want to please the American teacher, particularly since I have revealed that for each response they can earn a few of the Hershey kisses that I have pulled from my bag. They ask questions, concentrate as they read, raise their hands with enthusiasm, and receive their chocolate with gratitude. Their energy and enthusiasm feeds my own, and at the end of class I leave, eager for my next group — 12th year students.
As a college counselor and 12th grade College Writing teacher at BT, I feel like I know this group, and in many ways I do; confident and articulate, they smile at me with warmth, welcoming me the way I would expect my own students to welcome a guest teacher. I talk to them about stereotypes and ask them to write about something that they had once believed to be true but have learned to see in a different way. One student writes that she used to hold homeless people responsible for their own misfortunes, but she now sees that sometimes circumstances can conspire against anyone. Humbled, I think of the streets in Baltimore and resolve not to judge the people living on them.
In my 10th year class I discover that exploring one’s feelings in a journal may be a particularly American construct. No one here has ever written their thoughts in a journal; my prompt asking them to describe an ordinary event that defines who they are is met with blank stares. We define the concept of brainstorming, and I model it for them, using my own experiences. I describe to them a “Gratitude Journal” and confess that I sometimes write in an “Anger Journal” that I keep for those times when I need a safe and acceptable place for those feelings. Their eyes reveal their bemusement; who is this American teacher with a journal for each category of feelings? But I persist and assign to them a journal entry for tomorrow, determined to teach them to use their writing as a tool for reflection and understanding. And I am asking them to do this in English. Yes, the American teacher has arrived.
Day 1 The Journey Begins
I’m standing on a narrow street in what was once the Jewish Ghetto in Budapest. One of a team of seven teachers from Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, I have come to Budapest to work with teachers from Scheiber Sandor Day School with the hopes of enriching their school and thus enriching the Jewish community. My colleagues and I walk back to our hotel having just come from a welcoming dinner with the Scheiber teachers at a lovely Glatt Kosher restaurant in this city known for both its partying and pastries.
Since August our Beth Tfiloh team has planned and discussed what and how to teach these students whom we will meet tomorrow. We are a varied and skilled group – teachers of Judaics, English, History, Foreign Language, Arts and Wellness. We range from traditional to modern orthodox, from conservative to reform to “pick and choose” Jews to Gentiles. Religiously diverse, we all share a love of teaching, of our school, of our students. We have spent the last five months creating lesson plans to teach segments of our subjects to students whom we don’t know whose English speaking skills we have not yet assessed. Yet in spite of all of these unknowns, we share our excitement and enthusiasm with our host teachers who are beginning their own journey with us, who report that their students are both nervous and excited to meet the American teachers. We have carried our handouts and lesson plans, our books and materials through baggage checks and security many thousands of miles to reach this moment.
I have come to Budapest armed with two pages of writing prompts, 100 writing journals and three calendars depicting dogs in their various stages of “cute.” One calendar features Baltimore Orioles team members holding shelter dogs from BARCS, an animal rescue in Baltimore. Who can resist puppies and baseball? Failing all else, I have brought chocolate. My plan is to ask these students to explore their feelings through memoir writing in English, and I am hoping to ease their nervousness by surrounding them with the things that have always put me at ease.
As we walk home from our welcoming dinner, a wall filled with pinpoint lights catches my eye. The points of light populate the wall and then slowly decrease until they disappear. I realize that I am standing before a Holocaust memorial. The words on an adjacent wall tell of the 70,000 Jews in Budapest who were forced into ghettos and killed, ending with an entreaty to the visitor to recite the 23rd psalm, chiseled into the wall in Hungarian, Hebrew and English. Silently, I recite the psalm in English, while my colleagues wait ahead, wondering what has detained me. My nervousness for my first day at Scheiber has fallen away, and I am ready to begin my journey.