Attenuation of Ethnicity

Picture from the West L.A. Buddhist Temple Obon Festival 2007

I have been attending the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple’s Obon Festival for many years now, going back to the 1970s. Now Martine joins me and takes as much pleasure in the festivities as I do.

One thing that both of us noticed was that the festival was less Japanese. It was also not so well attended, and most of the dancers wore ordinary casual clothes. Only a few of the men and women wore kimonos, where in the past most of the participants were more traditionally dressed.

As a Hungarian-American who was born in a rich ethnic tradition in a Hungarian neighborhood in Cleveland, I am constantly aware that our ethnic traditions are being gradually attenuated over time. When I first came to L.A., there were a number of Hungarian restaurants. Now the count is down to zero. The same thing is happening to other ethnicities, such as the Japanese and even the Mexicans.

I suppose it is only natural that over time we are becoming more homogeneous. Even though the Obon Festival was a bit less Japanese, those of us who were present enjoyed it nonetheless. The Men’s Club udon noodle soup was delicious: This year it even had fish cakes with the barbecued pork.

In a way, one of the reasons I am no longer interested in belonging to a Hungarian group is that, in the long run, it will inevitably become a shadow of what it once was. If there are no Hungarian restaurants in town, I have some old Hungarian cookbooks and can make the dishes myself.

 

 

The Only Language the Devil Respects

Hungarian Poet Borbély Szilárd (1963-2014)

This post is a tribute to my strange native language, Hungarian, which is one of only four non-Indo-European languages in Europe. (The others are Basque, Estonian, and Finnish.) It is also a tribute to one of the great Hungarian poets of our time: Borbély Szilard. Get the pronunciation right: It’s BOHRR-bay SEE-lard.

I have decided to print the following poem first in English translation, and then in the original Magyar language. My intent is to show you what a strange language Hungarian is, so alien from any other language you may know. In his novel Budapest, the Brazilian novelist Chico Buarque writes that Hungarian “is rumoured to be the only tongue in the world the devil respects.”

Computer, Evening

There are certain moments in the evening when
one is too tired to do more.
Just to sit quietly. Not tired enough for sleep,
but not really energetic either. You read a few lines

from Kosztolányi about autumn and the soul, mysterious
way stations, the passing of time. For time is like life
itself: it leaves its imprint on the body alone.
In consciousness, on the soul, or the relational

structures of language. I don’t really know. Someone looks
out from the window, to see the stars growing distant
or whatever else they are doing. And thinks about

this: between the stars and the earth, he lived. Afraid
to sleep. Like a child in the evening, always seeking
a pretext. While the computer’s screen saver swirls.

Now for the original Magyar:

A Számítógép Este

Vannak azok a pillanatok este, amikor
az ember fáradt már bármit csinálni.
Csak ül csendben. Még nem álmos, de
nem is friss. Olvas néhány Kosztolányi

sort lélekről, őszről, titokzatos megállókról,
elmúlódő időről. Mert az idő is olyan, mint
az élet: csupán a testen hagy nyomot.
A tudatban, a lélekben vagy a nyelv

viszonyrendszerébden. Nem is tudom. Valaki
kinéz az ablakon, hogy távol a csillagok
vajon mit is csinálnak. Elgondolkodik azon,

hogy a föld és a csillagok közt élt ő. Fél
elaludni. Mint a gyerek este, kifogást
keres. Amíg táncol a képernyőkímélő.

I don’t expect you to understand a word of the Hungarian. It is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. But it was the first language I learned, and it has had a lasting effect on my life. First of all, it is an agglutinative language, like Turkish, Korean, and Swahili. It puts together elements into long words such as viszonyrendszerébden (relational structures of language) and képernyőkímélő (screen saver). Note also the double acute accent in words such as őszről (about autumn). It represents a lengthening of the umlauted vowel sound.

The reference to Kosztolányi is to Hungarian poet and prose writer Dezső Kosztolányi (1885-1936).

 

 

 

When You Strip Away the Surface …

Dancers from the Kárpátok Folk Dance Ensemble

… of me, what you will find is a strange sort of Hungarian. Although I have read no studies to this effect, I think that the first language you learn to speak is what determines, at the deepest level, who you are. My first language was an older dialect of the Magyar language from the region just to the southwest of Budapest. Today, when I speak the language—haltingly—Hungarians laugh at my choice of words and horrible grammar. Yet, my ever-so-sophisticated American English is merely an overlay on a base that was set in concrete before I was five. I feel myself to be a kind of Brummagem Hungarian.

Last night, Martine and I attended a Hungarian folk dance program at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church just south of downtown L.A. The dance was put on by the Kárpátok Folk Dance Ensemble, which has just recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. That a city like Los Angeles, which does not have that large a Hungarian population, could support an organization like Kárpátok is an unending surprise to me.

For many of the fifteen-odd dances they performed, I was in tears. There are certain themes in Hungarian music that take me way back to my beginnings. I could not lay my finger on it, but a deep emotional chord is struck deep in my core.

The people in attendance were curious about me. My pronunciation is near perfect, but I might as well be retarded. As for Martine, she doesn’t know a word of Magyar and depended on me for many things I was unable to explain.

Flyer for the “Thousand Faces” Dance Concert We Attended

That didn’t keep up from enjoying the music and dances—and the Hungarian meal that was served afterwards—even though we were both suffering from nasty colds. She might be French, but Martine enjoys these Hungarian events as much as I do, though in a different way. I do believe she prefers Hungarian food to the great cuisine of France, especially where pastries are involved.

 

27. Magyar Majális és Tavaszi Fesztival

Don’t Worry If You Can’t Read This

Every year on the first Sunday in May, the Grace Hungarian Reformed Church in Reseda has a festival with authentic Magyar cuisine and Mothers’ Day entertainment. Unlike previous years, I couldn’t find any mention of the festival on the Church’s website. Martine made the perfectly logical suggestion for me to call the Church, except she made it to the wrong person. I have something of a telephone phobia, especially when I’m calling people I do not personally know. So Martine went and made the phone call herself. And yes, the festival was taking place at the usual time and place.

My rudimentary knowledge of my native language prevents me from being able to translate the above information sheet in its entirety, but I got the gist of it. The festival is a combination Spring, May Day, and Mothers’ Day event. For an admission fee of five dollars, one could have some of the best homemade Hungarian food in Southern California. For lunch, I went for the Gulyás Leves, usually referred to in English as Hungarian Goulash. What most Americans don’t know is that it is a hearty beef and vegetable soup served with chile peppers. After the kiddie Mothers’ Day entertainment, which was exceedingly cute, we ordered two stuffed cabbage dinners to go, which furnished our supper once we got home.

The highlight of Hungarian cuisine for Martine—and, in fact, for most Hungarians—is the pastry, particularly a kind of cheesecake referred to as crémes, pronounced KRAY-mesh. I get the impression that Hungarians in a pastry shop are even more dangerous than bulls in a china shop, and that they are not above packing away 25,000 calories or more.

This is aided and abetted by the Hungarian love of a fried dough concoction called lángos (pronounced LAHN-goash), richly slathered with sour cream, cheese, or garlic. It’s very like Indian fry bread, except with a different selection of toppings.

 

 

My Early Career

Yes, That’s Me at the Age of 18 Months

Now that you’ve seen me without a stitch of clothing on, and facing you with the situation, I thought I’d bring you up to date about the second home of my young life. When I was only a little over a year old, my Mom, Dad, and I moved to Lake Worth, Florida. As I was much too young at the time, I have no memory of my first trip to the Land of Sunshine. My Dad worked for the city, which is a southern suburb of West Palm Beach, and my Mom had her hands full with the above illustrated hedonist.

Unfortunately, my father did not have the best of times in Florida. His job was to remove the bodies of dead and rotting alligators. Now Dad had a tricksy stomach, so instead of job satisfaction, he was mostly involved in projectile vomiting at the time. The move to Florida was declared a failure, so Dad insisted that the family relocate to the Hungarian neighborhood of Cleveland, on the East Side’s Buckeye Road. Which is what we did.

My third home was the second floor of a duplex at 2814 East 120th Street. I was able to put down some roots there, as we were to remain there until 1951, after my brother Dan was born. Since I didn’t know a word of English, Mom and Dad figured we should relocate to the suburbs, a few miles east of Buckeye Road. It was time for me to learn English and become a red-blooded American. Which I proceeded to do, with such dispatch that after three more years, I was no longer regarded as a problematical retard with a funny accent.

BTW: My Mom adored the above picture. She showed it to all my girlfriends….

 

The Centenary of a Hungarian Poet’s Death

Hungarian Poet Endre Ady (1877-1919)

It was a hundred years ago that Endre Ady died of syphilis in Budapest. Like most Hungarian poets, he is virtually unknown in the West. I present here two of his shorter works.

Who Come from Far Away

We are the men who are always late,
we are the men who come from far away.
Our walk is always weary and sad,
we are the men who are always late.
We do not even know how to die in peace.
When the face of distant death appears,
our souls splash into a tam tam of flame.
We do not even know how to die in peace.
We are the men who are always late.
We are never on time with our success,
our dreams, our heaven, or our embrace.
We are the men who are always late.

Also very Hungarian in its bitterness is “The Magyar Messiah.” Hungary was on one of the two invasion paths into Europe from the East. (The other is Poland.) Likewise, it was convenient for invasion from the West, say, from Germany.

The Magyar Messiah

More bitter is our weeping,
different the griefs that try us.
A thousand times Messiahs
are the Magyar Messiahs.
A thousand times they perish,
unblest their crucifixion,
for vain was their affliction,
oh, vain was their affliction.

 

A Budding Artist

My Oldest Surviving Kid Drawing

The notation at the top right was written by my Mom in Hungarian: “Jimmy drew this 1949 March.” I was a little over four years old at the time. I had not yet entered school only to find that I was a retard who couldn’t speak English. (Of course, now I would prefer to think I was smart because I could speak a foreign language.) In fact, this ratty little pencil drawing is probably the oldest thing I have, and the only thing dating from my early years in the Hungarian neighborhood on Buckeye Road.

At the time, Mom liked to take me to the library on East 116th Street and pick a book to read to me. As the children’s books were all in English, she would pick something with nice illustrations and make up her own stories in Hungarian to fit the pictures, more or less. I have fond memories of that library. Was it perhaps because there was a great doughnut shop next door?

I just checked a map. Not only is the library no longer there; but Harvey Rice Elementary School, where I had my traumatic introduction to the American educational system, is likewise gone. They seem to have been replaced by healthcare facilities, which makes sense as St. Luke’s Medical Center is nearby. That’s where I was taken a year later because my parents thought I was too skinny. The doctors there told my parents, “Don’t worry: He’ll wind up eating you out of house and home.”

My memories of life at 2814 East 120th Street were for the most part good ones. I had good friends, like András and Joycey—Hungarians like me. We had not yet been introduced to television: That was to come a year later. And it was probably television that taught me English as much as anything else. I remember the TV station started broadcasting around 4 PM with the Kate Smith Hour, followed at 5 PM by the Howdy Doody Show, which I dearly loved.