David Mandler, Ph.D.

Thoughts, feelings, reactions to events in the world. Hungarian, Jewish, assimilationist, Orthodox, American issues.

The Reunion: A Poem for Yom HaShoah 2017

The Reunion

She saw her mother for the first time in seventy-three years.

Mother, I’m so glad you’re here, she voicelessly yelled,
as the gaunt woman in a blue dress waved at her.
Suddenly, a duet of voices invited her to return
to the empty kitchen table where her two brothers sat.
Ah, my brothers! It’s really you?

What could this mean? Mother and brothers.
Didn’t Mengele send you to the crematorium?

I know eight weeks after that Yom Kippur night
when we both heard the screams of the children
forced out of the dark barracks to be gassed,
with my little brother amongst them,
Mengele shoved you to the other side in Barracks 22.
And that was it. I never saw you again.

Is Papa with you? Oh, how could he be?
He was shot to death two weeks before liberation.

Oh, so much has happened since.
I’m almost 90. You are still just 35.
I missed you. But tonight, the warmth is back.
You are back.

Will I see you again? Will you talk to me again?
How silly of me. This is a dream.
It is just so when each night my husband caresses me or when
I see him sitting on the sofa though it’s been eight months since
he quietly expired at night in bed right next to me.

Mother! You haven’t changed at all. You are so beautiful.
If this is a dream, let it last.

© David Mandler

Sebastian (Vitéz) Gorka: Whispering into Donald Trump’s Right Ear

About a year and a half  after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sebastian Gorka, in a Hungarian-language lecture, proposed that the United States government under the leadership of such Cold War military veterans as Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, “found or created” a suitable label in the “ideology” of Islamofascism as a worthy successor to the vanquished ideology of Soviet communism.

Gorka explained to his audience in the Hungarian city of Sopron that the end of the Cold War ushered in a period of unpredictability in the lives of nation states. This period of uncertainty ended after September 11, 2001, when Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda took credit for carrying out the terrorist attacks that shook up the United States with its reverberations felt around the world. The 9/11 attacks finally crystallized in the minds of America’s leaders the next target: a new, “irrational” type of terrorism perpetrated in the service of Islamofascist groups. This type of terrorism was irrational, according to Gorka, because their demands, i.e. the total surrender of the infidel West, conversion, or death, were non-negotiable aims.

Unlike the Soviet Union, this newfound enemy was not deterred by nuclear arms. The military doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) did not apply to Al Qaeda and its later spin offs. For a radical jihadist terrorist organization located in failed states or state sponsors of terrorism could launch attacks in the West without fearing complete annihilation. The American nuclear umbrella, thus, became a liability, rather than an asset to those nations it was designed to protect as America scrambled to find an adequate response to the terrorist threat. Still, NATO countries mobilized and assisted in the removal of Saddam Hussein and the occupation of Iraq.

While skeptical of the American desire to export democracy by force, Gorka, in 2003, expressed sympathy towards the Bush administration because of its conservative character. His two dazzling examples of conservative principles in action consisted of Bush’s institution of a dress code in the White House, namely, making it mandatory for men to wear ties and disallowing women from wearing skirts that did not cover their knees.

As it turned out, America’s military occupation of Iraq produced nothing but carnage and instability and menacing transmutations of Al Qaeda. While radical Islamic terrorism was contained in the United States, it occasionally reared its destructive head in London, Brussels, and Paris. Increasingly, it was a new kid on the block, ISIS, that began to create a humanitarian crisis wherever it spread its sovereign rule.

Only six years after leaving Hungary in order to move to the United States with his American wife, Gorka joined Breitbart News in 2014 as national security and foreign affairs editor. In that role, Gorka contributed to the effort to keep the specter of Islamofascist violence (since its inception mercifully renamed as radical Islamic terrorism) in the forefront of his readers’ consciousness as an urgent threat. And since his striking political ascent to the position of deputy assistant to the President of the United States, Gorka has succeeded in shaping the way Donald Trump sees Muslims and the threat represented even by such a seemingly innocuous event as an interfaith church service at the National Cathedral in Washington (not to mention his absolute public support for the twice attempted and failed executive order banning Muslims from six Muslim countries).

But how did this British-born son of Hungarian refugees end up in such an influential position as assistant deputy to the President? And what does his association with the Hungarian Vitézi Rend really portend?

As the communist regime gained absolute power in 1948, Paul Gorka, aged eighteen, joined an anti-communist organization and was sentenced to ten years in prison after the British double-agent Kim Philby betrayed him. Having endured torture, Paul Gorka escaped his tormentors during the 1956 revolution. He settled down in London and started a family.

Born in 1970, Sebastian Gorka grew up in a fiercely anti-communist, Hungarian nationalist atmosphere, fostered by his father, Paul Gorka. By his own admission, Sebastian Gorka did not speak English as a child until he entered kindergarten. Even at a young age, Gorka was interested in the military. As a result, he went on to serve as a reserve intelligence officer in the British army for up to three years where he may or may not have been involved in intelligence operations after completing his bachelors degree in philosophy and theology at the University of London.

By the end of 1992, Gorka moved back to Hungary. Gorka’s father contacted an acquaintance of his, Colonel General Kálmán Kéri, a newly rehabilitated, unapologetically chauvinistic old soldier of the Horthy regime, in order to secure a position for his son at the Hungarian Ministry of Defense. He did, thereby launching the young man on an impressive career trajectory.

In 2002, the Socialist prime minister, Péter Medgyessy invited him to fill an advisory position. He was ultimately turned away because he allegedly failed the intelligence committee’s vetting process. While working in various capacities at the Ministry of Defense, Gorka entered the Ph.D. at Corvinus University in Budapest in 2002 and obtained his Ph.D. in political science in 2007.

Gorka also tried his luck in Hungarian politics. In 2006, he ran for mayor of Piliscsaba (population 7,466) where he lost to the Socialist candidate. Then, as a critic of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, Gorka attempted to organize an alternative Hungarian right wing party that could challenge Fidesz. This attempt of entering Hungarian politics, too, had failed. It is important to note that in 2007, at least one right-wing online publication, Endre Csapó’s Swedish-Hungarian “Hunsor,” referred to him as vitéz Sebastian Gorka.

How did Gorka become a proud holder of the “vitéz” rank? According to “Vitéz” Sebastian Gorka, the Vitézi Rend medal he wore at President Trump’s inauguration was awarded to his father in 1979 in England to for his fight against communism. He simply inherited it along with the title of Vitéz and meant to honor his father’s anti-communist and anti-fascist past. How and in what capacity Gorka’s father fought the fascists is still unclear. As to who exactly awarded it to Gorka and by what authority in the revived Vitézi Rend in England, it is not publicly known.

So, what is the Vitézi Rend exactly? Originally, it was a Hungarian neo-feudal chivalric order created by the self-professed anti-Semitic Vice-Admiral Miklós Horthy shortly after he took power in 1920. Its express purpose was to create a new, hereditary elite that specifically excluded as ineligible all of the Hungarian Jewish veterans of World War I whom he saw as a threat. According to the Hungarian-born American historian István Deák, the percentage of Jewish reserve officers in the Hungarian Honvedseg in 1911 was as high as 30%.

In a 1939 publication of Vitézek Albuma, the Vitézi Rend was an exclusively Christian, militarist, family-oriented, conservative, revisionist, nationalist, ethnocentric, “Hungary-first” racialist entity from its inception to its legal demise in 1945. The use of the title “vitéz,” a hereditary honorific signifying valor or gallantry much akin to knighthood, was banned in 1947 in Hungary, only to be made legal once again in 2011 under Viktor Orbán’s rule.

Despite its forcible disbandment in Hungary, the Vitézi Rend reconstituted itself in exile and continued to propagate its reactionary ideology. In addition to the old vitéz members, its ranks grew by inducting new members for various nationalistic merits. Since the biggest enemy of Hungarian nationalism was Soviet communism, for the remnants of the old Horthy-inspired expatriates living in Great Britain and elsewhere abroad, those who made contributions in the struggle against communism and were of “pure” Hungarian blood, (read not Jewish Hungarians/Hungarian Jews) must have been ideal candidates.

What is relevant to Americans is not whether or not Gorka is currently a sworn member of the Vitézi Rend. If he is, the organization itself is a burlesque of dissatisfied, aging Hungarian nationalists who make themselves appear important by dressing up in historical uniforms. They have little influence on Hungarian society, which has already shifted considerably to the right under the ruling Fidesz party. What is of importance, rather, is the degree to which Gorka has internalized the reactionary and racialist values this organization represents.

The parallels in the rhetoric of the Vitézi Rend and Trump’s message are striking. Putting Hungary first and protecting Hungary under Horthy, in part, meant denying the Hungarianness of thoroughly assimilated Hungarian Jews while putting in place a legal framework whereby to restrict Jews from entering universities in order to protect “real” Hungarians from Jewish invasion of Hungarian society. It gave rise to a culture of resentment and outright hatred of Jews that spiraled out of control when the the Nazis–with whom Horthy kept up a close but ultimately perilous relationship–occupied Hungary in 1944 and the Hungarian authorities eagerly dispossessed and deported more than half a million Jews who were brutally murdered in various concentration camps.

Recycling old nationalist canards about the purity and superiority of “the nation” under siege by foreigners can easily be translated into a crusade against “criminal” illegal aliens guilty of killing innocent Americans or getting a parking ticket. Of course, with such a constitutively heterogeneous population, American nationalists cannot point to intrinsic ethnic or racial superiority as easily as the equally deluded Hungarian nationalists could. The discourse must be different. Now, it is law abiding American citizens against the lawbreaking “criminal” aliens. And Sebastian Gorka, a “proud American” who was a “proud Hungarian” in close association with Hungary’s radical right-wing members from the heavily anti-Semitic Jobbik Movement just ten years ago, is now in a position to whisper advice based on his view of the world as one that rests on perpetual ideological struggles (currently between the West and Radical Islam) into the right ear of the most powerful political leader on the face of the earth.

Clearly, ISIS and its ilk needs to be defeated completely, and President Trump has said as much. The question is what he means by the word “complete,” and how it can be achieved. If the president merely means the terror group’s total loss of sovereignty over vast swathes of land in Iraq and Syria then American victory will be just as pyrrhic as it was in Iraq under Bush. For it will not prevent the spawning of other groups elsewhere with equally vicious methods and aims.

Gorka is right that it is irrational for terrorists to expect that the West will surrender by giving up its way of life and its most fundamental values under pressure. It is equally unrealistic, though, to think that an ideology can be defeated militarily. If Islamic radicals are held together by a set of beliefs about the deleterious effects of the West on their own societies, then the most cogent response, in addition to a devastating military defeat of said organizations and taking reasonable law enforcement measures throughout the United States, is to strengthen such pillars of liberal democracy as equality under the law, institutionalized liberties, the practice of critical thinking, the constitutional system of checks and balances, and the respect of human rights.

For this system represents everything Islamicists deplore.

The right combination of military force applied in the Middle East, compassion towards the dispossessed, thorough but reasonable vetting of refugees, and an uncompromising loyalty to the Constitution of the United States will protect American national security and its liberal democracy. Fueling a seemingly ideological struggle, which in reality is nothing more than an embrace of what social psychologists call ingroup superiority (America First) versus an artificially created outgroup enemy (today criminal aliens, tomorrow liberals or anyone else who does not fit the “official” view of what makes a loyal American) will only achieve a deterioration in the American way of life much more so than a terrorist attack could ever hope to achieve.

Dr. Gorka needs to recall what Horthy’s exclusionist, and racially defined social order portended for half a million Hungarian Jews and countless others. America in 2017 is not Hungary in 1944. But the Jews of yesterday are the Muslims and the illegal immigrants of today. Only when Sebastian Gorka is a “vitéz” no more (in the unhealthy, anachronistic, and exclusionary sense of the word) can the American public rest assured that his words of advice do not echo the values represented by the Vitézi Rend

America certainly deserves better.

Sensible Empathy: Keeping Our Country Safe (and Great)

When terrorists strike, the sole responsibility for the resulting carnage rests solely on the shoulders of the perpetrators. Attacking people who are not directly (and often, not even indirectly) involved in a perceived dispute is cowardly, horrible, and inhuman. Tragically, New Yorkers and the world saw this played out on September 11th, 2001. It goes without saying that nobody wants to see anything of its kind repeated ever again anywhere in the United States or, for that matter, anywhere in the world. The Bush and the Obama administrations should get some credit for ensuring that no major terrorist attacks have taken place on American soil over the course of the last fifteen years. Now, that is about to change unless we reverse course as a country and begin to exercise, what I call, sensible empathy.

President Trump’s executive order to ban visitors and refugees from seven Muslim countries has already created a tense, fearful and angry climate in many segments of American society. Even more troubling is the assessment of experts that it is sure to serve as recruiting tool for ISIS and other terrorist organizations. Nothing is more threatening to uncompromising theocracies than a society based on free exchanges of ideas, critical inquiry and and unfettered integration of all immigrants, including Muslims, into mainstream Western style democracies. Such practices not only question the often politically influenced dogmas that masquerade as religious imperatives, but often serve as a potent, if gradual, modifying force upon religion itself. While this vital moderating effect of American Muslims on Islam itself across the globe may not be appreciated by the current political elite, the above warning of various experts must be clear to those shaping policy at the White House. If so, it begs the question as to why some people in the administration, including the president himself, are pushing this initiative, defeated by the courts, in the name of “keeping our country safe.”

Clearly, blindly admitting masses of people into any country–no matter how much in need they are–is not a sensible course of action. But that has never been the case in the U.S.  where refugees, even according to the conservative Heritage Foundation, undergo a lengthy process of vetting. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in Europe where ISIS has reportedly been able to plant sleeper cells within the masses of migrants. The images of thousands of people stranded at various borders in subhuman conditions understandably moved many in Europe to open up their borders to allow for the free and unfettered circulation of these masses towards their destination: Germany. History will pass judgment on how wise or unwise Germany’s refugee policy has been based on what those new Germans will do with their lives.

So, how does sensible empathy enter the picture? We exercise sensible empathy when we look at everyone in need, first and foremost, as a human being worthy of our support and help and resist the temptation of projecting our preconceived notions of who they  ought to be solely based on their countries of origin. This, however, doesn’t mean placing blind faith in the goodness of all people. Clearly, our impulse for empathy must be tempered with judiciousness and circumspection. Practically speaking, we need to allow law enforcement to do its job. Detecting and neutralizing threats can only be done by correctly identifying the sources of such threats.

It is myopic, unreasonable and mean to expect any long term positive results from arbitrarily drawing a circle on a map and saying that all of the citizens of any given country are somehow inherently suspects. It is in no way designed to protect the safety of Americans, no matter what the president claims. In fact, it will do the exact opposite by undermining a basic American principle: fairness. The implementation of the new executive order will lead to senseless discomfort, pain, and even death in the case of refugees stranded in countries with horrible human rights records.

Sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, aunts, and uncles of people with valid visas arbitrarily prevented from entering the country could be expected to experience a cascade of emotions. Disbelief and insecurity will give way to resentment, anger, and rage. It is my fear that in a small number of unstable or unsuccessful individuals already prone to ISIS propaganda, these emotions may be the final push towards the unthinkable and inexcusable road towards committing acts of terrorism. If that were to happen, the president would surely use it in predictable ways to claim that he was right. A larger terrorist attack may even lead to President Trump to declare martial law as did Abraham Lincoln in 1864 or to take other drastic actions designed to curtail the freedoms currently afforded by the constitution to everyone living in the United States and cement his position.

Sensible empathy means being able to assess correctly the proportions of benefits and dangers in immigrants (and in our current climate, specifically of Muslim immigrants). Every time there has been a large wave of immigration into the U.S., resentment and opposition have also materialized with drastic effects. Countless numbers of Jews could have been saved from the the horrors of Nazi Germany but for the deliberate effort of American policy to exclude them all throughout the 1930s and 40s. FDR declared that Jewish refugees could threaten national security and successfully closed the door to Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Europe, thereby sealing their fate.

As it turns out, American Jews contributed in unmeasurable ways to American culture from the arts to the sciences and beyond. In light of those contributions, the argument that Jews should have been kept out of the country because some of them or their descendants would surely commit crimes, even if true, (see Bernie Madoff whose grandfather immigrated from Poland or the much earlier Jewish figures of organized crime in the 1940s and 50s, all of whom were direct descendants of immigrants) is patently absurd.

Why is it any more reasonable to claim that because some Muslim immigrants and their descendants living in the U.S. may pose a potential national security risk, we should exclude all of them? Just take a look at some American Muslims and you will see a diverse group comprised of doctors, food cart vendors, teachers, nurses, lawyers, electricians, scientists, outstanding (or struggling) students, and everything else in between. Does excluding all Muslims from American soil because some may commit a terrorist act sound sensible to you? Shouldn’t we, instead, work on sustaining an inviting and positive climate for American Muslims with equal opportunities for success, instead, and couple it with effective law enforcement measures? Even if the most draconian rules and laws were to be implemented, do you really believe that a determined terrorist would not be able to circumvent whatever system is put in place and enter the country illegally? Alternately, do you really believe that native American citizens cannot become active terrorists? If you believe the most efficient way is to eliminate all risks by eliminating all Muslims from America then you’d better be prepared to deny all of their contributions to America as well and say goodbye to Dr. Oz or the much less well-known but equally influential Muslim American architect, Fazlur Rahman Khan (just to mention two American Muslims who have contributed so much).

As a teacher at Stuyvesant High School, I can attest to the fact that some of the greatest Americans will come from the ranks of the sons and daughters of Muslim immigrants (not to mention all the sons and daughters of Chinese, Korean or Japanese immigrants). They already are some of the most intelligent, caring and positive individuals I have ever had the privilege to teach. I hope we let all of them blossom into the kind of doctors, scientists, artist, and thinkers America so desperately needs by rejecting those senseless, unnecessary, and dangerous exclusionary policies the current administration is so hell-bent on promoting.

Sensible empathy, now more than ever, is essential if we want to preserve some of our most basic American values. Not only our way of life and our country’s future but also our very sense of humanity depends on it.


How Could Trump Have Been Elected? “Again Never Again”

In recent weeks, a number of people outside the U.S. have asked me the question, “How could a man like Trump be elected?” Instead of answering the question here in prose, I’d like to share a poem of mine written three days after Mr. Trump assumed the presidency. I hope and pray that the phrase “ruins of a long-ago time” in the first line does not have to come true. “The poet” is not that optimistic.

Again Never Again

You, bright eyed history student, looking back at the ruins of a long-ago time, pondering
A bankrupt billionaire, slashing and burning 140 characters daily on Twitter,
A tomato faced gloating grabber of news and crotches with orange hair,
A smooth possessor of serial wives who “kisses beautiful” when seeing “them,”
A demigod of old showered in gold, raising money from the average Joe’s fold,
Could be elected President of the United States, wonder no more.

Liberal brothers and caring old mothers
immigrant aunts and idiosyncratic actors
Conscripted housewives and sober mechanics
dispossessed doctors and indigent nannies
Tired policemen and toothless censors
old ladies in flower hats and dimple cheeked yuppies
Joes, Sues, Janes, Gabbies  and muzzled gypsy cabbies
All voted for the Man with a clear Plan

To destroy the dark clouds of globalization
To free the world of Muslim terrorists
To save the country from political correctness
To speak plainly and honestly once again
To pillory a nasty female hiding a menacing email
To avoid war with Russia and insult China instead
To keep ‘em Mexican criminals out behind a big beautiful wall
To end the war on Christmas and be done with Happy Holidays
To place a factory in everywhere throughout the land
To re-arm the Army and educate all students right
To climb every mountain from sea to shining sea
To dream the impossible dream–one for all and all for one
To Make America Great Again!

So, you bright eyed history student, derisively chuckling
with tears of contempt and dismissive judgment,
Take a deep breath. Know that you
with your advanced society in a perfect polity
with your rebuilt world and privileges and ideals
Are not exempt.

Faces of tomatoes and oranges of hair
are growing in the garden, ripening in the sun–
Getting ready for the harvest.

© David Mandler

Here is the poem in pdf format: again-never-again

Check out my short story “The Loft” on amazon.com.

Life Without Facebook: A Year Later

At the end of 2015, I bid farewell to Facebook. While at the time I believed that it would be very difficult to carry on without Facebook in my life, it turns out that life without Facebook has been worth living. Here is why.

Most people predicted that I’d be back on Facebook within a few days. Honestly, I, too, had feared that not having recourse to the familiar routine of signing in and checking Facebook multiple times a day would make me want to break my New Year’s resolution. The good news is that I had no such craving or desire at all from the first day to this moment. If this seems surprising, I can understand that. After all, I was very surprised by this myself. It seems Facebook is not as addictive as many people on it believe it to be.

Throughout the year, I have obtained news only from what I consider to be trusted news outlets. Sure, I must have missed some quirky updates that I otherwise could never have found on my own. Yet it’s clear that I have also missed the onslaught of fake news and the many vituperative personal reactions to them (not to mention the stream of political comments in anticipation and following the U.S. presidential elections). I’m sure I’ve spared myself from being witness to moments of unbecoming emotional overdrive of Facebook my buddies that would have elicited many an unnecessary and high-blood-pressure-inducing personal reaction from me. Heaven knows I don’t need any artificial excitements of this sort. My blood pressure is high enough without it.

My time is no longer taken up by checking what other people have done with their lives or wanting to share “significant” moments from my life nobody gives a hoot about. Granted, I don’t have a smartphone, so the temptation to post pictures is entirely missing. Be it as it may, I am losing many opportunities to post funny, surprising, significant or any other kinds of picture and wait for validation. (By the way, with the introduction of the “Love” button, what’s become of the Like button? Are people offended if their posts only get Likes but no Loves)?

In 2016, I could focus more on the real world and my real work. I was privileged to have my academic book accepted for publication, and it was wonderful to be able to spend every minute of my free time in the first half of 2016 on going over the manuscript and assisting in the publication process. I know that the amount of time I had at my disposal was greatly increased by not spending it on Facebook. In addition, I’ve been able to spend more time on other endeavors (such as writing poetry, being more present with my family without the distraction of obsessively checking for Facebook updates, and creating a curriculum for a brand new course I’m teaching to mention but a few).

Now, I totally understand that for people who need to publicize their work, Facebook is a very important marketing tool. I know that I’ve lost many a reader because I no longer post on Facebook. For that reason, I am aware that is entirely possible that it may be necessary for me to rejoin Facebook in the future when my novel is published (I’m being purposefully optimistic on this one! Publishers, agents, and others: feel free to inquire). Others may be in this position without necessarily noticing that what they are doing is mostly self-promotion. In the United States, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! After all, (tongue-in-cheek) that’s how a particular political candidate for president has made it as far as he has.

So, while I truly miss some of the interactions with people I am unable to see in person, for me, the pros for quitting Facebook by far outweigh the cons. If you don’t think you can leave Facebook behind, consider what you are using it for. If it provides some essential services in your life, stick with it while trying to go on a Facebook diet. But if you find that it’s become more burdensome for you to use it just to keep up with everyone else or if you are plain sick of the political nonsense that is so easy to post and so difficult and useless to argue against–you may find that 2017 is your year for saying goodbye to Facebook and hello to more meaningful pursuits.

Happy 2017!

P.S. Email still exists for periodic updates. My email is mrmandler@yahoo.com.

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My short story “The Loft” is available on amazon.com.



The Duck

The Duck

I walked around the pond one day
And sat down on a bench.
The clouds were gone. “You have to stay!”
A figure yelled in French.

He shouted left and shouted right
This by the stormy pond:
“We’ll drain the swamp without a fight
And form a sacred bond.

But first, to save our way of life
I’ll have to build a wall.
If you bring a sharpened knife
I’ll save you big and small.

These United Ponds will rise
To heights unseen before,
We’ll swat all irritating flies
And push them out the door.

And when those nasty insects burn
Caught in our net of fire,
The slimy frogs will quickly learn
That I am not a liar!

Yes frogs! Your voices dominate
The landscape everywhere.
I know you well, I’d been your mate
For far too long with flair.

But now it’s time for me to swell
And take the seat of power.
I’ll make you proud big league, I’ll tell
You how in just an hour.

Make Everything so great again,
My feathery attire!
My voice is louder than the frogs
Who drown in mild satire.

Let’s put our beautiful pond first
And drain it off completely.
And when your throats will hurt from thirst
I’ll slip away discretely.”

The noise around the pond grew strong,
With every creature quacking.
I closed my eyes and said, “so long
Chief duck, your eggs are hatching.”

It wasn’t French I’d heard, my dears,
But an aging duck.
Who sounded out a thousand fears,
For he no longer could…yuck!

The sunset came. I rose to leave
Just as the pond turned dark.
I lit a torch and said, “Believe
Forever in our park.”

© David Mandler

In Memoriam Erzsi Szabó

In Memoriam

In seventh grade, Ms. Erzsi Szabó, or Liz Taylor  in English,
Shared an article with us. It was a survey of sexual practices.
It came out that I was a tiger.

Literature class in Hungary, 1987.
With the Soviet army kicking its last in isolated barracks throughout the land,
With slender, seductive glass bottles of Coca Cola playing hide and seek
at the last overnight class trip, our seventh-grader bodies curling under a large blanket,
With a pipe-puffing writer of right leaning articles in her bed right next door,
With oblique speeches full of word flowers against world powers, and the brutal refrain
“Only one thing is missing: a shovel full of dirt…that will make everything all right”),
With her lessons on grammar and spelling forming legs for Literature,
With a smile that could only live on a face kissed by two ex-husbands,
(her last name changed three times in five years like Hungary’s borders)
With pop oral quizzes–me analyzing the epic poem, Miklós Toldi, for twenty minutes,
With her thank you note in pearly letters in my drawer next to Allen Ginsberg’s,
(she liked the tape I’d recorded for her with my new keyboard so much she even cried),
With that slender figure, careful makeup, clear voice, and still smoldering ashes ofpassion,
With that voice of concerned and tearful apologetics poured out to my parents one afternoon,
(she felt awful that I broke my wrist in a duel with the son of the said right-wing writer hero),
With the mist of time suddenly lifted by an unexpected email that she died,
With everyone around me unaware and unaffected while the Earth revolves just the same
with her heart
With her body in a fresh grave and spirit in my mind shining more brightly for a few moments
through the veil of romanticized darkness,
I am forced to think of a time when I will be recalled for a few seconds thirty years from  now.
I fear to know just how.  I question just how.
I hope anyhow.

© David Mandler

Note: the lines are off a bit here. Here’s the poem in pdf format. That is how the poem should look on the page:


Paprika Jancsi és Erős Pista Polgári Szövetség Követelései

Követeljük az alábbi illegális migráns csoportok azonnali hatállyal való kitoloncolását Magyarország egész területéről.

1. A muszlim lángost, amely illegális és erőszakos határátkeléssel nyomult be országunk területére a törökök megszálló seregeivel (vagy utána, vagy előtte a római megszállókkal).

2. Minden olyan ételcsoportot amely az olyan idegenszívű megélhetési migránscsoportokhoz köthető mint az Amerikából ötszáz éve benyomult paradicsom, kukorica, burgonya, chili paprika és édes burgonya. Így értelemszerűen olyan idegenszívű csoportoknak is megálljt parancsolunk mint a paradicsomleves illetve a paprikáskrumpli (egy különösen hatványozott német nevü idegenszívű fajta).

3. A túros csuszát illetve minden tésztafajtát. Bárhogy is nézzük, a tészta egy veszélyesen lappangó muszlim kártevő, amely már az 1200-as években sikeresen beharolt Sziciliába, hogy onnan az egész világot behálózza.

4. A madártejet, amelynek még a neve is egy aljas görög fordításból fakad, és egy francia vagy német betolakodót takargat.

5. A bablevest, babfőzeléket illetve minden olyan a babhoz köthető ételcsoportot amelyben ez a pogány és mélyen idegenszívű amerikai indián betolakodó feltűnik.

Abban az esetben, ha követelésünket nem teljesítik, éhségsztrájkba kezdünk.


Paprika Jancsi és Erős Pita Polgári Szövetség
Kelt (amikor tudott)


Don’t Forget to be Happy

(Photo credit: Sarah Chen)

About a week ago, my daughter, Rachel, aged six years and eight months, drew a picture of a colorful little girl and wrote the following message next to it intended for either of her parents to discover on her desk on parent-teacher day: “Dear Mommy or Papa. I  you. Don’t forget to be happy.”

I can’t recall exactly how many of my friends, classmates, and acquaintances surrounded me in the lobby of the main airport in Budapest waiving goodbye to me, but it must have been at least fifteen. We knew it was the last time we would ever see each other as a group. One last round of hugs later, it was time to go our separate ways. I was heading to a place called “America” with my parents while they were heading home to theirs.

“America” was Erica, my aunt and the basement room in her house reserved for my new immigrant family in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Ten days later, America became a now defunct sprawling public school called South Shore High School with bars on all its windows along with something truly incredible: adults in uniforms carrying walkie-talkies. “Did I land in a prison by accident?” I wondered aloud the first time I set foot inside the building. What was it that these uniformed creatures were shouting? “Program cards.” Oh yes. In order to be admitted into this palace of learning, I imitated the people around me and held up a thick, colorful paper printout with my classes listed on it to the security officers blocking the entrance. Inside, a noxious admixture of human sweat, hamburger meat and onions formed an invisible wall between the outside world and school. “If I make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” I would have muttered had I known the English lyrics of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” then.

With my knowledge of English extending not much farther than the phrases, “my name is David Mandler” and “I live in Budapest,” I was placed into the school’s English as a Second Language program (ESL). I took four English classes each day and ESL math, social studies, biology, and French. I also jumped at the opportunity to attend a class with a promising title called “Orchestra.” Over the course of the term, though, it became clear that Orchestra was a place where most students struggled to hold their instruments in the right way and felt a sense of pride when they succeeded in producing the kind of cacophony (topped with drums and all) that would have even made the totally deaf Beethoven shout in joy, “I can hear, I can hear!”

I found out early on in the guidance counselor’s office that another Hungarian student was roaming the windowless palace corridors along with three thousand others. Months into the school year, having been demoted a year from junior back to sophomore, I met him. That was the first time in a long time that I felt somewhat reassured. By that time, I had stopped wearing watches and hats in school lest they be stolen. My English slowly improved over the months, and I was able to skip the lost year and be mainstreamed as a senior. The most immediate benefit of regular classes was that I was permitted to take an English class that was devoted entirely to watching and analyzing films. Apparently, I had “caught up” with American culture. Never mind that I had no idea how a football game was played (not that I do now), was so self-conscious about my deficient English that I could not manage to get a girlfriend (though now that I’m married, the need to procure one is gone) and had no American friends (not that it’s much different now). I totally missed prom (“prom, what’s that?”) and completely abandoned my first instrument, the cello. But I did something new: I began to read books, and I hand wrote dozens of letters each week to my former classmates in Budapest. It was at that time that the desire to become a teacher began to replace my long-standing goal of becoming a classical music composer. True, I still heard and enjoyed the fully-orchestrated hymns in my head on fifteen-minute solitary walks home from school, knowing I would be the only person ever to hear them, but my sights were set on acquiring English to such extent that I could be as funny and witty using English as some people used to tell me I was in Hungarian.

Over the years that followed, every time I traveled with out-of-town acquaintances to Manhattan and passed by Chambers Street, I pointed at the shiny new building across the bridge over the West Side Highway to say, “that’s Stuyvesant High School. It’s one of the best schools in the city,” before driving away. It seemed impossible that I, who had no chance of getting in as a student, would end up teaching English literature there one day.

After a somewhat depressing high school graduation ceremony with musical accompaniment provided by the proud members of the Orchestra class, I entered Brooklyn College. Four years later, I graduated with a dual major in English and French and a minor in secondary education. I gave piano lessons to children and teens not much younger than me and wondered at the parents who trusted me to do the job right even before I was out of high school. I’d like to think that my teaching skills had improved as a result, but that statement may only serve to provoke the question in some of my more snarky students, “just how bad were Mandler’s skills back than if what he’s got now is an improvement.” Be it as it may, my new goal in college was to become a professor of English. I was very happy that NYU admitted me to its M.A-Ph.D. program, albeit without any financial aid. With the help of my parents, I managed to pay tuition in full year after year. Years of afternoon classes followed. I still could not replace the friends left behind in Budapest who by that time, sadly, were no longer my friends, either. Life went on for them without me.

At one point in my life, I made the decision to be happier, which sounds odd but true. I subsequently gave myself permission to relax a bit after graduating NYU and not mind the fact that I was a poorly paid adjunct professor at Touro College without any realistic prospects of securing a full-time, tenure-track position at a college. In 2007, with two years of high school teaching at private schools behind me, I was hired to teach at the Baccalaureate School for Global Education in Queens. Three years later, I was excessed, i.e., dismissed from my position, putatively for financial reasons. Despair and gloom enveloped me as I looked for a new position. Quite unexpectedly, Mr. Grossman, Assistant Principal of English, called me in the summer. An interview? A demo lesson? I got the job? Ecstasy. A year later, I experienced more heartache when it seemed that I would have to leave Stuyvesant. Thankfully, a teacher retired, and I could stay. In the meantime, I published a short story on amazon.com called “The Loft” and to my intense joy, my academic book Arminius Vambéry and the British Empire: Between East and West appeared this past July, following many years of hard work.

Nowadays, when I emerge from the Chambers Street subway station and see Stuy students rushing towards the sunlit building (with a handful of people with backpacks heading in the opposite direction for some unfathomable reason), I am reminded of my long-ago friends in Budapest heading to school with me decades earlier. So, as I near the Tribeca Bridge each morning, I thank G-d out loud for sending me to Stuyvesant, a school populated with such amazing people.

Ever since the moment I first read Rachel’s message, I knew that my young daughter’s incredibly simple yet quintessential message hit the nail on the head for me. The message on the bulletin board of my classroom is a quote from a little girl to myself, to my students and to the world at large: “Don’t forget to be happy!”

(This story first appeared on Humans of Stuy on 9/26/16).

Discount Code for My Newly Released Vambéry Book

My book entitled Arminius Vambéry and the British Empire: Between East and West was released on July 22nd, 2016. If you’d like to purchase a copy, please note that a discount coupon for 30% is available. In addition, it would be wonderful if you circulated the flyer about my book (see below) amongst your friends and acquaintances who may be interested in identity politics, Orientalism, Jewish identity, Zionism, and Hungarian identity framed by Victorian culture etc. Your suggesting the book to your local library via email for purchase would also be wonderful.

You may order the book directly from the publisher’s website with 30% discount:


The code you need to enter for the 30% discount is LEX30AUTH16.