The Shirt Off His Back — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Itzik feels a little hand tugging at his but keeps his eye on the shirt. The hand belongs to Lior, his three-year-old. The shirt belongs to him, to Itzik, but Itzik is not wearing it. A stranger is.

illustration by Avi Katz
It’s the early hours of a Shabbat morning. Lior crawled into his parents’ bed before six a.m.; Itzik jumped up, pulled on a t-shirt and shorts, and whisked him off to the park across the street so that Stav, eight months pregnant, could get some rest. How long has the stranger wearing his shirt been sitting there, on a bench on the other side of the playground, reading a newspaper? Itzik sees him only when he climbs up after Lior to the sliding board’s upper platform.

The shirt is purple, long-sleeved, one that Itzik would never have worn on such a hot summer morning. The stranger wearing it has a sculpted, lean face and sits poised, erect but relaxed. Other than the shirt, he has on khaki cargo shorts and New Balances.

“Abba, watch,” Lior pleads, tugging again at Itzik’s hand. Itzik looks down into his son’s bright eyes, which seem to take up most of his face.

“I’m watching, I’m watching!” Lior smiles broadly, but when he sits down on the edge of the slide, his face clouds.

“Go on!”

Lior shakes his head slowly, turning it a full ninety degrees each way.

“Ok, I’ll go catch you.” Itzik clambers down the ladder and goes to the bottom of the S-shaped slide, a tunnel at its top half. Lior lets loose with a child’s primal cry and a few seconds later lands on his bottom on the rubber below. Lior screams, more insulted than hurt. Itzik looks away from the stranger, heaves his son up into a big hug. The stranger looks up at them.

Read more

Not a Third Time — Dvar Torah in Memory of My Dad

Haim Watzman

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
An English translation of the dvar Torah in memory of my father, Sanford (Whitey) Watzman, that appears in this week’s issue of Shabbat Shalom , the weekly Torah portion sheet of the religious peace movement Oz VeShalom, on the third anniversary of his death.

The dawn of sovereignty and the end of sovereignty, divine providence and divine concealment, standing on the verge of the Land of Israel and gong into exile—the first chapters of the book of Deuteronomy, which we read this week in the annual cycle of Torah readings, seem to mirror and contrast the themes of the fast of the Ninth of Av, which always falls in the week after it is read. The cycle is deliberately arranged so that we always begin our reading of Deuteronomy on Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the fast that mourns the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the beginnings of the Babylonian and Roman exiles. The most commonly cited connection between the fast and the Torah reading is that the word “eichah,” the exclamation that means “how can this be endured!” (The word also appears in the week’s haftarah from Isaiah and is a refrain in the Scroll of Lamentations read on Tisha B’Av.) But there is much more. The clear message conveyed by the days between Shabbat Hazon and Tisha B’Av is that the Jewish nation was given a chance to establish an independent and moral society, one acting in the name of heaven and not for its own aggrandizement—and that we failed the test badly.

My father worked for many years as a journalist out of a sense of mission and a firm belief that a free press is one of the cornerstones of democratic society. And he believed that democracy was the best (if far from perfect) way of establishing and maintaining a moral human society. Democracy requires citizens to take responsibility for themselves. On the face of it, that seems to be the opposite of what the Torah demands.

Read more

Waves — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
It’s like a movie trailer, when Emma emerges from the waves. An early morning sunray coming from between two wispy clouds spotlights her and sparkles the seawater on her skin. Her breasts—well, I look away but then look back, accepting that I am human and male and twenty-four years old, and that Re’ut likes me that way. Tall, sleek Barak’s still out where the waves are breaking, shaking out his shoulder-length curls between one crest and the next.

I’m just finishing winding up the straps of my tefilin when she reaches me. She stops a couple meters away and smiles, waiting patiently as I fold up my tallit and stow my prayer gear in my backpack. Then we both sit down on the mat that Barak brought back from Thailand, along with Emma. I adjust myself to put just one more centimeter between us. We do not speak at first.

“It’s a beautiful beach,” she says in English, with a heavy French accent.

I nod and take a breath to get my own Hebrew-accented English in order. “It’s our favorite. Part of a nature reserve. We used to come here a lot together. On Fridays during high school. When we were home from the army.”

“You don’t want to go into the water?”

“Soon.”

After another pause, she says: “You do this every morning? Pray? Even at the beach?”

I shrug. “Just part of waking up for me.”

“Barak used to do this, too, when you came here, before his trip?”

I nod.

“Funny,” she says. Her smile is warm, accepting, but uncomprehending. “When I wake up at the sea in the summer, the first thing I want is to go in the water.”

Somehow she’s closed up that extra centimeter.

Read more

One Flesh — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman
We circle, weapons drawn, two as one, ready to kill.

I raped the boy in April 1948, in a dark corner in the garden of a villa in Talbieh. A few minutes before he had leapt out from between some bushes, a butcher’s knife flashing. Boaz, a pace away from me, had his eye on the balcony above, fearing a sniper, so he never saw the kid who brought the knife down between his shoulder blades, with a shout of Allah akbar!, or perhaps it was something else. The stars were just coming out, but I saw my friend murdered. I saw the blood spurt from his back and chest as he crumpled.

illustration by Avi Katz
I did not shoot. Our men had surrounded the house and I might have hit a friend. So I said afterward, but I was such a good shot that no one was in danger. It was that such a death would have been too merciful for Boaz’s killer. Instead, I took off after the boy. He sprinted toward a back corner of the garden, where a tall cypress stood among a wild undergrowth that might have once been a flowerbed. I was the faster. I caught him by the collar before he reached the wall he meant to climb. He tried to struggle free, but I was the stronger. I let go of my rifle and grabbed his chin and turned his face toward me. I wanted to see who I was about to strangle.

To this day I wonder how, in the heat of battle, I could have been able to grasp that I was gazing at a face of godlike beauty. I had always assumed beforehand—and, indeed, all my experience since then has confirmed—that when your life is on the line, when you stand on the precipice between life and death, the mind focuses only on keeping you alive. Your eye takes in every detail of the terrain, every clue to where your enemy lies, but nothing of the harmony of the shape of the landscape. Color may be a sign of danger but never moves the heart. Yet, at this instant of vengeance I was nearly unnerved by the splendor that I saw.

Read more

Roadblock — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Illustration by Avi Katz
Alon woke up immediately at the touch on his shoulder. He tossed off a small flap of sleeping bag, all that covered sweat-damp chest, swung his feet over the side of the top bunk, and looked into the face of his waker. Guy was fully dressed, and looked tired. Alon scratched his crotch with his left hand and tapped his phone with his right. A quarter to two, fifteen minutes before the four-hour shift with Guy at the roadblock. He jumped down from the bunk and fished for his fatigues under his sleeping bag.

Guy threw his rifle onto the bunk below and began unbuttoning his shirt.

Alon froze in the middle of pulling his pants up. Guy stopped unbuttoning and stared at his friend.

“I switched with Rafi,” he whispered, so as not to wake sleeping men. He pointed his chin at the reservist lacing boots on the next bottom bunk across the fusty barracks room and over one. His head then signaled to the left, at another man who was already down to his underwear and holding a towel. “Did the ten o’clock shift with Uriel instead.”

Alon was wordless for a moment and then, almost inaudible, said: “Shit, Guy.”

Read more

Misgav’s Eulogy for Niot, Six Years / הספדה של משגב לנאות אחרי 6 שנים

גרסת המקור בעברית למטה

Nioti, can you believe it, six years have passed, six years and I’m already older than you.

Six years and I am trying to understand how it makes sense that you disappeared.

Before we had a chance to really get to know each other, before we managed to put all our silliness aside and rally talk about life and to stop being kids. Simply to love.

You left me in the middle of life, just when I needed you the most. We were going to be in the army together, to trade stories about our treks, to talk about the next trip, maybe even travel together, to talk about our studies and way of life, to go crazy at Asor’s and Mizmor’s weddings. Because you and are are two crazy people.

Six years that your death is a lump in my throat. I didn’t know what it meant for me, what I feel, how I express it.

Read more

Ilana’s Eulogy for Niot, Six Years / הספדה של אילנה לנאות אחרי 6 שנים

גרסת המקור בעברית למטה


We stand here on a clear spring day, the sixth spring since you fell, as everything blooms. The buds are coming out on the citrus trees in our garden. Every year, when the fruit ripened, I would ask you to go down and pick clementines and oranges. You could reach fruit that was out of my grasp.

It is hard to accept that you are not here with us. In recent years we have represented you at the weddings of your friends. At every wedding we see the circles of friendship whose moving force is actually you. And I imagine how different life would look if you were still here with your big smile, good heart, and your special ability to accept life in an uncomplicated and direct way.

Memories: You came to me in the kitchen, pondering out loud. A girl had captured your heart and you were wondering what to do. Your eyes were sparkling and good. I said to you: Tell her what you feel. And you were so happy and you surrounded me with so much love.

And I remember your strong back when you sat in the dining room with the computer during the time you were at home on medical leave, and I didn’t know that those were my last days with you.

Read more

Third Day of Spring — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The third day of spring is warm in the sun but cold in the shade. Ilana and I take the day off to head south and see lupines and anemones blanket green hills. But first we have a stop to make. We drive to the Botanical Gardens at Givat Ram for lunch at the café, and then buy flowers to plant at Niot’s grave.

illustration by Avi Katz
The military cemetery is a short ride away. We park in the small lot above Area D and walk down a long flight of steps, past plots holding soldiers from past wars and the uneasy intervals between them. We avert our gazes from the new section, where current burials take place; most of it is still covered in lawn. But, out of the corner of our eyes, we see a lone figure sitting by the newest patch of upturned earth. Two flights down from that is where Niot lies. We would hold hands as we approach him, but our arms are full.

On Niot’s plot, the flowers Ilana planted last year are blooming again, but the stems have grown long and tangled and tough. We try to put at least some of them in order, but realize that they have gone feral and will no longer bow to our will. So we dig them all up to replace them with young, soft newcomers, bearing petals of many colors. The sun is warm and I take off my sweater.

We do not speak much. We do not need to; lovers of many years know each other’s minds, and for the last six years we have been tied fast to each other not only by love but also by grief, and intense longing that often knows no words.

Read more

Who Walks In? Thoughts on Pesach in Memory of Niot Watzman z”l

From the Tzav-Pesach 2017 issue of Shabbat Shalom, the weekly Torah portion sheet published by Oz Veshalom. The Hebrew version can be foundon the Oz Veshalom website

Haim Watzman

Each Seder night, at the beginning of the Maggid, the telling of the story of the Exodus, we declare “Ha lahma anya,” “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” We then make another declaration: “Kol dikhfin,” “Let all come eat, all who are needy come and partake of our Pesach offering.” The first mention of matzah is followed immediately by an invitation to anyone who may be passing by to join us, not just for the holiday meal but also to participate in fulfilling the commandment of telling the story of the Exodus and eating the Pesach sacrifice. The “all” of “kol dikhfin” are at poor people who do not have the means to conduct a Seder themselves. (While most English translations render “Let all who are hungry come eat,” the “who are hungry” is an interpretive gloss not present in the Aramaic.)

A question immediately arises: why do we make this declaration on Pesach, as part of the ritual? After all, on every holiday, indeed every day, we are subject to the commandments of charity and hospitality.

This invitation to the hungry to sit down at our Seder table caused a measure of discomfort among commentators on the Haggadah. According to the laws of the Pesach sacrifice, a person cannot simply be asked to partake of a particular Paschal lamb. The Torah commands: “But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat” (Exodus 12:4, New JPS). The Sages learned from this verse that the Pesach sacrifice “is not eaten except by those subscribed to it” (Mishnah Zevahim 5:8). A person needs to have been included in a company of people who have subscribed to the same lamb before it is sacrificed; if he has not, he many not eat its meat at the Seder in fulfillment of the laws of Pesach. If that is the case, how can a person be brought into our Seder at the last minute, after the sacrifice has been made and we are sitting and reading the Haggadah?

Read more

The Madonna Lily — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
My flight arrives in Frankfurt at five in the morning but the connection to Tel Aviv isn’t until ten. The concourse where the plane from Boston lands is labeled Z, for good reason—it’s the ends of the earth, if Der Flughafen Frankfurt am Main is the whole world, which in my sleep-deprived state, it seems to be. Keeping my bleary eyes on the signposts and following them like a lost wanderer follows a will o’ the wisp ever deeper into a swamp, I set off through the alphabet for C Concourse, where lies the segregated gate, with its own separate security screening, at which the Frankfurters confine travelers to Israel. After walking down endless corridors, circling two roundabouts with domed skylights that I suspect are really one and the same, and taking a train to a place that presents the same signs I saw at my point of departure, I realize that this airport, like the world, is comfortless, stark, and largely vacant of human souls. Also, there is no place to get coffee, and a woman on a business trip needs her coffee.

I make a mental note to consider an essay arguing that Einstein drafted his theory of Special Relativity in these corridors; I notice that as I try to pick up my pace, the carry-on I pull behind me and the laptop on my back gain mass, and the clock on my phone slows down. Yet, according to the signs, I am no closer to Concourse C than when I started out. Then, like Bilbo Baggins catching sight of the Last Homely House, I spy, just off the corridor I am tramping through, an alcove thoughtfully provided by the mad architect who designed this distended monstrosity. The alcove is furnished with a hub of what look like beach chairs set on low pedestals and upholstered in imitation leather. It is silent and empty, and the thought of being able to recline at an angle of less than seventy-five degrees is more salaciously tempting than anything else I have seen this morning. I’m an organized person and my travel philosophy is always get to my gate first, and then rest, but I have so much time that there seems to be no reason not to stop for a brief nap. So I choose a chair that faces away from the corridor, place my carry-on underneath and my backpack for a pillow, and lie down. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice, on the next chair over, the long stem and closed buds of what we call in Hebrew a shoshan tzahor. It makes no impression. I quickly lose consciousness, and when I come to, I scream.

Read more

The Treasure Room — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Rachel Eberlein had just languidly stirred honey into her sage tea when she spotted Rabbi Hayyim soaring down from a feathery cloud that hung over Safed and Mt. Meron. It was the only mark in an otherwise clear blue sky. While he was still far too distant for her to make out his face, she knew it was Rabbi Hayyim Vital, her tenant these last two years. Just as people have distinctive walks that make it possible to identify them from far away, so they have their own special ways of flying. Rabbi Hayyim’s path was a series of bumps; he descended a bit, his kaftan billowing and offering a glimpse of his thighs, the then lurched up, then plunged, then lurched up again, all while standing erect with his arms stiff at his sides. It was as if he did not know whether he really wanted to reach earth.

It was a week before Lag B’Omer, and the sun’s rays were still a caress rather than a hammer blow, as in the summer. The magnitude of the day—somehow that phrase from Yom Kippur came to mind, the magnitude of the day—required a woman to sit on her second floor balcony and sip tea (sage tea because her stomach had hurt this morning, even though her time of month had passed a couple days ago). God had decreed it, as evidenced by the fact that her neighbor across the courtyard, Hannah, was also sipping tea on her balcony, surveying the verdant hills that ringed the holy city. She glanced at Rachel and followed her gaze to the sky, and, Hannah was pretty sure, raised her eyebrows.

Rachel frowned. Hannah always had to stick a thorn in her side. Rabbi Hayyim was just a tenant, no more, a way for a poor widow to put bread and cheese and olives on her table. Hannah was the one who should be ashamed of herself. She was remarried now, and should not so closely observe her former husband. She did not appreciate Rabbi Hayyim’s knowledge of the deepest secrets of the Torah that had descended from heaven to the Galilean mystics in recent times, as if God were compensating his people for their exile from Spain. Rachel spoke with him sometimes about the great mission that the Holy One, Blessed be He, had charged his people with, to raise up the divine sparks captured by the shells of evil. At times he spoke quickly, with a fiery intensity; at other times he would say a single word and fall silent and take to his bed for hours. In any case, if the stories were true, Hannah’s leers were out of place. It must have been her fault, she must not have known how to care for a man. Rabbi Hayyim was small and did not eat, and while his face was handsome enough, it had several pock-marks that were clearly visible under his spotty beard. Also, he had no income. In fact, he hadn’t paid his rent for two months, a fact that Rachel reminded him of just as he lunged down from treetop height and crashed loudly beside her, falling on his bottom and crying out in pain.

Read more