Against the Odds — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

“The harira didn’t come out so great today,” the waitress advised. “If you want soup, I’d go for the sweet potato.”

Instead of standing, the waitress had pulled up a chair. The father and his grown daughter were the only clients in restaurant, which looked like it had been flown in from the West Coast, with its small tables and back-breaking chairs ranged around a large central unfinished wood counter. It was squeezed between an Ethiopian bar and a high-end Middle-Eastern grill, both of them similarly empty, on Borochov Alley, a bit east of the shuk, between Jaffa and Agripas. The stabbings were keeping people home, so the waitress had time on her hands.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
She looked Oregonish herself, slender, with straight hair and large round glasses, clearly ten or maybe even fifteen years older than the standard student waitress. She was a single mother of two girls, she told the daughter and father, and had just returned to her job, a few weeks after her baby had been born, because how was she supposed to live? Her face was overcast, perhaps because she hadn’t been getting much in tips from absent diners.

“Did you have a celebration here?” the daughter guessed.

The waitress’s face brightened. “Yes! Just last night! It was the manager’s present to me. Just something small. Family, a few friends. All presided over by my grandmother, the Frau Doktor Dora Berman, who didn’t like the food at all. She sat very stiffly over there, on that high chair at the end of the counter, in a black dress, nibbling from dishes we brought her and making faces. Mama was beside herself.”

“How’s the vegan lasagna?” the father asked.

“Abba, she’s telling us about her baby!” the daughter chided him.

“But she’s our waitress,” he pointed out. “And I’m hungry.”

“You can wait,” the daughter said, and then asked the waitress: “Your mother and grandmother don’t get along?”

“It’s complicated,” the waitress sighed. “Mama can be a pain. But the Frau Doktor is one of a kind. Do you know what she said when I brought the baby in?”

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Brine Drain–“Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Avi Katz -- Brine Drain

illustration by Avi Katz

When Daniela woke up she saw Jupiter glowing brightly in the sky. Or was it Venus? She would be able to tell if she could find her binoculars. Jupiter would have its four Galilean moons ranged around it and Venus would show a phase. Sometimes, while out camping in the Negev, she had been able to see, or think she saw, those distinguishing marks with her naked eye. But everything was blurry now. She felt for the binoculars, which should be here beside her in the tent, but she couldn’t find them. B, her little brother from hell, must have taken them. Whenever she needed something badly, it turned out that he’d run off with it. She tried to lift herself up on her elbows to see if B was with her in the tent, but her head suddenly went woozy and she fell back down on her back.

“It’s ok,” a friendly voice said. “Take your time.”

Daniela glanced to her right and saw a woman who looked like a Fox News anchor sitting in a wooden chair next to her. She herself was lying on a cot. What she’d thought was a planet was in fact a naked light bulb. The walls were bare. She knew the scene from countless movies. And now she remembered the raid on her lab at Georgia Tech. She was the planetary geophysicist who had come in from the cold.

“My name’s Cindy,” the anchorwoman said. “I’m really sorry we had to bring you here. Rich, your research partner, and your grad students are just fine. You’ll get to see them in good time, after they all wake up.”

“CIA?” Daniela asked. “NSA? FBI? Shin Bet?”

“YKVK,” Cindy said. “But that’s just a moniker. The real name is ineffable. Far more secret than all the others.”

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The Rossini Redemption — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Avi Katz -- The Rossini RedemptionHaim Watzman

So intensely was I listening to my iPod that I bumped straight into Haim Abutbul as I galloped into the stairwell leading up to my apartment. Haim is my downstairs neighbor, and other than sharing a name, we don’t have much in common. He’s Moroccan, retired, round, short, and has a moustache. I’m the opposite.

After I apologized and he mumbled an acceptance, he strode right past me, smeared silicone on the door jamb, and affixed a clear plastic mezuzah. Stepping back to admire his handiwork, he bumped into me again. This time he apologized and I mumbled.

“I bought a new one,” he explained. “New housing, new and expert parchment. The works.”

I nodded, in rush to get upstairs to a long-delayed lunch. “Tizkeh lemitzvot,” may you perform many other good deeds, I said. I put a foot on the bottom step but Haim would not let me go.

“Haim, you must have noticed that a lot of people in our entrance have been getting sick lately,” Haim said ominously.

“I hadn’t,” I apologized. “I feel fine myself.”

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“Swings” by Mizmor Watzman

Haim Watzman “Swings,” a brief animated film by my prize-winning daughter Mizmor Watzman, is currently participating in the Kinofest International Digital Animation Film Festival. This power-packed 95 second film is well worth your time. If you agree, please give it a “like” on the YouTube page–the film with the most likes by Sept. 27 will … Read more

If Your Senator Is Considering Voting No on the Iran Deal, Ask Her to Read This

Gershom Gorenberg

And this, too, at The American Prospect:

In the least plausible alternative version of my life, I would have stayed in the San Fernando Valley rather than leaving Los Angeles over 40 years ago and moving not long afterward to Jerusalem. In that scenario, I’d be represented in Congress by Democrat Brad Sherman—and I might be less infuriated by his recent announcement that he’ll vote against the Iran deal, because if I were an Angeleno rather than an Israeli, his decision wouldn’t pose a threat to me, my neighbors and my country.

At this distance of years and miles, I don’t normally pay much attention to an L.A. congressman, but a random tweet alerted me to Sherman’s statement. New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s declaration that he’ll vote against the accord made more headlines, and is even more upsetting, given the relatively greater weight of each vote in the Senate. In both cases, their statements barely mention Israel, but their explanations track Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talking points for foiling the deal in Congress. You don’t have to be a cynic to suspect that Schumer and Sherman have devoted much of their study of the issue to their constituents and have concluded that voters who support the Vienna accord are a captive audience for a Democratic incumbent, while passionate opponents are swing voters and perhaps swing donors.

I imagine that Sherman, Schumer, and other Democrats who intend to vote against the agreement might respond that Netanyahu is, after all, Israel’s elected leader and therefore the accredited spokesman for its security concerns. But there would be a logical absurdity in that argument.

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Israel as a Republican State of Mind

Gershom Gorenberg

And this is now up at The American Prospect:

Mike Huckabee met reporters Wednesday at the Waldorf-Astoria on a campaign stop. This particular Waldorf-Astoria was in downtown West Jerusalem. Huckabee wanted to talk about Iran. The folks with microphones and cameras mostly wanted him to talk about his previous campaign event. That was a fundraiser at the Israeli settlement of Shilo in the West Bank—or as Huckabee insistently called the area, “Judea and Samaria,” which he said was part of Israel.

The journalists’ interrogation grew fiercer, and the ex-governor of Arkansas said time was up. As he made his escape, a foreign correspondent sitting strategically near the door asked: “Do you also think Gaza is part of Israel?” and another said, “Would you be the first president to abandon the two-state solution?”

“I’m not sure,” Huckabee replied to one question or the other. It was the most reality-linked response of a hallucinatory session. He was, in fact, clueless.

Jerusalem and Shilo, let us note, are certainly not part of the United States. But why should that bother a Republican presidential candidate? The GOP and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have, together, steadily blurred the border between Israel and America as separate polities.

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Six Days Shall You Tap Screens…

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column (with some inspiration from Marx and Levinas) is up at Hadassah Magazine:

I was not just stir-crazy but screen-crazy. I was working on two computer screens—my laptop’s and the big one on my desk—and had my Kindle on my left and a document open on my tablet on my right, which made four screens, except when one of my kids texted me, when the phone made five.

Illustration by Christiane Grauert.

I got on my bike. It was late afternoon, with a light Jerusalem breeze blowing. I rode along the promenade that overlooks the Old City, up to where it narrows into a path between tall evergreens, and found a stone bench where I could see the golden Dome of the Rock between the branches. I often come to the same spot on Shabbat, on walks with my wife.

Relief. I inhaled the scent of the woods and thanked God for green.

Then I pulled my phone off my belt. The motion felt like an involuntary twitch of my hand. Anyone watching might have thought that I was checking a news site, but I knew that the screen came first; the choice of what to tap came after. I realized what I had done, looked at the rectangle of glass and plastic and stuck it back on the belt clip.

I thought, “This does not happen to me when I come here on Shabbat.”

I don’t use screens on Shabbat.


It has been such a short time since screens were bulky boxes that we only used at our desks. Then they got smaller and lighter. It is so convenient to be able to take a laptop anywhere—look at me! I can answer my boss while sitting on the porch—especially when the laptop shrank into a tablet and a phone.

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Hitched — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

   illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
Maya arrived at Karla’s wedding at Shoresh alone, in her 2014 Peugeot 208, because she was unattached. Karla had worked under Maya at Cisco until being laid off half a year ago, and the Peugeot 208 was leased for Maya by the company. Karla had looked up to Maya at Cisco and, while Maya had never felt close to her, Karla had invited Maya to her wedding and Maya felt duty-bound to go. Maya was fed up with herself about being alone for so long, and was determined that it would not last out the evening. Her plan was, after a couple of glasses of white wine, to survey the crowd and pick out the guy who would come home with her. It might be for the night and it might be for longer. She was open to both. The plan left a hollow place in her stomach, but she had learned, from the army and from her job, that grit and good planning always pays off. She had deposited her check and was just backing off from the bar with her first glass of wine when she felt a hand on her shoulder and a peck on her cheek. It was Yamit, from the old days—well, just five years ago, really—in Unit 8200.

Maya pecked back and the two intelligence officers (res.) quickly established that Maya was a work acquaintance of the bride’s and Yamit a second cousin of the groom’s (“but we’re like this,” she said, wrapping a fuck finger around an index). Yamit peered right and left and Maya corrected her. “I’m alone.” Yamit grimaced. “Oh, Maya. Why haven’t you been in touch? What’s the deal this last year? I thought maybe …”

It was Maya’s turn to take in Yamit’s eyes and see where their corners pointed, but a sixteen-year-old with a tiny plate of mini-burgers ran straight into her. The burgers went flying. Maya lost not a drop of wine. The boy mumbled an apology and headed back to the burger bar. She refocused on Yamit’s eyes and followed the gaze.

“Oh,” she said to herself. “Oh my God.”

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Entering the Land and Going Out into the World

Haim Watzman

008601-000014This dvar Torah is an English version of one that appears in this week’s issue of “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly Torah portion sheet published by Oz VeShalom/Netivot Shalom. The Hebrew version can be found here . Its dedicated to the memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us one year ago in the month of Av.

The modern religious public grapples with any number of challenges that our forefathers were spared, and which Jews living in more closed communities seldom encounter. One of the most frequent of these is how to recite Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals, when one leaves the religious community and goes out into the world. It can be a problem to find the appropriate moment to say this rather lengthy blessing without raising eyebrows or causing impatience among your companions. It’s a common dilemma when one eats with fellow-Jews who do not observe the mitzvah, and when one eats with people of other religions, such as those whose custom is to thank the Lord prior to the meal but not afterward. It is also a problem when one eats with people who do not believe there is anyone to give thanks to. In such situations, I can only agree with the king of Kuzar who asks his Jewish interlocutor if his faith’s system of blessings is not more trouble than they are worth. Is the mitzvah trying to tell us to simply avoid such multicultural encounters? Is that the best way to observe it?

It is polite to say thank you, but if that is all Birkat HaMazonis about, why does it have to be so long? Why isn’t it enough to express gratitude in one’s heart? Furthermore, set blessings, like set prayers, easily become reflexive rote recitations. On a day-to-day basis, even if one wants to keep it fully, Birkat HaMazonis not an easy task—that is, it is so simple both to say its words and mean what it means. Blessings, like prayers, are meant to be “the Temple service of the heart,” and as such are supposed to demand thought and introspection. But when your head is full of other thoughts it easily becomes mechanical.

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Sin Offering — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

After Baba Batra 10b

  illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz

“Please confine yourself to discussing your own sister’s anatomy,” Yohanan said as he smeared iodine paste on the gash in Josh’s shin. He used his whole slender arm, moving it from the shoulder, where any other medic would use only his wrist and hand. Yohanan was smiling despite himself because Josh, lying back on his elbows on a scratchy slate-colored army blanket spread over the yellow grit of the Negev borderland, had mispronounced the expletive, as he mispronounced most everything he said in Hebrew. Josh grimaced and grabbed the grimy purple kipah off Yohanan’s buzz-cut scalp. He kissed it, replaced it, and gave Yohanan the finger. The sun hung heavily over the plain to the east, behind a scrim of dust, as if it had barely risen this far and would go no further. Another blanket lay behind them, not smooth but lumpy. Something small underneath.

“Holier than thou,” Josh muttered in English. Yohanan jerked his head and his kipah fell onto Josh’s belly. So did his glasses. Josh handed the glasses back to Yohanan and put the kipah on his own head, trying it out for a moment before giving it back. Intently kneeling over Josh’s leg like a penitent on a pilgrimage, Yohanan wound gauze bandage. Josh picked up the tube of iodine to examine the expiration date. “It better be good stuff,” he said. “That whore-daughter’s mouth is probably full of animalcules. Rabies. AIDS. Hepatitises A through C. Ebola and plague.”

“You’re good to go,” Yohanan said, rolling down the leg of Josh’s fatigues and slapping him on the knee.

“Until the infection sets in,” Josh said portentously. “I can’t believe she bit me. Like a snake.”

Sergeant Eliezer, the only one standing, eyed his friends as he swayed, running his left hand over his beard and then clasping it, before him, to his right.

“What do you expect from them, they’re animals, those Sudanese,” came the muffled voice of Modai. The stocky machine-gunner, lying flat on his back in the sand, had placed his hat over his face.

“And here I thought they were human beings like us,” Yohanan said, packing his medical gear back into his vest.

Eliezer, stepping back from his prayer, sat down to join them, quickly unwinding his tefillin from his arm. “A human being is not what a person is,” he said. “It’s what a person does. King Solomon says: ‘Tzedakah teromem goy; ve-hesed le-umim hatat.’”

Josh looked uncomfortable.

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Icks Factor — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Dear Bibi,

 illustration by Avi Katz</em
illustration by Avi Katz
When you shunted me off to the national embarrassment portfolio as the last and least of your myriad cabinet ministers, I was at first angry and insulted. Having expected to get a senior office of great public and historical weight, such as the Nostalgia Office or head of the National Task Force for the Depletion of Natural Resources, I was taken aback by the prospect of taking on a new ministry created out of bits and pieces pilfered from so many other government agencies.

But after a month on the job, I now understand the great wisdom you displayed in bringing all your government’s efforts to disgrace our great nation together under a single roof. While your piecemeal efforts to make Israel the laughing-stock of international diplomacy have been effective to a large degree, you are certainly correct in resolving, in your new government, to make shame a national priority.

My first step as minister of national embarrassment has been to embark on a tour of European and North American capitals and Jewish communities to assess just how disgusted our allies and compatriots are with us, and to formulate a master plan for transforming this antipathy into something more akin to loathing. Kudos to you for jump-starting my ministry’s efforts with your election-day message warning against a high voter turnout among Israel’s Arab citizens and your pre-election insult to President Obama in the form of your speech to Congress. These two strokes of genius were cited again and again in each city I visited. Here is a sample of the comments I received:

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Next Summer’s War — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The Jerusalem winter that kept coming back had finally come to an end, or perhaps it was just taking another break. Whatever the case, the clouds had gone from dark and low to scattered and high, the wind had slowed from gale force to tickle, and the temperature had risen from ski gear to light jacket. It was the first Shabbat in weeks that you could go out without an umbrella. Ori and Dudi had gone to play with friends, so Ronen and Gali grabbed the opportunity.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
“Let’s go to the Tayelet,” Ronen suggested.

“It’s too cold,” Gali objected. She was half-reclining on their couch, being kicked from inside.

“But it’s warm today!”

“It’s still cold.”

“We haven’t been there for months.”

“No one goes there anymore. It’s like a ghost town. It gives me the creeps.”

“Well, then,” Ronen asked, “where should we go?”

“You know I hate making decisions.” She took Ronen’s extended hand and allowed herself to be pulled up slowly, so that she could keep her balance. “Why can’t you make up your mind?”

Since they had been married for nearly eight years, nothing in the previous exchange really meant anything.

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