The Plowman Meets the Reaper — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, when the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed … And I will bring back the captivity of my people of Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them; they shall also make gardens, and eat their fruit. (Amos 9:13–14)

He knew her, she lived past the sands, in the part of Rassco where you heard German and the Philharmonic when the windows were open. He sometimes went to play soccer on the street there when he needed to get away from home. Her house, one of the tiny two-room cubicles that made up the neighborhood, had a small garden that looked as if she went out every morning to straighten and polish each leaf and petal. He’d often see her sitting on her front stoop with one or another lady friend, both in high heels, in long sleeves even on the hottest days of the summer. Sometimes she would have brushes in hand and an easel in front of her, painting scenes of a city that looked nothing like Holon.

Once he passed by and she wasn’t outside and he felt so disappointed that he threw a stone at her window and then hid to see if she would come out. When she did, a frown on her face, he felt so ashamed of himself that he avoided passing her house for the next month.

She had been on the early train to Jerusalem and here she was again, a straw hat with a flower over her bobbed blonde hair. The train was crowded and hot but he’d manage to squeeze through to get a window seat. She was already on the aisle. In the morning she had sat down right next to him, fanning herself with a twice-folded copy of Ha’aretz. When she looked at him he was afraid she knew that he had thrown the stone, but she just smiled and asked his name and age in a throaty Ashkenazi kind of voice and then said that her name was Alma and that it was very brave for a boy of eleven to take the train to Jerusalem by himself and was someone meeting him at the station in Jerusalem. He told her that his name was Amos and that his father had sent him to bring his mother home before the war began.

Read more

Since conjugating French verbs doesn’t push people to join ISIS, what’s really happening?

My new column is up at Haaretz:

What possible connection could there be between a country speaking French and producing an unusually high number of people who go off to fight in Syria? That’s the question that a pair of American researchers faced after crunching a great deal of data and then staring, surprised, at the results.

The answer they suggest makes sense. That said, it will be more easily accepted in London than in Paris. It also emphasizes the sheer destructiveness of Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim incitement. It even sheds light on what creates Jewish religious extremism in Israel.

Read more

Yes, Sometimes It Is Anti-Semitism

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

Ken Livingstone, formerly mayor of London, presently a member in very bad standing of the British Labour Party, can be thanked for this much: He has provided a painful moment of clarity in the debate over whether anti-Zionism is, at least sometimes, anti-Semitism.

The answer is yes. For instance, when one says that when Hitler came to power “in 1932 [sic], he was supporting Zionism,” as Livingston recently did, or when one says that not hating all Jews, just Jews in Israel, is not an anti-Semite, as he subsequently did.

This bears explanation. But first comes some context, and dispensing with certain reflexive objections. So let’s start here: Last week, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn suspended MP Naz Shah, a rising political star, from the party under heavy pressure from party colleagues after a series of her Facebook posts reached the public eye. In one, Shah suggested transferring Israel—by which she presumably meant the Jewish majority, not the Arab minority—to the United States. In another, she implied similarity between Israel and Nazi Germany. The list quickly grew.

Read more

Grasping the Void — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The field school guide leads us along a path that skirts ripening stalks and ascends a low hill. The air is still, heated from above by a sun unseen through a dusty haze. At the top I count my family. Ilana is right behind me; my youngest, Misgav, stands next to the guide, looking out on the plain. I hold out my hand to take Niot’s, closing my fingers around a void. He is gone. I turn and see him running, running through the wheat.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
The two older children went to visit my parents in the States that summer. Ilana and I took the opportunity to take a vacation with the two younger ones. Misgav was still in preschool; Niot was ascending to first grade. We signed up for a four-day package at the Mt. Tabor field school, in the company of other families. It included meals and an itinerary of easy nature hikes and visits to fun spots, led by young and enthusiastic guides.

Niot had a habit of running off, not in exuberance, like a dog released from a leash, but in fear. Once, when our dentist took out the set of pointy and shiny tools with which he used to probe mouths, Niot leapt from the chair, whizzed out of the clinic and the building. It took twenty minutes for me, the dentist, the hygienist, and his older brother to ambush him and bring him back. His teeth were not examined.

This time, however, there is no reason for fear. We are having a good time and he is getting along with the other kids. Just a few minutes before he had been singing at the top of his lungs. When I call out to him, he does not turn. I lope down the hill, at a canter, so as not to incite him to go any faster. But as I descend, the wheat stalks, taller than he, hide him. Now it is I who am frightened. Who knows what he will do—find his way to the road on the other side of the field, fall into a pit, encounter a scorpion or dangerous stranger.

In the years since Niot left us forever, I also pursue him, but not so fast as to incite him to run faster. I live in fear that I will lose sight of him, that he will disappear beyond my mind’s horizon. How can that be? Five years after his death, I think of him constantly. But the wheat conceals him.

Read more

The Missing Center — Thoughts on the Seder in Memory of My Son Niot

niot pictures 226Haim Watzman
My annual meditation on Pesach and the Seder, in memory of my son Niot on the fifth anniversary of his death, written for Shabbat Shalom, the weekly Torah sheet published by the religious peace group Oz VeShalom–Netivot Shalom.
לגרסת המקור בעברית

A void yawns at the heart of the Haggadah, at the very center of the Seder. All we speak of on this long night leads to the central ritual precept—the eating of the Pesach sacrifice. We tell the story of the Exodus, sing “Dayenu” and, in obedience to Rabban Gamiliel, cite the three items that, if unmentioned, prevent us from having fulfilled the obligations of the Seder. Then we move from speech into action—we eat matzah, we eat maror. But there is no Pesach sacrifice to for them to be eaten with.

At the time of the twentieth-century return to Zion, there were calls to resume the Pesach sacrifice. A halakhic polemic ensued. Rabbis and scholars traded fine distinctions regarding the laws of sacrifices, of the Temple, of the priests, but very few of them spoke explicitly about what it would mean to turn the great nullity of the Seder night into a manifest presence.

Sefer HaAggadah offers a surprising midrash about Pharaoh on the night of the smiting of the first-born. The source is Midrash Tanhuma, but Bialik’s and Ravnitzky’s version offers a more potent vision: “Pharaoh went among his servants, from door to door, placing each one in his retinue, and walked with them that night down every street and called out ‘Where is Moses? Where does he live?’”

I want to focus on that picture, not on the story as a whole. The picture has two elements: first, just prior to the Exodus from Egypt—that is, on the first Seder night—Pharaoh leaves his home. He goes from door to door like a beggar seeking bread and the warmth of a home and a family.

Read more

Summer of ’88 — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

I didn’t understand why the woman with the wispy hair looked so worried or why she kept glancing behind her, in the direction of the corridor of her apartment on Carlebach Street. I stood on her threshold, holding out a Labor party pamphlet and launching into my spiel about why Israel needed change that only a Labor government could bring. With the right leadership we could achieve peace with our neighbors and form a more just society, I promised. Suddenly a rhinoceros bellowed from the hallway. A man with a huge belly distending a threadbare undershirt charged in and then halted, readying to pounce, his mouth frothing. He stared first at me and then at the woman.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
“Labor party,” she whispered in his direction, as if against her will. He lunged at me shouting “They’re paying you to come here! Paying you!” The woman slapped the door shut just before he tackled me. As I ran down the stairs I heard him beating on the door and his wife trying to calm him. When I got out to the street, he was shouting at me from the balcony and holding a flower pot over his head, ready to cast it at me like a cyclops repelling lost Greek sailors. From another window his wife called out, “Please go away!”

In the summer of 1988 I had been married three years, had two small children, and a mortgage on a housing-project apartment. Israel was in crisis—what else was new? And I was sinking into the obligations and routine of family life. Even though I’d just returned from a long month of reserve duty battling Palestinian teenagers in the villages around Jenin, I felt I was betraying my country.

Read more

On Lupine Hill — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Pepe Fainberg
illustration by Pepe Fainberg

Was it the sound of sage leaves parting that first alerted Hanoch? Or a disturbance in the penumbra reflected off a daisy? Whatever it was, his reaction was automatic, a swift movement followed only half a second later by a slower thought and Sitvanit’s scream. He drew his pistol and fired a single shot in the direction of the glint of scales. The snake, now visible, contorted and rolled and stained the ground red. Astounded that he had actually hit the animal and reading its dappled brown markings, he shoved Sitvanit away with his arm, took careful aim at the head, and fired another shot. The now headless snake shivered and writhed and fell still.

He took a step toward the dead animal, taking care not to step on the deep purple lupines that blossomed thickly by the path. Sitvanit stood frozen a few paces behind.

“Viper,” he announced. He looked around. The only others on the hill at this sunset hour were on the next peak over, across the shallow saddle from where he and Sitvanit stood, two pre-teen girls in long skirts and sleeves, accompanied by a mother and grandmother with white scarves over their heads. They were staring and he heard a faint murmur of voices, but a minute later they began descending the path down to the parking area, no doubt in a hurry to get out before dark.

He ran his left hand over the barrel of his pistol and found pleasure in its warmth.

Read more

Fifteen Characters in Search of a Better Author — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The rapid, staccato knock, perk and businesslike, startled me out of the beginnings of the trance I sink into whenever I write. Sometimes a fully-formed character emerges out of the trance, but much more often I just get a really good nap. I was startled because my office, which is really a basement storeroom stuffed with boxes, camping gear, and a dismembered eternal sukka, seldom gets visitors. Good thing, too, as there is barely enough room left over for me, my computer, and my bike. I sighed at the disturbance to my carefully-honed creative process, pushed myself out of my expensive, well-upholstered, and really comfortable executive chair, and opened the door.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
I found myself facing a thirty-something woman wearing an unzipped parka over a long, dark-blue dress. She looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place her. She held out her hand assertively and frowned when I hesitated before shaking it. Behind her I spotted a middle-aged woman with a hiking pole, but she quickly disappeared into the shadows of the corridor.

“Peppy Samuels,” she said. Then, seeing that the name didn’t connect, she added “Number 70. ‘Hooligan Oil.’”

“Oh, right,” I said. “It’s been a while.”

She wrinkled her nose at the sweaty gym clothes I’d hung up to dry over my bike and took in the general mess. Coming to my senses, such as they are, I drew a plastic folding chair off a hook and opened it for her.

“Have a seat,” I suggested. She took a glove out of her parka pocket and wiped down the chair before sitting down. Then, turning toward the door, she called out “Looks like the rest of you will have to stand out there!”

“The rest of you?”

“We’re a delegation,” she explained. Leaning over, she pushed the door open wider so I could see her companions. She gestured toward a sandy-haired young man with a dreamy expression, dressed in IDF fatigues. His arm was draped casually over the shoulder of a tousle-haired teenager with downy sideburns. “This is Ami, number 62, ‘Nobody Smiles,” and number 64, ‘Odysseus Eats.’ He’s representing the soldiers. His friend here is Felix Mendelssohn, number 43, ‘Piano Lesson,’ representing the classical composers.”

Read more

Savta Levana Cooks a Cat — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

“For what is the cat?” Savta Levana asked as Tamar smoothed the creases out of the apron she had just fastened at her grandmother’s back.

illustration by Avi Katz</eillustration by Avi Katz


“Just something I made. Now stand over by the sink so I can check the light.” Tamar had positioned her video camera at the entrance to the tiny kitchen. The good part was that she could leave the camera largely unattended. Savta Levana wouldn’t move much because there was practically no counter space left for her to work on now that she had all the modern conveniences. A mini-dishwasher grabbed most of the corner on the left side of the sink, between it and the refrigerator, and a microwave oven took up the bulk of the small stretch of counter between the sink and the window on the right. Tamar had already given instructions not to move the chicken over to the small table opposite, on which the cat sat. Even though that’s where Savta Levana really did most of her prep for the stove and oven, the camera would not see her there.

“What is just something you made? You just made it like that? A busy girl like you? You have time to make cat dolls?”

“Savta, we’re making tbit,” Tamar reprimanded her.

“I’ve made tbit every Friday for more than fifty years and I never had someone watch me,” the grandmother complained, eyeing the big-headed blue cat with the heart in its paw with more than a pinch of suspicion.

“I’m going to make you famous. Savta Levana’s Iraqi recipes on YouTube. People all over the world will make your tbit. They’ll make pilgrimages to Holon to worship at your kitchen. I’ll even add English subtitles.”

Read more

The Night Hall — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Mor felt her way down the hall in the dark. Her hand touched a photograph hanging lower than she remembered and sent it swinging, but she steadied it before it fell. She would make no noise and turn on no lights. If Bar and Ayala woke up she would have no quiet to think in. Halfway down she turned back and peered at Aryeh. He was on his back. Suddenly an arm rose and flopped down where she had formerly lain. A hand searched, fruitlessly. Soon he would snore. He would not stir, though, even if Bar and Ayala began to cry, because, by his account, he had averaged just four hours of sleep for the past week and a half. Now he was home from the army for two nights. She closed the door softly and went back down the night hall.

 illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz


The armchairs cast shadows. Street light, filtered through translucent blinds, penumbraed the room. She sat in the closer chair, older but more comfortable. Looking down, she touched the sore spot on her left breast. Aryeh had fallen right on it after he came. Why did men do that? Couldn’t he hold himself up? She was not made of foam rubber, she had told him many times. “I can’t help it, it’s like everything inside me has come out,” he said. “Not everything, just some semen,” she’d correct him. Then he’d kiss her and roll off and take her in his arms and drip everything inside him all over her. And the sheets. No wonder she could never fall asleep afterward.

If this night were a story, she reflected, here would be the point where the bombshell would come. “She reached under the sofa cushion and drew out a photograph of Eli.” Or, “It was time for her to leave.” Or “The gun felt cold under her nightgown.” But she did not have another lover, she was too tired to leave, and she was wearing a sweatsuit, not a nightgown. It was December, after all.

He was always so eager when he came back from the army. Affectionate, and intense. If it weren’t for the children he would lead her straight from the kiss at the door to the bedroom. Like he used to do.

Read more