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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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Terrorists Want You to Be Very Afraid. So Don’t Be.

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect

The original meaning of words is washed away by overuse. So a reminder: Terrorism is intended to make you feel terror, to make fear flood your mind and keep you from thinking straight. That’s true whether it takes place in Paris, San Bernardino, or Jerusalem.

The first step in defeating terrorism, therefore, is to chill out.

Take a long slow breath. Then we can talk calmly about things to do next.Keep Calm and Carry On

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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