On This Side and That — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
Zealot lifted the lid of the pot, taking care not to topple it from the primus and spill gravy all over the front of his new tolstovka. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and lifted his head so that, had they been open, he would have been gazing at the damp spot at the center of the ceiling.

“It is a heavenly chicken,” he pronounced. “There is no pleasure on this earth greater than inhaling the scent of a cooking chicken.”

“How about an orgasm?” suggested Yanai, tipped back against a corner with his legs stretched out, dressed in a white shirt and paint-splattered work pants. The corner went dim as the final ray of the setting sun abandoned the window of Devorah Hannah’s room in Jerusalem’s Fruits of Labor neighborhood. Behind the aroma of the cooking chicken was a dank scent of mildew, brought on an hour before by a cloudburst that had come two weeks too early on that Yom Kippur eve of 1911.

“All great orgasms are, ultimately, alike,” Zealot considered, preening his moustache, “but each excellent repast is excellent in its own way.”

“Zealot has never had either,” Devorah Hannah informed Eliezer, as she set her table for four. The table was the board that served as her bed, with an additional crate added to each leg, with a white cotton sheet serving as a tablecloth. A bottle of Rishon Letzion was already open and waiting. Eliezer gazed out the window at men in black frock coats and black hats striding toward synagogues. He wore the brown gabardine suit that he generally put on only for his meetings with Ottoman officials or Baron Rothschild’s men.

“I can’t read any more,” Yanai sighed, putting down his copy of Brenner’s new novel, On This Side and That.

“Too dark?” Eliezer asked.

“The darkness of the soul,” Yanai said, slowly rising, then pushing the rickety chair toward the table. He stretched his lanky frame and yawned. “When do we eat?”

Zealot tapped on Yanai’s shoulder. “The soul is a fiction. We are mere blobs of tissue and chemicals, obeying the laws of a mechanistic universe.”

“No wonder no one will sleep with you.” Yanai eyed Devorah Hannah. “Who would want to do it with a blob of tissue?” Devorah Hannah laughed.

“It’s still too early,” Eliezer said, running his right hand over his bushy beard.

Devorah Hannah let her dark hair down and smoothed her white linen trousers. She looked out at the men in the street. Women were walking as well, dressed in dark long dresses. The rain had cleaned and cooled the air but left it clammy. There was no breeze and she was sweating. “The fast has begun.”

“Yes, but we are still between the times. Between sunset and starlight.” Eliezer turned and put both hands on the set table, as if he were giving a lecture in the study hall of a yeshivah. “If we eat now we will be violating the rabbinical stricture, but not the command of the Torah itself.”

Zealot, who had grown up in Odessa and had been sent to modern schools only, picked up the book Yanai had left upside-down and open on his chair. “On This Side and That. Brenner may be a great writer, but he needs help with his titles. This tells us nothing about the book. A great title tells you immediately what subject the author is presenting. War and Peace. Crime and Punishment. Fathers and Sons.”

Blobs and Chemicals,” Devorah Hannah suggested.

Eliezer grimaced and Yanai grimaced back.

“The full phrase,” Yanai said, “is ‘bald on this side and that.’”

“Bald?” Zealot looked at him blankly. “It’s about how a man went bald? Why should that be of interest?”

“It’s from tractate Baba Kama,” Eliezer began to explain, but Zealot had been distracted by the fact that Devorah Hannah was lighting the two candles she had placed on a plate in the center of the table, so Eliezer did not go on. Zealot tried to grab her arm before she brought flame to wick, but she jerked away. The match went out and she lit another. Zealot turned away dismissively but Eliezer and Yanai watched as she lit the candles, quickly ran her hand over her eyes and, as if by reflex, mumbled a few words.

“We need the light,” she said. She eyed Zealot apprehensively, as if she knew she had transgressed and was seeking absolution.

“Blessed is the great non-spirit in non-heaven for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season,” Eliezer declared.

Zealot glared. “It behooves us, as the vanguard leading our people out of its dark past and into its national resurrection as a modern nation based on scientific socialist principles, to eschew all sentimentality and demonstrate our freedom from superstition.”

Yanai held out his hands. “And I therefore am prepared and ready to violate the five prohibitions of the Day of Atonement. As soon as the stars come out I will put on my shoes, eat a fine meal, and drink my fill of wine. After the two of you have finally gone, I will then wash, anoint myself with scent and oil, and then commit the final offense with my beloved Devorah Hannah.”

From the nearest synagogue, at the end of the street, they heard the hazan’s voice calling on the congregation to permit itself to pray with sinners.

“Let’s get some air until it gets dark,” Devorah Hannah suggested. As they filed out the door and down the half-flight of steps that led to the street, Zealot put his hand around her shoulders, but she shook it off.

“We must speak,” he whispered to her.

“Hands off, I’m armed,” she said so that the others could hear.

Yanai pivoted and stood erect, blocking Zealot’s way.

Zealot shrugged. “It seems that we have not all been cured of the bourgeois imperative to see each woman as the property of a given male.”

“It seems that my revolutionary fist will connect with your socialist face in the very near future.”

Eliezer pushed them away from each other. “God may be dead,” he told them, “but that does not sanction Godless behavior.”

The four of them walked slowly. The street was still wet and a haze reached up to their ankles. No one had suggested where they would go, but they found themselves following the diminishing stream of straggling worshipers toward the synagogue. A few meters before the building, they stopped and stood in a row and listened to the hazan.

Kol nidre.” Eliezer chanted softly, under his breath.

Yanai put a hand up to the corner of his eye. Devorah Hannah stepped forward and stood under a window, to hear better. “My father …” she said.

“He was a hazan,” Yanai explained to the other two men, stepping forward and placing his hands on her shoulders as she silently wept.

“We could go in,” Eliezer suggested. “We may not believe, but the music and poetry is part of our Hebrew culture.”

“We can’t go in like dressed this,” Devorah Hannah said, indicating her trousers and Yanai’s work pants. “And our heads are bare.”

Zealot stretched his right hand above him and pointed with his index finger. “I will not enter a den of superstition!” He began to whistle the Internationale. The others shushed him and listened until the hazan had finished chanting Kol Nidre three times. The sky had grown darker and a bright star was visible high above the roofs of the houses.

“I’m famished,” Yanai said. “Let’s go eat.”

They walked slowly back to Devorah Hannah’s room, Yanai holding her hand, Eliezer in front, Zealot behind.

Devorah extinguished the primus and brought the pot to the table. As she served, Yanai read Brenner to them: “No, I, perhaps, I am not sick at all. In any case, so it seems to me, this day of mine is not my last, this hour, the fourth toward evening, is not my last hour. And nevertheless all my past is before me, all my recent past … not an entirely bad past, an important past, I vow in the name of psychology! — No, really, I accept it willingly, this past of mine, I regret nothing of it, I am sure that if I were not twenty-nine years old but rather nineteen, and it all depended on my will to begin everything fresh—what?”

Devorah Hannah sat across from Eliezer and Yanai across from Zealot. They ate silently until Devorah Hannah put her spoon down and said: “Must we?”

“Must we what?” said Yanai, pouring himself more wine.

“Do this?”

“It is a ritual.” Eliezer looked around at the rest. “It is thus as important as all observances.”

Zealot reached over and put one hand on hers and with the other lightly grasped her chin to turn her eyes to his. “We must,” he intoned. Yanai kicked his chair out from under him and lunged at Zealot, toppling Zealot’s bowl of chicken stew onto his Tolstoy shirt.

Zealot, unruffled, stood up to face Yanai, who was coming round the table toward him.

“A waste of good chicken.” Zealot shook his head. “And I was so hungry.”

Yanai grabbed him by the collar and pushed him toward the door.

“Get out,” he ordered.

Zealot shrugged at the other two. “So uncouth. This is what comes from reading novels with mediocre titles.”

Eliezer had resumed his teacher’s pose, standing and leaning on the disrupted table with both hands. “Bava Kama 60b. It is like a man who has two wives, one young and one old. The young one plucked out his white hair and the old one plucked out his black hair. He ended up bald on this side and that.”

Yanai pushed Zealot out the door and then gave him another push that sent him tumbling down the stairs.

“Go to hell,” Yanai shouted at the figure sprawled below.

Devorah Hannah, behind him, whispered in his ear. Yanai shook his head violently, but she whispered again.

“Forgive me,” he called out to Zealot, who had gotten to his feet and was brushing himself off. “Forgive me for giving you what you deserved.”

“You are not forgiven.”

Eliezer, peering over the couple’s shoulders, said: “Ask again.”

“Forgive me.”

“No.”

“And a third time,” Eliezer instructed.

Yanai looked at Eliezer as if he were insane. Devorah Hannah whispered again.

He turned to Zealot. “Forgive me, you blob of tissue.”

Zealot winked at Devorah Hannah, turned, and headed out to the street. His three friends watched as he walked, in the direction opposite the synagogue, toward the center of the new city.

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Necessary Stories, a collection of twenty-four of the best of Haim Watzman’s short fiction, is now available as an e-book, paperback, and hardback on Amazon and all other vendors. Click here for purchase links and more information.

Haim will be speaking about his story Sin Offering at the Washington Square Minyan in Boston on Saturday morning, October 28, and at American University in Washington DC on Monday evening, November 6. He’s available for other speaking engagements in the US in late October and early November. Contact him at hwatzman@gmail.com.

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