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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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

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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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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You can take the Jews out of exile, but you can’t take the exile out of the Israeli right

Gershom Gorenberg

My Yom Ha’atzma’ut column is up at Haaretz:

I’m sitting in a cafe in Jerusalem almost on the eve of Independence Day, listening to the Ashkenazi and the Ethiopian waiters joking in Hebrew, in circumstances that existentially are a billion miles from anywhere that my great-grandfather in the Ukraine could have imagined a descendant living, and I’m thinking about the speeches that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will give over the next couple of days – and thinking that he actually does not get that we are independent. Not that I mean to pick on Netanyahu, except as a personification of the Israeli right, which for all that it sees itself as strutting in Jabotinskian pride and glory, does not understand what it means to be here – physically, culturally or morally.

It’s a reasonable bet that in one or more speeches Netanyahu will mention Iran, the perfidy of Western nations, our isolation, and our potential extermination. Last week on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Netanyahu gave a speech that was more about Iran and fear of a new Holocaust than honoring the memories of those who died in the actual Holocaust. Netanyahu’s entire public career consists of pronouncements that it is, right now, 1938, if not August 1939. His forecasts are detached from the physical universe but are wired directly into the neurons of enough of the electorate to win him elections.

For the literarily or religiously inclined, the words that best portray his constant mood are, “The life you face shall be precarious; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival.”

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Fireflies — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Fireflies, forgotten for many years, reappear one summer evening.

Shabbat, Riverside Park, along the Hudson. Under the shelter of tall trees, runners race by. Couples stroll, families with small children sprawl on the grass. The first flashes, as the sun drops low over New Jersey, catch me by surprise. Then the tears begin.

 illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz

It is like a dream. Niot’s look of pure delight and wonder when he sees fireflies for the first time. He is twelve years old, or perhaps ten. We are in Silver Spring, at my parents’ home. I am sitting in an armchair reading a newspaper. Twilight falls. Niot appears behind the frame of the large sliding glass door that separates the family room from the backyard. He catches my eye, then turns his gaze to the yard. Points of weightless brilliance as day slides into night.

“Specks of living light / twinkling in the dark,” Tagore calls them. The picture is clear and present to me in the park at dusk, as clear as if I were again in that armchair and Niot beyond the sliding door.

When Niot first began to appear in my dreams, he was far away, visible for an instant, then gone. I wept in my sleep.

How could light make me cry? How could a creature showing itself to the world make me feel that world as empty? The firefly’s light is a cold light. It startles but it does not warm.

Winged embers mark trails along the river, like comets flying close to the sun, tails aimed at me.

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