Off Gaza — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Ido and I are starting on our second beer on a Monday night at Carousela on Mitudela, just off Gaza, when this old guy comes off the crosswalk, sits down at the table next to us, and begins to cry.

Ido turns and stares. It’s the second weird thing that’s happened since we took our regular spot on the patio to shoot bull and brainstorm our latest project, which is still in the cloudy stage but has, we’re sure of it, incredible potential to turn two part-time art students who met last year on their post-army South American trek into the Next Big Thing.

illustration by Avi Katz


“Gavriel, he’s crying,” Ido says, too loudly.

Ido’s got talent, but he can be a pain. Says whatever’s on his mind, no filters. I put my hand up in a vertical salute, just by my left eye, to indicate blinders. “What do you think about putting up a strobe light under Ubinas and a mirror under Lake Salinas?” I suggest, referring to our multimedia sculpture, in which we will abstractly portray this newly awakened Peruvian volcano and adjacent salt lake with compostable materials as a metaphor for the bitterness and ecstasy of life and love. We’re not sure whether the volcano represents life and the salt lake love, or the other way around, but that will come, that will come.

Ido doesn’t take the hint. His first beer always gives him a double buzz. So he leans over, puts his arm around the old guy’s shoulder, and asks him what’s wrong. I don’t have time for this.

The guy is old, but how old? Sixty? Seventy? More? He’s got a fringe of white and brown hair surrounding a bald pate and a face that looks weathered and tired. But he straightens his gaunt torso as Lily, the waitress, complaining that she’s been literally run off her feet

Read moreOff Gaza — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Gazing at Iris — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
Iris opens an eye to the sun above, then turns it to Yehoshua. Around them, a clearing of May’s green grass, not yet browned by the summer, stretches between the exuberant purple blooms of three jacarandas, among which iridescent blue sunbirds hover. Iris lies, and Yehoshua sits, on the top of a knoll skirted by the paths of Independence Park, so that even the occasional late morning Shabbat stroller does not disturb them. A west wind makes waves in the grass.

Yehoshua had passed this spot a few days earlier while riding his bike to his student waiter job at Tmol Shilshom. He spotted a pair of lovers on the peak of the hill, the girl lying on her back, sleeping peacefully, and the guy seated, leaning on his left arm, gazing at her face. A few minutes after passing, as he approached the restaurant, he circled back to the park to observe them again. The guy, with his short black beard and loose tee-shirt, could have been him. And the girl, in her loose trousers, with light brown hair splayed over the grass, could have been Iris. The guy was still gazing, the girl still dozing, and it seemed to Yehoshua that there, on that knoll, amid the purple flowers and shining dark birds, love was as pure as it ever could be. The sour face from the shift manager for being a few minutes late didn’t faze him. He would bring Iris to that spot on Shabbat, and they would be in love like that.

“What are you doing?” Iris asks, one eye still closed.

He smiles. “Gazing at you.”

“Well, stop it. It makes me nervous.” She closes her open eye. After a minute she opens it again. “I said stop it.”

“But you’re so amazing,” Yehoshua says, his whole heart in it. “How can I stop looking?”

She smiles, opens her other eye, and pushes herself up on her elbows. “What’s gotten into you?”

He’s not sure what the right answer is. He thinks back to that other guy and girl. He hadn’t heard them speak. It seemed they didn’t need to.

“I’m being romantic.”

Read moreGazing at Iris — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Four Waterfalls, One Hidden — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
We say kaddish for our son and drive north. The hills that tumble down the descent to Jericho are tinged pale green, the last breaths of the desert’s brief, defiant annual winter resurrection. The sun glints on the asphalt of Route 90, which stretches along the west bank of a feeble Jordan River. Toward Beit She’an, the bleak landscape turns green again. Irrigated fields replace bleak hills. We make a short detour up to the top of Mount Gilboa, hoping to catch the last of the irises that bloom there in the spring, but we are too late. We have to make do with a few tentatively lavender bear’s-breeches and splashes of Red Everlastings, the flowers printed on the stickers that everyone will paste on their chests on Memorial Day, two weeks hence.

On to the down-home bargain hotel in shabby-to-slummy Tiberias, where we will spend the long second weekend of Pesach. From our window we have a view, not of Lake Kinneret, but of the rubbish-filled yards of abandoned buildings up the street, and the lonely olive trees that dot the mountain slopes between the upper city’s housing-project neighborhoods.

The next morning, Thursday, the eve of the holiday, we continue north, as far north as we can go, to Metula. We take a right at the gate, then turn right again and again to reach the entrance to the Ayun Reserve. A stream of that name wells up a bit further north, in Marjayoun—I saw it three and a half decades ago, when I shuttled through the town time and again as a soldier serving unenthusiastically in Lebanon. When it crosses the Israeli border, it enters a narrow canyon and spills down a steep series of waterfalls, into the Hula Valley. Thirteen years ago the stream dried up, when Hezbollah diverted the source springs in the Lebanese town to irrigate the fields nearby. A few years ago, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority brought the stream back to life by piping in water from the Dan, a mightier stream to the southeast. Dan and Ayun, along with Hatzbani and Banyas, are the four headwaters of the Jordan, fed by melted snow from Mt. Hermon filtered through limestone strata laid down by primordial seas and pushed up by ancient cataclysms.

Seven years ago, on this holiday, our son died. Niot, our third headwater, was like a stream. He bubbled up, burbled, flowed over rapids, made all around him green and alive. Year round, year by year, for twenty years.

Read moreFour Waterfalls, One Hidden — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

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?”

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

Paper Rule — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
The toilet paper is the last straw. I’ve been doing my best to be patient, accepting. But when Steph points out a package of flimsy tissues and asks me to use that and not tear toilet paper from the roll, I lose it.

As I rant, her face is forbearing but firm. She holds her pile of folded laundry perfectly steady. My tirade is just a fraction of the pre-Shabbat uproar of tantrums, whistling kettle, beeping microwave, high-volume radio, chair-dragging, clinking plates and silverware that fill my big sister’s small apartment. I take a deep breath in the middle of a loud sentence.

Itay, Steph’s five-year-old (number four of six) walks out of the boys’ room and stares at me. I put my hand on the lintel of the bathroom door ‒ to steady my spirit more than to hold up my body. Maybe I should leave before the rules kick in. But where would I go? Back home to Mom would be worse. Back on the road?

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Of course. It’s your place. I get it. It’s a rule.”

Steph smiles, hugs me, then holds me by the shoulders and looks at me like she used to when I’d come home from school with holes in my jeans that Mom hadn’t yet seen.

“Little sis. I love you.”

Itay reaches up between us to see who will respond first. I pick him up and give him a squeeze.

“Can I just have on record that I think, that of all the Shabbat rules you’ve so carefully laid out and explained over the last hour, this is the most ridiculous?”

Read morePaper Rule — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

The Shirt Off His Back — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Itzik feels a little hand tugging at his but keeps his eye on the shirt. The hand belongs to Lior, his three-year-old. The shirt belongs to him, to Itzik, but Itzik is not wearing it. A stranger is.

illustration by Avi Katz
It’s the early hours of a Shabbat morning. Lior crawled into his parents’ bed before six a.m.; Itzik jumped up, pulled on a t-shirt and shorts, and whisked him off to the park across the street so that Stav, eight months pregnant, could get some rest. How long has the stranger wearing his shirt been sitting there, on a bench on the other side of the playground, reading a newspaper? Itzik sees him only when he climbs up after Lior to the sliding board’s upper platform.

The shirt is purple, long-sleeved, one that Itzik would never have worn on such a hot summer morning. The stranger wearing it has a sculpted, lean face and sits poised, erect but relaxed. Other than the shirt, he has on khaki cargo shorts and New Balances.

“Abba, watch,” Lior pleads, tugging again at Itzik’s hand. Itzik looks down into his son’s bright eyes, which seem to take up most of his face.

“I’m watching, I’m watching!” Lior smiles broadly, but when he sits down on the edge of the slide, his face clouds.

“Go on!”

Lior shakes his head slowly, turning it a full ninety degrees each way.

“Ok, I’ll go catch you.” Itzik clambers down the ladder and goes to the bottom of the S-shaped slide, a tunnel at its top half. Lior lets loose with a child’s primal cry and a few seconds later lands on his bottom on the rubber below. Lior screams, more insulted than hurt. Itzik looks away from the stranger, heaves his son up into a big hug. The stranger looks up at them.

Read moreThe Shirt Off His Back — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

One Flesh — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman
We circle, weapons drawn, two as one, ready to kill.

I raped the boy in April 1948, in a dark corner in the garden of a villa in Talbieh. A few minutes before he had leapt out from between some bushes, a butcher’s knife flashing. Boaz, a pace away from me, had his eye on the balcony above, fearing a sniper, so he never saw the kid who brought the knife down between his shoulder blades, with a shout of Allah akbar!, or perhaps it was something else. The stars were just coming out, but I saw my friend murdered. I saw the blood spurt from his back and chest as he crumpled.

illustration by Avi Katz
I did not shoot. Our men had surrounded the house and I might have hit a friend. So I said afterward, but I was such a good shot that no one was in danger. It was that such a death would have been too merciful for Boaz’s killer. Instead, I took off after the boy. He sprinted toward a back corner of the garden, where a tall cypress stood among a wild undergrowth that might have once been a flowerbed. I was the faster. I caught him by the collar before he reached the wall he meant to climb. He tried to struggle free, but I was the stronger. I let go of my rifle and grabbed his chin and turned his face toward me. I wanted to see who I was about to strangle.

To this day I wonder how, in the heat of battle, I could have been able to grasp that I was gazing at a face of godlike beauty. I had always assumed beforehand—and, indeed, all my experience since then has confirmed—that when your life is on the line, when you stand on the precipice between life and death, the mind focuses only on keeping you alive. Your eye takes in every detail of the terrain, every clue to where your enemy lies, but nothing of the harmony of the shape of the landscape. Color may be a sign of danger but never moves the heart. Yet, at this instant of vengeance I was nearly unnerved by the splendor that I saw.

Read moreOne Flesh — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Roadblock — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Illustration by Avi Katz
Alon woke up immediately at the touch on his shoulder. He tossed off a small flap of sleeping bag, all that covered sweat-damp chest, swung his feet over the side of the top bunk, and looked into the face of his waker. Guy was fully dressed, and looked tired. Alon scratched his crotch with his left hand and tapped his phone with his right. A quarter to two, fifteen minutes before the four-hour shift with Guy at the roadblock. He jumped down from the bunk and fished for his fatigues under his sleeping bag.

Guy threw his rifle onto the bunk below and began unbuttoning his shirt.

Alon froze in the middle of pulling his pants up. Guy stopped unbuttoning and stared at his friend.

“I switched with Rafi,” he whispered, so as not to wake sleeping men. He pointed his chin at the reservist lacing boots on the next bottom bunk across the fusty barracks room and over one. His head then signaled to the left, at another man who was already down to his underwear and holding a towel. “Did the ten o’clock shift with Uriel instead.”

Alon was wordless for a moment and then, almost inaudible, said: “Shit, Guy.”

Read moreRoadblock — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Third Day of Spring — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The third day of spring is warm in the sun but cold in the shade. Ilana and I take the day off to head south and see lupines and anemones blanket green hills. But first we have a stop to make. We drive to the Botanical Gardens at Givat Ram for lunch at the café, and then buy flowers to plant at Niot’s grave.

illustration by Avi Katz
The military cemetery is a short ride away. We park in the small lot above Area D and walk down a long flight of steps, past plots holding soldiers from past wars and the uneasy intervals between them. We avert our gazes from the new section, where current burials take place; most of it is still covered in lawn. But, out of the corner of our eyes, we see a lone figure sitting by the newest patch of upturned earth. Two flights down from that is where Niot lies. We would hold hands as we approach him, but our arms are full.

On Niot’s plot, the flowers Ilana planted last year are blooming again, but the stems have grown long and tangled and tough. We try to put at least some of them in order, but realize that they have gone feral and will no longer bow to our will. So we dig them all up to replace them with young, soft newcomers, bearing petals of many colors. The sun is warm and I take off my sweater.

We do not speak much. We do not need to; lovers of many years know each other’s minds, and for the last six years we have been tied fast to each other not only by love but also by grief, and intense longing that often knows no words.

Read moreThird Day of Spring — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

The Madonna Lily — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
My flight arrives in Frankfurt at five in the morning but the connection to Tel Aviv isn’t until ten. The concourse where the plane from Boston lands is labeled Z, for good reason—it’s the ends of the earth, if Der Flughafen Frankfurt am Main is the whole world, which in my sleep-deprived state, it seems to be. Keeping my bleary eyes on the signposts and following them like a lost wanderer follows a will o’ the wisp ever deeper into a swamp, I set off through the alphabet for C Concourse, where lies the segregated gate, with its own separate security screening, at which the Frankfurters confine travelers to Israel. After walking down endless corridors, circling two roundabouts with domed skylights that I suspect are really one and the same, and taking a train to a place that presents the same signs I saw at my point of departure, I realize that this airport, like the world, is comfortless, stark, and largely vacant of human souls. Also, there is no place to get coffee, and a woman on a business trip needs her coffee.

I make a mental note to consider an essay arguing that Einstein drafted his theory of Special Relativity in these corridors; I notice that as I try to pick up my pace, the carry-on I pull behind me and the laptop on my back gain mass, and the clock on my phone slows down. Yet, according to the signs, I am no closer to Concourse C than when I started out. Then, like Bilbo Baggins catching sight of the Last Homely House, I spy, just off the corridor I am tramping through, an alcove thoughtfully provided by the mad architect who designed this distended monstrosity. The alcove is furnished with a hub of what look like beach chairs set on low pedestals and upholstered in imitation leather. It is silent and empty, and the thought of being able to recline at an angle of less than seventy-five degrees is more salaciously tempting than anything else I have seen this morning. I’m an organized person and my travel philosophy is always get to my gate first, and then rest, but I have so much time that there seems to be no reason not to stop for a brief nap. So I choose a chair that faces away from the corridor, place my carry-on underneath and my backpack for a pillow, and lie down. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice, on the next chair over, the long stem and closed buds of what we call in Hebrew a shoshan tzahor. It makes no impression. I quickly lose consciousness, and when I come to, I scream.

Read moreThe Madonna Lily — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

The Treasure Room — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Rachel Eberlein had just languidly stirred honey into her sage tea when she spotted Rabbi Hayyim soaring down from a feathery cloud that hung over Safed and Mt. Meron. It was the only mark in an otherwise clear blue sky. While he was still far too distant for her to make out his face, she knew it was Rabbi Hayyim Vital, her tenant these last two years. Just as people have distinctive walks that make it possible to identify them from far away, so they have their own special ways of flying. Rabbi Hayyim’s path was a series of bumps; he descended a bit, his kaftan billowing and offering a glimpse of his thighs, the then lurched up, then plunged, then lurched up again, all while standing erect with his arms stiff at his sides. It was as if he did not know whether he really wanted to reach earth.

It was a week before Lag B’Omer, and the sun’s rays were still a caress rather than a hammer blow, as in the summer. The magnitude of the day—somehow that phrase from Yom Kippur came to mind, the magnitude of the day—required a woman to sit on her second floor balcony and sip tea (sage tea because her stomach had hurt this morning, even though her time of month had passed a couple days ago). God had decreed it, as evidenced by the fact that her neighbor across the courtyard, Hannah, was also sipping tea on her balcony, surveying the verdant hills that ringed the holy city. She glanced at Rachel and followed her gaze to the sky, and, Hannah was pretty sure, raised her eyebrows.

Rachel frowned. Hannah always had to stick a thorn in her side. Rabbi Hayyim was just a tenant, no more, a way for a poor widow to put bread and cheese and olives on her table. Hannah was the one who should be ashamed of herself. She was remarried now, and should not so closely observe her former husband. She did not appreciate Rabbi Hayyim’s knowledge of the deepest secrets of the Torah that had descended from heaven to the Galilean mystics in recent times, as if God were compensating his people for their exile from Spain. Rachel spoke with him sometimes about the great mission that the Holy One, Blessed be He, had charged his people with, to raise up the divine sparks captured by the shells of evil. At times he spoke quickly, with a fiery intensity; at other times he would say a single word and fall silent and take to his bed for hours. In any case, if the stories were true, Hannah’s leers were out of place. It must have been her fault, she must not have known how to care for a man. Rabbi Hayyim was small and did not eat, and while his face was handsome enough, it had several pock-marks that were clearly visible under his spotty beard. Also, he had no income. In fact, he hadn’t paid his rent for two months, a fact that Rachel reminded him of just as he lunged down from treetop height and crashed loudly beside her, falling on his bottom and crying out in pain.

Read moreThe Treasure Room — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

The Dig at Bab al-Wad — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
Yehuda really wanted to be with Klara and Stella, the two new Swedish volunteers who’d joined the team this summer. Two years had gone by since Miriam had given up the fight, converted and left him. When he emerged from the shock and disappointment, he figured that, at the gray-haired age of fifty-one, he could do without women and concentrate on his work. But now he was thinking that maybe he should reverse that decision.

At dawn he’d set Klara and Stella to sifting through yesterday’s rubble. An hour later they came to him with an almost pristine Samsung Note 7 with no char marks; others might have tossed it out as just another iPhone. He rewarded them by telling them to take the rest of the day off on the beach, half hoping that he’d manage to slip away there himself to watch them gambol in the waves. Instead, here he was standing on the edge of Pit 3b watching Jawad, the grad student from the co-sponsoring University of Qom, brushing grit off a flat plastic torus. Jawad put his mouth close to the object to blow some dust off and grimaced.

“It’s still dirty,” Yehuda said. He considered leaping agilely into the pit as if he were Jawad’s age, but then figured it was not worth it since Klara and Stella were not watching, and he’d probably fall on his face anyway. They did seem to sit up and notice, though, when Jawad eschewed the ladder and jumped.

“That’s not dirt,” Jawad said, wiping the back of his hand on his beard. “It’s real shit.”

Yehuda fell silent.

“A clincher for your theory?” Jawad held the toilet seat up as if it were a trophy. “This is the Sha’ar Hagai gas station? Identified in that dog-eared family chronicle you lug around as having had the filthiest bathroom between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv?”

Read moreThe Dig at Bab al-Wad — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report