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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Eulogy for Niot by his Brother, Asor– Four Years — הספד לנאות מאת אחיו עשור אחרי ארבע שנים

Asor Watzman

גרסת המקור בעברית למטה

IMG_0515Grappling with the loss of Niot is not easy. Each time I have come to this period in recent years, and especially on the day of the memorial service, I think about the fact that the time we most feel the loss is during the course of the year, as each of us proceeds with his or her life. During each long year we all cope with the loss in different ways. This difference is evident within our nuclear family. But on this day I feel that our feelings unite as we together confront the fact that Niot is not with us. I see this as very important. It is a sort of calibration point that takes place each year, dividing the loss into segments and preventing it from being a single infinite moment. In doing that, it provides some relief for the pain we all feel. The importance of this day for me finds expression in the community that took form around Niot, along with the stories that remain in our memories.

For that reason, I want to share with you some memories I have of Niot. I will do that using a story from the Talmud:

Rabba bar bar Hanna said: When Rabbi Eliezer fell ill, his students came to visit him.

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Eulogy for Niot — Four Years — הספד לנאות אחרי ארבע שנים

Haim Watzman

גרסת המקור בעברית למטה


Niot:

IMG_2129On Sunday I found comfort, as I often do, in music. I listened to Franz Schubert’s piano sonata in B flat major, a work he wrote just before his death at a young age. At the end of the sonata Schubert placed a measure with a whole rest. In other words, the pianist plays the final notes, which come at a dizzying, furious pace, and then, according to the composer’s instructions, there is a moment of silence before the performance is really over. Perhaps Schubert intended for the pianist to remain with his hands in the air as the sonata echoes through the room.

That same evening your friends came to visit us. Two of your wonderful teachers, Gabi and Re’em, joined them. At the end of the evening Gabi said that he still hears your voice. Re’em said that he still hears your laugh. I related dreams in which you have appeared, sometimes so close that I can touch you, sometimes beyond my reach.

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Peripheral Vision

Haim Watzman

  illustration by Avi Katz

illustration by Avi Katz

When Hanan felt another eye’s gaze on his Android, his first instinct was to tip it to the left to avoid intrusion. His second instinct was to tip it to the right to offer a better view. It was, after all, a fine and beautiful photograph of Yael, and while intimacy demanded a certain level of privacy, pride demanded a certain level of public display.

In an earlier age, perhaps, privacy would have won out, but in an earlier age he would not be gazing at a photograph of his girlfriend on an electronic device in the crowded waiting room of the Terem all-night emergency clinic in Talpiot. Were he, say, a member of Trumpeldor’s Labor Brigades back in pioneering days, one who had been taken on muleback to a doctor’s home in Yavna’el (had it been founded then?), because of, say, a burn on his shin from a misaimed bucket of hot asphalt, he would have had to conjure up Yael’s bare limbs in his mind’s eye and no one would have been able to peek. That body would have been his alone to see. But then no one else would know what a treasure he had and, face it, part of the enjoyment of a treasure is the admiration of those who don’t have it.

But it took only a fraction of a second for his peripheral vision to make out that the invasive but welcome gaze came from the eye of a small person dressed in a long-sleeve shirt, plaid with very wide blue stripes, tucked into brown corduroy trousers with an elastic waist. Above the eye was a black velvet kipah, and the head to which it belonged leaned lightly and lovingly on the forearm of a lean and tall man in a black suit and clipped beard with an open book on his lap from which he was reading to his son.

The boy dutifully turned his eyes to the book, but not for long. Hanan gave him a smile. The boy shifted in his chair and smiled cautiously.

“Tomorrow this sign shall come to pass,” the father intoned, pointing to the page and glancing at his son. “The Ben Ish Hai is talking here about a verse from the story of the plagues in Egypt. But we know that the word ‘sign’ doesn’t have to be a bad thing, a bunch of flies that got in the Egyptians’ beds and food and noses. A sign is also the mitzvot, the commandments that God has given the Jews, which are a sign of the covenant between the Holy One, Blessed be He, and his people.” And he explained how if you rearrange the Hebrew letters of the word “tomorrow,” which are MHR, you get RMH, which is the number 248, which is the number of limbs and organs of the human body, and also the number of positive injunctions in the Torah.

“How do we know there are that many?” the boy asked his father.

“We can count them in the Torah, like our Sages did,” the father replied.

“No, I mean the parts of the body.”

“Well, if you look at a person’s body, if you could see everything about it, you could count that many,” he explained.

“Let’s count,” said the boy, pointing to the photograph on Hanan’s phone.

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Until You Don’t Know — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Jerusalem is a cipher; Jerusalem under snow is a cipher erased.

The high priestess of a god whose name I didn’t quite catch offers me a cardboard cup of spiced wine. Her bare arms are goosebumped from the cold and her cheeks flushed from the wine. I think I am in love with her but, given my luck, her cult no doubt requires her to be virginal. The pope breezes by and his vestments unfurl against my hand, spilling the wine over the high priestess’s crescent scepter, or perhaps it is a scythe. She smiles, but fire flashes from her eyes, and she turns away.

 illustration by Avi Katz

illustration by Avi Katz

To get to the Purim party, I first navigated the decline of Givat Shaul Street, sliding once, twice, and three times on accumulating snow. I passed children in masks shouting in Yiddish, following men in black coats and women under white turbans. Just three weeks before I had moved into a shared room in a walkup in the dingy public housing project that presides over the top of the street. I found the ad seeking a fourth for a flat on the bulletin board of the Givat Ram campus. Sixty-seven dollars a month seemed like a rent I could afford on an income I hadn’t even begun to make yet as a freelance writer. In the meantime I was earning some shekels, the old kind, which replaced the lira just three weeks before, by working afternoon shifts in a Super Clean laundromat on Palmach Street on the other side of town. The number 15 bus, its route designed by a smashed navigator with a bad sense of direction, took me each day from Givat Shaul to Palmach. But to get to the party I needed the number 8, which left from the Central Bus Station on the plateau below.

“Rabbanit Kappah,” says a woman, one of a group of three, in Golda shoes and with a kerchief tied tightly over her head. She is the one who took my coat at the door, so I presume she is a hostess. She reaches out and touches my elbow lightly, as if she wants to touch more.

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The Balcony — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Barak and Bona Washingtonia are one of those couples who have grown apart over the years. Barak’s an army buddy of mine, a regular guy, and at least from my point of view he’s as great as he always was. Bona, who’s an old friend of Ilana’s used to be a lot of fun, too, but in recent years she’s drifted into this weird hypernationalist New-Agey Breslov stuff and it’s been a strain for Barak. More than a strain. The poor guy is having a real tough time, especially now that the kids are all out of the house.

So when he invited me and Ilana over for Friday night dinner, we felt a special duty to go, even though it was freezing outside and we really felt like staying in. It’s a mitzvah to make peace in the home, between husband and wife, and all the more so on Shabbat.

illustration by Avi Katz

illustration by Avi Katz

Unfortunately, when Barak opened the door in answer to our knock, we could see immediately that things were not good. So much blood was rushing to his head that his normally olive complexion had gone dull and gray. He looked like he was about to punch a hole in the wall (something he was very good at back when we were in Nachal) and using every gram of will-power to keep himself from doing it. Ilana took one look and headed straight into the kitchen to help Bona.

“Hey, what’s eating you, ahi?” I said. “Here, let’s sit down. Don’t keep it in. Let it out. Lay it on me.”

He clenched his fists and hissed and covered his face with his hands and leaned back and looked at the ceiling and finally said, “I can’t believe she invited him!”

“What do you mean? Who?” I asked. “Hey, should I get you a drink of water? A beer?”

I could hear animated conversation in the kitchen. It didn’t sound like Bona was upset. In fact, she called out in her singsong voice: “We’ll just be a few minutes. We’re waiting for a very special guest!”

Barak took a big breath and finally got it out.

“Bibi!” he sizzled.

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Cloudburst — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The man who grunted into a chair at the table next to me at Aroma Sokolov had fleshy overworked fingers with hair thicker than he had on his head. A tan sweater, a size too tight for him, outlined the bulge of his belly, and his eyes and nose were watery from the droplets of exhaust that shiver in the air on a Holon winter morning. He unfolded his free copy of Yisra’el Hayom and, in response to a query from a young man at the counter, held up two of those fingers. He flipped the paper to look at the forecast, shook his head, settled back in his chair, and addressed me.

illustration by Avi Katz

illustration by Avi Katz

“Dry January, right? But then each year is drier than the last.”

I nodded and gave him a smile with which I tried to say “You know it!” And also “I’m kind of busy so leave me alone.”

“But that cloudburst last night? Did you catch it? At two in the morning?”

When I didn’t respond, he nodded in the direction of the counter. “That’s my son, Niv. He’s getting married next week.”

“Mazal tov,” I said, without an exclamation point.

“He’s a good kid. Great girl, too.” Niv, drumming a riff on the counter while he waited, had a runner’s build and a frazzle of rusty hair.

“Looks it,” I said, keeping my eyes on my laptop screen.

He gave up and returned to the newspaper. “Niv!” said a loudspeaker voice and a minute later the son placed a tray on the table and sat down. He carefully, respectfully lifted a glass mug of kafe hafukh from the bright orange tray and put it in front of his father, followed by a small plate bearing a jelly donut and two tiny metal jugs of hot milk. Tearing a packet of sugar with his teeth, he sweetened his own hafukh, which remained on the tray. From a pants pocket he drew an iPhone and positioned it next to the coffee. The two of them sipped silently, long enough for me to get focused and forget they were there.

“Did you catch that cloudburst at two a.m.?” the father suddenly said.

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The Last War But One — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Abba was fanning himself with the folded front section of Ma’ariv when the bell buzzed. Ema was making her way through the kitchen door with a transparent tumbler of tea and nana, held on a waxy serviette, stirring up settled sugar. Abba looked up at her. Ema reached the couch, placed the serviette on the glass top of the coffee table, gently settled her tumbler on the serviette, and seated herself, with dignity, on the settee. She picked up the weekend supplement and considered the table of contents. The doorbell, whose chime had long since deteriorated into a scratchy drone, sounded again, much longer.

photo by  Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Abba, whose gazed had tracked his wife along her journey from kitchen to sofa, stared at the straight-backed figure in the white satin housecoat he had bought her on their trip two years ago to Bonn. Ema turned a page. A drop of sweat crawled from the corner of his right eye to his cheek.

He turned his gaze to me, sitting on the cool patterned tiles with my Ditza.

“Is someone going to get the door?” he asked, directing his words into the high-ceilinged vacuum, the drop of sweat falling from his cheek and just missing the strap of his white singlet to hit a tuft of hairs on his bony shoulder.

Ema finished reading a sentence, smiled, and slowly, with poise, directed her eyes at her husband.

“Well, you certainly don’t expect the girl to do it,” she said acidly.

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The Gollux and the Clockmaker: An Appreciation of Paul Harding’s Tinkers

Presented at my book club, Dec. 2, 2014

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Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales. He was six feet four, and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was. One eye wore a velvet patch; the other glittered through a monocle, which made half his body seem closer to you than the other half. He had lost one eye when he was twelve, for he was fond of peering into nests and lairs in search of birds and animals to maul. One afternoon, a mother shrike had mauled him first. His nights were spent in evil dreams, and his days were given to wicked schemes.

Wickedly scheming, he would limp and cackle through the cold corridors of the castle, planning new impossible feats for the suitors of Saralinda to perform. He did not wish to give her hand in marriage, since her hand was the only warm hand in the castle. Even the hands of his watch and the hands of all the thirteen clocks were frozen. They had all frozen at the same time, on a snowy night, seven years before, and after that it was always ten minutes to five in the castle. Travelers and mariners would look up at the gloomy castle on the lonely hill and say, “Time lies frozen there. It’s always Then. It’s never Now.”

The cold Duke was afraid of Now, for Now has warmth and urgency, and Then is dead and buried. Now might bring a certain knight of gay and shining courage – “But, no!” the cold Duke muttered. “The Prince will break himself against a new and awful labor: a place too high to reach, a thing to far to find, a burden too heavy to lift.” The Duke was afraid of Now, but he tampered with the clocks to see if they would go, out of a strange perversity, praying that they wouldn’t.

Tinkers and tinkerers and a few wizards who happened by tried to start the clocks with tools or magic words, or by shaking them and cursing, but nothing whirred or ticked. The clocks were dead, and in the end, brooding on it, the Duke decided he had murdered time, slain it with his sword, and wiped his bloody blade upon its beard and left it lying there, its springs uncoiled and sprawling, its pendulum disintegrating.

In Tinkers, Paul Harding offers us the oldest kind of story known to humankind, a myth, or fairy tale, constructed out of many of the same elements as James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks. It’s the oldest kind of story because it is the kind of story we most need. It plumbs depths that naturalistic fiction never reaches; it challenges our feeble attempts to explain and understand the world in which we live and the people we love.

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Socrates and Semites — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Avi Katz -- ApoplexyI went down yesterday to the Piraeus, in mind to attend the new drama by Adamschylus at the Zeatropolitan, of which everyone in the Agora is speaking. In truth, at our age, the wife and I seldom attend performances at the Zeatropolitan, preferring rather to watch the simulcast at the Stoa of Attalos, but Abefoxmachus, president of the tribe of Semitikropis, had objected and, holding his breath until his face turned blue, had persuaded Gelbus, director of the Zeatropolitan, to replace the broadcast of the new production with a screening of Exodus, which I have seen all too many times.

I had just reached the half-price ticket booth by the customs house when Taruskinus chanced to catch sight of me from a distance, and told his servant to run and bid me wait for him. The boy ran up to me and grabbed my cloak from behind, and said: Socrates, Taruskinus is approaching and desires you to wait.

“I certainly will,” I said.

“I perceive,” Taruskinus said to me when he arrived, “that the wisest man in Athens intends to attend the theater this evening.”

“I know not what the wisest man in Athens may be doing,” I said, “but as for me, yes, I have in mind to attend a performance of Adamshylus’s new drama.”

“I believe,” Taruskinus replied, “that you mean that anti-Semitikropic work Davidipus Rex.”

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Rescue — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

My brother Levi says that if I weren’t a woman he’d kill me. Just like the Arabs.

The reason he kills Arabs is that they are evil and kill us. He doesn’t kill his sister because because, he says, women think with their hearts and not their minds. Because they see only the here and now and not history. Because they trust too much.

drawing by Avi Katz

         drawing by Avi Katz

So, he said, I will spare you and let the Holy One, Blessed Be He punish you. That Arab could have killed you. Or worse. With you alone in the house. But now everyone in Meah She’arim knows. Soon you’ll be called to testify in their courts and the whole Yishuv will learn of your shame. Perhaps that is the punishment that your life has been spared to receive.

As the summer of the year that the English call 1929 wanes, I ask you, My Rock and My Savior, is this so? More than seven weeks have passed since that Friday and Shabbat of slaughter and fear. So many of your people died. And I saved none of them. Instead, I rescued an Arab.

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