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.

Read more

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.

Read more

Nobody Smiles — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Is there a dictionary of smiles? I need one. I know what my own smiles mean. I think of my face as a simple platform. It exhibits a range of smiles that clearly convey a certain range of messages, from “that’s nice” to “go away.” The male face has evolved so many layers of meaning that you need to be a master linguist to comprehend them all. That I am not.

One example is the smile on this boy sitting in the seat across from me on Atlanta’s MARTA train. We both got on at the airport. I wheeled in the small carry-on that I’d taken on a two-day business trip, a matter regarding software validation that I won’t bore you with. I have a meeting at the office at eleven and I should get in just in time to run to the bathroom beforehand. In a rush, and with this annoying and ugly eye patch, I am unsteady on my feet and stumbled as I board the train. Someone catches my elbow from behind, and I mutter an automatic but not very nice thank you.

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg
     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

I take the aisle facing seat by the door, stowing the wheelie bag underneath. Extracting my Kindle from my purse, I intend to get back into my book club’s latest selection, Homer’s Odyssey. It’s one of those books that must have become a classic simply because back then there was nothing else around to read.

It’s only then that I glace at the seat across from me and see the guy who, apparently, is the one who steadied me. Dressed in a dirty ski jacket with a wool hat sticking out of one pocket, he’s unshouldering a large backpack. He has tousled light brown hair and a beard maybe a week old of a slightly lighter color. He peers at the map behind the side-facing seat next to the door, sits down, and smiles at me.

Read more

Winter — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

“Can I get some cooperation here?” asks Yoel in the firm but plaintive voice of a reserve platoon commander.

Tourjeman, Brosh, and I are sitting like three monkeys (bald, sandy blond, bearded; wiry, fit, and flabby) on a small mound at the foot of the dusty spur that we’ve been charging up all afternoon. The cardboard targets scattered there, painted in green with the suggestive outline of a helmet-clad infantrymen aiming straight at us, are full of holes already. We have our arms crossed over our chests and our heads are down because we’re trying to stick our noses into the warm place between our arms and our torsos.

illustration by Avi Katz

An icy wind inflates the backs of our shirts, which are soaked with sweat from our last charge up the hill with full packs. The platoon’s other guys are scattered around near us. Amar and Kochin, short and solid like Middle Earth dwarves laboring at a forge, are desperately trying to light a gas stove to make coffee, even though they know the canister’s empty. Mandelbaum the radioman switches on his flashlight so he can continue to read the book he’s been perusing during breaks in the training. He reads like a goat grazes, whatever’s at hand, halachic responsa, windblown newspapers, the labels on cans in ration boxes. Diki has splayed himself on the hood of the truck that brought us here, trying to absorb some of the heat that the gray metal has stored from the fierce afternoon sun.

Tourjeman, who’s the platoon medic, accuses Yoel. “We’re all going to die of hypothermia. You said we’d be back on base before dark.”

“Only idiots go out to train in the Negev and don’t bring their coats with them,” says Yoel, who did not bring his coat, either.

Read more

The Day of His Birth — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The quarter-moon hovers low on the horizon as Gadi speeds the pickup truck the length of the Jezreel valley. From the passenger seat I gaze up at the stars sparkling above the Hill of Moreh, where Gideon mustered his troops. It’s my second trip down the valley this night to the hospital in Afula. In predawn darkness I think: my third child will be born this morning.

In remembering that night, I recall a poem by Avraham Halfi, versifier of dark nights and the radiance of the soul. For Halfi the moon is an illusion. Those who see it as such are blind—they do not understand that it is God’s lantern.

A sightless God with lantern in hand
Seeks a path in the evening dusk
And everyone says:

Here comes the moon
And like a tree it rises
Pouring light on the road.

Yet God, too, cannot see. He is blind, like justice, like a man groping his way forward on a moonless night.

The road is empty. It’s the ninth day of Shevat, January 24, 1991.

Read more

The Soldiers’ Testimonies–Another View

Haim Watzman

Have Israeli soldiers’ values—and the moral choices they make in combat—changed? Do the soldiers’ testimonies from the Rabin pre-military academy show that the IDF and its soldiers have adopted values different from those of earlier decades and earlier wars?

I’m not convinced. They might, and the charges made in the testimonies certainly need to be thoroughly investigated (impartially, not by the brigade commander, who says he spoke to the soldiers involved and denied that the incidents took place). But I’m dubious about jumping to conclusions, as I think Gershom did in his post yesterday.

Gershom argues that Israel’s strategy in the Gaza war—which involved the use of intense fire power in densely-populated civilian areas, so as to ensure a minimum of Israeli casualties—gave soldiers the message that human life on the other side was of no value. Rules of engagement were eased up and soldiers were given the message that they should have few hesitations about killing ostensible non-combatants.

It’s certainly possible that the grand strategy made an impact on the actions of individual soldiers. But we don’t, at present, have any empirical evidence of that.

Read more

Risk and War

Haim Watzman

Howard Schweber’s analysis of the Gaza war in light of just war theory (in full at The Huffingon Post and in two parts, here and here on Jewcy) is thought-provoking and worthy of a longer response than I have time for before Shabbat on this short winter Friday. But I’d like to point out one inherent characteristic of war that Schweber does not adequately address: the nature of risk.

To frame the issue, let me turn to the theater? The theater? What connection could there possibly be? To put on a high-quality, meaningful production of a play, a director and producer need to be able to take risks. To accomplish its mission and to win, an army needs to take risks. And when you take risks, an unsuccessful or problematic outcome is not in and of itself evidence that the choices you made and the strategy you pursued were wrong.

As a boy growing up just outside Washington D.C., I was lucky enough to be able to attend performances at the Arena Stage, one of the country’s best repertory theaters. According to a story I heard then, when the theater was founded, its artistic director, Zelda Fichandler, was asked by a reporter what she would like her Washington audiences to give her. She said, if I remember correctly, “The right to fail.”

Read more

Son Sacrifice: Humility and the Significance of the Akeda

Haim Watzman Many years ago, when I lived at Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, a storm erupted in synagogue on Shabbat Vayare—the Shabbat, like this coming one, on which we read the story of Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac. The shouts of anger and dismay were occasioned by one of the plethora of pamphlets that appear … Read more

Rogue Forces

Why does the Israeli army defend illegal outposts rather than dismantle them en masse? Why doesn’t the political leadership give the orders for the army to act?

Yagil Levy, an excellent analyst, has a very good, and very frightening explanation, via Ha’aretz:

The bias of the army is naturally in favor of the settlers, over the Palestinians. This bias was strengthened by the deployment of the military force in three circles. The first circle is regional defense, reserve units, made up of settlers, that participate in the settlements’ daily defense. In this context, the army entrusted the settlers with weapons as reserve soldiers, and the result was the growth of armed militias in the territories…

Read more

A Guy at a Bus Stop — New “Necesssary Stories” column in The Jerusalem Report

I spotted Guy at the shabby bus stop on the south-bound side of the Geha Highway, at the foot of the narrow bridge that leads to the Ramat Gan campus of Bar-Ilan University, near the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak.

Most highway bus stops in Israel have been cleaned up, but 30 years ago, they all looked like this – pockmarked, cracked, crumbling, covered with graffiti and posters. Trash litters the ground, and behind us, down in a gully, stands a small trailer-cum-snack bar, whose stick-skinny and unshaven proprietor sprawls on one of several plastic chairs scattered around his enterprise, which may or may not be legal, but looks like it isn’t.

Read more