Sendoff for My Son — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Dear Niot,

The scene at your enlistment next Monday will not be as dramatic as your grandfather’s. He set off for infantry boot camp in the U.S. Army on February 19, 1944. His entire family—Ma, Pa, and sisters Jean, Bernice, and Laki—accompanied him to the train station at Cleveland’s Terminal Tower. Your great-grandmother and her daughters wailed and screamed. When the young recruit pointed out that other families, if teary-eyed, were sending their sons off with considerably more decorum, Ma retorted: “They’re not Jewish mothers!”

Nor will it be as lonely as my own enlistment. My parents, brother, and sister were on the other side of the world, and the kibbutz driver who dropped me and a few other guys off at the enlistment office in Tiberias on August 16, 1982, was hardly an adequate surrogate for family.

illustration by Avi Katz

Your older brother insisted on going alone; farewells were bid at our apartment door. You’ve kindly agreed to allow your mother to take the number 4 bus with you to Ammunition Hill in East Jerusalem, where an army bus will be waiting. I’ll be on the other side of the world, on a trip to the U.S.

Your grandfather and I enlisted in the middle of wars. His sergeant greeted him and his fellow-trainees by shouting: “Gentlemen, in six months, half of you will be dead!” My sergeant was not so blunt. But, while Beirut was not as deadly as D-Day, I faced the prospect of being sent to a front in a foreign land.

No war rages now, but your mother and I are not much comforted by that. While it’s true for the moment, Israel faces vicious enemies on all fronts. And we know that the present semi-calm is precarious—invasions, incursions, and operations are regular occurrences and there’s a good chance that you’ll be involved in one or more during the three years of your mandatory service. Since you’ve chosen the Golani Brigade, you’re likely to be in the vanguard of whatever campaign the government decides on.

Your grandfather joined a non-Jewish army to fight against Hitler, in a war he believed in with all his heart and soul. He ate, for the first time in his life, pork chops, ham, and bacon, and guiltily enjoyed them. He didn’t bother putting on tefillin. He had to put up with anti-Semitic comrades and his sergeant’s regular Sunday morning order: “Men, you will now attend the church of your choice!”

I joined a Jewish army fighting a war about which I was skeptical at enlistment. Within a few weeks, as the facts of the decision to invade Beirut and of the Sabra and Shatila massacres hit the newspapers, I was convinced that the Begin government’s Lebanon adventure was wrong. But in the IDF the food was kosher and we religious guys were given 20 minutes each morning to put on tefillin and daven a super-fast shaharit. There were no anti-Semites, but some of the tough development-town kids who were the great majority in our platoon were pathological Ashkenazi-baiters.

Read moreSendoff for My Son — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Soldier, King, Slave–“Necessary Stories” Column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The heart is two
It’s yes and no.

    <em>Avraham Halfi on stage</em>
Avraham Halfi on stage
It’s an Avraham Halfi moment. Like an overstimulated actor, I’ve pushed my way to center stage. Slipping between mothers sitting in chairs, climbing over brothers and sisters on stools, I’ve gotten to the edge of the clear spot next to the screen on which we’ve just seen a film of our sons in action. Only then do I see that N’s father is there, ready to speak. I’m such an idiot. Sorry, I mumble, go ahead. No, it’s fine, N’s father says. Really, I didn’t . . . Don’t sweat it. He steps aside.

We’re in the backyard of S’s house, a green corner deep in one of the commuter suburbs that has sprung up between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv over the last two decades. “We” are the families of the dozen young men in my son’s commando squad, who a week before finished their year and then some of intensive training. In collusion with us, their commander, O, brought them to S’s house, where they discovered their mothers and fathers and sibs waiting. Meat was on the grill, salads abundant. The setup was worthy of a wedding, because H’s parents, who have a company that stages events, brought a truckfull of sleekly-designed tables, chairs, stools, and even four couches to lounge on, not to mention lights, gas heating elements, a screen, a projector, and flowers.

The newly-certified commandos don’t look particularly warlike. They’re dressed in shorts and teeshirts despite the winter chill. Grins on their faces, but beyond that no sign of surprise or emotion. They are the survivors of a grueling selection process that whittled their numbers down from a group twice the current size; one of the main criteria for selection seems to have been the ability to project an air of insouciance. We parents are beside ourselves, want the boys to be surprised and ecstatic. We know nothing about what they do in the army—can’t we know something about what goes on inside them? Apparently that, too, is classified.

Read moreSoldier, King, Slave–“Necessary Stories” Column from The Jerusalem Report

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

Don’t Spy For Me

Dear Young American Zionist,

You want to help Israel in any way possible, and you’re fired up by stories you’ve heard and movies you’ve seen about Israel’s heroic soldiers, commandos, and Mossad agents. You meet some guy with an accent who persuades you that Israel’s future depends on some classified documents you’ve got access to at your job. Here’s your chance to place yourself among those heroes.

Don’t do it.

Why not? Because it’s not the right thing for you to do as a Zionist, and not the right thing for you to do as a citizen of the United States of America.

Read moreDon’t Spy For Me