That Fickle, Freckled Faith — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz

Some years ago, when my family was young, I had a neighbor with very strong opinions. Strong and often different from my own. Gavriel was warm, generous, devoted to his family, humble before his God, and dedicated to his country. He died suddenly and far too young.

In the years before his death, Gavriel underwent not a spiritual awakening, for he’d grown up observant and believing, but a spiritual deepening. He spent long nights immersed in Hasidic texts and studied Talmud with a black-coated partner from the Bratislaver community. He grew sidelocks and wore longer fringes under his shirt. But he continued to serve in his IDF reserve unit long after the usual age of retirement.

At the memorial service held on the first anniversary of his death, one speaker praised Gavriel for his temimut, a Hebrew word that that, in the Bible, means “whole” and “unblemished.” In modern religious parlance it usually refers to a simple, pure piety, one that harbors no doubts. It was the right word for the occasion, for Gavriel indeed brooked none. He believed with perfect faith in God, the coming of the Messiah, in the justice of Israel’s rule over the West Bank and Gaza Strip and their Palestinian inhabitants, and in the power of his love to make his wife and children happy despite the adversities they faced. He believed these things with such fervor that, in his presence, I was often left speechless, if not convinced.

Were I myself so whole, so tamim, I would have immediately quoted to myself from Psalms 18, “I will be whole [tamim] before him, and keep myself from iniquity.” Or Deuteronomy 18, “Be whole in your faith with the Lord your God.” Or perhaps the first verse of Job: “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and the man was whole and upright, and one who feared God and turned away from evil.”

But I didn’t. I thought instead of another poem, and not even one by a Jew. “Glory be to God for dappled things,” my heart sang at Gavriel’s memorial service,

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My Wife Watches Me — A Poem by Giora Fisher

Haim Watzman

The one great emotion most neglected by poets is the profound love of the long-married couple written from the perspective of middle age. Most poets who reach that age (one wonders what Byron might have sounded like at 60), the male ones in particular, seem to be hung up over their lost libido. From C.K. Williams to Hanoch Levin, they devote poem after poem to old loves or desperate attempts to regain the sexual passion of youth.

Giora Fisher, photo by Dafna Kaplan for Helikon
So it’s a great pleasure to find a poet with the voice and skill (for every marriage is unique, and intimate, and no true lover would violate its confidence) to depict a love that young men know not.

Giora Fisher, five years my senior, is a high school teacher and farmer who began writing poetry just a few years ago. His first book, Aharei Zeh (In the Aftermath is the English title), has just been published by Am Oved and, he tells me, the 1,000-copy print run has already sold out. I offer my translation with the poet’s permission.


MY WIFE WATCHES ME

Giora Fisher

I’m asleep.
My wife watches me
I feel her eyes scanning
My balding head
Examining the brown blemishes
The date of expiration
Stamped by time.

I sleep
But my heart wakes, waylaying my wife
Waiting at the edge of sleep
For the verdict of her eyes.
And only after it hears a sigh
A sigh of no pain
And without regret
Just a quiver of wistful desire

My heart, too, subsides
And slumbers.

translated by Haim Watzman

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Stuck on the Fence: Shahar Bram’s “North of Boston”

Haim Watzman

Shahar Bram
When I encountered Shahar Bram’s lyric “North of Boston” on the back page of Ha’aretz’s arts section last month, I was immediately struck by its plethora—celebration, really—of intertextuality and interlingual word play. A poem awash in allusions and puns that cross textual and linguistic boundaries is by definition impossible to render into any other language without losing precisely that which makes the work stand out. But, inured as I am in expressive frustration, I wrote and asked him for permission to essay an English version.

Robert Frost
I begin here with the usual caveat I affix to my other attempts at translating and commenting on poetry here on South Jerusalem. I’m not a poet, as a translator of poetry must be, so this translation is very much a work in progress that I intend to revise in response to reader comments, and those of Bram himself.

The original Hebrew version can be read here. I’ll follow my translation with some notes to explain what excites me about the poem.

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Rachel and Mt. Nevo–A Translation

Haim Watzman

    <em>Mt. Nevo, photo by Argenberg</em>
Mt. Nevo, photo by Argenberg
I’m reading Rachel’s collected poems straight through for the first time. And being a translator (but not, I should emphasize, a poet), I can’t resist the temptation to try my hand at an English version of one. This is an ongoing project that I’ll be updating as I polish and improve it.

I told Rachel’s story in my book A Crack in the Earth. I noted there how Mt. Nevo was a central image in Rachel’s lyrics—and a central image for her readers as well. Nevo is the mountain from which Moses looked out over the Land of Israel, which he would never enter. In Rachel’s poetry, it’s the place from which the speaker looks out on an alternative life, the life longed or hoped for. The poetess stands in the wilderness and looks to the Promised Land.

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Red Briefs and Rain Ink–“Necessary Stories” Column in The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The dust rose so high to the sky that heaven and earth seemed to have reverted to a dull yellow primordial chaos. The engines of dirt-caked, drab army transports rumbled, the horns of master sergeants’ white vans honked. I stood, trying to be seen and heard, at the Fatma Gate in Metula, seeking a ride up to my base at Ana, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

As of early summer 1983, the IDF had been bogged down in Lebanon for a year. Rational procedures and clear rules had been drafted for transporting soldiers to and from and through the Cedar Republic, but like so many army regulations, few knew them, and no one obeyed.

The way to get from Metula to Ana was to stand as close to the gate as the military police would allow and hold out an arm. An occasional driver would notice the lonely soldier through the smokescreen thrown up by the Holy Land’s parched soil, take pity, and stop long enough to ask where I needed to go. More often then not, they were going somewhere else. I needed to be back at base by 3 p.m.; driving straight up from Metula, the trip took at least three hours. It was already nearly an hour before noon, and I was getting desperate.

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A Time To Be Icky: Tisha B’Av and James Dickey’s “The Sheep-Child”

Haim Watzman

It’s summer and the Jews are being perverse again. Instead of singing of sand and sea, next week we’ll spend a day fasting and lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. The lamentation lyrics get pretty sickening—blood flows, people get tortured and burned alive, famished women cook and eat their own children. Why do we need this annual national gross-out?

I’ll answer that question by adducing a stomach-turning, very un-Jewish, all-American poem, James Dickey’s “The Sheep Child,” which you can read and hear Dickey read on the wonderful poetry pages of The Atlantic, here. (If that doesn’t work, try the Poetry Foundation).

The poem is about a myth, an untruth, that becomes true. The monster in the jar becomes true not because it actually can be found in a back corner of a museum in Atlanta, but because it brings about a change in human behavior. There is an effect whose cause is an object fabricated by the human mind.

The reality of the fantasy is underlined by the poem’s structure. The first stanza states the problem, the huge force of the animal instinct that drives boys to copulate with the earth itself. But there’s something that is taboo, so forbidden that it overcomes even that nearly irresistible desire. Animals are off limits.

The second stanza is the story that the boys tell, the object they have created in their minds. The third stanza is the result: the story has directed the boys’ desire to its proper object. Perhaps the story was simply a fairy tale?

. . . Are we
Because we remember, remembered
In the terrible dust of museums?”

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Birds on My Mind: “Doves” by C.K. Williams

Haim Watzman

    Photo by Chris Basset
Photo by Chris Basset
People who care about the world around them, about other people, about literature, are frustrated people. Once we get to adulthood, our lives fill up with junk and we never have enough time for the things we consider really important. We never seem to be able to devote enough attention to our lovers, friends, and children, so we never know them as intimately as we by all rights should. Calm contemplation of the landscape around us is a rare luxury; when do we have time to simply observe, simply to listen? And what of the worthwhile books we have never read, and the poems we know and love but have never had the time to commit, as we should, to memory?

C.K. William, a great bard of love askew and the missed opportunity, encapsulates this frustration with no little irritation and a measure of humor in his poem “Doves.” I came across it last week in my progress through Williams’ Collected Poems; it’s from his latest, best book, The Singing.

The poet has woken in the early dawn. He’s lying in bed, trying to focus on the morning light, on the morning’s sounds. But how can he? “So much crap in my head,/So many rubbishy facts,/So many half-baked/theories and opinions,” Williams sighs, like an overtaxed blogger.

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Jews, Despite the Holocaust–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Dear Niot,

You told Holocaust jokes at the table on Friday night. Ima and I grimaced and tried to segue into a discussion of the boots you are refusing to buy and your insistence on trudging through the Polish snow in running shoes. We acknowledged that telling jokes with your classmates would be a legitimate way of letting off pressure during your trip, although we didn’t think the ones you told us were particularly funny.

It was then that I knew how I was going to write this letter, a letter that your teacher asked us to deposit with him in a sealed envelope for you to read, in Hebrew, when you arrive in Poland. That’ll be at about the same time that The Jerusalem Report’s readers receive it in their mailboxes in English (and thanks for giving me advance permission to share it with them).
I reminded you that when your older sister and brother wanted to sign up for their class trips to Poland’s Nazi death camps, in what has become a routine part of the Holocaust curriculum for Israeli high school seniors, I objected. “Why?” you asked.

I explained that I don’t want my children to be Jews who are Jews because they are victims. I don’t want my children to be Israelis because the world hates them. Our history, tradition, and culture are rich and powerful and provide adequate reason to want to be a Jew and an Israeli even if Hitler had never been born and the swastika never had reigned.

When your sister said she was going to Poland anyway, I was reminded of a comedy skit I once saw at a club in New York.

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Sharon Dolin and the Music of Nature

Haim Watzman

One of my favorite poets, Sharon Dolin, has four poems up at Nextbook. The first, “Let Me Thrum (6 a.m.)” is a wonderful fresh and new version of “Nishmat Kol Hai,” the poem of nature extolling God that we read every Shabbat morning.

What makes Dolin’s work stand out for me is her exquisite ear, her ability to create a poem that would sound like music even if you did not know English, and whose sounds are intimately woven into her meaning. It’s on full display in this poem, where the early morning poet both hears and observes:

antennae’d and furred
all sing all shirr all rub and buzz
and fling their call to You
in song-light as the mist still clings

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Man As Anti-Creator

Haim Watzman

In the creation story we will read from the Torah in synagogue this Shabbat, God creates the world, and man, and woman. Adam and Eve sin and are ejected from Eden.

In her poem “Eve to Her Daughters”, the late Australian feminist, environmentalist, and poet Judith Wright offers an alternative version of the story from Eve’s point of view.

Wright plays off both the biblical story and Milton’s Paradise Lost. In both those versions of the story, Adam is God’s junior partner in the creation; he names the animals, tends the garden, and is the raw material from which Eve is created. In both stories, man is ruined by his urge to know more–but the sin begins with Eve’s curiosity.

In Wright’s poem, it is Adam’s need to understand, to “unravel everything/because he believed that mechanism /was the whole secret” that is the original sin. As soon as he comes into being, Adam begins the process of uncreation. Having the power to uncreate gives him power, and power creates hubris: “And now that I know how it works, why, I must have invented it.” Adam’s surging powers of analysis lead him to the conclusion that he cannot demonstrate God’s existence–so God must not exist.

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Iton 77 at 31 Gets C+

Haim Watzman

Back in the 1980s, when I was still a relatively new reader of Hebrew, I picked up an anthology of short stories that had been published in Iton 77, a literary magazine that had commenced publication a year before my arrival in 1978. The journal had a good reputation and this book, I assumed, would help acquaint me with a spectrum of the writing talents of contemporary Israel.

I was sorely disappointed by what I read. While there were three or four gems, most of the stories seemed to me bland, self-consciously literary, and short of plot and character development. Nearly all were ponderously serious; few displayed any sense of humor.

But I was well aware then that I was a novice in my new language and suspected—indeed hoped—that I was missing something.

I’ve perused Iton 77 every so often since then, and picked up the latest issue to read on my recent trip to the U.S. The magazine is now Israel’s most venerable literary forum, but I’m sorry to say that, when it comes to prose, it hasn’t changed much. And it’s not my Hebrew.

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