Rachel Goes for a Swim–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

    <em>photo by Haim Watzman</em>
photo by Haim Watzman
“It’s their land and they can do whatever they want with it,” Roni shrugs. Now, I should explain that a Roni shrug is a geological event. His ninety-minute daily workout in the pool and the weight room has given him shoulders that undulate like a massif in an earthquake. At middle age, he’s got the physique of a seventeen-year old. He’s also got the same annoying macho bluster. This model male knows everything unequivocally, especially where the power lies.


I’m trying to persuade Roni to join the fight to save the Jerusalem Pool. We’re standing in said pool’s scruffy, humid men’s locker room, suiting up. A few weeks before, the management had put up signs announcing that it would no longer renew annual memberships. The owners of the property, who also run the pool, wanted to demolish the pool and build three luxury apartment buildings.

“Just because you own a piece of property, it doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want with it,” I say.

“They have a right to make money as much money as they can,” he replies. “I’d do just the same.”

“And what about your daily swim and workout?”

“I’ll do it somewhere else,” Roni says. “Hey, this is the German Colony. Prime real estate. Do you know how much they could sell apartments here for?”

“But why shouldn’t there be a pool in the neighborhood? Does all of South Jerusalem have to turn into one big high-rise complex? Does every park and recreational facility have to be moved to the outskirts of the city?” I’m getting impatient and upset. “Why this unquestioning worship of money? Why this assumption that any property developer with money and connections in the city government can do whatever the hell he wants?”

“Because,” Roni says, tucking his goggles into his Speedo, “this is real life, and that’s the way the world works.”

I piled up my kickboard, flippers, paddles, and pull buoy and followed him out to the pool. “You know,” I say, “This reminds me of a poem.”

“I was afraid it might,” Roni groans. “And I’m sure the connection is one only you can figure out.”

“It’s by Rachel the Poetess,” I say. “‘ Ha-aheret ha-zot, she-tishkon aharai. …’ You know it?”

“Somehow,” Roni says, swinging his arms like a clock whose hands tick in opposite directions, “I’ve lived my life without making its acquaintance.”

“Listen,” I say.

When some other poet, who lives after me
In some niche in her heart, all alone,
Who like me is quenched with love’s bitter brew
That sweetness that scorches the soul—

I explain. “It works on two levels. She’s imagining another a poet, a woman who lives long after she herself is dead. This future poet is much like her—they experience, or suffer, life in the same unhappy way. But, at the same time, this other woman is not some future poet—it’s the woman who has stolen her lover.”

“I’m in,” Roni says, placing his goggles over his eyes. “At the end of this lap you can tell me what the hell Rachel the Poetess’s lousy love life has to do with the future of the Jerusalem Pool.” And he dives gracefully into the water.

Roni swims fast, so that doesn’t leave me much time.

To make a long story short: The Jerusalem Pool was built at the end of the 1950s on a vacant lot in southern Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood. The city wanted a public pool there, but didn’t want to build or run it. So it leased the land to a moshav several miles west of the city, whose members operated the facility—the city’s only 50-meter, Olympic-length pool, with the hope of making a profit. The profits did not materialize. In the meantime, the German Colony and the nearby area began transforming from rundown communities of refugees into gentrifying neighborhoods centered on a lively strip of restaurants, cafes, and shops on the Colony’s central street, Emek Refa’im. At the beginning of the 1980s the moshav went into partnership with the Ela Brothers construction company. They received a license to build a commercial and office building on the perimeter of the lot, in exchange for renovating the pool and pledging to operate it at popular prices.

For years the pool management has been complaining that they’re operating the pool at a loss. They’ve made several attempts to get the lot rezoned so they can build on it. So far, the requests have been rejected. But then at the end of last summer they stopped renewing memberships and announced that the pool would close for renovations—or perhaps, close forever.

For a while none of the pool regulars did anything except complain. But since I exercise there every day I finally decided to take up the cudgel. I put up signs and organized an action committee to save the pool. With the help of the neighborhood administration, we looked at the zoning plan and obtained the documents that showed that the moshav and the Ela Brothers were legally obligated to continue operating the pool. The municipality’s chief counsel issued a strongly-worded legal opinion ordering the city and the management to take whatever action is necessary to keep the pool open.

But, as in any city, the law is one thing and the facts on the ground are another. The city administration took no concrete action, and we need to raise money to hire a lawyer and to plan other activities to exert the political and legal pressure that would force the municipality’s hand and make it uphold the law. I and the committee’s other members have had great success in enlisting the support of the heterogeneous community that uses the pool—pensioners and teenagers, religious and non-religious, Jewish and Arab. But the hardest nuts to crack are some of the guys who use the pool most. I mean the ones like Roni, whose athletic personae compel them to insist that human relations consist solely of battles of strength, and that cooperation, public action, and a belief that government should serve the people are sissy stuff. Like poems.

“I’m back,” Roni says, sacrificing a flip turn and shaking his head dry like a wet dog and staring at the pace clock on the wall. “You have 30 seconds.”

“She’s imagining the future. She’s thinking beyond herself. She’s wondering whether the emotions she feels will live beyond her. She desperately wants not to be alone in time the way she has lived her life so alone in space—both as a poet, and as a lover.”

“Right,” he says, and heads off for another lap. I jump in and begin my own laps. I’m nowhere near as fast as Roni, so we go back and forth several times before we synch up again and find ourselves at the end of the pool together.

Ha-aheret ha-zot—Ha-tashkiah oti? ” I recite.

“And that other girl—
Will she make you forget?”

“I bet she will,” says Roni. “He’s moved on.”

“He’s left a broken-hearted woman behind—and his new lover suffers in his love just like Rachel did.”

“What can I say,” says Roni. “Men and women—these are animal things. We can’t control them. You just do what you have to do. But I still don’t get what it has to do with the pool.”

“Animals don’t write poetry. They don’t ponder their relationships with other animals. They don’t think about the future.”

“My future is finishing my twenty laps,” Roni says as he pushes off.

It’s interesting how our personalities are displayed in our swimming. Roni swims lap after lap freestyle and hardly every uses any gear but his suit and goggles. I get bored doing the same thing back and forth for an hour. So I slip on my hand paddles and pull buoy, odd and unnatural appurtenances that make swimming harder, and do a few laps of breathing exercises. I breath every fifth stroke going up, every third coming back. Eventually Roni and I meet up again. He’s upset.

“Look,” he says testily, “What are you trying to say about me?”

“I’m not talking about you,” I said. “I’m talking about Rachel, and the pool.”

“You’re preaching at me.” In the weight room, Roni latches on to young single women. He’s married.

“Listen,” I say.

O tavo mimena elai …
“Or return from her sorrow to me,
To gently caress the distant remembrance
Intertwined in the skein of my songs?”

“The verse can be read two ways because “tashkiah” and “tavo” can mean either ‘she will make you forget’ and ‘she will come,’ or it can also mean ‘you—that is, her male lover—will obliterate the memory of,’ ‘you will come.’” It’s ambiguous. With the same words she’s addressing a future rival poet and a current rival in love.”

“So?”

“Isn’t it a great poem?”

“If she wanted this guy back, why didn’t she just pick up the phone and call him?”

“Poets didn’t have phones in old Tel Aviv.”

“So she could have put on her hat and gone to see the guy. She could have done something other than complain.”

“She did. She wrote a poem.”

Roni grunted dismissively.

“So she, too, was up against animal forces. She didn’t accept that ‘that’s the way it is.’ She fought back with the means at her disposal. She fought power with poetry. And she won.”

“She got the guy back?”

“I don’t know. Probably not.”

“So how did she win?”

“Because here we are, 80 years later, talking about her poem in the Jerusalem Pool. And who remembers the asshole who ditched her?”

Roni stares as if he’d just spotted a Jabberwock.

“You know,” he said, “you writers are strange. How can you desire the same woman for years and years and years?”

“I guess you just need a lively imagination. An ability to see beyond the merely physical.”

“If that’s what you want to do.”

“It’s not just what I want to do. It’s what you and me should and can do. When some other swimmer, who lives after you . . .”

“Ok, ok,” Roni sighs. “Sign me up. We’ll show the bastards that money doesn’t make power. Poetry makes power. We’ll save the pool.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“Keep talking. Keep talking. I’ll get there.”

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2 thoughts on “Rachel Goes for a Swim–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

  1. Here’s another tack you could have taken…consider Israel. Remember all the thoughts about how the land was going to waste, how it was a land without a people, that the desert could bloom, that the land should be used?

    Roni might then say: Look at the result. What is the value added of modern Israel over the land as it was in, say, 1900? There are some who would disagree and that there are other factors to be considered just as you feel about the pool.

  2. This is a patehtic artticle about whining on a pool that sits on stolen Palestinian land filled with stolen Palestinian water. You and the developer are equal thieves. Both of you should leave Palestine and go to Poland

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