Against the Odds — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

“The harira didn’t come out so great today,” the waitress advised. “If you want soup, I’d go for the sweet potato.”

Instead of standing, the waitress had pulled up a chair. The father and his grown daughter were the only clients in restaurant, which looked like it had been flown in from the West Coast, with its small tables and back-breaking chairs ranged around a large central unfinished wood counter. It was squeezed between an Ethiopian bar and a high-end Middle-Eastern grill, both of them similarly empty, on Borochov Alley, a bit east of the shuk, between Jaffa and Agripas. The stabbings were keeping people home, so the waitress had time on her hands.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
She looked Oregonish herself, slender, with straight hair and large round glasses, clearly ten or maybe even fifteen years older than the standard student waitress. She was a single mother of two girls, she told the daughter and father, and had just returned to her job, a few weeks after her baby had been born, because how was she supposed to live? Her face was overcast, perhaps because she hadn’t been getting much in tips from absent diners.

“Did you have a celebration here?” the daughter guessed.

The waitress’s face brightened. “Yes! Just last night! It was the manager’s present to me. Just something small. Family, a few friends. All presided over by my grandmother, the Frau Doktor Dora Berman, who didn’t like the food at all. She sat very stiffly over there, on that high chair at the end of the counter, in a black dress, nibbling from dishes we brought her and making faces. Mama was beside herself.”

“How’s the vegan lasagna?” the father asked.

“Abba, she’s telling us about her baby!” the daughter chided him.

“But she’s our waitress,” he pointed out. “And I’m hungry.”

“You can wait,” the daughter said, and then asked the waitress: “Your mother and grandmother don’t get along?”

“It’s complicated,” the waitress sighed. “Mama can be a pain. But the Frau Doktor is one of a kind. Do you know what she said when I brought the baby in?”

“Should I guess?”

“We had this little ceremony.” She put her pencil and pad down on the table and stopped making any pretence at all of taking an order. “We got everyone singing, and I brought the baby in along with Hofit, she’s my three-year-old, and the idea was that I would pass the baby on to Mama and Mama would pass her on to Frau Doktor Dora and the matriarch would read a poem I’d printed up for her and then announce the baby’s name. I’d explained it all to her and she knew exactly what she was supposed to do. And don’t tell me she forgot, she’s frail but still sharp as a crochet needle.”

As if she had just reminded herself of something, the waitress reached over to the next table where, unnoticed, a bag lay. She drew yarn and a needle out of it. Two balls, pink and white. “It’s a hat for the baby,” she explained. The father looked at the daughter and pointed at his stomach. The daughter ignored him.

“So I bring in the baby and give it to Mama, and Mama bears her carefully across the room. Then, just as she’s about to place the baby on her mother’s lap, the Frau Doktor looks around the room regally and says, very loudly, ‘You know, if I had had that abortion, this one wouldn’t be here!’ My grandmother says this as Mama, her only daughter, is presenting her with her newest great-granddaughter!”

“Well, Mama grabbed the baby back and turned around and I saw tears on her cheeks. ‘How could she ruin such a moment?’ Mama whispered between her teeth as she brought the baby back to me. I was in shock, we were all in shock. Then my grandmother put her hands to her face, her chest heaving, gasping for air.”

“The coconut curry,” the father said, pointing at the menu. “Does that have milk in it?”

The daughter glared. “You can get it with milk or we can do it with coconut milk,” the waitress said. “Well, of course the singing stopped and the whole place fell silent. And then Frau Doktor Dora removed her hands from her face, smoothed down her dress, looked around her, and began to lecture.”

The waitress fell silent, her hands busy with her needles, her eyes on her woolen embryo.

The father took the waitress’s pencil and jotted on her pad. He pushed it over to his daughter. “I thought the place was empty because people are scared to go out, but now I think it might be the service.” The daughter pushed the pad back with her reply. “Story now. Food later.” He sighed and put his menu in his lap.

“‘It was in early 1944 that my period stopped,’” the waitress intoned, changing her voice to a scratchy alto. “‘January went by, then February, then March. I worked part-time as a secretary in the Generali building, paid under the table and pinched by Advocate Wolfe. He liked to tell his clients that his secretary had a German law degree but that, unfortunately, German law had outlawed her and she was lucky to be filing papers for him. Others like her were mopping floors.

“‘It wasn’t until April that I got up the nerve to tell Aryeh. We lived in a tiny room off Jaffa, not far from here, sharing a kitchen and bathroom with two other families. The rent cost more than my salary. Aryeh worked as a house painter—he hadn’t been able to finish his engineering degree before we fled. But he’d fallen off a ladder and broken his leg, so he hadn’t worked for two months. He was depressed and angry at the world. If you have the baby, he said, Wolfe will fire you.’”

The waitress held up the cap. “What do you think?” she said, reverting to her normal voice.

“It’s beautiful,” the daughter said.

“So they asked around and got the name of a surgeon who had a one-room private clinic in Talpiot,” she continued. “And he said it would cost five Palestinian pounds, but they didn’t have the money and had already borrowed from the only friends who could afford to help them. They asked him if they could pay him one pound a month, one for each month until the baby would have been born. He refused.

“A week later my grandfather hobbled over to the Generali building. He slipped an envelope under the door of Advocate Wolfe’s office, went up to the roof, and jumped off. Wolfe fired his overqualified secretary. Mama was born a week before Rosh Hashanah.

“‘Give me the baby,’ the Frau Doktor commanded. Mama glanced at me and I nodded and she lay the baby in my grandmother’s lap. ‘This baby owes her life to a stingy physician,’ she announced. ‘And her name in Israel will be …’ She looked down at the paper I’d given her. ‘Tzofia. What kind of name is that?’”

“Great story,” said the father. He ripped off the page he and his daughter had scribbled on and nudged it hopefully in the waitress’s direction. He also picked the menu off his lap. His daughter kicked him under the table. The waitress sighed. She looked out the window.

“You know, there was a stabbing right over there last night.” She pointed.

“Awful,” the daughter shuddered.

She stuck her needles in the yarn and put the unfinished hat back in her bag. Then she took up the pad and pencil.

“I think I’ll have the lasagna,” the father said. “And maybe you can recommend a first course we can share?”

“I’ll just have the sweet potato soup,” the daughter said.

“I’ll bring you half a bottle of white wine left over from the party,” the waitress said. “On the house.” She was about to head for the kitchen but the daughter stopped her.

“What happened then?”

The waitress shrugged. “There was this long moment of silence. Then all the sudden we heard shouts, then sirens. We all ran out to see what happened. Everyone except Frau Doktor, who remained on her throne. A woman was killed, did you hear? A soldier shot him. The police came and an ambulance took the bodies away. A kid. No more than sixteen, seventeen, from the look of him. I read in the paper that she was the mother of two. When it was over we all came back in. Then Hofit piped up and said ‘Is her name really Tzofia?’ And Frau Doktor gazed down on her and said: ‘You don’t believe me? That’s what it says here!’ And then someone shouted ‘Mazal tov!’ and then everyone started singing and we brought out the food.”

“Sounds like a great idea,” the father said.

“You probably think I have a pretty strange family.”

“So do I,” the daughter said, nodding her head at her father.

The waitress laughed. “I’ll probably be as bad as Frau Doktor if I make it into my eighties.”

“She had a tough life,” the daughter observed.

The waitress looked out the window, to the spot where the woman had been murdered and the teenage terrorist killed.

The waitress shrugged. “It’s like we’re all alive just by chance. Think of it. Against the odds. I’ll go put in your order.”

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1 thought on “Against the Odds — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

  1. Dear Mr. Watzman,
    I just finished reading Company C. Thank you for sharing your story.
    It was provided to me by my son Evan who is 22 and leaving for Israel later this month. He is planning on living on a Kibbutz, attending Ulpan, and considering becoming a citizen. Your writing was especially helpful in providing an American perspective on the complexities of Israeli politics as well as insights regarding my son’s upcoming journey. Hope you and your family are well. Best regards, Jonathan Mauser. Ithaca, NY, USA

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