Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Sex–A Review Essay in The Tel Aviv Review of Books

Haim Watzman

The (deliberately) bad sex scenes in four modern Israeli novels reveal writers who play with and subvert expectations and conventions.

Bad sex makes good books. Let me put that on the table, or in the bedroom, or even on a grave, as in one of the four Hebrew novels I have come to praise in this essay. In our times, when works of fiction are expected to delve into the most intimate parts of their protagonists’ souls, bedclothes, and anatomies, and to provide at least one erotic episode to give a lift to all three, the ability to write a convincing and moving scene in which the sex act is portrayed as indifferent, unfulfilling, boring, or frustrated by impotence is the mark of a great and original talent.

Read more

The Girls from Syracuse: A Dvar Torah in Memory of My Father, Masei 5782

Haim Watzman
This is an English version of the Hebrew dvar Torah that appears in issue 1276 of “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly portion sheet published by the religious peace movement Oz Veshalom. It is dedicated to the memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us eight years ago on 2 Av.

The Book of Numbers ends with the appeal of a ruling on an inheritance case: “The family heads in the clan of the descendants of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh, one of the Josephite clans, came forward and appealed to Moses and the chieftains, family heads of the Israelites” (Num. 36:1). The original case was heard a few chapters previously:

The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family—son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph—came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the LORD, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (27:1–4).

When Zelophehad’s daughters brought their case before Moses’s court, he did not know how to rule. So he put their case before God, who instructed him in a revision of the inheritance law—if a father dies and leaves only daughters, they, not the father’s brothers, inherit his estate.

There is no higher authority than God. What he says is law. If that is the case, how dare the family heads appeal the ruling? And why would Moses agree to hear their petition?

Read more

On the Watershed Line: In memory of my son Niot z”l / על קו פרשת המים: לזכר בני נאות ז”ל

Haim Watzman

The lupines on the two sides of the barely discernable path are darker than the ones I remember from last year, perhaps because a small cloud his blocking the sun’s rays, or because rain and chill winds prevented us from getting here on recent Saturdays, causing us to miss the blooms at their height. Or perhaps the reason is that the approaching Pesach holiday brings us closer to the season of our inner darkness, the affliction of losing our son read the rest (in English or in Hebrew) on Substack

Read more

The Hole in the Haggadah — Thoughts for the Seder in Memory of my son Niot z”l

Haim Watzman

This is a Hebrew translation of my annual dvar Torah for Pesach in memory of my son Niot z”l, whom we lost eleven years ago during Pesach. A pdf file of the Hebrew original, which appears in this week’s issue of “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly Torah sheet published by Oz Veshalom, the religious peace movement, can be downloaded here.

Nothing is more present than an absence. In an event, as in a story, that which is not stated explicitly, and the person who does not speak, are sometimes the most important. This truth stands out in our family on Pesach. This year we will gather for our Seder for the eleventh time without our son and brother Niot, who left us after the first day of Pesach and never returned.

Toward the end of Chapter 4 of the Pesahim tractate of the Babylonian Talmud (54b), the rabbis adduce a puzzling bereita that seems unconnected to the surrounding material. The chapter’s central subject is the differing customs regarding the time of the Pesach sacrifice and other tasks that need to be accomplished on 14 Nisan, before the Seder that evening. The bereita states:

The Sages taught: Seven matters are concealed from people, and they are: [The] day of death; and the day of consolation; the profundity of justice; and a person does not know what is in the heart of another; and a person does not know in what [way] he will earn a profit; [and] when the monarchy of the house of David will be restored; and when the wicked monarchy will cease.

Read more

The Chair Wins the Warsaw Jewish Theater Institute Award

Haim Watzman

“The Theater Institute Award for Haim Watzman’s drama The Chair for: an intimate yet universal capture of Israel’s multicultural contemporary society; for showing invariably important and at the same time fundamental human problems, both in history and today. For boldly taking into account the importance of religious tradition, for noticing the role of women in history, tradition, and contemporary times, and for a well-thought-out composition of real and metaphorical space.”

— statement by Jadwiga Majewska of the Theater Institute (Instytut Teatralny im. Zbigniewa Raszewskiego) of Poland on my play, at the awards ceremony

My acceptance speech, which I was unable to give in person at the ceremony in Warsaw on January 16.

It is a great honor to have my play The Chair recognized with the Theater Institute Award of the Contemporary Jewish Drama International Competition sponsored by the Estera Rachel and Ida Makinskie Jewish Theater in Warsaw. When I received the news last week I was so flabbergasted that I was sure that it must be a mistake. I felt like one of the Hebrew prophets receiving a vision from God and being totally clueless, just as Isaiah and Jeremiah were, about why they had been chosen.

Illustration by Avi Katz
That is very appropriate because The Chair is a melancholy comedy about a woman who receives a prophetic vision, not from heaven but from the neighbors she sees from her bedroom window. After escaping from an oppressive relationship with a man who loves her because she represents the oppressed workers he has devoted his life to saving, she wants only to be alone and never to love again. But the vision, not a divine but rather a very earthly and material one, finds the love that remains hidden deep within her. Her story parallels that of the biblical prophet Hosea, except that she plays the role not of Hosea but of Gomer, the low woman the prophet marries at God’s command and uses as a symbol of the sins of Israel.

Read more

The Rabbi, the Alien, and the Lulav–Dvar Torah for Sukkot 2021

Haim Watzman

An English translation of a drasha given at Kehilat Yedidya on Sukkot 2021

הדרשה בעברית

I’ll begin with a story. Actually, I’ll begin with the same story that Pinchas Leiser told on Rosh Hashanah. His story was about the way the great Hasid Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak of Berditchev chose a shofar blower one year. There were three candidates and Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak interrogated them about the kavanot—the intentions they had—when they blew the shofar. The first said that his intention was to confuse Satan. The second said that his intention was to rouse the higher spheres to have mercy on the Jewish people. The third said simply that he had ten hungry children at home. The rabbi from Berditchev chose the third one.

Pinchas interpreted the story in the standard way. When he blew the shofar, the third candidate focused his intentions on his ten hungry children. But the story can be understood differently. It could be that the third candidate meant that he did not have any intention at all when he blew the shofar. He had other things to worry about. So he simply blew.

Read more

August Appearances

Haim Watzman Dear readers, It’s a month of opportunities to hear me talk about translation and writing, two in Zoom and in English and one in person and in Hebrew. “Translating in Nabokov’s Shadow” is the third installment in a wonderful series on translation sponsored by the Tel Aviv Review of Books and the National … Read more

The Green Woman — in “Halah”

Illustration by Avi Katz
Haim Watzman

The rock had a red stripe on the south side and a blue stripe on the north side. But they were fresh and bright, painted not long ago, so they couldn’t be the same ones he remembered from thirty-odd years before. Perhaps it wasn’t even the same rock. Yet the parting of the paths was the same parting, here on the trail that ran a short way up the slope from the channel below. The waters of early winter rains ran swiftly and noisily in the bed that had awaited them all summer. A breeze from the west wafted the mist, drawn from the water by the first rays of the rising sun, up the slope to chill his cheeks, and the steel pressing at his waist.

He stopped, breathing harder than he had that other morning so many years ago. Glancing back, he could see before him new neighborhoods on the surrounding ridges, which then had been crowned with trees and lined with venerable terraces. Jerusalem had encroached on its enveloping forest, but he could see that only if he faced what he knew. If he turned to the unknown behind him, as he had resolved to do when he woke in the dark an hour earlier, he could see only the grove close around him, the oak to his left below, the olive to his right above, and the spreading branches of the carob tree, weighted down with fruit, obscuring the trail marker below to anyone who did not seek it. And now, looking again, he made her out. It was not a dream or a vision. She stood there, where he had seen her decades before, where perhaps she had been stationed at the dawn of time. The green woman.… continue reading at Halah

Read more

Starting at the End / Dvar Torah, Parshat Devarim

Haim Watzman

This is an English version of the dvar Torah that appears in issue 1208 of “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly portion sheet published by the religious peace movement Oz Veshalom. It is dedicated to the memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us seven years ago on 2 Av.

Many years ago, when I worked as a journalist, I attended a press conference at a conservative research institute in Jerusalem. I don’t recall exactly what the subject was, but I do remember that the institute’s director, who had served in an elite unit in the US Army, claimed that he could prove scientifically that the State of Israel had been in the right in a recent military action that had been loudly criticized by the rest of the world. After I and several other reporters settled ourselves in the small meeting room, he rose to speak. “I’ll start with the creation of the world,” he began. Realizing that the press conference would be very long and grueling. I mumbled an excuse of some sort, got up, and left.

The choice of the right starting point is part of the art of storytelling. Tracing the sequence of causes that led to any given event will always lead to the creation of the world, given that, at least according to the modern scientific view, every event is the consequence of a previous event, going back to the dawn of time. But it’s not only that beginning every story at the creation is tiring. It’s simply wrong, both literarily and in principle. Because the place where the story begins needs to foreshadow the end that the storyteller wants to arrive at.

Read more

Fog — A Meditation on the Loss of My Son Niot in the Jewish Review of Books

Haim Watzman

Niot was a soldier in the Golani Brigade when he died in a diving accident ten years ago. The piece appears in the Jewish Review of Books for Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day.

illustration by Avi Katz
The fog that surrounds me all year grows heavier in the month of Tevet. By Pesach, I can no longer see. It dissipates some after Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, but a cloud remains. Only my wife, Ilana, understands my half-blind groping. For she, too, lives in the fog.

The ninth day of Tevet this year would have been Niot’s 30th birthday. We lost him when he was 20; our last night with him was the Seder. The fog descended three days later, on Friday morning, a day after his diving accident in Eilat, when the doctors at the hospital told us that we had lost him. On Shabbat, his death was officially certified, and we signed the documents to allow his organs to be donated. His funeral took place on Sunday, early afternoon, the eve of the last day of the holiday. When he died, he was a soldier, so two weeks later we found ourselves again at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, marking our first Yom HaZikaron as bereaved parents. … continue reading at The Jewish Review of Books

Read more

Henry V’s Distressful Bread — Thoughts for the Seder in Memory of my son Niot z”l

Haim Watzman

This is a Hebrew translation of my annual dvar Torah for Pesach in memory of my son Niot z”l, whom we lost ten years ago during Pesach. A pdf file of the Hebrew original, which appears in this week’s issue of “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly Torah sheet published by Oz Veshalom, the religious peace movement, can be downloaded here.

At the beginning of the Seder, before we begin the magid, the telling of the story of the exodus from Egypt, we perform a ritual called yahatz. We break, according to most customs, the middle of the three matzot that we have placed on the table along with the other signs of the holiday. We set the larger piece aside or conceal it so that it will serve after the meal as the afikoman.

At the end of the magid we make two blessings on the matzot that remain on the table—the two whole ones and the piece that remains of the middle one. According to one opinion (as in, for example, the commentary on the Haggadah of Rabbi Yitzhak Mirsky), the two blessings are intended for different combinations of these matzot. The hamotzi blessing, the one we use all year before eating bread and which on Shabbatot and holidays we make over two loaves, as part of the happiness of the occasion, is the blessing over the two whole matzot. The second blessing, al ahilat matzah, specific to the fulfilment of the command to eat matzah on the Seder night, is directed at one whole matzah and the broken matzah. The broken one represents the concept of lehem oni, usually translated into English as “the bread of affliction.”

Read more

The Niot Project in a Challenging Year

Dear friends,

Flexibility has been the watchword of the Niot Project since its inception. To help teenagers who are having a hard time learning it’s absolutely necessary, as we see it, to tailor an individual intervention plan to the individual needs of each one. But it’s also necessary to make frequent alterations, because these are young people who needs change from year to year, month to month, and even week to week. In this year of the Covid-19 pandemic, this flexibility has become all the more important. The Niot Project has adapted the help it offers to a new set of circumstances in which schools and boarding facilities close and open unpredictably and in which students and teachers have had to adjust to distance learning.

Eden Israeli, the head of the Niot Project, told us this week that over the past year the Niot Project coordinators in all the schools and boarding facilities have continued to work hard to identify students who are having problems and to provide them with help. “The coordinators report that the students having trouble this year are not necessarily those who have had trouble in school before this year,” she says. “Some strong students are having trouble learning on Zoom and doing their schoolwork.” As such, art of the coordinators’ work has been to maintain close contact with both teachers and students in order to identify those who need extra personal help or work in small groups, or simply a personal conversation. “Many of them don’t want another Zoom class,” Eden says. “They want to meet face to face.” Such meetings can happen at the boarding facilities, which have reopened, but it’s more difficult at other schools, where not all grades have gone back to school yet.

Read more