Yehoshua decided that on the first of Shevat he would stop believing in God. That would give him two weeks to get his life in order.
Getting his life in order meant, first, breaking the news to Kinneret that their marriage was over. Yehoshua was fairly certain that she did not yet know this. Second, it meant a difficult conversation with Rav Moshe Franck in which he would argue that he should continue to be allowed teach Gemara to the girls at the midrasha as long has he kept his private beliefs to himself. Third, it meant telling Tani, his ardent suitor, that he should direct his attentions elsewhere.
Michael gropes for the handkerchief he’s sitting on and wipes the sweat from the top of his head, the whole area encircled by the fringe of brown-flecked white hair that crowns his head like a withering laurel wreath. He’s back for his volunteer day of driving Gazans for medical treatment in Israel. The Erez checkpoint, on the border, comes into view. He hears chanting, a Hebrew slogan shouted through a megaphone, a woman’s voice, but he can’t make out the words. The demonstrators are in the designated spot, just outside the checkpoint’s perimeter. Allowing himself just a sip from the flask he keeps in the car door, he slows down and glances at his cell phone. Sister Nabila. That’s the name the Road to Recovery organization gave him. She will be accompanying an orphan who needs medical treatment in Israel.
I never let them touch me. I told Dima that at every opportunity, once she was old enough to understand. When she’d learned from her friends what I could not bear to say and what the Rosary Sisters would tell the girls only the following year, she said she did not believe me. Believe me or not, I said, you will not go die for them.
I long ago stopped believing myself. Stopped believing the Rosary Sisters and Father Joaquin and Ismail Haniyeh and Abu Mazen and the pope and my own thoughts. Nasrin, the only thing you believe in is the sea, Mama screamed at me when my brothers found me on the beach instead of in class with the Sisters. Because, I screamed back, it’s where Gaza ends and the world begins. But I could never put even my foot in the water.
Our names were right. I was a lonely flower, Dima was a downpour. By the time she was fourteen she was climbing out of the bathroom window at the Rosary Sisters, shouting herself hoarse at demonstrations that no one heard, attending political meetings that no one cared about. When I raised the subject, she shouted at me about Israeli imperialism and European colonialism and patriarchal oppression. What does a girl with no father know about patriarchal oppression, I countered, trying to make a joke. But jokes only work if there’s a real world to joke about.
The Rosary Sisters taught a great deal, but I learned very little. I had no use for incarnations and visitations and transubstantiations, for a miracle’s only a miracle if you live in a world that operates according to laws and logic. Then a miracle can startle you out of the natural routine and give you a glimpse of something beyond. But in Gaza, where sewage runs down the street and your fridge operates just a few hours a day and where a brother or two, bored and distracted and unmanned by inaction and unemployment, beats you at incoherent intervals for no reason at all, there are no laws, so there can be no miracles.
Haim Watzman The editor of The Jerusalem Report, Steve Linde, has dismissed the magazine’s long-time illustrator, Avi Katz. Readers of South Jerusalem are well-acquainted with Avi’s illustrations for my Necessary Stories, but Avi also produced an editorial cartoon for each issue of the magazine. As editorial cartoons are supposed to do, they angered some readers. … Read more In Defense of Avi Katz, I Resign from the Jerusalem Report
This dvar Torah, translated from this week’s issue of Shabbat Shalom , the weekly Shabbat pamphlet of the religious peace group Oz Veshalom is dedicated to the memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us four years ago on 2 Av.
Can there be two more contradictory statements describing God attending to the voice of his people than the one at the Burning Bush and the one at the Plains of Moab? At the first, God tells Moses: “I have marked well the plight of my people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings” (Exodus 3:7). In contrast, in this week’s portion, Devarim, when Moses recounts the story of the spies and the Ma’apilim (those who sought to disregard God’s decree that the members generation that left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel), he declares: “Again you wept before the Lord; but the Lord would not heed your cry or give ear to you” (Deuteronomy 1:45). The first statement prepares Moses for the Exodus from Egypt. The second prepares the Children of Israel for the ultimate destruction of their commonwealth and the Exile.
But the contradiction actually goes well beyond that. On a simple reading of Exodus, the redemption from Egypt seems not to be the result of any good deeds or merits of the Children of Israel. When we left Egypt, we left because the term of the Exile, pronounced to Abraham at the time of the Covenant between the Parts (Genesis 15), had come to an end. Presumably the Israelites were crying out to God throughout their enslavement, and did not begin doing so only when Moses reached the Burning Bush. The same pattern appears later, at the time of the Return to Zion (Shivat Tzion) from the Babylonian Exile. This second redemption begins after the seventy-year term prophesized by Jeremiah comes to an end, not because the Exiled Jews have been righteous: “In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, the Lord roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm” (Ezra 1:1).
But things were quite different when we left Jerusalem, at the time of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. The Jews go into exile not because the prearranged date for it has arrived, not because a term of years was set in advance for their sojourn in the Land of Israel. The Torah and prophets stress that the Land vomited the people out because of their evil actions.
Ido and I are starting on our second beer on a Monday night at Carousela on Mitudela, just off Gaza, when this old guy comes off the crosswalk, sits down at the table next to us, and begins to cry.
Ido turns and stares. It’s the second weird thing that’s happened since we took our regular spot on the patio to shoot bull and brainstorm our latest project, which is still in the cloudy stage but has, we’re sure of it, incredible potential to turn two part-time art students who met last year on their post-army South American trek into the Next Big Thing.
“Gavriel, he’s crying,” Ido says, too loudly.
Ido’s got talent, but he can be a pain. Says whatever’s on his mind, no filters. I put my hand up in a vertical salute, just by my left eye, to indicate blinders. “What do you think about putting up a strobe light under Ubinas and a mirror under Lake Salinas?” I suggest, referring to our multimedia sculpture, in which we will abstractly portray this newly awakened Peruvian volcano and adjacent salt lake with compostable materials as a metaphor for the bitterness and ecstasy of life and love. We’re not sure whether the volcano represents life and the salt lake love, or the other way around, but that will come, that will come.
Ido doesn’t take the hint. His first beer always gives him a double buzz. So he leans over, puts his arm around the old guy’s shoulder, and asks him what’s wrong. I don’t have time for this.
The guy is old, but how old? Sixty? Seventy? More? He’s got a fringe of white and brown hair surrounding a bald pate and a face that looks weathered and tired. But he straightens his gaunt torso as Lily, the waitress, complaining that she’s been literally run off her feet
Iris opens an eye to the sun above, then turns it to Yehoshua. Around them, a clearing of May’s green grass, not yet browned by the summer, stretches between the exuberant purple blooms of three jacarandas, among which iridescent blue sunbirds hover. Iris lies, and Yehoshua sits, on the top of a knoll skirted by the paths of Independence Park, so that even the occasional late morning Shabbat stroller does not disturb them. A west wind makes waves in the grass.
Yehoshua had passed this spot a few days earlier while riding his bike to his student waiter job at Tmol Shilshom. He spotted a pair of lovers on the peak of the hill, the girl lying on her back, sleeping peacefully, and the guy seated, leaning on his left arm, gazing at her face. A few minutes after passing, as he approached the restaurant, he circled back to the park to observe them again. The guy, with his short black beard and loose tee-shirt, could have been him. And the girl, in her loose trousers, with light brown hair splayed over the grass, could have been Iris. The guy was still gazing, the girl still dozing, and it seemed to Yehoshua that there, on that knoll, amid the purple flowers and shining dark birds, love was as pure as it ever could be. The sour face from the shift manager for being a few minutes late didn’t faze him. He would bring Iris to that spot on Shabbat, and they would be in love like that.
“What are you doing?” Iris asks, one eye still closed.
He smiles. “Gazing at you.”
“Well, stop it. It makes me nervous.” She closes her open eye. After a minute she opens it again. “I said stop it.”
“But you’re so amazing,” Yehoshua says, his whole heart in it. “How can I stop looking?”
She smiles, opens her other eye, and pushes herself up on her elbows. “What’s gotten into you?”
He’s not sure what the right answer is. He thinks back to that other guy and girl. He hadn’t heard them speak. It seemed they didn’t need to.
We say kaddish for our son and drive north. The hills that tumble down the descent to Jericho are tinged pale green, the last breaths of the desert’s brief, defiant annual winter resurrection. The sun glints on the asphalt of Route 90, which stretches along the west bank of a feeble Jordan River. Toward Beit She’an, the bleak landscape turns green again. Irrigated fields replace bleak hills. We make a short detour up to the top of Mount Gilboa, hoping to catch the last of the irises that bloom there in the spring, but we are too late. We have to make do with a few tentatively lavender bear’s-breeches and splashes of Red Everlastings, the flowers printed on the stickers that everyone will paste on their chests on Memorial Day, two weeks hence.
On to the down-home bargain hotel in shabby-to-slummy Tiberias, where we will spend the long second weekend of Pesach. From our window we have a view, not of Lake Kinneret, but of the rubbish-filled yards of abandoned buildings up the street, and the lonely olive trees that dot the mountain slopes between the upper city’s housing-project neighborhoods.
The next morning, Thursday, the eve of the holiday, we continue north, as far north as we can go, to Metula. We take a right at the gate, then turn right again and again to reach the entrance to the Ayun Reserve. A stream of that name wells up a bit further north, in Marjayoun—I saw it three and a half decades ago, when I shuttled through the town time and again as a soldier serving unenthusiastically in Lebanon. When it crosses the Israeli border, it enters a narrow canyon and spills down a steep series of waterfalls, into the Hula Valley. Thirteen years ago the stream dried up, when Hezbollah diverted the source springs in the Lebanese town to irrigate the fields nearby. A few years ago, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority brought the stream back to life by piping in water from the Dan, a mightier stream to the southeast. Dan and Ayun, along with Hatzbani and Banyas, are the four headwaters of the Jordan, fed by melted snow from Mt. Hermon filtered through limestone strata laid down by primordial seas and pushed up by ancient cataclysms.
Seven years ago, on this holiday, our son died. Niot, our third headwater, was like a stream. He bubbled up, burbled, flowed over rapids, made all around him green and alive. Year round, year by year, for twenty years.
Hey, I need a smoke after that, let’s stand here in the shade of this tree, yeah, this olive tree, you always had to say exactly what tree we were sitting under between exercises, but then you’re from a moshav, for us in the city all that’s important is shade on a sweltering day like this. It’s a beautiful tree, though, fine specimen, olive trees are my favorite, they’ve got strong roots, they’re rugged. Let’s stand under that round thing up there, exactly covers the sun, looks like the tree has sprouted a green basketball. I love trees with those things. They’re like a flare that suddenly appears in the sky and guides you through the night. Witch’s broom? Really? That’s what it’s called? Doesn’t look like a broom at all.
It’s a shame about Ilan. Salt of the earth. A warrior like from the old days. And they sucked his blood, sucked his blood, I tell you, until he didn’t have any left. Did you see Kochava, that’s class, no screaming or wailing like in my family, strong and silent, with the kids standing by her, and grandkids, dignity, I tell you, dignity, that’s what we used to have here in Israel and don’t any more.
Charge! I keep hearing him call out, Forward, charge! And we’d run up the mountain and shooting at those targets as if filling them with holes was going to save the Jewish people. There was something in his voice that made running up a steep slope on a freezing winter morning and plopping yourself on a bunch of thorns the thing you wanted to do more than anything else in the world. And it wasn’t just play. Remember, in Marjayoun, or was it Hasbayiyya, in Lebanon, I don’t even remember anymore, when he saved the entire platoon by spotting the mortar swiveling our way on that bastard Shiite’s roof? And with a single command he got us under cover and firing like maniacs until we took it out. He was a hero, in the pure sense of the word, the greatest hero I ever knew. And they sucked his blood, sucked his blood. Did you see Kochava? She’s at least fifty but she could pass for thirty-five any day, dark and slender, I’d say sexy but it would sound wrong, you’re not allowed to say stuff like that these days. My heart goes out to her. She doesn’t deserve it. The kid’s don’t. Ilan certainly didn’t deserve it, should have been put on a pedestal, given the Israel Prize.
In memory of my younger son, Niot, seven years after his death at the age of 20, during Pesach. From the Pesach 2018 issue of Shabbat Shalom, the weekly Torah portion sheet of the religious peace movement, Oz Veshalom.
“Take, for example, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony,” says Lahav Shani, the twenty-nine-year-old conductor who was recently chosen to lead the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. “It may well be the work that the orchestra has played more times than any other. The musicians can perform it in their sleep. But, precisely when you play something so much, there are things that become routine, and I saw in the music the possibilities of a different balance and a somewhat different point of view” (Ha’aretz, Galeria Shishi, Feb. 16, 2018).
The same can be said for the Pesach Haggadah. Many of us could practically recite it in our sleep. That’s why we need a young “Lahav Shani” on Seder night to freshen up the all-too-familiar material that the traditional Haggadah provides.