Passacaglia — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

A hand passed before my face and I jerked out of my reverie. A cool, almost chilly breeze was blowing from Bethlehem. The muffled sound of the wedding band, playing Levantine-tinged pop settings of verses from the Song of Songs and Jeremiah, filtered through the glass doors, blaring for a few seconds when a child ran in or out.

illustration by Avi Katz

The face to which the hand was connected belonged to Vardit, the bride’s best friend. Unlike the Aviya, whose demure pearl-white dress reached to the floor and had sleeves below the elbow, Vardit was sleeveless and in red. Her arms and face glowed from dancing.

“Bored?” she asked.

I removed the buds from my ears. “I needed a break,” I said.

“I needed some air.” She removed a pack of cigarettes from a small macramé bag she had slung over her shoulder and jokingly offered me one. I leaned back against a marble-faced pillar and surveyed the Judean hills. On this hill in southern Jerusalem you can see the Dead Sea on a clear day. At night, the hills to the southeast are mostly dark shadows, but most of the panorama is alive with the lights of Arab cities and Jewish neighborhoods.

“You look a little sad,” she said.

Read morePassacaglia — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Once More, With Feeling — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz

The sniffles turned into sobs during the dissonant piccolo solo. The Israel Philharmonic was about four minutes into the first movement of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony and the weeping distracted me from the conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, who seemed not so much to be cuing the orchestra as to performing a long slow death dance.

The tears were coming from a little girl in a long-sleeved dress who was sitting two rows in front of me in the Jerusalem Convention Center’s high balcony. She looked to be about eleven years old and she held her hands tightly to her cheeks as she wept. Her shoulders heaved in a way that seemed to indicate that she was holding much more sorrow inside than she was letting out. But then the strings returned with a desperate restatement of the opening theme that descended a chromatic scale into a lower depth of agony. When the music dissolved completely into a virtual silence, she let out a very audible throaty gasp. The older couple sitting in front of her turned around to eye her. A boy in a black kipah who was sitting one seat away—apparently an older brother—sidled over beside her, gave her a smack on the back of her head, and whispered something angry in her ear.

Read moreOnce More, With Feeling — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Intermezzo — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

10 July 1922

To the editor of Kuntres:

My fellow music lovers in the Yishuv, tilling the land and laboring on the roads as they whistle and hum the works of the great composers, will no doubt be interested to hear of my encounter with the man who is perhaps the most notable of our nation’s musical representatives in the great cultural metropolis of Paris. However, they may be disturbed to hear that said representative is a broken man from a dying world.

The story begins with my arrival in Paris just last week, after the successful conclusion of my agronomy studies in Toulouse.

illustration by Avi Katz

Eager to sample what the great city had to offer, I immediately examined the billboards and proceeded to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (yes, the same place where, just nine years ago, the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps caused a riot!) to hear a program of piano concerti. One of the pieces was Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto no. 2 in G major, and the other a work in E major by a composer I was not acquainted with, one Moritz Moszkowski.

I will reluctantly pass over a description of a wonderful performance of the Russian composer’s great work, which I am sure is familiar to all your readers. Some will complain that it is overly long, but I maintain that its every moment contributes to a whole that is a sublime expression of the Russian national spirit.

I could not have been more astounded to find that the conductor chose to follow up Tchaikovsky’s great work with a piece so devoid of weight that it simply wafted through the air of the concert hall like chaff thrown to the winds.

Read moreIntermezzo — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Piano Lesson — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

I am impressed. You play like a Jew, Felix. What I mean by that is that you have Johann Sebastian Bach in your heart as well as in your fingertips. Please don’t tell your mother I said this. She would be upset to hear that she has not succeeded in bleaching Israel out of you. How mortified she would be if, in the middle of an intellectual evening here in this very parlor, von Humboldt were to apply his magnifying glass to you and say: “Aha! A fine specimen of Mendelssohnius Judaeas!”

What’s that? Speak up! And please do not call me Aunt Sara. Approximating family relationships is like slurring a gruppetto. I am and will always be your Great Aunt Sara. If you wish, you may, in the grand company that gathers so frequently in this room, be even more precise and refer to me as “Great Aunt Sara Itzig Levy.” And you may add, if asked, “Yes, the daughter of Daniel Itzig and Miriam Wulff, intimates of the illustrious philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, she who studied keyboard with Friedmann Bach, Johann Sebastian’s oldest son, and who has kept the sweet music of the elder Bach alive in her salon through decades of public indifference.” That will do.

And wipe that smirk off your face. There is nothing more unattractive than the smirk of a seventeen-year old boy.

Oh yes, at your age you know it all. Music is universal. How can the notes emerging from a pianoforte be Jewish, you ask? Felix, you know nothing at all. Remember that I told you this today, in Berlin, in July 1826, because some years from now you will realize how true it was of you when you were young.

Listen to me. And stop cracking your knuckles. You will ruin your joints. This piece you have played so beautifully for me this morning, the Partita No. 5 in G Major, can only be played properly, in our falscherleuchtung age, this time of false enlightenment, by a person of Jewish sensibility. Please do not interrupt me. At your age you are to listen to your elders first. After you listen you may disagree, you may do whatever you want. But first you must listen.

Sebastian Bach was a devout Lutheran, true, but he wrote Jewish music.

Read morePiano Lesson — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report