Hooligan Oil — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Hooligan oil? Did you say hooligan oil? I’m so sorry, I was deep into this letter from my sister back east, I didn’t even hear you come into the store. It’s so quiet this time of day, in the early afternoon, sometimes I just close up and go for a walk.

       illustrations by Avi Katz

       illustrations by Avi Katz

Alaska’s spring is so beautiful this year, the lupines are blooming early and it’s simply glorious. I always tell my girls, Sarah, Minnie, I say, there is so much to look at in this world, I mean irises the color of the purple of Sidon. Turn your gaze on them, not on Harry and Joe, the ships’ boys on the passenger steamer from Dyea. You might notice that the irises, unlike Harry and Joe, don’t have pimples. Max, Simon, I say, don’t walk with your eyes on the ground, look around you, see what an Eden God has given you here in Skagway.

Now let me see, hooligan oil, not many people ask for that any more, but you know that they used to call it “liquid gold,” before they discovered the solid stuff it was made the natives’ fortune, such as they had. I know some women who say it prevents wrinkles, but others can’t stand the smell. Once Max, he is only twelve but a true rascal, got hold of a bunch of those fish, hung them from the rafters in their bedroom, and lit the tails. Nearly burned the house down! He said that he wanted to see if what the old-timers said was true, that you could use the fish as candles. You want to be scientists, I’ll send you to Harvard, I say. No experiments at home. But better they should study medicine. It’s one profession where we people can make our mark, where we get some respect.

No need to say it in such a low voice. Nothing to be ashamed of. Yes, Jews.

Read moreHooligan Oil — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

The Devil and Theodor Herzl — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Herzl carefully adjusted his mouse-gray gloves and followed the young secretary through a massive door held open by a uniformed footman.

“Mr. Herzl, Your Excellency,” the secretary said crisply, standing as stiff as a sentry at a military tomb.

  illustration by Avi Katz

    illustration by Avi Katz

The man at the desk carefully penned notes in the margins of a document. His desk testified to his assiduous and deliberate character. Dossiers and documents were piled to the Interior Minister’s left, a large brass telephone with a wooden housing stood at his right hand. In front of him, partly blocking Herzl’s view of his host’s gray head, were the gilded accoutrements of a high imperial official—two tall candlesticks, two inkwells, a paperweight in the shape of a crouching lion, and a small, triumphant angel that served, it seemed, as a pen stand. All were carefully polished; they glinted in dappled August sunlight that filtered in through the oak outside a north-facing bay window. Behind the desk hung a large portrait of Czar Alexander III and a smaller icon of St. Mary Magdalene. Herzl felt faint and his beard itched. But he steeled himself.

Read moreThe Devil and Theodor Herzl — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Passion — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

We were just getting on the New Jersey Turnpike when Danny Engel bent over his guitar and placed his lips on those of Debbie Lieberman. Both of them were sitting on the floor in the aisle of the crowded bus that was taking our Washington Metro Area Midrasha’s students back from a Chabad Shabbat in Crown Heights. Sam and I were sitting on a pair of seats to their left, me the aisle and he by the window, just behind the couple, giving us an excellent view. Danny had started strumming and singing softly to Debbie right when we left Brooklyn. Ripples of streetlight, filtered through the long adolescent locks of the kids in the bus, played like starlight over the lovers. I was jealous. Nothing like that ever happened to me. And I kind of liked Debbie.

      illustration by Pepe Fainberg

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

Sam paused in his narrative about the young family he’d stayed with as he followed my gaze. We waited for Danny to raise his head softly and look deeply into Debbie’s eyes.

But that got boring after a while, so Sam got back to his story.

“So, you know, I’ve just gotten out of the shower and Yisroel, that’s the father’s name, knocks on the door a crack and calls out that I should hurry or we’ll miss mincha. And I open the door so the steam will go out—it must filled up the whole tiny apartment, our kitchen at home is I think the same size—and say, ‘mincha?” and he explains, as if I don’t know, ‘The afternoon prayer.” So I say, we already did mincha, over there at Lubavitcher headquarters, whatever it’s called …”

“Seven-seven-seven,” I filled in.

“Right, seven-seven-seven. And he says, ‘What was it like?’ And I say, ‘Well, it was cramped.’ And he says, ‘The room was full?’ and I say, ‘Actually, when we went in there was plenty of room, but then just before we started to daven the Rebbe walked in and everyone took three steps back. And since the room was maybe only ten steps from front to back, I got crushed between two black suits.’ Wow, they’re still at it.”

He stared at Danny and Debbie. Debbie opened her eyes for a second and I thought she was looking at me. I looked back. Or was it at Sam?

Read morePassion — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Odysseus Eats — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

“Have a biscuit,” I offered, pushing a plate of petit beurres toward him. “Sorry I don’t have anything better.”

He giggled. I took a sip of syrupy Turkish coffee and a bite out of one of the flat and fluted cookies, cardboard with a whiff of artificial vanilla. I picked up my pen, and waited. He made no move toward the plate of biscuits nor toward his own small and steaming glass. I adjusted my olive-green parka and ran my hand over my shoulder to make sure that my first lieutenant’s stripes were clearly visible. Like the sun straining to heat Neptune, a double-coiled space heater glowed forlornly. A naked bulb overhead cast barely enough light for me to make out the lettering on the form in front of me. Not much more managed to make its way through the grime-streaked small window at my back.

            illustration by Pepe Fainberg

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

He rocked in the metal chair with the uneven legs that I’d grabbed from the deputy brigade commander’s office, his rifle on his lap, his arms at his sides, his back straight, one side of his shirt tucked firmly into his baggy fatigue pants and the other side nearly hanging out. Some fine and curly chest hair

Read moreOdysseus Eats — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Bananas — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz

Yes, that’s my seat, but don’t worry about it, just let me squeeze past, I’ve gained some weight and the belly doesn’t squeeze like it used to, I’ll sit over there next to you. No, really, it’s just fine, yes, that’s my name on the seat, but how could you know, you’re a stranger, and who would bother to tell you because I hardly ever show up. Anyway, I built this synagogue, with some help from my brothers and sisters, so all the seats are really mine. Do I smell bananas or is it just my imagination?

That young rabbi gets on my nerves. See the way he parades behind the Sefer Torah, looks just like Eli Yishai from Shas, I think at the yeshivot they bring in plastic surgeons and acting coaches to make them all look that way. Same short-trimmed beard, same beanpole physique, same clothes, same words coming out of their mouths. You think it’s not polite for me to talk to you while everyone’s blowing kisses at the holy scroll? Don’t let it bother you, like I said, I built this place and I can do whatever I want.

You know why I’m here? To say kaddish for my father. Died 27 years ago today. And not a day too soon, believe me. He was a domineering bastard. You know the kind, from the old generation, no education, no knowledge of the world, no interests beyond telling his wife and kids what to do every day of their lives and every minute of their days. Each year I tell myself that, enough, I won’t go this year,

Read moreBananas — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Bottom Up — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

It was Timothy Asfal’s fingers that caught my eye when I boarded an overloaded 21 bus at Davidka Square on the way home to Talpiot. I could see them clearly because he was seated in the front row, on the aisle just behind the driver, clutching a plastic DVD box. Tim has the slender, agile digits of the artistic weaver he is, so finely-shaped that you want them to touch you.

illustration by Avi Katz

Tim and I have been friends since the 1980s, when we were both lonely and dreamy young men new in Jerusalem. I valued his company then because he had the wit of a sad clown and could see deep into my soul. Even then the beauty of his fingers stood out, but I barely noticed the way he looked then, or that the rest of his body was out of proportion. Now that he lives in Beit HaKerem we don’t see each other that often, even for a year at a time. And I admit that these days, when I run into him, I am taken aback for a moment. I notice all the things that friendship once led me to disregard. His body is thick, fleshy, and hirsute. His head is long and angular, with a protruding nose and ears that are two sizes too large. Maybe, in part, these physical flaws are even more noticeable now because when he was young he had hope. He could be ironic about love because he believed deep down that despite everything he would find it. Now, in middle age, he is unhappy and lonely.

It was late on a Thursday afternoon in mid-June and the bus was packed back to front with shoppers from the Machaneh Yehuda shuk, the open-air produce market. Their baskets sprouted basil and leeks and the fragrance of raw carrots filled the air. I pushed myself onto the bus and, while I couldn’t get far, I managed to wedge myself right up against Tim’s seat, standing between a teenage couple grooving to their Ipods and each other and a Kurdish grandmother who sighed intermittently as if the entire world’s sorrows were on her shoulders.

Tim barely smiled when he saw me. His head swung back and forth slowly, first to me, then toward the fair-haired woman in a blue summer dress who sat on the seat to his left, deeply absorbed in a paperback. His head halted just where he could see her out of the corner of his eye.

Read moreBottom Up — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Little Secrets– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

“Don’t look,” said my friend Alon. “But the former Shin Bet chief just sat down at the table to our right.”

I gazed intently into my soy latte and then, without moving my head, squinted over in the direction of said table.

illustration by Avi Katz

“All I see is a blur,” I said. “I think I need to get my peripheral vision checked.”

“No, that’s really the way he looks,” said Alon.

Alon is a correspondent for one of the major dailies. I’d called him in desperation on Saturday night because I had a column to prepare and had no idea what to write. Alon knows everyone and everything and I figured he’d be able to slip me a scoop.

“Meet me at 10 a.m. in the Aroma Café on Arlosoroff Street,” he told me. “We’ll brainstorm. And it’s a good place to pick up a tidbit or two.”

The cafe was buzzing at mid-morning. Nearly every table was taken, and at least one person at each table was a familiar face. Over the bar hung a large sign with large letters: “Aroma Arlosoroff: A Quiet Spot For Intimate Encounters.” The morning sun flooded in through the plate glass windows that made up three of the café’s four sides.

“It’s where I meet my most confidential sources,” Alon whispered as we walked through the door. “If you come here, you gotta know how to keep a secret.”

“I see there’s free WiFi,” I said.

“Hey, stop staring,” Alon hissed.

“But that guy over there, surrounded by the paparazzi,”

Read moreLittle Secrets– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Spring — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Dani held his coffee glass up to the sky. The residue the Turkish coffee grounds left on the sides filtered the rays of the late March sun like a gossamer veil that brings to light precisely what it hides.

Nuriel, Dani, and I were on our bellies on the top of a desert hill come to life for a brief week or two after a late and south-wandering thundershower. We lay on velvet-red poppies with voluptuous black irises and brassy-yellow mustard flowers watching two formations of our platoon converge from the west and south on the slopes of the next hill over. That hill, guarded by evil-eyed cardboard cutouts of Syrian soldiers, was ours to conquer. Nuriel, Dani, and I were the fire team meant to keep the paper riflemen’s heads down with high-intensity machine gun and mortar fire until the two attack forces were positioned to make their final run toward the defensive positions. Nuriel’s arm, its spare dark down glistening, was draped over his MAG machine gun. Dani’s much thicker elbow rested on a pack full of assorted charges for his 60mm mortar. I was the team leader. The platoon had done a dry run of the maneuver an hour before and now the live fire version was beginning. But the formations were still far off and we awaited our lieutenant’s order to begin the barrage. So we had taken the opportunity to make a round of coffee on Nuriel’s camp stove.

illustration by Avi Katz

Nuriel, a baby-faced kid new to our unit, just six months past his three-years stint in the Givati Brigade, was explaining to us why he had felt compelled to tell Merav, to whom he had just gotten engaged, that he first fell in love with another woman on a flower-strewn hill like this one during his first furlough after basic training.

“My friend Mendy and I were hiking a trail on Mt. Meron in the Galilee,” he told us, “and we saw two spots of white on a boulder. We got closer and saw that it was two girls in linen shirts washing their faces in a spring that spurted out from the side of the mountain into a large pool.

Read moreSpring — “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

Unstocking the Characters: Thoughts on Three New Works of Short Fiction

Haim Watzman

I almost stopped reading Aurelie Sheehan’s short story “Recognition” after the first sentence. Oh, God, another piece of fiction about a writer, written by a writer who only knows how to write about writing for an incestuous circle of other writers.

But I had a rare opportunity to dip into some short fiction on-line—I was at a bat mitzvah and the DJ’s bone-vibrating music had driven me outside—so I persisted in perusing “Recognition,” the latest short story published by the on-line journal Guernica . In fact, I had a chance to read two other stories as well: David Riordan’s “Mutts” at the Boston Review and ”The Waiting Room”, an excerpt from a novel by Leah Kaminsky at JewishFiction.net. It’s interesting to note that all three offer stock characters, ones we might feel, at the beginning of the story, that we’ve read about so often that we don’t care to read about them anymore. But the first two stories surprise us by using technique to give us a new take on old material. The third fails.

Read moreUnstocking the Characters: Thoughts on Three New Works of Short Fiction

Winter — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

“Can I get some cooperation here?” asks Yoel in the firm but plaintive voice of a reserve platoon commander.

Tourjeman, Brosh, and I are sitting like three monkeys (bald, sandy blond, bearded; wiry, fit, and flabby) on a small mound at the foot of the dusty spur that we’ve been charging up all afternoon. The cardboard targets scattered there, painted in green with the suggestive outline of a helmet-clad infantrymen aiming straight at us, are full of holes already. We have our arms crossed over our chests and our heads are down because we’re trying to stick our noses into the warm place between our arms and our torsos.

illustration by Avi Katz

An icy wind inflates the backs of our shirts, which are soaked with sweat from our last charge up the hill with full packs. The platoon’s other guys are scattered around near us. Amar and Kochin, short and solid like Middle Earth dwarves laboring at a forge, are desperately trying to light a gas stove to make coffee, even though they know the canister’s empty. Mandelbaum the radioman switches on his flashlight so he can continue to read the book he’s been perusing during breaks in the training. He reads like a goat grazes, whatever’s at hand, halachic responsa, windblown newspapers, the labels on cans in ration boxes. Diki has splayed himself on the hood of the truck that brought us here, trying to absorb some of the heat that the gray metal has stored from the fierce afternoon sun.

Tourjeman, who’s the platoon medic, accuses Yoel. “We’re all going to die of hypothermia. You said we’d be back on base before dark.”

“Only idiots go out to train in the Negev and don’t bring their coats with them,” says Yoel, who did not bring his coat, either.

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

The Truth About Dave — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

I think it was my senior year in high school in which my friend Dave first discovered the truth. And since I was his best friend, he was determined to impart the truth to me as well.

It was a cover story in Time magazine, I’m pretty sure, that set Dave off. It was a big spread about the Shroud of Turin, a cloth that many Christians believe bears an image of the crucified Jesus. New research, the magazine reported, proved that the cloth and the image indeed dated from the first century AD.

illustration by Avi Katz

“Wow,” said Dave, putting down the magazine and digging into the chocolate ice cream I’d dished out to him in my family’s kitchen. “We all gotta become Christians now!”

“Ha,” I said. Dave had, after all, been in my Hebrew school car pool. His Mom made a mean kugel and his older sister was going out with the son of the military attaché at the Israeli embassy.

“I’m serious,” said Dave. “It says here that it’s Jesus on the shroud. That means you have to believe in him.”

Read moreThe Truth About Dave — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report