Confessions of a Cross-Sitter — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

To the respected Torah scholar, Rabbi Rosencrantz, may he live a good and long life, amen:

I would not disturb you at your studies were it not that the problem I face is pressing and the agony of my soul no longer bearable. Nor would I dare to write you under a false name, if it were not so embarrassing, but this you will no doubt understand as you read. I plead with you to respond quickly and with all the wisdom at your disposal, as my family, my livelihood, and my soul are all at stake.

It’s about public transportation. That is, I have a bus issue. Perhaps the word “issue” might be misunderstood. Perhaps I should say a seat problem. But perhaps that, too, may sound improper. Let me get to the point.

illustration by Avi Katz

Each morning I kiss my wife and children good-by and descend the narrow stairs from our modest apartment in the Holy City of Jerusalem and wait, along with many of my neighbors, for the number 2 bus. As befits our God-fearing neighborhood, the passengers board and the men take seats in the front and the women proceed to the back.

I swipe my Rav-Kav card and begin to walk down the aisle. A seat presents itself but I decide to try further back. I continue down the aisle toward the swivel section of the double bus.

For quite a long time after glatt-kosher buses began running in our neighborhood, I convinced myself that I was just looking for a more comfortable or convenient seat. But yesterday I was confronted with the truth.

Read moreConfessions of a Cross-Sitter — “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

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

Sex in the Diamond City — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Leaflet pasted up on a bulletin board at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station:
“The Carat Hotel in Ramat Gan: small, comfortable, discreet, rooms equipped with DVD and coffee, hourly rates.”

illustration by Avi Katz

To: Adina Hefetz, counsel, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel
From: Gal Dagan, proprietor, the Carat Hotel, Ramat Gan

Dear Ms. Hefetz,

I write in response to your letter, received today, with regard to the large sign that I have placed in the front window of my establishment in Ramat Gan’s Diamond district, which declares in large, bright orange letters “No Jerusalemites Allowed.”

You state in your letter that your organization, for which I have the greatest admiration, “has reluctantly concluded that said sign may, by denying access to a group based solely on city of origin, constitute illegal and unwarranted discrimination. While the sentiments expressed may be understandable, indeed shared by a significant portion of the Israeli population, our mandate requires us to take legal action to end all infringements of the rights of all Israeli citizens, even in those cases, as this one, in which they are richly deserved.”

Believe me, I am happy to see that the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the watchdog of our freedoms, stands vigilantly on guard. But I am certain that if you knew the facts of the matter, you would agree with me that the sign in my window is not an infringement of human rights but rather a desperate attempt by an embattled Metropolitan Tel Aviv to survive in the face of an onslaught of medieval mores from the primitive Levantine highlands.

The incident occurred on Monday, March 21, a normal work day, although we were all still feeling the effects of our hard Saturday night Purim partying.

Read moreSex in the Diamond City — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

The Big Schlep — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
A shamus knows he’s getting old when people ask him stupid questions. And this shamus has been getting a lot of stupid questions lately — things people ought to know without needing to have an over-the-hill private eye like me to tell them. I realized that early one Friday morning in the damp room in Old Katamon that I call my office. The rain was so heavy that even the Hasidim with the plastic bags over their homburgs didn’t dare go out. And that’s unusual for a tough neighborhood like Katamon, where everyone — and I mean everyone — is holier than thou.

I had my feet on my desk, Rabbi Menachem Meiri’s Beit HaBechira open on my lap, a half-filled highball glass in my hand, and a nearly empty bottle of really bad schnapps on the floor. The wind blew the door open and I caught sight of the shingle I’d put up when I was a young dick with an attitude. “Ahrele Andorra—Kushiyot,” it read. Hard questions. That’s what I do, hard questions. Although I’m at an age when nothing that ought to be hard is really hard anymore.

But I guess the all-seeing private investigator up in heaven saw I was getting depressed and, even worse, that if something didn’t happen I’d have to go out in the deluge to get my bottle filled. Providence works in mysterious ways. He didn’t send me something hard. He sent something soft–real soft.

Because after the door opened the next gust of wind blew in this dame. Actually, I couldn’t tell it was a dame at first because she was so wet and bundled up in sweaters, coats and scarves that she looked more like a blowfish after a haircut. But as she started peeling off layers, she revealed a figure that would have inspired Maimonides to compose a 14th article of faith.

Read moreThe Big Schlep — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Of Feet and the Man — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

photo by Marc Render

In the valley that runs west of the Omer ridge I wrestle with my angel. Noon is approaching and I’m munching a bagel-and-cheese sandwich under a tamarisk tree with my hiking buddies at our meeting point on the most boring section of the Israel National Trail. It’s a 21-kilometer stretch that is nearly all flat; the sky is cloudless and the sun blazes despite the mid-November date. Halfway through our hike, the five of us stink to high heaven from sweat and grit.

Since we have only one car, we’ve split up. Asher and I were dropped off at the northern end of the route, while Marc drove with Gary and Yitzhak to the southern end and started there. Here under the tamarisk Marc hands Asher the keys. When we get to the end, we’ll drive Marc’s car back to pick up the others. We estimate that we have three to four hours more to walk. It’s time to get up.

I shoulder my pack and rise slowly to my feet. I mutter a curse under my breath and take a step, then another. Each step sends pain shooting through my body. My right ankle is stiff and my foot twisted so that I can only walk on the distal, outward edge. This is no surprise—it happens every time I hike. At the age of 40, thirteen years ago, I contracted a serious illness that resulted, among other things, in the amputation of all my toes. Toelessness placed unnatural demands and pressures on muscles and joints, and one result was severe arthritis in my right ankle. The pain, which is most severe after a rest stop, is the price I know I will pay when I go on a hike. But, to add injury to insult, I’ve also developed a large blister on the ball of my left foot, so I can only walk on its outside edge as well.

I grit my teeth and hobble south like a cowboy with rickets.

Read moreOf Feet and the Man — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

For Whom the Pole Knells– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

My friend Frank is a man unto himself, a person apart. He stands up for what he believes. He always tells me: “I countenance no compromises in the venue of values. I care about the indigent in India, about the glaciers in Greenland, and about the war-weary in Waziristan.”

illustration: Jerusalem Post
He is involved in mankind, but as a Jew he is particularly troubled about how Israel is falling short of his ideals. “I cannot be unconcerned,” he says, “about the ultimatums of the ultra-Orthodox, the subjugation of the Sephardim in Sderot, and the plight of the Palestinians.”

And he’s got a way with words. Sometimes his rhetoric sweeps me away and lodges in my head like a leitmotif that doesn’t let go. Still, Frank is sincerely concerned about my moral fiber, as a good friend should be.

“Every time you pick up your phone in benighted Baka to engage me in enlightened LA,” he always assures me, “I’ll be ready with compassionate counsel about how you should be living your life. I’ll keep you in line, ensuring that you’ll be a better human being and a more genuine Jew.”

While by now I’m used to Frank catching me off guard with precipitous pronouncements about how I should better my behavior and polish up my priorities, he staggered me when I Skyped him last week to wish him a sheyne Shmini Atzeret.

Read moreFor Whom the Pole Knells– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Profound Esophagus –“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

My dearest Ms. Profound Esophagus,

My heart has been racing and my mind churning since our meeting last night on level minus 4 of the Jerusalem municipality parking garage. Since my All The President’s Men-inspired leap into journalism when I was just out of college three decades ago I have long imagined of meeting someone like you. It was one of those fantasies that I always assumed only came true for other guys, never for me. But the minute I saw you standing between Deputy Mayor Yehoshua Pollack’s pair of specially-engineered Fiat 500s (one for his left side, one for his right) I knew that Herzl was right: If you gullet, it is no dream.

It wasn’t just the slender, shapely legs in those sheer dark stockings, although I could not help but notice them. It was not just the knee-length, businesslike, but tantalizingly tight black skirt or the matching, perfectly-tailored jacket. No, what really caught my eye at the first glance was what I saw bulging under the jacket, as if they were desperately trying to break free—two large compact discs that I knew could change my life forever.

Certainly the manner in which you contacted me only added to the fascination. You must have observed me carefully to know that I always use the rightmost urinal in the Jerusalem Malha train station. So imagine how stunned I was when I saw the pencil scrawl there last week: “Good time, top secret documents,” and your cell phone number. I knew right away that it was meant just for me.

Read moreProfound Esophagus –“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

The Things They Knew–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
“Just Egypt?” The chiseled-faced, bristle-haired field security sergeant, who looked every one of his nineteen years, fixed me with an intense, cold gaze. They practice that gaze in front of mirrors, I told myself, but my palms were sweating.

It was early summer, 1987, and I’d received a brown envelope requesting that I report to my reserve regiment’s field security office at a particular time on a particular day. I knew very well what it was about.

“No,” I said, working to keep my voice level. “I went to Jordan, too.”

The kid leaned back in his chair and the faintest of smiles played over his lips.

“We know.”

I’m suddenly back in fifth grade, when Mark Glick and Mike Sheltzer were monitoring my brain.

Read moreThe Things They Knew–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Diplomacy By Other Means–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

To: His Excellency President Rufus T. Firefly
From: His Notsogoodency Haim Watzman, Freedonian Ambassador to Israel

As you will recall from my earlier report, this morning I was summoned urgently to the foreign ministry in The Capital That Must Not Be Named. (As you know, the ministry is actually located in Jerusalem, but in accordance with international diplomatic custom we do not acknowledge this.) I knew from news reports that the summons was with regard to the screening, in Freedonian movie theaters, of a film portraying four members of the Jewish race as bumbling idiots who foment world war. We understood through diplomatic channels that Deputy Foreign Minister Canny Babylon’s superior, Foreign Minister Avigor Tuberman, was especially incensed by the fact that one of the said Jews was portrayed as speaking with an Italian accent rather than a realistic Russian one.

illustration by Avi Katz

You may have heard that Mr. Babylon has, in his brief tenure, developed his own unique and sophisticated diplomatic tactics that have brought many ambassadors to their knees. But, President Firefly, you need not fear — as a seasoned and senior member of our country’s foreign service, I was prepared. I was determined to stand up to this baboon-faced flunky and defend the honor of Freedonia.

Read moreDiplomacy By Other Means–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Train Tale”–Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Photo by David King

It’s six thirty-five a.m. as I pull my bike into Jerusalem’s Malha train station. The sun is rising over the seam where the Pat neighborhood’s low, long public housing projects abut the houses of Beit Safafa. A handful of inchoate off-white clouds float through the air like empyrean amoebas, seeking to grab unwary prey in fluffy pseudopods. I lock my bike at the rack and take the escalator up to the station two steps at a time. The security guard, usually stationed downstairs, has set up her table at the top today, to escape the chill. She’s padded in a thick parka, but I’m warmed up from my bike ride and raring to get on the train. I’ve got work to do.

The train ride from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv takes an agonizing 80 minutes—agonizing if you are in a hurry to get to a meeting or if you are one of those high-powered high-tech guys who get apoplectic when they discover that there’s no cell phone reception for half that time. But if you are on your way to visit your mother-in-law, as I am, it’s heaven.

And I don’t mean that longer is better when the trip is to my mother-in-law’s apartment. We get along just fine. What I mean is that in the two hours and forty minutes that I will spend on the train today, to Tel Aviv and back, I’ll get nearly an entire day’s work done. The cars are comfortable, roomy, and quiet. They’re equipped with tables to put your laptop on and sockets to plug it into. There’s no Internet to tempt me and none of the distracting paperwork that sits on my desk in my office at home. It’s just me and the book I’m translating, and there’s nothing a translator needs more than a place he can focus. And in this modern age, such places are few and far between.

Read moreTrain Tale”–Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

The Oration Vocation–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Demosthenes, de: Römische Statue einer Privatperson, die vor 1818 zu Demosthenes umgestalltet wurde; Römisch-Germanischen Museum Köln  8. April 2006, Author: Marcus Cyron “I don’t like him already,” Leo Shocken barked to Inga, his svelte, silver-blonde assistant, who had just led me into his office. Large-jowled Shocken lounged behind a large desk strewn with files, calendars, and banana peels. He held a half-filled tumbler of bourbon in his hand and both his stocking feet were propped up on the desk. A thick cigar stood erect between his chomped teeth, pointing in the direction of a side wall festooned with the autographed photographs of the most famous Jewish synagogue speakers of our age.
“Misteh Hocken, it’s Misteh Atzman,” she said, tottering on her super-high heels. There was a whiff of Transylvania in her accent. Or maybe it was Palo Alto. She hadn’t yet managed to pronounce enough complete words for me to tell.

“I don’t care who the hell it is,” Shocken growled, looking me straight in the eye. “What can he do?”
Inga swayed precariously. “He a eaker,” she volunteered.

Read moreThe Oration Vocation–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report