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

Reborn Jews

Haim Watzman

This article was solicited last year by the Jewish Review of Books but got cut in favor of material on the summer protest movement. I forgot about it and just yesterday found it in my computer. I hope it will interest SoJo’s readers

I had two adoptive families in Kiryat Shmonah, Israel’s northernmost town, when I lived there for three months at the end of 1978. I was 22 years old, I’d just arrived in Israel, and I was attending the ulpan that, unbeknownst to me at the time, would not only teach me Hebrew but lead to my decision to make my life in this country.

Talmud study at Bina

The ulpan set me up with a middle-class family that lived in one of the relatively spacious apartments halfway up the mountain slope on which Kiryat Shmonah lay. The loquacious mother, in her early thirties, had a job with the city; the father, a square-shouldered, silent veteran of the Yom Kippur War, was a manager at one of the factories that were the town’s major employers. They were model scions of the country’s Ashkenazi, labor movement elite—generous, dedicated to family and country—and strangely un-Jewish to this green American newcomer. If I stopped by at lunchtime, when the family’s two small daughters came home from preschool, I’d be invited to partake of a square, if unexciting, chicken dinner. (They ate dinner at lunchtime, a practice then so universal in Israel that my wife, who grew up here, still calls the main meal of the day “lunch,” even though we eat it in the evening.) If I went by on Friday afternoon or Saturday afternoon I’d get the same freshly-cooked meal. On Friday nights they had omelets, finely-diced vegetable salad, and nine-percent white cheese. There was no wine and no ha-motzi blessing. They didn’t even fast on Yom Kippur.

On my own, I made friends with another family.

Read moreReborn Jews

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

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

Ancient Teeth–What They Mean and What They Say

Haim Watzman

Scientific papers are not generally thought of as allusive, but, as the article I wrote for Nature this week shows, intentional ambiguity is not foreign to the scientific world.

So are the eight ancient human teeth, some dated as far back as 300,000-400,000 years ago, that Avi Gopher of Tel Aviv University and his colleagues found in Qesem cave really evidence that Homo sapiens evolved here in Israel, as my friend and colleague Matthew Kalman wrote in the Daily Mail? Kalman based his story on Tel Aviv university’s press release, which Gopher vetted and by which he stands. Going out on a shorter limb, other reports in the mainstream press merely said that the discovery proves that modern humans evolved much earlier than the currently accepted 200,000 years before present.

As my article states, bloggers (such as Carl Zimmer and Brian Switek) who follow human evolution news jumped on the disparities between the press reports and the paper that Gopher et al. published in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The latter cautiously offers three alternative interpretations of the teeth.

Read moreAncient Teeth–What They Mean and What They Say

Finkelstein Contra Aljazeera

Haim Watzman Worth reading: Israel Finkelstein’s rebuttal to Aljazeera’s propaganda film Looting the Holy Land, which accuses Israel of a systematic policy of stealing artifacts from the West Bank. Finkelstein is the Tel Aviv University archaeologist whose “late chronology” theory claims that most of the finds once attributed to the era of Kings David and … Read more Finkelstein Contra Aljazeera

Counter-Demonstration– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Last Friday, as I mulled over whether to go to the weekly Sheikh Jarrah demonstration, I came across a poem by Natan Zach that I clipped from the newspaper last summer. Zach, whose poems often find him alone in his apartment, afraid to connect and frozen in inaction, declares: “Greater is the courage to wait / Than the courage to pour out one’s heart.” Indeed. As has happened every Friday so far, I decided not to go, and then felt guilty for the rest of the weekend.

illustration by Avi Katz
By all rights I should be in Sheikh Jarrah every Friday. The cause is just and important. And it’s the in place to be for every self-respecting progressive Zionist. I’ve written op-eds, blog posts, and satires in support of the campaign to halt the eviction of Palestinian tenants from their East Jerusalem homes and against the idiotic policy of settling Jews in Arab neighborhoods. But I’ve got complex issues with political demonstrations. Every time I go to demonstrate, I feel like demonstrating against my fellow demonstrators.

I could tell the story of my life as a chronicle of demonstrations past, demonstrations missed, and demonstrations attended but regretted afterward.

Read moreCounter-Demonstration– “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

Land’s End– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
“Man, this is the life!” I say as I lean back in my empyreanite chair and stretch my legs and arms out as far as they can go. My Talmud is open in front of me, Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” is wafting through the beit midrash, and a cool, balmy breeze wafts through the ether.

My eternal havruta, Shimon Bar Kappara, eyes me from over the top of the large volume of Tractate Sotah that he’s holding up in front of him so as to hide the smaller volume he’s really reading.

“I hate to break this to you,” he says. “But you are neither a man, nor do you have a life.”

“Don’t be such a cynic,” I sigh. “Although I do miss a good cup of really strong Turkish coffee. Nectar just doesn’t do it for me.”

Bar Kappara’s eyes swing left, then right. He reaches into his robe, pulls out a small jar, and pushes it toward me.

Read moreLand’s End– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

You’re a Good Man, Bibi Brown — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
“Fire! Fire! The Temple’s on fire!” I cry out, waking myself up.

Ilana rolls over and glares at me. “Calm down,” she says. “Your freedoms do not include shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded Temple.”

“Ohmigod,” I say. “I had the weirdest nightmare.”

“It must be something you didn’t eat,” Ilana suggests.

“I was a dog,” I say.

“A dog?”

“In a comic strip. And there was this music …”

“This is the fluff of which dreams are made?” Ilana sighs. “Let’s hear it…”

Read moreYou’re a Good Man, Bibi Brown — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

The Story of Mr. In-Between– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The SS Rizwani of the Mogul Line
The SS Rizwani
On Monday, January 29, 1945, by swerve of shore and bend of bay, the SS Rizwani sailed into Alexandria and Tally Clerk Elias David Levy went ashore. The photo on his leave pass shows a dark youth with intense eyes, broad shoulders, and oiled hair, carefully parted on the left. He’s wearing a heavy crew sweater. The only features that belie the experienced, masculine image he was clearly trying to present are his ears, which stick out from his close-cropped temples in a decidedly adolescent way.

He’d been on the boat for three weeks, sailing from India’s west coast across the Arabian Sea, into the Gulf of Aden, through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal to the cosmopolitan Mediterranean port. Apparently there were no stops along the way — on his pay slip, nothing is listed under “cash advances during the voyage.” Or perhaps there were and he chose not to disembark. The Rizwani, merchant carrier of the Mogul Line, Bombay, was built in Glasgow in 1930 expressly to ferry Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. While the pilgrimage season had been the previous month, the ship might have stopped at an Arabian port, and Tally Clerk Levy might have thought it best to stay on board.

After being cooped up on what was, by merchant marine standards, a small boat, he was probably eager to get off and explore. The port he’d landed in had a reputation for offering exotic adventures and pleasures that would not get reported home. Bing Crosby was on the radio that day, singing “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” with the Andrews Sisters. The good-times, Father Divine-inspired prosperity gospel sermon had hit Billboard’s charts: “You’ve got to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive/E-li-minate the negative/Latch on to the affirmative/Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”

Read moreThe Story of Mr. In-Between– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

How To Jump Off A Cliff — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
I trail behind my son on the steep descent into the Amiam canyon in the central Golan. He’s in sandals and I’m in hiking boots, but he skips down like a mountain goat as I lumber like the cows that observe us inscrutably from the opposite slope. While I count myself a good hiker, age and intensive use have taken their toll on my joints; my knees work on manual shift rather than automatic, and my right ankle is stiff and unyielding. But I take the positive view—instead of being frustrated that I can’t keep up with my nineteen-year old progeny on his precipitous plunge toward the spring that is our goal, I commend myself for just coming along.

And middle age has its advantages. Going slowly, planning out each step, I take in more. The rains have ended, the squills are desiccated. I wonder whether the whorled stumps that dot our path are the bulbs of these autumn flowers, the remains of trampled or eaten plants. I ponder the Naftali highlands over the Hula Valley on the western horizon and point out the peak of Mt. Meron to my companion, who has gone this way dozens of times and never parsed the view.

Sixty years ago, I tell my son, the valley below was a huge swamp. Reeds and bulrushes grew in clumps an expanse just a couple meters deep, fed by the Jordan and its tributaries. Otters played and fat fish and frogs of breeds that lived nowhere else plied its gentle currents. And huge swarms of mosquitoes hovered over the shallows, in hunt of warm blood. One of the mosquito tribes was the dreaded anopheles, which injected virulent plasmodia into the bodies of the emaciated marsh Arabs, the only humans who dared live on the shores of the lake at the mire’s southern end. That is, until the Zionists came to the valley and built Yesod HaMa’ala and Rosh Pina, there to shiver and sweat with malaria.

Read moreHow To Jump Off A Cliff — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report