Justice — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Ornan was staring at his locker and muttering under his breath when I tossed my backpack onto the bench and felt for my keys in my pocket. I’ve had a bottom locker for years at the Jerusalem Pool, hard to see into but easy to pull my gear out of. He first showed up maybe a year and a half ago, when he was assigned a box in the middle-row to my right. He was tall and bony, with shiny, straight, dark hair that smelled of Head and Shoulders. A student, maybe, or just out of the army, from the look of him. He wore baggy trunks and swam badly, at least as far as style goes, raising his head out of the water each time his left hand swung up, splashing the surface with his palms. But, despite all my care with my stroke, he was much faster than I was. In the end, length and leanness of body wins out.

 illustration by Avi Katz

It was hard for me to make out what he was muttering because I just then had a coughing fit. Some virus got me last week and whenever that happens I cough for two or three weeks after I get better. Even after I caught my breath I didn’t try to listen because Asher and Alfi, the two cab drivers who dress on the bench behind me, were joshing about a dispatcher. I like to listen to their banter. Ornan just stood there, not making a move to open his locker. Asher and Alfi went out to the sauna and by that time I was suited up and hanging my shirt up on one of the hooks on the wall. Over the heating system that filled the locker room with mildew air, I could make out Ornan’s voice: “I’ll kill him, I’ll murder him, I’ll stick a knife in his chest and slice down to his balls.” It seemed so out of character that I couldn’t help staring at him in surprise. He looked back and kept on muttering.

Read moreJustice — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

The Dryad — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

She laughed and shook her head as she unrolled the clingy plastic from around her slug-shaped sandwich. Down below, raucous teenagers gamboled in a spring that seemed to be the source of the river along which she and her companions had hiked all morning. She laughed at how easy it had been not to think about it, how well her plan had gone. Her companions were no longer visible ahead. Soon they’d wonder about her and send someone back in search. In the meantime, she’d have something to eat.

 illustration by Avi Katz

 illustration by Avi Katz

The rains had not yet come, yet the Tzipori River had flowed gently but surely along its terraced channel as they walked beside it that morning. At one point it bowed and nearly circled a low hill on which a tiny village perched. Children played in a schoolyard. The leader had given the village a name that she could no longer remember. Further on was an old millhouse that you could now rent out for weddings and bar mitzvahs. There the trail had crossed the river (all of three meters wide) and she had followed the others over half-submerged stones. The water, which the leader said was partly sewage, washed over her boots. Last to cross, she had probed the riverbed with her poles to steady herself. She thought of turning back but did not.

She hadn’t hiked seriously since her teenage scout years, which were three decades past by now. Back then, at tough spots, like the river crossing, the boys were always ready and eager to help. Some were very serious about it, as if pulling her up a boulder or guiding her over a narrow spot in a path above a canyon was the very reason that they had been placed on this earth. Others had laughed at her fears, in a big-brotherly way (she was the oldest in her family, and had always wanted a big brother). In this group, today, the others were obliging but cool.

She signed up for the hike because she knew it would be good for her.

Read moreThe Dryad — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Inta Omri — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

       illustration by Avi Katz

       illustration by Avi Katz

Ilana elbowed me and eyed the couple sitting to our left in the Hirsch Theater. Shaken out of the reverie brought on by the Tarshiha Orchestra’s rendition of Um Kulthum’s hit song “Raq al-Habib,” “The Servitude of Love,” I followed her gaze. The woman to my left was tapping out a text message on her Android as she whispered to her husband, who had a large knitted blue-and-white kipah on his head.

“Hadas,” she said, apparently in response to his question.

“Did you tell her?” he asked.

“Doing it right now,” she nodded.

I caught her eye and put a finger to my lips. I also pointed to the phone, as if to say that the glow was distracting me. She shrugged and muttered “Almost done.”

“Did she say anything about Ya’akov? Why he didn’t come home?”

The young woman who was standing in for the late great Egyptian chanteuse finished the song with a flourish and the audience cheered. Nasim Dawkar, the concert master and conductor, called another member of the chorus up to the solo microphone to sing another song composed by Muhammad al-Qasabgi, to whose works the night’s concert was dedicated. The woman at the mike, plump and heavily made up, launched into an Um Kulthum favorite, “Inta ‘Omri,” “You are My Life.” Ilana smiled and mouthed the words silently—it’s a song her mother used to sing to her and which Ilana sang to our own children.

Over the years I’ve come to appreciate Arab music. Now I know why it sounded like annoying noise at first—it’s based on an entirely different scale than music in the West,

Read moreInta Omri — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Dirty Jokes — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The old clock on the café counter inside ticked at least five times before the men began to laugh. At first it was just Nissim, whose trinket shop was just up the hill on Strauss Street, on the border of Mea Shearim. He guffawed as if he didn’t really want to, as if guffawing were the last thing he should be doing at this moment, when they were about to set out for a battle in which many of them were sure to die. But he couldn’t help himself, and when Shlomo joined in with a real belly laugh, coming straight from his very prominent belly, Nissim felt free to enjoy himself. Then Meir joined in, his thumbs pressing out against the straps of the threadbare paratrooper’s pigeon vest that he had been incongruously issued to carry his ammunition in. Arthur, the lost American with the mustache, banged his rifle against the Ta’amon’s display window so hard that Feibel looked up from his newspaper, wiped his hands on his apron, and shuffled out to yell at them.

       illustration by Avi Katz

       illustration by Avi Katz

When the laughter died down and Feibel had gone back to spreading out used teabags to dry, Nissim ventured to ask Pini whether any of it was actually true. Pini shot him a condescending glance and Nissim mumbled, “Well, the stories you hear about Paris!”

Shlomo started laughing again. He shook his head. “That’s real talent,” he chuckled. “It takes real talent to tell a joke like that well. I mean, I can just picture them, the babushka and the rabbi and the convent girl! Where’d you learn to tell a joke that way?”

Read moreDirty Jokes — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Nobody Smiles — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Is there a dictionary of smiles? I need one. I know what my own smiles mean. I think of my face as a simple platform. It exhibits a range of smiles that clearly convey a certain range of messages, from “that’s nice” to “go away.” The male face has evolved so many layers of meaning that you need to be a master linguist to comprehend them all. That I am not.

One example is the smile on this boy sitting in the seat across from me on Atlanta’s MARTA train. We both got on at the airport. I wheeled in the small carry-on that I’d taken on a two-day business trip, a matter regarding software validation that I won’t bore you with. I have a meeting at the office at eleven and I should get in just in time to run to the bathroom beforehand. In a rush, and with this annoying and ugly eye patch, I am unsteady on my feet and stumbled as I board the train. Someone catches my elbow from behind, and I mutter an automatic but not very nice thank you.

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

I take the aisle facing seat by the door, stowing the wheelie bag underneath. Extracting my Kindle from my purse, I intend to get back into my book club’s latest selection, Homer’s Odyssey. It’s one of those books that must have become a classic simply because back then there was nothing else around to read.

It’s only then that I glace at the seat across from me and see the guy who, apparently, is the one who steadied me. Dressed in a dirty ski jacket with a wool hat sticking out of one pocket, he’s unshouldering a large backpack. He has tousled light brown hair and a beard maybe a week old of a slightly lighter color. He peers at the map behind the side-facing seat next to the door, sits down, and smiles at me.

Read moreNobody Smiles — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report