Until You Don’t Know — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Jerusalem is a cipher; Jerusalem under snow is a cipher erased.

The high priestess of a god whose name I didn’t quite catch offers me a cardboard cup of spiced wine. Her bare arms are goosebumped from the cold and her cheeks flushed from the wine. I think I am in love with her but, given my luck, her cult no doubt requires her to be virginal. The pope breezes by and his vestments unfurl against my hand, spilling the wine over the high priestess’s crescent scepter, or perhaps it is a scythe. She smiles, but fire flashes from her eyes, and she turns away.

 illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
To get to the Purim party, I first navigated the decline of Givat Shaul Street, sliding once, twice, and three times on accumulating snow. I passed children in masks shouting in Yiddish, following men in black coats and women under white turbans. Just three weeks before I had moved into a shared room in a walkup in the dingy public housing project that presides over the top of the street. I found the ad seeking a fourth for a flat on the bulletin board of the Givat Ram campus. Sixty-seven dollars a month seemed like a rent I could afford on an income I hadn’t even begun to make yet as a freelance writer. In the meantime I was earning some shekels, the old kind, which replaced the lira just three weeks before, by working afternoon shifts in a Super Clean laundromat on Palmach Street on the other side of town. The number 15 bus, its route designed by a smashed navigator with a bad sense of direction, took me each day from Givat Shaul to Palmach. But to get to the party I needed the number 8, which left from the Central Bus Station on the plateau below.

“Rabbanit Kappah,” says a woman, one of a group of three, in Golda shoes and with a kerchief tied tightly over her head. She is the one who took my coat at the door, so I presume she is a hostess. She reaches out and touches my elbow lightly, as if she wants to touch more.

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Non Sequitur — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

God knows how Eliezer’s mind works. It goes off into other dimensions every time I try to have a serious conversation with him. That’s what happened on Purim this year. I waited through the entire reading of the megillah, the Book of Esther, to point out to him Chapter 4, verse 14, which I’d never really thought about before.

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

Ki ‘im taharishi ba-‘et ha-zot’ revah ve-hatzalah ya‘amod le-yehudim mi-makom aher,” Eliezer reads as my finger traces the word. He translates: “‘But if you remain silent at this time, reprieve and deliverance will come to the Jews from elsewhere.’ So?”

“So this is what Mordecai says to Esther when he tells her about Haman’s plot to kill the Jews,” I point out. “That she really doesn’t have to do anything, because the Jews are going to be saved anyway.”

“Well, if that’s God’s plan,” says Eliezer, “then I guess he’s right. What’s the big deal?”

Read moreNon Sequitur — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

South Jerusalem Wins Moskowitz Prize!

South Jerusalem is proud to announce that Gershom Gorenberg and Haim Watzman have been awarded this year’s Moskowitz Prize for Zionism . The award is given each year to people who act “for the benefit of the common good in order to ensure the strength and resilience of the national Jewish homeland.” It’s a distinct … Read more South Jerusalem Wins Moskowitz Prize!

The Haman Gene

Haim Watzman

According to disturbing report in the latest issue of the British scientific journal Nature, a team of geneticists based at pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. has discovered that a strange set of markers shared by 90 percent of all Jews indicates widespread intermarriage with the Amalekite nation in the Middle Bronze Age.

The comparative study became possible when a team of Israeli archaeologists uncovered an ancient Amalekite cemetery in a lightning excavation carried out in the Gaza Strip under air cover during Israel’s recent Operation Cast Lead. The cemetery contained human bones along with pottery depicting heroic attacks on the women and children of a contingent of dessert nomads, almost incontrovertible proof that the site belongs to the ancient Amalekite civilization. DNA extracted from the bones was used for a comparative study with the DNA of modern Jews.

“Given the Bible’s severe condemnation of the Amalekite people, and its command that the Israelites destroy them utterly, it’s nothing short of surprising to find that the two nations intermarried,” admitted the noted scholar of Jewish civilization and leading intellectual and adviser to Israeli leaders Yoram Hazony. “It will require a major reconceptualization of who and what the Jewish people are.”

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Purim: Chance, Fate, and Choice

Purim is the Hebrew calendar’s brush with postmodernism. No other observance is so full of contradictions, alternative readings, ambiguities. Nahafokh hu, as the Book of Esther says—every character, event, and ritual comes along with its mirror image. We expunge the ultimate evil, Amalek, from our memories by remembering; we are commanded to recite a story we already know and listen to every single word, yet we may read it from a scroll in which many words are missing; we mark God’s miraculous intervention in Jewish history by reading a book in which God is not mentioned at all.

These contradictions are all emanations of the one great contradiction that every person who both thinks and believes must face. The problem presented by modern, scientific knowledge is not in the specifics. Belief in God can be squared with the assertions that the universe came to being in a big bang and that humans are just another kind of primate. The apparently unbridgeable gap is that between chance and purpose. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the world of the believer is that what happens in the world happens because of divine intent. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the scientist’s world is that it runs according to physical laws, with no purpose and no plan. God’s world can be judged; it can be good or evil. The scientist’s world can only be.

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On Spitzer, the neo-liberalism of misled progressives, and the Book of Esther

Recent news about the ex-governor of New York has revived debate among my progressive friends about the proper legal approach to prostitution.

To this debate, I offer a memory of walking through Bangkok 20 years ago. My wife and I had been in the town a week, interviewing the city’s Jewish ruby dealers. One evening, on a side street in the gem district, we passed an open door under a neon sign and I glanced in. In a waiting room, several men stood looking past a glass wall. Beyond it was a sloped gallery, where women sat in theater seats wearing black bikinis or thin slips. And each wore a round, numbered badge, so a client could ask for lot 23, or 37. Even if the women had the human form, they had the function of merchandise, of animal commodities.

The scene conjured up some lines from Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric”:

A man’s body at auction
For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale,
I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business.
Gentleman, look at this wonder
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it
For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years…
In this head the all-baffling brain
In it and below it the making of heroes…

Read moreOn Spitzer, the neo-liberalism of misled progressives, and the Book of Esther