Move Over Madoff– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

“Why so somber?” laughed my eldest son as he settled on to the couch. But his face fell when I shook my head sadly. We were sitting in the spacious living room of the Jerusalem apartment that I had purchased when times were better, before the crash. I remember when I first brought my wife here, in those heady days when everything seemed possible. One, two, three, four—it took her a full five paces to cross the room from the door to the picture window with its breathtaking view of the faux-factory architecture of the Talpiot Industrial Zone.

My younger son was fidgety. He’d picked up one of those rare gewgaws I love leaving out for our guests to marvel at, an antique television remote control I once received from a grateful client. He turned it over and over in his hands. How could I have done this to them? I steeled myself. “Boys, look at me,” I commanded. “There’s something important you need to know.”

Their eyes met mine. I sighed and put my hands squarely on my knees. “It’s all just one big lie.”

“What?” said my younger son blankly. “What’s a lie?”

“The business,” I said.

“The business?” said my older son.

“We’re going to lose all we have,” I told them. “All this,” I said, waving my hand to show them the paintings hanging on the wall, some of which vaguely resembled famous and much-admired works of art. “All that,” I said, gesturing toward the wine rack in the kitchen, with nine its bottles of venerable Carmel reds and whites. I rose from my armchair and walked to the window. “And all that,” I said, pointing to the street below, where our fleet of bicycles was locked in the parking lot.

“What do you mean, one big lie?” asked my older son. “You’re a world-famous writer, translator, and blogger. People pay huge sums for your services.”

“It’s all a lie,” I shrugged. “A fabrication. A Potemkin village constructed out of paper and pixels.”

“Now wait a minute!” My younger son jumped to his feet and strode over to the bookcase. He pointed to the shelf where I display the books I’ve translated. “These are lies? Important Israeli writers and scholars have put literally dozens of dollars in your care, trusting you to turn their Hebrew typescripts into respected English books. And here they are, the English books! That’s no lie!”

“Go ahead,” I said. “Pick one out. Open it up.”

“What do you mean?” younger son said suspiciously.

“Just what I said. Pick one out. Open it up.”

He gazed at me in disbelief. His choice was The Yellow Wind, by David Grossman. It had been a fantastic success. After that one, authors lined up at my doorstep, begging me to take their money. He drew it off the shelf and held it listlessly in his hands, as if he dreaded what he would see inside.

“Open it up,” I ordered.

He opened it, and took a step back. He quickly turned from one page to another, then riffled through them all.

“It’s blank!” he whispered. He tossed it over to his brother. “Every damn page is blank.”

“Wait a minute,” said older son, his voice crackling with anger. “You mean the whole translation business is a scam? You’ve been taking people’s money and manuscripts and giving back blank pages? And no one noticed?”

“It was surprisingly easy,” I explained. “I was famous. Everyone wanted a piece of the action. The clients kept coming.”

“I’m afraid to ask about the books you wrote,” said younger son, sinking to the floor. “What about the money Farrar, Straus and Giroux invested in you?”

“Don’t think I just spent the money on myself,” I protested. “It’s true we’ve been living well. God knows our friends and neighbors were green with jealousy over our summer vacations at the beach in Bat Yam, and the four-person tent we pitched last year on the Daraja promontory. But a lot of it has gone to good causes. Maybe I’ve been a cheat and liar, but I’ve also been a great Jewish philanthropist. Don’t forget the Band-Aid I endowed at Hadassah hospital and the laminated Kiddush Levana card with my name on it at Bar-Ilan University. And did you see the face of that schoolgirl who came to the door last Thursday collecting for the Cancer Society? I bet she’d never seen a twenty-shekel bill before.”

“But Dad,” said older son, “you’re telling us that it was all dirty money. What does it matter how much charity you gave if it was stolen from other people?”

I hung my head. “Of course, you’re absolutely right. But at least give me credit for confessing.”

“Wait a second,” said younger son. “You can’t mean that every shekel was ill-gained. Some of it must be legit. What about the killing you made from your savings account last year?”

“I made it up.”

“And all the profits we crowed about in the last annual report, the ones that the South Jerusalem blog is bringing in?”

I laughed hysterically.

“And the five-shekel coin you found on the street yesterday?”

“Counterfeit,” I said.

They were stunned. Speechless.

“But why, Dad?” they finally asked in unison.

I buried my face in my hands. “Boys, I love you so much. Yet I’ve betrayed you.”

I drew one of my best monogrammed Kleenexes out of my pocket to dab my eyes.

“I hope,” I said, choking back my tears, “that at least I will serve as an example for other young men who are desperate to get ahead. I want you to learn from my mistakes.”

“What’s there to learn?” younger son said cynically.

“When I was your age I had the world at my fingertips. But I had no patience and I wasn’t going to let anyone get in my way. Boys, I could have chosen a profession that would have brought me honor, like corporate lawyering. I could have learned accounting and helped cook the books of honest guys trying to make a buck. I could have done something useful to humanity, like moving money around from one obscure financial instrument to another. But no, I wanted respect and wealth and I wanted it immediately.”

“So you became a writer,” elder son said glumly.

“Look, I don’t want to pretend that this isn’t my fault. But what message was society giving me? What did my religion teach me? Jewish history? It was all words, words, words. That’s all that counted. What did I hear from your grandmother? Be a scholar! Be an intellectual! The smartest guy in your class! Read books! Write books! MY SON THE AUTHOR!” I couldn’t control myself. I burst into tears.

“But Dad,” younger son said tremulously, “can that really be? Didn’t she give you solid values? To feed the banker, clothe the industrialist, humbly wash the lobbyist’s feet?”

“No,” I sobbed. “She even forbade me to ghostwrite memoirs for plutocrats. All she wanted was shelf after shelf of tomes, with her son’s names on each spine. And it was so easy. These days, who actually opens books?”

“We’re all going to spend the rest of our lives in jail!” moaned older son.

“Don’t worry, boys,” I said. “Legally, you’re clean.”

“How can we be clean?” he demanded. “We’re your sons and heirs!”

I smiled weakly. “I’m afraid not.”

“What do you mean, ‘I’m afraid not,’” younger son said sarcastically.

I shrugged. “I’m serious when I say that every shekel I have is a lie.”

“I don’t understand,” said older son.

“On the twentieth of every month, the Israeli government deposits a child allowance in my bank account.”

“You don’t mean . . .” younger son said.

“No!” older son wailed.

“Yes, I’m afraid it’s true. You aren’t my children. You’re really illegal immigrants from Ghana. I picked you up off the street and then used you to defraud social security.”

“I’m calling the police,” younger son screamed, striding over to the telephone.

“By all means,” I said, holding out my hands as older son expertly applied a duct tie to my wrists. “And when they come for me, I’ll look them straight in the eye and say: “I’m Haim Watzman. I’m one big lie.’”


This story appeared in The Jerusalem Report on Jan. 19, 2009.More Necessary Stories here!.

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