Passacaglia — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

A hand passed before my face and I jerked out of my reverie. A cool, almost chilly breeze was blowing from Bethlehem. The muffled sound of the wedding band, playing Levantine-tinged pop settings of verses from the Song of Songs and Jeremiah, filtered through the glass doors, blaring for a few seconds when a child ran in or out.

illustration by Avi Katz

The face to which the hand was connected belonged to Vardit, the bride’s best friend. Unlike the Aviya, whose demure pearl-white dress reached to the floor and had sleeves below the elbow, Vardit was sleeveless and in red. Her arms and face glowed from dancing.

“Bored?” she asked.

I removed the buds from my ears. “I needed a break,” I said.

“I needed some air.” She removed a pack of cigarettes from a small macramé bag she had slung over her shoulder and jokingly offered me one. I leaned back against a marble-faced pillar and surveyed the Judean hills. On this hill in southern Jerusalem you can see the Dead Sea on a clear day. At night, the hills to the southeast are mostly dark shadows, but most of the panorama is alive with the lights of Arab cities and Jewish neighborhoods.

“You look a little sad,” she said.

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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.

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Advice to Dissent

Haim Watzman

Israelis often wail that the country lacks unity. But when most Israelis say “We need more unity,” what they really mean is “More people should agree with me.” Dissent can be a pain, but it’s essential—as is recognized by the Sages of the Talmud in the Horayot Tractate (4b). The Beit Midrash run for the last two years by Kehilat Yedidya last week finished its study of this tractate with just this insight.

Horayot deals with the issue of what happens when a court—a rabbinic court, which served as the chief legislative and moral authority of Jewish communities in Talmudic times—makes a ruling mistakenly. To do this, it reads Torah passages in Leviticus 4 and Numbers 16. These passages deal with a sacrifice called the korban shogeg, to be offered by a person or group of people who has violated a Torah precept without intention. While the Sages of the Talmud lived long after the Temple was destroyed and the sacrificial service ceased, they continue to use this language. Assignment of responsibility for the error is designated by the assignment of the requirement to bring this sacrifice.

The question is: if a court makes a ruling that violates the Torah, does the ultimate responsibility fall on the court, or on the individual who obeyed the court’s instruction?

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Rabbi Lau’s Religion Problem

Haim Watzman

When Rabbi Benny Lau began his Shabbat HaGadol talk at south Jerusalem’s Ramban synagogue last Saturday afternoon, he said his lesson originated in anger and frustration. The climax came when he said, “If I were a young person today, I would abandon religion.”

Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath that precedes Pesach, is traditionally a time for community rabbis to teach their congregations the fine points of the laws of Pesach and to offer some pointers for the coming Seder ceremony. Rabbi Lau barely spoke about Pesach; instead he offered—in traditional Jewish fashion, via a discussion of Talmudic passages—a call for greater openness and tolerance within the religious community. His particular target was the abrogation of personal responsibility religious Jews. Blind obedience to rabbinical authority used to be a defining trait of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, one of the things that divided it from the modern Orthodox community. But over the last couple decades more and more Jews brought up and educated in Zionist religious institutions have increasingly sought to avoid thinking for themselves, on halachic, political, and social matters. The result has been a desecration of God’s name, as rabbis claiming to speak for Israel’s religious Jews have revoked conversions, demanded the relocation of a hospital emergency room, and committed a series of other political and religious acts that are an embarrassment to their heritage and a real danger to Israeli society as a whole.

This sort of religious community can only repel thinking young people who are unwilling to abandon their freedom to think for themselves, he declared.

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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.

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Mendelssohn And Monotheism–“Necessary Stories” Column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

mendelssohn-symphonies-abbadoHazily, I notice that the kid working on his biceps is staring at me, and I suddenly realize that my mouth is hanging open and that my eyes are gaping. He’s in the gym, but I’m having a revelation on the shore of the Red Sea, thanks to the son of a Jewish apostate. Felix Mendelssohn wrote his fourth symphony with Italy in mind, but here, on the stationary bike at the Jerusalem pool, I’ve discovered the truth. It’s not about Rome – it’s about Jerusalem.
Revelation seemed distant, even impossible when, just a few minutes ago, I slouched in here like the beast of the apocalypse. At the beginning of May, the elation of liberation from Egypt has long since dissipated. I’m back in my routine – hours in front of the computer, and the usual, unremitting worries about my money, my children, my country, and my planet. From the high roof of Pesah I’ve plunged into the deep pit of the monotonous count of the Omer. The wilderness has literally enveloped Jerusalem on this sweltering, gritty sharav day, the air full of minute dull yellow grains of sand blown up from the vast deserts to the south.
So I was out of sorts when I climbed on the exercise bike for a ride to nowhere. Before me was half an hour that loomed like an eternity to be spent spinning like Ixion on his wheel. No doubt this is how the Children of Israel felt three and a half weeks after the Exodus, trudging through the desert, dusty and thirsty. I am reminded of the midrash that asks why God didn’t give them the Torah immediately after they left Egypt. They were worthy of it, said R. Yitzhak, but they were grimy with mortar and brick-dust. How could they receive the word of God? So they walked and walked and walked and it all looked like the same dreary place.

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Remembering Slavery

Haim Watzman

Adi Nes, Abraham and Isaac
Adi Nes: Abraham and Isaac
Jews who grew up in the Diaspora and have raised children in Israel face a challenge at the Pesach Seder every year. The text of the Hagadah, and the spirit of the holiday, call on us to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, strangers in a strange land, outsiders. I grew up as a member of a minority. My children, on the other hand, have grown up as members of a majority that rules over a disadvantaged minority population. When I was a child, Pesach was my favorite holiday—its message resonated strongly with who I was. On Seder night, my own children clearly have a hard time seeing themselves as Others.
At this year’s Seder I’m going to focus particularly on this message. Fortuitously, I’ll have the help of a booklet of supplementary Hagadah readings published by Bema’agei Tzedek, an Israeli social and economic justice organization. Called Kriya L’Seder: A Call to Order! (and available only in Hebrew at present), the book let offers materials that seek to link the Jewish people’s experience of slavery and liberation to the injustices we see around us today.
Specifically, the booklet reminds us that slavery has neither vanished nor retreated to the far, benighted corners of the earth. As Israelis, we benefit from the labor of exploited foreign workers and maintain a law enforcement system that has allowed our country to become a world center for sexual slavery. Slaves, in short, are all around us.

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Reading Maimonides Through Islamic Glasses

Haim Watzman

statue of Maimonides in Cordoba
statue of Maimonides in Cordoba
In his introduction to the Mishna, Maimonides (known as “the Rambam” in Jewish tradition) tells a story about the revelation and transmission of the Torah. Reading this story in light of Islamic doctrines about sacred revelation and transmission reveals that Maimonides, who lived in an Islamic society, sought to ground the written and oral law of the Jews in a way commensurable with the standards set by Islam.

This view of Maimonides, the foremost medieval Jewish philosopher in the Islamic world, is offered by Yoav Phillips, who is offering a series of classes in the new beit midrash (study hall) sponsored jointly by Kehilat Yedidya and a group of graduates of the recently-closed Religious Kibbutz Movement yeshiva at Kibbutz Ein Tzurim.

The third chapter of Maimonides’ introduction relates, Phillips showed, how the Torah given to Moshe (Moses) on Mt. Sinai was transmitted to the Israelites in the desert and to Joshua, who then transmitted it to the elders and prophets, who then transmitted it to the rabbis.

As Westerners, Phillips pointed out, we accept our culture’s unstated assumption that the transmission of written texts is more reliable than that of oral texts. Jewish rabbinic tradition also differentiates between the written and the oral law; both were given to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, but the written law nevertheless has a higher status.

So it is surprising to see that in Maimonides’ account of the revelation, Moshe does not write the Torah down.

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Serious Pluralism, Serious Judaism, Serious Democracy: Aryeh Geiger z”l

Haim Watzman South Jerusalem lost another of its pillars this week. Aryeh Geiger, a religious educator for whom the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin signaled the need for a complete revision of religious education in Jerusalem, passed away this week after a four-year battle with cancer. I, and my daughter Misgav, were among the many hundreds … Read more

Son Sacrifice: Humility and the Significance of the Akeda

Haim Watzman Many years ago, when I lived at Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, a storm erupted in synagogue on Shabbat Vayare—the Shabbat, like this coming one, on which we read the story of Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac. The shouts of anger and dismay were occasioned by one of the plethora of pamphlets that appear … Read more

Intimate Mourning–“Shiv’a”

Haim Watzman

I’m a Jew provincial enough to have only the vaguest notion about what gentiles do when a loved one dies. Non-Jews, and assimilated Jews, may be surprised, intrigued, or revolted by Shiv‘a , an award-winning Israeli/French film by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz. The film chronicles the traditional week of mourning observed by the large Moroccan-French-Israeli Ohaion family when a brother, Maurice, dies unexpectedly. A silent, stern-faced family matriarch and nine brothers and sisters, with their spouses, spend the week of mourning in the well-appointed Haifa apartment of the dead man’s widow and two young sons—sitting and eating on the floor, sleeping all together on twin mattresses in the living room, and churning their loves and hatreds, loves and rivalries, grudges and financial complications.

Shiv‘aThe Seven Days in English, a title that fails to convey the weight of the prescribed week-long mourning ritual—presents itself as a slice-of-life film. We viewers are eavesdroppers on the family’s week of alternately comforting and oppressive togetherness. We move from room to room, listening in on multilingual conversations not meant for our ears, hearing about secret affairs and about the failure of brother Haim’s successful factory, where he has employed several of his brothers.

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