Bottom Up — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

It was Timothy Asfal’s fingers that caught my eye when I boarded an overloaded 21 bus at Davidka Square on the way home to Talpiot. I could see them clearly because he was seated in the front row, on the aisle just behind the driver, clutching a plastic DVD box. Tim has the slender, agile digits of the artistic weaver he is, so finely-shaped that you want them to touch you.

illustration by Avi Katz

Tim and I have been friends since the 1980s, when we were both lonely and dreamy young men new in Jerusalem. I valued his company then because he had the wit of a sad clown and could see deep into my soul. Even then the beauty of his fingers stood out, but I barely noticed the way he looked then, or that the rest of his body was out of proportion. Now that he lives in Beit HaKerem we don’t see each other that often, even for a year at a time. And I admit that these days, when I run into him, I am taken aback for a moment. I notice all the things that friendship once led me to disregard. His body is thick, fleshy, and hirsute. His head is long and angular, with a protruding nose and ears that are two sizes too large. Maybe, in part, these physical flaws are even more noticeable now because when he was young he had hope. He could be ironic about love because he believed deep down that despite everything he would find it. Now, in middle age, he is unhappy and lonely.

It was late on a Thursday afternoon in mid-June and the bus was packed back to front with shoppers from the Machaneh Yehuda shuk, the open-air produce market. Their baskets sprouted basil and leeks and the fragrance of raw carrots filled the air. I pushed myself onto the bus and, while I couldn’t get far, I managed to wedge myself right up against Tim’s seat, standing between a teenage couple grooving to their Ipods and each other and a Kurdish grandmother who sighed intermittently as if the entire world’s sorrows were on her shoulders.

Tim barely smiled when he saw me. His head swung back and forth slowly, first to me, then toward the fair-haired woman in a blue summer dress who sat on the seat to his left, deeply absorbed in a paperback. His head halted just where he could see her out of the corner of his eye.

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Necessary Stories Live–On YouTube

Haim Watzman With thanks to my daughter Mizmor, who filmed and edited, I offer this preview of my new “Necessary Stories” program. It includes selections from four of the stories. For more on my speaking topics and availability, see my Speaking and Performance page. Am I really genetically smarter than my Sephardi wife? Find out … Read more

Save the Pool

Haim Watzman I haven’t been blogging because I’m busy saving the Jerusalem Pool. This venerable and unique South Jerusalem facility is in danger of being closed down and turned into a parking lot by a developer. I work out at the pool daily and it’s been an inspiration to me as a writer, too (see. … Read more

Hagar–“Necessary Stories” Column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Illustration by Avi Katz
Had she better breeding and fresher food, I could perhaps have called her a tortoiseshell. But she was an undernourished, neglected garbage-bin cat, a member of the local feral tribe that lives off the huge green dumpster that stands in front of our 38-unit apartment building in Jerusalem. She first caught my eye one morning when I descended to the office I’ve made out of our basement storeroom. She was curled up in the crib on wheels that we keep at the bottom of the stairwell. My wife, Ilana, runs a small preschool in our fourth-floor walkup, and the contraption is what the toddlers hold on to when she takes them out to the park. The cat gave me a mean look, scrambled out of the crib, and was gone.
At the bottom of the stairwell, with its bars and its sheeted mattress, the crib-on-wheels felt soft, dark, reasonably warm, and protected. I kept a cat when I was a kid, so I knew that pregnant cats seek out such cozy places when placental hormones get into their bloodstreams. I made it clear to the faux-tortoiseshell street queen that she was unwelcome, and then made her birthing room uncomfortable by rumpling up a piece of plastic sheeting I happened to have handy.
Few cats in Jerusalem are pets, but the feral cat population is huge. Dumpsters and garbage bins are located on the street, and never close properly. So each one becomes the property of a feline community. The cats generally avoid human contact, but there’s a long-established symbiosis. The human population produces plentiful refuse for the cats and the cats return the favor by hunting down any rats so brave as to try to compete for the scavenging rights. At the time, our tribe consisted of six or seven cats, led by a muscular, gray alpha male with white paws and a scar on his nose.

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Southern Exposure: Telling Jerusalem Differently

“Ancient Jerusalem Safari” said the sign on the side of the open-sided bus. It was parked this morning in the lot at the end of the promenade that stretches from UN Hill almost to Hebron Road. The promenade is an arc of stone walkways and stairs, of lawns and landscaping with a view northward of the Old City walls and the Dome of the Rock, which appear just close enough to be reachable, just far enough off to still be the double-page color illustration of the city at the end of the quest that I read about in a childhood book whose name I’ve forgotten but whose story I think I’ve remembered for a moment when I wake from a dream.

The promenade may be my favorite spot in South Jerusalem, partly because of the view and the quiet, partly because both Palestinians and Israelis spend time there. Riding my bike there on a weekday, I’ll pass Israeli joggers and women from Jebal Mukkaber in ankle-length dresses and sneakers out for their health walk. On one park bench I’ll see a young Orthodox couple, on another a young Palestinian couple – both having found a place public enough that it’s not immodest to be meeting there, private enough that they can really talk. In the morning, I usually pass several Jews praying by themselves, facing northward. In the afternoon, I’ll see a Muslim or three, kneeling toward the south. On Saturday afternoons, families from both sides of towns are picnicking and playing soccer. Whole congregations – especially ones that give women a role – come here to pray on the night of Tisha Be’av or at dawn on Shavuot instead of walking to the Western Wall, where the crowds of ultra-Orthodox brook no innovations in worship.

But on the middle days of Pesah and Sukkot, the promenade sprouts moveable police barriers and private security guards.

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