Gazing at Iris — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
Iris opens an eye to the sun above, then turns it to Yehoshua. Around them, a clearing of May’s green grass, not yet browned by the summer, stretches between the exuberant purple blooms of three jacarandas, among which iridescent blue sunbirds hover. Iris lies, and Yehoshua sits, on the top of a knoll skirted by the paths of Independence Park, so that even the occasional late morning Shabbat stroller does not disturb them. A west wind makes waves in the grass.

Yehoshua had passed this spot a few days earlier while riding his bike to his student waiter job at Tmol Shilshom. He spotted a pair of lovers on the peak of the hill, the girl lying on her back, sleeping peacefully, and the guy seated, leaning on his left arm, gazing at her face. A few minutes after passing, as he approached the restaurant, he circled back to the park to observe them again. The guy, with his short black beard and loose tee-shirt, could have been him. And the girl, in her loose trousers, with light brown hair splayed over the grass, could have been Iris. The guy was still gazing, the girl still dozing, and it seemed to Yehoshua that there, on that knoll, amid the purple flowers and shining dark birds, love was as pure as it ever could be. The sour face from the shift manager for being a few minutes late didn’t faze him. He would bring Iris to that spot on Shabbat, and they would be in love like that.

“What are you doing?” Iris asks, one eye still closed.

He smiles. “Gazing at you.”

“Well, stop it. It makes me nervous.” She closes her open eye. After a minute she opens it again. “I said stop it.”

“But you’re so amazing,” Yehoshua says, his whole heart in it. “How can I stop looking?”

She smiles, opens her other eye, and pushes herself up on her elbows. “What’s gotten into you?”

He’s not sure what the right answer is. He thinks back to that other guy and girl. He hadn’t heard them speak. It seemed they didn’t need to.

“I’m being romantic.”

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Savta Levana Cooks a Cat — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

“For what is the cat?” Savta Levana asked as Tamar smoothed the creases out of the apron she had just fastened at her grandmother’s back.

illustration by Avi Katz</eillustration by Avi Katz

“Just something I made. Now stand over by the sink so I can check the light.” Tamar had positioned her video camera at the entrance to the tiny kitchen. The good part was that she could leave the camera largely unattended. Savta Levana wouldn’t move much because there was practically no counter space left for her to work on now that she had all the modern conveniences. A mini-dishwasher grabbed most of the corner on the left side of the sink, between it and the refrigerator, and a microwave oven took up the bulk of the small stretch of counter between the sink and the window on the right. Tamar had already given instructions not to move the chicken over to the small table opposite, on which the cat sat. Even though that’s where Savta Levana really did most of her prep for the stove and oven, the camera would not see her there.

“What is just something you made? You just made it like that? A busy girl like you? You have time to make cat dolls?”

“Savta, we’re making tbit,” Tamar reprimanded her.

“I’ve made tbit every Friday for more than fifty years and I never had someone watch me,” the grandmother complained, eyeing the big-headed blue cat with the heart in its paw with more than a pinch of suspicion.

“I’m going to make you famous. Savta Levana’s Iraqi recipes on YouTube. People all over the world will make your tbit. They’ll make pilgrimages to Holon to worship at your kitchen. I’ll even add English subtitles.”

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Passion — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

We were just getting on the New Jersey Turnpike when Danny Engel bent over his guitar and placed his lips on those of Debbie Lieberman. Both of them were sitting on the floor in the aisle of the crowded bus that was taking our Washington Metro Area Midrasha’s students back from a Chabad Shabbat in Crown Heights. Sam and I were sitting on a pair of seats to their left, me the aisle and he by the window, just behind the couple, giving us an excellent view. Danny had started strumming and singing softly to Debbie right when we left Brooklyn. Ripples of streetlight, filtered through the long adolescent locks of the kids in the bus, played like starlight over the lovers. I was jealous. Nothing like that ever happened to me. And I kind of liked Debbie.

      illustration by Pepe Fainberg

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

Sam paused in his narrative about the young family he’d stayed with as he followed my gaze. We waited for Danny to raise his head softly and look deeply into Debbie’s eyes.

But that got boring after a while, so Sam got back to his story.

“So, you know, I’ve just gotten out of the shower and Yisroel, that’s the father’s name, knocks on the door a crack and calls out that I should hurry or we’ll miss mincha. And I open the door so the steam will go out—it must filled up the whole tiny apartment, our kitchen at home is I think the same size—and say, ‘mincha?” and he explains, as if I don’t know, ‘The afternoon prayer.” So I say, we already did mincha, over there at Lubavitcher headquarters, whatever it’s called …”

“Seven-seven-seven,” I filled in.

“Right, seven-seven-seven. And he says, ‘What was it like?’ And I say, ‘Well, it was cramped.’ And he says, ‘The room was full?’ and I say, ‘Actually, when we went in there was plenty of room, but then just before we started to daven the Rebbe walked in and everyone took three steps back. And since the room was maybe only ten steps from front to back, I got crushed between two black suits.’ Wow, they’re still at it.”

He stared at Danny and Debbie. Debbie opened her eyes for a second and I thought she was looking at me. I looked back. Or was it at Sam?

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Spring — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Dani held his coffee glass up to the sky. The residue the Turkish coffee grounds left on the sides filtered the rays of the late March sun like a gossamer veil that brings to light precisely what it hides.

Nuriel, Dani, and I were on our bellies on the top of a desert hill come to life for a brief week or two after a late and south-wandering thundershower. We lay on velvet-red poppies with voluptuous black irises and brassy-yellow mustard flowers watching two formations of our platoon converge from the west and south on the slopes of the next hill over. That hill, guarded by evil-eyed cardboard cutouts of Syrian soldiers, was ours to conquer. Nuriel, Dani, and I were the fire team meant to keep the paper riflemen’s heads down with high-intensity machine gun and mortar fire until the two attack forces were positioned to make their final run toward the defensive positions. Nuriel’s arm, its spare dark down glistening, was draped over his MAG machine gun. Dani’s much thicker elbow rested on a pack full of assorted charges for his 60mm mortar. I was the team leader. The platoon had done a dry run of the maneuver an hour before and now the live fire version was beginning. But the formations were still far off and we awaited our lieutenant’s order to begin the barrage. So we had taken the opportunity to make a round of coffee on Nuriel’s camp stove.

illustration by Avi Katz

Nuriel, a baby-faced kid new to our unit, just six months past his three-years stint in the Givati Brigade, was explaining to us why he had felt compelled to tell Merav, to whom he had just gotten engaged, that he first fell in love with another woman on a flower-strewn hill like this one during his first furlough after basic training.

“My friend Mendy and I were hiking a trail on Mt. Meron in the Galilee,” he told us, “and we saw two spots of white on a boulder. We got closer and saw that it was two girls in linen shirts washing their faces in a spring that spurted out from the side of the mountain into a large pool.

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Boxing of Parts — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The summer of my crush on Muffy was a summer of disparate parts (I had read a poem by Henry Reed). There were no centers to hold (we did Yeats in 20th-century lit class). I had just finished my junior year at Duke University and I was part of a quaternity (I had read Jung’s memoir in a course on intellectual history). There were four of us, Lorie, Muffy, me, and then Andy. Or maybe it was me, Muffy, Andy, and then Lorie. Or Lorie, Muffy, Andy, and then me. There were four of us and the connections were unclear.

What I mean is that Lorie was the odd one out because she was the team leader. Or I was the shadow because I was the Jew. Later Andy was the dark one. But who knows, there were so many ghosts among us.

photograph by George Foster
I am in what was once the parlor of a tumbledown and drafty wood-slat house on a hill above Campus Drive. The soft summer drizzle feels like a fine bead curtain. We have the boxing of parts. The parts are in thick-walled plastic bags but the bags have holes. We know this because the scent of formaldehyde pervades this house where a family once lived, perhaps with two pigtailed girls in sundresses fighting over a jump rope and a big brother laughing at them from a window. Father is off teaching chemistry at the women’s college and Mother is receiving Reverend Caruthers in the parlor while our nearsighted Lucy kneads biscuits next to the hot oven. Now the parlor is full of parts. The parts are in plastic bags and the plastic bags are in large rectangular Tupperware boxes and the boxes are on metal shelving that runs along the parlor walls and down the middle and they are covered in dust and ratshit. Muffy is over in the next aisle with Andy and I am in love with Muffy and outside the drizzle feels like a bead curtain and I am wearing plastic surgical gloves and cradling a chunk of pickled human liver in my hand. There is a Jewish girl who likes me but if she likes me there must be something wrong with her. I am a Jew and the parts do not fit together.

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