Besieged — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
The door handle jiggled. Chaya, sitting on the bed, her breasts still bare, shivered, then grimaced, knowing what the next move would be. On the colorless street, beyond the drawn shade behind the bed, men and women murmured as the water cart pulled up. She knew one of the men’s voices well. Just two days ago an Arab Legion shell had fallen a hundred meters down the street and a fragment had cut the throat of Mrs. Teitelbaum’s sister-in-law, killing the horse, and shattering the cart. Where the water was not mixed with blood, people had mopped it up with handkerchiefs and squeezed moisture into their mouths.

Chaya glanced at the boy in the bed. He was lying on his back, staring at the mildew on the ceiling. His sun-fired head and neck looked as if they had been grafted on to his pale body. She quickly pushed her arms into the sleeves of her smock and stood up. The smock did little to warm her and floor was icy. Now the whole door shook and the boy’s friend shouted: “Hey, you two going into overtime?”

“It’s Ari,” the boy said matter-of-factly. He stroked the line of his hairless chest with his left hand and his right moved down under the corner of the blanket that covered his loins.

She brushed her hair, stooping before a tiny mirror propped up on a rough wooden table against the wall. “Should I let him in?”

“It’s not his real name,” the boy said, turning to look at her.

“It usually isn’t,” she said. “Mine isn’t. Nor is yours.”

“You speak Hebrew so precisely. I mean, for someone who’s been here just two years,” the boy said. Then he quickly added: “I like that.”

“Get dressed and don’t forget to pay.”

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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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Confessions of a Cross-Sitter — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

To the respected Torah scholar, Rabbi Rosencrantz, may he live a good and long life, amen:

I would not disturb you at your studies were it not that the problem I face is pressing and the agony of my soul no longer bearable. Nor would I dare to write you under a false name, if it were not so embarrassing, but this you will no doubt understand as you read. I plead with you to respond quickly and with all the wisdom at your disposal, as my family, my livelihood, and my soul are all at stake.

It’s about public transportation. That is, I have a bus issue. Perhaps the word “issue” might be misunderstood. Perhaps I should say a seat problem. But perhaps that, too, may sound improper. Let me get to the point.

illustration by Avi Katz

Each morning I kiss my wife and children good-by and descend the narrow stairs from our modest apartment in the Holy City of Jerusalem and wait, along with many of my neighbors, for the number 2 bus. As befits our God-fearing neighborhood, the passengers board and the men take seats in the front and the women proceed to the back.

I swipe my Rav-Kav card and begin to walk down the aisle. A seat presents itself but I decide to try further back. I continue down the aisle toward the swivel section of the double bus.

For quite a long time after glatt-kosher buses began running in our neighborhood, I convinced myself that I was just looking for a more comfortable or convenient seat. But yesterday I was confronted with the truth.

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Middle East Maverick

Haim Watzman My profile of Sari Nusseibeh and his new book are up on the website of The Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s a pleasure to see my byline in the paper again—I served as its Israel correspondent for many years. My replacement, friend, and neighborMatthew Kalman, does a fine job there now.

Playing to Learn

Haim Watzman

Peter Gray came to my youngest daughter’s school last night to talk about why I should just relax and let my daughter play her way through her adolescence.

About fifteen months ago, Misgav, now 15, asked to transfer to the Sudbury School in Jerusalem. The school, located a short walk from our home, operates on the model of the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. That means, in short, that the kids run the school. There are no course requirements, the kids only study if and what they want to. Staff exists to facilitate what the kids want, not determine what they should learn. Play is considered no less, perhaps more valuable, than formal classes. The school enrolls children from the ages of 4 through 18 and any activity or lesson is likely to include children of a wide variety of ages.

Gray became acquainted with Sudbury when, more than 30 years ago, he decided to send his son Scott there. Scott is now a staff member at the original Sudbury school and also spoke to us last night. A psychologist at Boston College, Peter conducted research about the school and became one of its major advocates, as can be seen on his blog.

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The Pleasure of Simple Truths: The Dragon’s Beloved at the Khan Theater

Haim Watzman

    <em>Vitali Friedland and Udi Rotschild in</em> The Dragon's Beloved <em>at the Khan</em>
Vitali Friedland and Udi Rotschild in The Dragon's Beloved at the Khan
We really didn’t feel like seeing a play last night. It’s true that our pre-purchased season tickets have in the past sent us to the theater at highly inappropriate moments. The night after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, when the country was still in shock and no one had thought to shut the theaters yet, we found ourselves at the Jerusalem Theater watching a production of The Good Soldier Schweik. That play begins with an actor shouting “The Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated!” Halfway into the first act a man in the audience had a heart attack. The omens were clear. We should have stayed home.

But now I’m glad we didn’t learn that lesson. We tore ourselves away from the television’s images of the attack on Gaza to head for the Khan theater’s production of a new comedy, The Dragon’s Beloved, and good thing that we did.

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Pioneer in the Swim — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman I am standing on the edge of the pool, in my Speedo swimsuit, feeling like a Second Aliya pioneer determined to speak only the language of their forefathers. It’s Sunday night, Masters Swim Group, Jerusalem Pool. I’m about to swim three kilometers. My swimming is as bad as the typical pioneer’s Hebrew was, … Read more

Recycled: A Note to Hillary on Jerusalem Disunited

Last year I wrote an open letter to Hillary Clinton, then frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, on the mistake she was making by promising support for “united Jerusalem” – or rather the mistake in believing there was any such thing as undivided Jerusalem.

A very long year has passed, and Barack Obama has just chosen Hillary as his secretary of state. Freed of the need to win reelection as senator, burdened with responsibility for policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, she has the opportunity and obligation to update her understanding of our riven city. So here’s some reading material for her (the start below, the rest at The American Prospect). Just trade “candidate” and “president” for “secretary” and it reads fine.

Dear Hillary,

A colleague alerted me to your recent position paper on Israel, with your promise of support for an “undivided Jerusalem.” I appreciate the warm feelings, but I admit I was confused by your description of my city. Since you are a careful, wonky candidate, I figured you must have details at your disposal. So this morning I called a Palestinian cabby friend, and together we went looking for the “undivided Jerusalem.”

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Rape Those Women! Slaughter Those Babies!–Why You Can’t Just Stage “Henry V” For The Hell Of It

Haim Watzman

Shannon Kisch, the director of Shakespeare Jerusalem’s initially promising but ultimately amorphous production of Henry V, at least has my daughter Mizmor on her side. At nearly midnight last night, as we walked home from The Lab (Jerusalem’s newest and finest stage), Mizmor said, “It’s nice for a change to see someone just do a Shakespeare play the way it’s written.”

Which is what Kisch, in her program notes, says she wanted to do. Recalling a conversation about the problems of staging this historical drama, she writes: “The sentence I remember most clearly, and that which made the most sense to me, was this: ‘Why don’t you just tell the story?’”

I love my daughter and respect her opinions, and I sincerely admire Shakespeare Jerusalem’s ambition to stage the Bard’s works for Israeli audiences, but this production is a textbook demonstration of exactly why you can’t just “just tell the story.”

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Barkat by Default

Haim Watzman

I just got a call from Meir Porush‘s campaign central. Would I be voting for the Haredi candidate for mayor of Jerusalem, the polite young woman asked me? No, I won’t, I said. I’ll be voting for the rival candidate, Nir Barkat. And to hell with my blogging partner, Gershom, whose concern for an equitable settlement with the Palestinians in Jerusalem (justified) and his abiding suspicion of rich businessmen (somewhat less justified) has misled him into support for Porush (see “Sorry, Nir Barkat Will Not Save Jerusalem“).

Like Gershom, I’m extremely displeased rhetoric Barkat’s Greater Jerusalem rhetoric, which rules out any compromise with the Palestinians in the capital city. Barkat’s recent promise to build a new neighborhood for students in easternmost East Jerusalem seems to indicate either a willful ignorance of the state of the city’s Palestinian neighborhoods or a desire to pander to the extreme right.

But Porush is hardly a leftie on this issue. He, too, declares that he will keep Jerusalem united.

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Sorry, Nir Barkat Will Not Save Jerusalem

A lot of my friends in Jerusalem think that mayoral candidate Nir Barkat will save the city. There are generally two arguments they offer: First, he’s a former high-tech entrepreneur, and the business world produces better managers than the political arena does.

Second, and much more important, Barkat is secular. Among secular, traditional, and modern-leaning Orthodox Jewish residents of Jerusalem there’s a backlash against ultra-Orthodox hegemony at City Hall. There’s a pervading sense that ultra-Orthodox rule is responsible for the city’s economic decline, and for the exodus of young people. The conventional wisdom is that the ultra-Orthodox are on the demographic march toward turning Jerusalem into a giant neo-shtetl, big sister to Bnei Brak. Barkat is supposed to be the solution.

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Mr. Obama, Did You Pack These Bags Yourself?

Gershom Gorenberg

At the airport, before his takeoff for the Middle East, no one will ask Barack Obama if he packed his bags himself. It would be rude, and besides he has a full-time handler for that. He never has the lurching feeling as the cab leaves his house that he left the tickets on the kitchen table and a prescription in the medicine cabinet. Just writing those words, I finally understand the attraction of running for president.

He has, however, packed his political baggage himself. Mostly he’s done a good job – better, in fact, than one could expect.

First, he’s meeting with Palestinians as well as Israelis. At least according to the Palestinian side, Obama has put a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on his schedule for next Wednesday. When I wrote about his trip a couple of weeks ago, before the requisite leaks on the itinerary, I was afraid he’d decide it was politically inexpedient to make that stop, essential as it is. Symbolically, the Ramallah visit shows that he intends as president to talk to both Israelis and Palestinians, and that he’s serious about working for peace. Practically, it gives him the chance to see how Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad respond to tough questions about the compromises they’ll need to make.

It would have been easy to skip Ramallah for fearing of losing Jewish votes, especially in swing states like Florida. The common mistake among candidates is to believe the rightwing minority in the U.S. Jewish community that purports to speak for the community as a whole,

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