Starting at the End / Dvar Torah, Parshat Devarim

Haim Watzman

This is an English version of the dvar Torah that appears in issue 1208 of “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly portion sheet published by the religious peace movement Oz Veshalom. It is dedicated to the memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us seven years ago on 2 Av.

Many years ago, when I worked as a journalist, I attended a press conference at a conservative research institute in Jerusalem. I don’t recall exactly what the subject was, but I do remember that the institute’s director, who had served in an elite unit in the US Army, claimed that he could prove scientifically that the State of Israel had been in the right in a recent military action that had been loudly criticized by the rest of the world. After I and several other reporters settled ourselves in the small meeting room, he rose to speak. “I’ll start with the creation of the world,” he began. Realizing that the press conference would be very long and grueling. I mumbled an excuse of some sort, got up, and left.

The choice of the right starting point is part of the art of storytelling. Tracing the sequence of causes that led to any given event will always lead to the creation of the world, given that, at least according to the modern scientific view, every event is the consequence of a previous event, going back to the dawn of time. But it’s not only that beginning every story at the creation is tiring. It’s simply wrong, both literarily and in principle. Because the place where the story begins needs to foreshadow the end that the storyteller wants to arrive at.

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Plane Story — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

    illustration by Avi Katz

“The air is unexpectedly cool and damp for early September when I emerge from Terminal 3 and cross over to the AirTrain. I’m alone and there are no human sounds, only the roar of traffic on the highway. Even that is muted as the elevator door shuts.”

I look up from 60C on my Delta flight from JFK to TLV. A pudgy young guy in a white shirt and a beard is standing over me.

“I’ve got the window,” he says apologetically.

I snap my laptop shut and squiggle out of my aisle seat.

“Sorry,” he says. “You were writing something.”

“It’s ok,” I say as he squeezes past me with a hat box and a large plastic bag full of cookies. He places them on 60B.

“I saw at the desk that no one’s sitting here,” he explains. He points at the computer. “Work?”

“Yes,” I say. “A story. I have a column in a magazine and the deadline is coming up. I’m just trying to get it started before takeoff.”

“Well, don’t let me bother you. By the way, I’m Yehuda.”

“Haim,” I say. “Thanks. Actually, I’m not sure if I want to write it.”

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Successful New York Debut!

Haim Watzman

Last monthafter Saturday morning services at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, I stood up in Rabbi Andy Bachman’s spacious study. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Were the personal stories of life in Jerusalem and Israel-forged humor of my Necessary Stories presentation going to click with the 50 sophisticated New Yorkers I found before me?

I’m happy to say that it went splendidly. From the start, people laughed in the right places—the best indication that they were engaged and entertained. And when the audience started breaking up before I’d had a chance to present my final segment, it wasn’t because they were bored. They explained that the children’s activities being held in parallel were coming to an end and that they had to pick up their kids.

Kudos came later by e-mail: “Haim Watzman transports his audience both in time and place in an authentic, heartfelt and intellectually thought-provoking performance,” wrote Doris Traub. David Greenberg, to whom I owe thanks for helping arrange the appearance, gave me this blurb: ““Haim Watzman brings the Israeli experience to life in a way that a history book never can. He reminded me again why Israel means so much to me. Mr. Watzman’s program was at once funny, thought-provoking, wise and enjoyable.”

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