The ProsenPeople

A Picture’s Worth

Friday, April 14, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Haim Watzman wrote about reading Talmud as literature and producing new stories on a monthly deadline. With the release of his new book, Necessary Stories, Haim is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Illustrations used to be standard in fiction. Can we conceive of Through the Looking Glass without John Tenniel’s illustrations or Phiz’s illustrations for Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers? That sort of partnership rarely happens today, but I’m privileged to be a throwback.

The Jerusalem Report has commissioned a drawing for each of the stories I’ve written over the last nine years. The lion’s share of them have been done by Avi Katz, one of Israel’s finest illustrators. Three of them appear in my newly-published collection of stories, and another one (which accompanied the first post in this ProsenPeople series) appears on the cover. Here I talk about three drawings Avi produced for stories that appear in my new Necessary Stories volume. Unfortunately, I was not able to include these illustrations in the book.

“Peripheral Vision” takes place in an emergency clinic not far from my home. Hanan, a young man with an infection caused by a biking injury, sits in the waiting room, before being called in for treatment. He’s got a new girlfriend and is looking at a photo of her on his phone. The photo is, well, a very personal one.

He suddenly notices that he’s sitting next to a Haredi man of about his own age. The man’s young son sits on his lap. The father is trying to interest his son in a holy book he is reading, but the boy’s eyes keep wandering to the picture on Hanan’s phone. A conversation ensues, about the book the man is studying and the picture on the phone.

What the illustrator has captured in this picture is something I see as very basic to my work. Perhaps because I began my writing career as a playwright, I almost always visualize my stories as if they were taking place on a stage. (In fact, they work very well in performance.) The placement of characters in space, in juxtaposition with their surroundings, is key to conveying mood and theme. Wherever possible, I avoid stating directly what my characters are thinking or feeling and instead convey that with a gesture, a movement, a juxtaposition with some other person or object.

Avi’s illustration for “Peripheral Vision” captures this perfectly. The scene is a large room, but the three central characters and the two objects that occupy their attention—the phone and the holy book—form a self-contained and tight assemblage that brings the characters close—perhaps too close for comfort—within this large space. Note the two triangles—that of the figures themselves, and that of their gazes. Avi shows that the eyes of each character are drawn by something other than what it intends or is expected to see—the boy eyes the phone, the boy’s father considers Hanan, and Hanan squints at the book.

Avi’s illustration for “The Plowman Meets the Reaper” augments my story. Just before the Six Day War of 1967, on the Jerusalem–Tel Aviv train, a young boy whose indigent family immigrated from Iraq encounters a woman originally from Vienna. The story follows how each character depicts the other in his or her mind, and at one point on the train ride they actually draw each other. In choosing to depict this moment, the illustration calls the reader’s attention to an underlying theme that might otherwise be missed.

Understandably, Avi generally chooses to depict the story’s central characters interacting at a key moment. Sometimes, however, I suggest to him that he take an indirect approach. A picture without a human presence can be more subtly suggestive of a story’s deeper currents. Such is the case with his illustration for “Fireflies,” the penultimate story in the book. Rather than describe the story, I’ll let you read it and then consider whether any other sort of picture would have worked as well.

Haim Watzman is a writer and translator who has worked with many of Israel’s leading authors and scholars. He is the author of Company C, A Crack in the Earth, and Necessary Stories.

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Talmud as Literature

Wednesday, April 12, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Haim Watzman wrote about producing new stories on a monthly deadline for The Jerusalem Report. With the release of his new book, Necessary Stories, Haim is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Two of the tales that appear in Necessary Stories, my new collection, closely follow passages in the Babylonian Talmud. If you’ve ever studied or tried to read this central Jewish text, you might find that puzzling. The Gemara, the largest part of the Babylonian Talmud, records the discussions and arguments that several generations of rabbis living in what is now Iraq engaged in between the third and fifth centuries of the Common Era.

To the untrained eye—indeed, even to the well-versed one—the discussions can be vexingly cryptic, arcane, and difficult to understand. In fact, it is that difficulty that has made mining its wisdom and interpreting its disputations the central occupation of traditional Jewish scholarship ever since.

“In Exile, at Home” recasts a debate that appears on page 25b of the tractate Sukkah. The tractate focuses, as one might expect, on the laws and observances incumbent on Jews during the week-long holiday of Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, which occurs in the early fall, just after Yom Kippur. One of those laws is the requirement during that week to live—in particular, to have one’s meals and to sleep—in a sukkah,a ramshackle temporary home rather than in one’s apartment or house. This commandment is accompanied by another—a commandment to be joyous during the holiday.

The sugiya (a passage of Talmud devoted to discussing a specific issue) brings up a problem presented by some classes of people who might have trouble being joyous in a sukkah. Specifically, it asks about people who are mourning for a loved one and a bride and groom just after their wedding. Instead of a dialogue between rabbis, “In Exile, at Home” presents a dialogue between me and one of the participants in the Talmudic discussion, Abba Bar Zabda. Bar Zabda encounters me sitting beside the grave of my younger son in the Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem. Our discussion reproduces the Talmudic dialectic and Bar Zabda leads me to an insight: “A bride and groom do not need to be commanded to rejoice … A mourner needs the commandment. Otherwise he will stay forever in exile and never be open to redemption.”

“Sin Offering” (the illustration for which, by Avi Katz, accompanies this post) combines another sugiya, from tractate Baba Batra, page 10b, with a harrowing story about African refugees trying to cross the border from Egypt into Israel. The latter story was told to me by my youngest daughter, Misgav, when she was a soldier in the Caracal Brigade, a mixed-sex infantry unit that patrols the Egyptian-Israeli border. In “Sin Offering,” a squad of soldiers reports to their commanding officer at dawn about a border incident that took place an hour or so earlier. The incident ended with one man wounded and the refugees sent back into the Sinai Desert to almost certain death. The soldiers have followed their orders, but some of them are uneasy. Each soldier presents his own perspective, but most of them are eager to justify what they have done.

Their report to their officer is interwoven with a debate over the meaning of a verse from the Bible’s Book of Proverbs (14:34). It is this debate over the verse that is the subject of the sugiya. It is led by Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai, who led the remnant of the Jewish community in Israel after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and remolded the Jewish faith so that it was centered on study and charity instead of on the Temple’s sacrificial service. Ben Zakkai asks his students the meaning of the verse in Proverbs and they all try to interpret it in a way that reflects well on the charitable actions of Jews and badly on those of non-Jews. At the end, Ben Zakkai cleverly recasts the interpretation of the last of them to say exactly the opposite—that non-Jews and Jews have equal access to God’s mercy when they give charity.

Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that Talmudic disputations can be the basis of good fiction. They have sharply drawn characters, suspense, and even that final twist that so many good stories have. You just know have to read them properly, and imagine them in a modern context.

Haim Watzman is a writer and translator who has worked with many of Israel’s leading authors and scholars. He is the author of Company C, A Crack in the Earth, and Necessary Stories.

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Fiction on a Deadline

Monday, April 10, 2017 | Permalink

Haim Watzman’s new book, Necessary Stories, is a selection of 24 stories from his monthly column in The Jerusalem Report from the past nine years. Haim is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


For the last nine years I’ve written a short story every four weeks. I haven’t yet missed a deadline yet.

Nine years ago, in 2008, I began writing a column for a biweekly news magazine, The Jerusalem Report. My column, “Necessary Stories,” has appeared in every other issue since then.

The editors invited me to write for the magazine in the wake of two non-fiction books I’d written, a memoir about my service as an IDF infantry reservist over nearly a decade and a half and a John McPhee-type travel narrative about a trip through the rift valley that runs up Israel’s eastern frontier. They thought they’d get personal essays, but after writing two first-person fact-based books, I wanted to let my imagination run free. It was more fun and required less research. I started sending in short stories.

Having to come up with a work of short fiction with convincing characters, a compelling storyline, and engaging prose once a month like clockwork might sound daunting. I have to produce a story whether inspired or not, whether in the mood or not, whether my day job as a translator leaves me time or not. Many is the time—it happened just a couple weeks ago—that I have sat myself down at my computer on the appointed day without a clue as to what my story will be about.

But the discipline is good for me. Perhaps because I worked for many years as a journalist, I seem to produce my best work when a deadline looms. I certainly would not have written upwards of 115 short stories in the last decade had I simply waited for ideas and inspiration to come (and, to be honest, without the incentive of the modest fee that the magazine pays me for each piece).

Is each one a great work of literature? No, of course not. Sometimes a story doesn’t click for me, or for readers. But I’m surprised at how seldom that happens. Last year, when I had to reread my output to choose which stories to include in the Necessary Stories book that I’ve just published, I was gratified to find that the choice was difficult. A large portion of the stories I reread had, at least for me, stood up to time and rereading. No less gratifying were the e-mails from the loyal readership I’ve built up over the years, readers who encounter the stories in the magazine or on my website, where they also appear. Readers remembered and urged me to include stories they had read years ago, and there were so many such requests I had no choice but to disappoint some of them.

Sometimes a story’s plot, characters, or situation are suggested by current events—the new collection includes, for example, “Sin Offering,” which addresses Israel’s treatment of African refugees. Or it might be a historical event: “The Devil and Theodor Herzl” imagines Herzl’s meeting with Vyacheslav von Plehve, Minister of the Interior for the Russian Czar and fomenter of the infamous Kishinev pogrom. Some, like “Bananas,” are based on family tales—in this case the experience of my wife’s family, immigrants from Baghdad who lived during Israel’s early years in an immigrant camp in Holon. Still others grow out of personal pain: “In Exile at Home,” “A Him to him” and “Fireflies” are stories of mourning for my younger son, a soldier in the Golani Brigade who died in a diving accident six years ago.

But sometimes really good stories come out of nowhere. When I sat down to write the story that became “The Dryad,” the illustration for which (by Avi Katz; our collaboration will be the subject of another post in this series) graces the cover of the new book and accompanies this post, I hadn’t a clue what I was going to write. When I’m stumped, I find that the best method is to take a few minutes to look deep into my soul to find out what is bothering it most. Often I find two or three disparate things that don’t, at first, seem to have anything to do with each other. In the case of “The Dryad,” it was the intense ankle pain I was suffering from after a long hike with friends a few days before, and the anguish I had heard in a story told to me by a schoolteacher friend. Neither my hike nor the friend’s specific story appears in “The Dryad.” Instead, they provide the scenery and the mood. Once I had that in mind, and sat down to write, the central character and narrative followed, and developed in ways I had not expected or planned.

That’s what makes meeting my deadline so much fun.

Haim Watzman is a writer and translator who has worked with many of Israel’s leading authors and scholars. He is the author of Company C, A Crack in the Earth, and Necessary Stories.

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Wimps

Friday, November 09, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Haim Watzman wrote about how to succeed in academia without doing any research and Super Tuesday. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Are Israeli guys real men? Yes, I mean the tank commanders and pilots and infantry sergeants. The ones who are viewed in so many places as the type specimens of the tough macho Jew.

That was the subject of an intriguing discussion I led yesterday at a session of a course in Hebrew literature in translation taught by my friend Adam Rovner at Denver University. (Adam has a vested interest in Hebrew literature in translation since his wife, Jessica Cohen, is responsible for many of the finest translations of Israeli literature available to the English-speaking public.) In preparation for the class, the students read two texts. The first was Etgar Keret’s short story “Cocked and Locked,” about an Israeli soldier being mocked by a Palestinian rebel at a guard post. The second was “Wimps,” Chapter Five of Company C, my memoir of my service over nearly two decades in an Israeli infantry unit.

“Wimps,” like Keret’s story, portrays Israeli soldiers facing off against Palestinians in the territories. In the case of my chapter, it’s the height of the First Intifada in 1988. As well as chronicling how my unit coped with the challenges and moral issues presented by the Palestinian uprising, my chapter explores the relationship between army service and masculinity.

In Keret’s story, a young Palestinian man taunts an Israeli soldier by portraying him as a sexual object used by his sergeant. The goading indeed drives the soldier into an unexpected response, but perhaps not for the reasons that an American reader might presume.

The men in Company C are tough and determined, but they are also family men and civilians serving in the army for a couple months a year. They’ve been through wars but most of them have children. Two of them are gay, a fact that the other soldiers accept matter-of-factly and without feeling that their masculinity is threatened. And remember, this is at a time when homosexuality was forbidden in the US army, on the grounds that the presence of gay soldiers in a military unit would play havoc with “unit cohesion” and destroy it as a fighting force.

Comic relief in “Wimps” is provided by Marcel Levy, a French immigrant and paparazzo photographer who boasts of sleeping with every single one of the celebrity actresses he manages to snap in various states of undress. The other men think he’s totally off the wall. Levy’s braggadocio about his purported military exploits is one reason; another is that sexual conquest is not something that these men see as particularly masculine behavior. Both the attitudes toward gay men and toward casual sex show, in my mind, that there are important differences between Israeli and American concepts of masculinity. I don’t mean to say that Israeli men aren’t macho in their own and often infuriating way, but it’s important to understand the contrasts.

After pointing this out, I asked the students what they thought bugged the soldier in Keret’s story and what caused him to take the dramatic action he takes at the end. I suspect that before our discussion the students might have assumed that the soldier felt that his masculinity was threatened—that he was infuriated because a Palestinian guy his own age was accusing him of being queer. 

One of the students hit it on the head, in my opinion. “I think he’s upset,” she suggested, “because the Palestinian is perverting the soldier’s relationship with his sergeant.” In other words, he’s suggesting that the soldier’s love for his sergeant is a sexual love rather than the love that prevails among soldiers who fight side by side.

Does that make Israeli soldiers wimps? You might want to read the Company C to find out. An electronic edition, for Kindle, Ipad, and other platforms, will be available very soon. The same goes for my book on the Jordan Rift valley, Israel’s eastern boundary land, A Crack in the Earth. Watch my Facebook page and website for the official announcement, or write to me at hwatzman@gmail.com and I’ll send you an e-mail notice when the books are out.

Visit Haim Watzman's official website here.

How to Succeed in Academics Without Doing Any Research

Wednesday, November 07, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Haim Watzman wrote about Super Tuesday, journalism, and love. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“Are you a professor?” asked the woman sitting next to me on the plane from Israel to New York. She’d been eyeing my laptop screen on and off for most of the flight, as I did a final polish on my translation of Israel and the Cold War, a punctiliously-researched tome by Joseph Heller of the Hebrew University. Heller’s the professor, I’m the translator. He spent years sifting through the dark corners of archives around the world to gather the material in his book. I get the glory of being thought a historian without having looked at a single document.

Yes, I write my own books, but try buying groceries with that. My family gets fed thanks to books that other people write, people who need my help to present their ideas to the public. Sometimes I translate in the simple sense of the word—that is, recast a Hebrew work in English. But the specific niche I’ve developed over the years is that of translator/editor, or perhaps bilingual book doctor would be a better term. That means I don’t just transfer prose from one language to another but also help the author rewrite the book.

Of course, the substance remains that of the scholar. But substance needs presentation. I feel privileged to have helped bring the work of Israeli scholars before the English-speaking world while making them more reader-friendly books than they would otherwise have been.

While it’s hardly ideal, the pressures are such that I often work on two or three book translations or edits at the same time, alongside my own writing. Right now I’m translating a book on the Mossad by Ronen Bergman of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, and a book about Eliezer Gruenbaum, a Jewish Communist who became a kapo at Auschwitz, by the historian Tuvia Friling.

On top of that, I’m editing the English version of one of the Israeli publication phenomena of the past year. Yuval Noah Harari’s history of the world, from humankind’s evolution in Africa to the present day, has been a bestseller in Hebrew. It’s based on the survey course he teaches, which has become one of the university’s most popular classes.

Harari’s book covers a lot of ground that I’ve written about in my career as a journalist covering research and science, so as I edit I disagree, debate, and argue points with him. Like most of my clients, Harari appreciates this deep involvement in his work. I am, of course, an amateur scholar, not a real one, so it’s the client who makes the final decisions about the book’s ideas and arguments. But it’s a real pleasure to engage in disputations with my authors.

And, of course, I learn a great deal in the process. Almost enough to be taken for a professor myself.

Visit Haim Watzman's official website here.

Super Tuesday

Monday, November 05, 2012 | Permalink

Haim Watzman is a Jerusalem-based writer, journalist, and translator. He is the author of Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel and A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley, which will be available as ebooks this week. Haim was a 2008 finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He will blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My Dad and I never watched the Superbowl together. Nor the NBA championships, the World Cup, or the World Series. In my family, the only person who watched sports on television was my grandmother, who never missed an Indians or Browns game. So I grew up with a warped sense of manhood. Watching guys throw balls around was for old ladies. My Dad and I did our small-screen-mediated male bonding on election night.

So I’m happy to report that when this post appears I’ll be on my way from Jerusalem to Denver to spend my first election night with Dad in more than three decades. Tuesday night he and I will be munching pizza and popcorn as we watch the returns come in and tally electoral votes and Senate seats.

Dad, a longtime newspaper reporter, was my first coach in political analysis, as well as in writing. His politics are liberal Democrat; his style is terse, simple, and to the point (he would disapprove of the previous semicolon and these parentheses). So it’s not surprising that I occasionally try my hand at political satire. At its best, it’s a genre that forces readers think about their beliefs in a new way. Furthermore, it can help those of us jaded by the horserace coverage that all too often passes for political journalism to remember that politics is as much a necessary part of our lives as love is, and that it’s important that we get both right.

That’s what I tried to do in my latest “Necessary Stories” piece, published in the current issue of the Jerusalem Report. Called “Persuasion,” it’s a love story in the style of Jane Austen, set in the run-up to the current election.

The Jerusalem Report has given me a platform that few writers enjoy and for which I’m extremely grateful (especially to Eetta Price-Gibson, who offered me the perch during her tenure as editor of the magazine). Once each month I get three pages where I can write whatever I want—memoir, satire, or short story. As I’ve transitioned in recent years from writing journalism and non-fiction into writing fiction, it’s given me a place to experiment with subjects and techniques. Some of my Necessary Stories are funny, some sad, some wistful. By arrangement with the magazine, they are also available in full on my blog, South Jerusalem.

If you like the latest one, you might also sample “Plane Story,” about an encounter with strangers and storytelling on a Delta flight, and “Bananas,” a tale from the immigrant camp that used to occupy the part of Holon where some of my in-laws live. I also recommend “Winter” and “Spring,” the first two installments in a quartet of army stories collectively called Duties of the Heart. “Summer” and “Autumn” are too long for my three pages in the Report and are currently seeking homes elsewhere.

Don’t tell Dad about all those ridiculously long sentences in “Persuasion.” He’d give me a stern lecture on style and we might miss some key returns and projections.

Visit Haim Watzman's official website here.

Haim Watzman: Necessary Stories on YouTube

Wednesday, October 07, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Haim Watzman, a 2008 Sami Rohr Prize Honorable Mention for his work A Crack in the Earth: A Journey up Israel’s Rift Valley, just posted a preview of his new “Necessary Stories” program. See below for the videos and click here for Watzman’s blog post about the videos.