This piece is one of an ongo­ing series that we will be shar­ing in the com­ing days from Israeli authors and authors in Israel. 

In col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, JBI is record­ing writ­ers’ first-hand accounts, as shared with and pub­lished by JBC, to increase the acces­si­bil­i­ty of these accounts for indi­vid­u­als who are blind, have low vision or are print disabled. 

At Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, we under­stand the val­ue of fic­tion and sto­ries to share indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences. It’s more impor­tant now than ever to give space to these voic­es and narratives.

This is a work of fic­tion and the views and opin­ions expressed below are those of the author.

The ici­ness of the water shocks me. The pool shut down after Hamas unleashed its hor­ror in the south; today, more than a week lat­er, it has reopened. The water pre­sum­ably hadn’t been heat­ed in the inter­im. I expect my body to get used to it after a length. But no.

The fact is that the usu­al tem­per­a­ture is far too warm for my taste. It makes my scalp itch under my swim cap and my body sweat under my one-piece Speedo. But today it’s way too cold. On top of that, my body needs to read­just to mov­ing in the water, even though the break has not been a long one. It takes a few laps before my limbs recall how they’re sup­posed to move. Despite my deter­mi­na­tion to work out at home and take long walks, I was so glued to the tele­vi­sion that I only did that once. Exer­cise requires con­cen­tra­tion, a men­tal capac­i­ty that van­ished on Octo­ber 7. And the water is still too cold.

After 300 meters I flip and switch to back­stroke and see Ruth Mutzafi ges­tic­u­lat­ing to me at the shal­low end. My body tens­es. She’s one of that clutch of grand­moth­ers who pre­fer the ear­ly after­noon hours, as I do. I’m not say­ing that they don’t have a right to use the pool, but to call what they do swim­ming” would be gen­er­ous to the point of utter false­hood. I mean, I respect them for get­ting out and mov­ing their bod­ies, but I try to keep my dis­tance. Ruth is the kind of per­son who votes for Ben­ny Gantz’s Nation­al Uni­ty par­lia­men­tary fac­tion. Cen­ter-right, but hell if I’m going to give her two thirds of the lane. I move over to the left side but make sure my arms touch the mid­point at each rota­tion. When I return, she’s stand­ing in the water. She waves at me, but I have no inter­est in con­ver­sa­tion. Even if I felt a des­per­ate need to talk to some­one, as I have so often since the mas­sacre, I wouldn’t choose her.

I try to get into my zone, to get out of the news cycle and into the eupho­ria and silence of my hour here. The prob­lem is that I have to remain con­scious to dodge Ruth’s arms, which she flails in tan­dem, angled at six­ty degrees from her shoul­ders, as she floats on her back. 

This morn­ing I went to a shi­va minyan. The son of an acquain­tance had been killed by a grenade thrown by a Hamas mur­der­er as he pro­tect­ed with his body a woman from his kib­butz. She was tak­en back to Gaza as a hostage. What can you say to a moth­er who has lost a son that way? What can you do for the rest of the day, for the rest of your life? What­ev­er it is, it shouldn’t involve dodg­ing Ruth.

The inevitable col­li­sion occurs just as I head into my sec­ond kilo­me­ter. She has stopped to rest at the end of the lane, and just as I’m com­ing into my flip turn she reach­es out to me, in my half of the lane. My legs give her extend­ed arm a wal­lop. Not on pur­pose. Well, maybe a lit­tle on pur­pose. I stop and stand in the water glar­ing at her. Prob­a­bly look like the rhe­sus mon­key in that icon­ic photograph. 

Sor­ry,” I say. But stay on your side.” Then, after think­ing about it: Please.”

My fault. Sort of inten­tion­al. I need a word with you.”

No one has ever had only a sin­gle word with Ruth.

We stare at each oth­er for a moment and then she asks the inane ques­tion that every­one is ask­ing every­one else this week because there’s noth­ing else to say.

How are you?”

Man­ag­ing. And you?”

She hes­i­tates, as if there is some­thing she wants to say but can’t. I’m des­per­ate to swim but I wait. Final­ly she speaks:

The water is freezing.”

Yes,” I agree. Espe­cial­ly when you’re not mov­ing.” And I turn and resume.

When I come back she’s still stand­ing there, but she keeps to her side as I arrive at the wall. Even though what I real­ly want, what I des­per­ate­ly need, is to keep going, I stop.

What’s going to hap­pen?” she asks me.

I catch my breath. I don’t know. I just know that I real­ly need to swim.”

We have to destroy them. Hamas.”

Yes, but I’m not sure if that’s pos­si­ble. First we should get the hostages back.” I look down to the end of the lane. I real­ly need to swim.” I set off again. I do two laps, then a third, but she con­tin­ues to stand there. She must be turn­ing into an ici­cle. So at the end of the third lap I stop again.

Maybe you should get out and warm up,” I suggest.

Yes.” She grabs my hand. Four grand­sons down south. Two in reserves, two in reg­u­lar ser­vice. And two grand­daugh­ters, too. I’m so wor­ried I can’t swim.”

I don’t want to suc­cumb to this. Yes, I have a son there, too. And my husband’s been called up.”

She turns angry. But not at me. We need to destroy them. No mer­cy. They had no mer­cy on us! When I think of those fam­i­lies that they slaugh­tered! Chil­dren in front of par­ents, par­ents in front of children!”

I feel tears welling up. Yes, but aren’t their chil­dren dying, too? I hope our gen­er­als know what they’re doing.”

You’re a smart lady,” she says. You always seem to have an answer.”

Not now.”

If they invade …”

I hope they don’t.”

How many will I lose?” She shakes my arm with strength that catch­es me off guard. How many will I lose?”

I turn away. Ruth, I real­ly need to swim. It’s what I have to do to keep my head above water.”

It’s so cold.”

It’s real­ly cold.” And I resume.

When I return after the next lap she’s not there any­more. But I stop any­way. I look around and see her from the back as she makes her way slow­ly toward the lock­er room. I feel that I must jump out and com­fort her. I feel that I must swim. I return to the water, which feels even cold­er now.

Haim Watz­man lives in Jerusalem and is the author of three books: Com­pa­ny C: An American’s Life as a Cit­i­zen-Sol­dier in Israel; A Crack in the Earth: A Jour­ney Up Israel’s Rift Val­ley; and a sto­ry col­lec­tion, Nec­es­sary Sto­ries, a selec­tion of the more than 150 he has writ­ten. His play The Chair won the 2021 The­ater Insti­tute Award of the Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Dra­ma Inter­na­tion­al Com­pe­ti­tion spon­sored by the Estera Rachel and Ida Makin­skie Jew­ish The­ater in War­saw. He has trans­lat­ed more than 50 books from Hebrew into Eng­lish, among them works by Shlo­mo Avineri, David Gross­man, Hil­lel Cohen, Amos Oz, and Tom Segev. He edit­ed the Eng­lish-lan­guage ver­sion of Yuval Noah Harari’s world­wide best­seller, Sapi­ens. Sub­scribe to his Sub­stack newslet­ter here.