There are three things man can sit and watch for hours on end: water, fire, and another man working.

That axiom, taught to me by a carpenter we hired years back to build a bookshelf, came to mind the other day as I walked the streets of Jerusalem and saw three supervisors watching as one laborer did back-breaking street-repair work. It’s an odd sight, actually, but one very familiar here: one person works, and many others watch. Rarely, if ever, do the watchers lend a hand; more often they just bark instructions.

The carpenter made the comment because I was annoying him by staring as he put together the shelves. But in this particular case, I actually wasn’t watching to monitor what he was doing, or to make sure he was putting in the time for which he was billing us.

Rather, I was watching because it was absorbing seeing the space and feel of my living room change as he put up the bookcase.

It’s always a tad awkward when workmen come into the home. I should watch them more carefully – not only to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to do, but also to learn what they are doing so that next time I could perhaps do the repairs myself, or – at the very least – order my children to do them.

Had I taken that advice earlier in life, I could have avoided calling a fix-it man at least a dozen times over the past 30 years to fix our trisim, those special Israeli shutters made of slats that always bend, springs that constantly break and pull-cords that perpetually snap. It finally dawned on me that I should actually watch the man fix the trisim, to figure out how they work in order to save hundreds of shekels over a lifetime in repairs. So I watched and learned.

Still, I felt a bit uncomfortable watching comfortably on the ground as the repairman was on the top of a creaky ladder, his head deep in the dirty shutter box. I wouldn’t want somebody peering over my shoulder watching me do my work, staring at the computer screen as I wrote an article. Plumbers, carpenter, electricians and refrigerator repairmen must feel the same way about people watching them work.

There is a fine balance knowing when to watch the refrigerator repairman, and when to just leave him alone to repair the refrigerator.

REFRIGERATORS, BY the way, are fine examples of advanced technology just making everyday appliances less user friendly.

With our old refrigerator we were able to control the refrigerator light – keeping it from turning on during Shabbat when we opened the door and reached for the brisket – by unscrewing the light bulb. Had we not done so, we would have violated the laws of Shabbat each time we opened the door.

But the newfangled refrigerators come with light bulbs that don’t unscrew. At first I didn’t realize that, and spent an hour with one of my sons trying to get the bulbs out, while The Wife joked about how many Jews it takes to unscrew a light bulb. So we had to have a special on-off switch installed on top of the refrigerator, which – predictably – broke a few months later.

When the repairman came to fix the switch, not only did I not know whether to stay in the kitchen and watch him work, but I also realized the skill it takes to mastering the fine art of chit-chat with workmen.

“Yup, those switches sure are delicate,” I said, trying to be engaging and show him I appreciated his skills and was interested in his work.

“Not really,” he grunted. “Try not putting things – like matza boxes – on top of the switch. That way you won’t break it.”

“You must get a lot of these types of repairs,” I continued, undaunted.

“Naw,” he grumbled. “People know better.”

MY KIDS, especially my sons, cringe when they hear me engage the workmen.

They mock me afterward, think me fawning.

I try to convince them that being polite, trying to apply the grease that makes life’s little interchanges a bit easier, is not fawning – it’s called civility.

But my youngest son will have none of it.

“Just let him work,” he says. “Why talk to him? Do you think he wants to talk to you? He just wants to finish the job, and leave.”

The Youngest is just extrapolating from his own experience, or rather his complete lack of compulsion to talk to The Wife and I – his own personal household repair people – when he watches us do household work. Indeed, he and his siblings prefer not talking when we are doing chores, hoping this way we will not notice that they are sitting, while we are toiling. But we can’t be duped, and inevitably shout, “What’s wrong with this picture?” With this phrase we try to prick their sense of right and wrong, develop their super-ego, instill chore-conscience.

In short, we want them to feel guilty – the same guilt that always tugs at me if I am sitting watching television while The Wife is working in the kitchen. Even if I have already done my fair share of the household tasks, I still feel guilty if I’m idle – perhaps because I got an earlier start at the chores – and she’s still working.

“Come sit down,” I’ll yell into the kitchen, annoyed. “I can’t relax when you’re cooking.”

It’s that sense of duty that The Wife and I tried, but failed, to instill in the kids. Zionist duty they internalized in spades, a strong moral conscience they developed, but a feeling of remorse at watching television while their mother cuts up a salad and their father sponges the floor? Forget about it.

“It still might come,” The Wife consoled me the other day.

“Yeh,” I replied. “But probably not until they have kids of their own.”

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