The shortest line is the one that passes between two points in time. That is what my father used to tell me: “One minute you’re 30 years old, looking ahead into a corridor, and the next minute you’re 60, looking back from the other side of the same corridor.”
I met Oz Mesilati in his classy watchmaker’s shop on Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv. He is 37 years old, but it was easy to imagine him as a teenager exploiting his still-raw form of watchmaking skills to remove a porno movie from the case of a VHS cassette belonging to his father, and transferring it to the cassette identifying it as a children’s movie.
“I took a screwdriver, opened up my father’s cassette, which if I am not mistaken had six or eight screws,” he recalls. “I cleverly removed the video tape, opened up my ‘Pinocchio’ and switched them.”
Nearly all of Mesilati’s relatives on his father’s side are watchmakers. “My grandfather was a watchmaker. My cousin Marco is a watchmaker, his two children, Manuela and Andrea, are watchmakers. I have a cousin, Alessandro, who is a watchmaker, and I have another uncle, Rolando, who was a watchmaker, now a bit less active. I have another uncle whose name is Mario, who is a watchmaker, as is his son Giorgio.” He stops and checks himself to make sure he hasn’t left anyone out. “Oh yeah, my older brother and my half-brother are also watchmakers.”
How is it that Mesilati has cousins with names like Marco, Alessandro and Giorgio? “My grandfather and grandmother left Tripoli and went to Italy,” he relates. “At age 6, my father was sent to Israel [Palestine, at the time] and my grandfather promised my grandmother that with God’s help, they would also be immigrating in a very short while. It was when the state was being built here.” But no one ever came to look for the boy who had been sent in advance to this country, who for years was shuffled from institution to institution.
In the end, everything worked out. In the story of this watchmaking dynasty, timing played a decisive role. At the age of 28, Mesilati’s father went back to track down his family in Italy.
“After spending two weeks searching for his family but not finding them, and deciding to go back to Israel, my father was on a train ... with his pack of [Israeli-made] Noblesse cigarettes sticking out of his shirt pocket,” Mesilati says, demonstrating. “And his uncle the one who was there when they sent him to Israel happened to be on the same train. The uncle had visited Israel and knew what Noblesse was. And that is how the uncle identified him and how my father found his family.”
Years later, Mesilati’s father moved to Italy, leaving Oz’s mother behind, and learned watchmaking “by observing his brothers.” Innate technical skill is insufficient for producing a watchmaker, the younger Mesilati avers; an emotional element is also required.
“A piece of jewelry or a painting does not beat, but if you look at the second hand of a watch, it’s like the beating of a heart. And it doesn’t matter how many years you have been a watchmaker, each time anew you experience that instant when you wait for it to start beating,” he explains. “To this day, my father looks for watches from people he passes in the street, asking them to let him fix them for free because he loves it so much.”
At 13, Oz joined his father in Italy, where “I played soccer in Rome for two years, and I had a workbench in my room for watchmaking.” Since 16, he stresses, he has earned “a respectable living” from the profession. After years of running a repair shop in Rishon Letzion, he opened the shop in Tel Aviv four years ago and considers himself “one of the best in Israel.” He repairs watches that are worth NIS 100,000 and up.
It’s true there are no longer many young people entering the profession, but Mesilati, believes it is not because it is dead or has become an exclusive sort of boutique occupation. He claims the reason for the waning interest is lack of patience: “A watch is not interested if you sat down to fix it at 5:30 in the evening, or if you had an argument with your girlfriend, or if you are angry, or if you have a headache or a backache it doesn’t care. It needs 100 percent [of your attention]. Less than 100 percent, it won’t run.”
Mesilati himself does not even wear a watch. “The cobbler’s son really does go barefoot,” he says. (Meanwhile, I am thinking that it won’t be long before children don’t know what a cobbler is.)
“A customer who comes in wants to know what you wear what you put on your own wrist. And if I were to really represent myself the way I feel about myself, I’d have to put $20,000 on my wrist. And I have it,” he emphasizes, “but I am not interested in joining or taking part in that world. It simply doesn’t seem logical to me.”
After some additional thought, he adds: “Almost nothing in the world is worth the price that people pay for it.”
Before leaving, I find myself thinking about that brief corridor for which my father tried to prepare me. In my mind’s eye, I am seeing the journey taken by the Mesilati family from Tripoli to Italy and back to Israel, a journey spread over time and space. I am imagining the boy sent alone to Israel, the coincidental meeting on the train, the generations of Mesilatis leaning over the counters on which I envision a watch’s dismantled innards, like a golem waiting for life to be breathed into it. When I leave the shop, I almost run into a person who seems to be hurrying somewhere. He grumbles and looks at his watch, wanting to know if he will make it in time. And it dawns on me that the true mission of all of the world’s watchmakers is essentially to conduct a countdown of our time on earth.