Authors Matti Friedman and Haim Watzman are similar in many ways. They both immigrated to Israel from North America. They have both worked as journalists, and they both served in the IDF. They both married native Israelis. They both live in Jerusalem, and as Haim said, they both enjoy exploring the “blurry, tense, interesting line between different people in Israel: Jews and Arabs, Jews and Jews, Arabs and Arabs. In a small country with such diverse citizens, our lives are bound up with each other.” As we sat in the Crusader Hall at the Tower of David, it seems there has been a blurry tense interesting line for centuries.
I attended the “Personal Pages: Meet the Authors” event on April 25th because I am a fan of Matti Friedman. I read The Aleppo Codex (Algonquin Books, 2012) shortly before I made aliyah, and he made the story of the Codex’s circuitous route to Israel so riveting, that one of the first things I did as an olah was visit the Israel Museum to see (what is left of) the Codex. The main focus was not on this book, though there is a documentary movie in the making.
First Matti asked Haim questions about his work, and then Haim did the interviewing. Haim Watzman considers himself part of the “loyal opposition,” serving in the IDF and then in the reserves, but protesting against government policies when in civilian clothes. He has written two works of non-fiction — Company C: An American’s Life as a Soldier-Citizen in Israel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005), and A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Jordan Valley (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007). He has also translated works by David Grossman and Tom Segev from Hebrew into English, and he was a correspondent for the British science journal Nature.
His most recent book is Necessary Stories (West 26th Street Press, 2017), a collection of 24 of the many essays he has written about life in Israel in his monthly column for The Jerusalem Report. The stories take place in all sort of places: an absorption center, the backyard, Iraq; and feature a cast of characters including a good-looking Australian, an Iraqi hummus store owner, and my favorite, Hagar the stray cat and her kittens.
Matti’s second work of non-fiction, Pumpkinflowers: a Israeli Soldier’s Story (Signal, 2016) was recently released in paperback. He served in the Nahal unit during the 1990s and manned an outpost in Southern Lebanon called “Pumpkin.” In the Israeli Army, there are no names like “hell fire” and “tomahawk” as in the American Army. Injured soldiers are “flowers.” The book is presented in four parts. The first two are in the third person and chronicle the history of this forgotten war and a soldier named Avi. The final sections are Friedman’s story of his own experiences. He emphasized that the book is “not about the absurdities of war, but about young people coming of age in an absurd situation.”
The book has been translated into Hebrew, and one of the questions from the audience was whether he got different reactions from those readers than the people who have read it in English. Yes, Israelis have a more visceral reaction. Most English speakers are not as familiar with the details of what happened during that time, which included the 1997 helicopter accident in which 73 military personnel were killed.
After an stimulating evening, it was a quick ride on the light rail, a bus ride and then a short walk home so I could start reading some Necessary Stories.