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Monday, July 24, 2006

Book Review: Matches

Many moons ago, Alan Kaufman sent me a copy of his book, Matches, to review. This despite my warning that I am neither a literary critic nor a fast reader. So here we are more than half a year later, and I’m ready to cautiously recommend the book. To quote one of my favorite rabbis, it’s not for everyone.

I had a hard time getting through this book. This is not a reflection on Mr. Kaufman’s writing style. The novel, based very closely on Kaufman’s own experience - as an idealistic Zionist American serving in the Israeli Defense Force in Gaza during the late ‘80s, and then again during Intifada II - reads much like a Mickey Spillane novelization of Apocalypse Now. Its prose is colorful, at times over the top, as befits a pulp fiction account of ordinary people in extraordinarily bizarre and difficult conditions, and Kaufman’s roots in poetry are clearly evident. (Excerpt)

Still, it took me more time to get through the book than even I had anticipated. And I think it’s because I didn’t like what it was saying to me. The comparison to Apocalypse Now is apt. Just as that movie took what we thought about American soldiers during the Vietnam War and turned it upside down, so too does this book do for the IDF. Throughout its 245 pages, the author takes one preconception after another and peels it away like an overzealous tourist peeling an artichoke, until all that is left is the exposed pulpy heart. And I found that it made me quite uncomfortable. But I suspect that was the desired effect.

I prefer to think that the IDF is different than any other army in the history of the world. Israeli soldiers are the most moral, the most caring, the most efficient, and the most just of the world’s fighting men. And while I think Kaufman seems to imply that that may still be the case, one cannot come away from this book without the feeling that maybe the margin of superiority is just not that wide.

Kaufman seems to blame this internal sickness present in the IDF on more than 50 years of constant warfare, highlighted by the disastrous effects of enforcing an occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, which has turned young idealistic Jewish boys defending their homes into policemen, constantly going where they are not wanted and under continuous threat of death and dismemberment.

Protagonist Nathan Falk, the American who joins the IDF, puts his finger on the problem in a discussion with a squadmate:

"You and I are soldiers. We are not policemen. We are soldiers. No matter what they say about us in the world, we are not cops. We are not John Waynes. We are soldiers. Do you hear me? We are soldiers.”

This statement may be the source of the sickening malaise which takes hold of the soldiers in Falk’s platoon. Deep down, they all started as Nice Jewish Boys. But exposure to constant death, torture, killing, and world-wide condemnation has turned them into something else, something that they despise. Has service in the territories made them not so different from their enemies? When you dehumanize others, do you end up dehumanizing yourself as well?

Kaufman seeks to be balanced in this book, and he portrays the Arab side at times, or at least his perception of it, and his conclusion that there will be no good resolution to this conflict. In an imaginary conversation with a Palestinian boy, Falk asks:

“Do all you people hate us?

"His face hardened into reflection. A long minute passed. He looked up and said: Many hate you—most—but some, a very few, don’t. Not because they think you should live but because it is not easy to hate. Some don’t have any strength for this. They just want to have a good life. But if they could I’m sure they would hate you too. There is no forgiveness for what has been or what is or even for what is to come. But you know what…? It is not a matter of hating but something much deeper that I have no words for. There is no word for it. My people will fight yours for as long as there is memory. This is our pride. And there is no way out of this but by your own door, because my people will not leave.”

Now, Kaufman is not some kind of Post-Zionist revisionist who thinks, like Richard Cohen, that Israel is a “mistake” and that as a result it can’t possibly survive. Rather, I think he wants to make clear to us what the Israelis (and in particular, their soldiers) are facing, and no matter how much we want to project our own internal logic onto the situation, the enemy feels very differently.

He spares no sympathy for the media either, whom he rightly takes to task for distorting and inflaming the situation. A general recalls a conversation with a fictional American editorial writer:

“What is the army? I asked him: nothing! Who am I? I asked: nothing! But you, you and Claybone from the Washington Post and Tessman from NBC and of course, the great almighty Poppel, yes, even Poppel himself, are the true miracle workers. You take the molehill and make it into the mountain. You make the wolf the lamb, the lamb the wolf, and Little Red Riding Hood into a venereal slut. I don’t know how you do this! But it fills me with such wonder. What a power to have, to completely rearrange the face of reality into your own ideas of things: why, into something that does not resemble itself even a little! Journalists make China into Canada, the Pacific into the Baltic, Russians into leprechauns! Two hundred million Arabs attempting to crush and annihilate five million Jews, and guess who comes out the bully and the bad guy? That’s two hundred Arabs for every Jew. Imagine: one Jew faces two hundred Arabs and the Times reports that we commit massacres, oppress people, and I don’t know what else. The Arab landmass is six hundred times that of Israel, but we are the land-grabbing, greedy conquerors. Journalists!”

It is notable that these exerpts come from the last half of the book. There's a reason that it took me so long to get through this thing. Halfway through, I stopped reading it. I couldn't bear what he was doing to my beloved IDF. It seemed to me that he was dragging it through the dirt, and then every few feet, stopping to jump up and down on it. The generals gave idiotic commands, the missions had no point, and the soldiers were a jaded, nasty, unsympathetic lot. Worst of all was what had become of Falk, who had come to Israel to help protect his fellow Jews, and found not spiritual enlightenment and renewed national pride, but intense self-loathing which had transformed him from gentle poet to cold-blooded killer, boozer, and adulterer. I didn't know where Kaufman was going with this, and I was afraid to find out.


And then the current conflict with Lebanon arose, and suddenly Israel is in a war on two fronts. No, three. There is Gaza, there is Lebanon, and there is the World Media. And suddenly again, Jewish Boys, thrust into the roles of soldier and protector, are being compared to Nazis, and moral equivalence rears its ugly head again, saying that the Jewish Army which bends over backwards to route out terrorists while sparing civilian casualties is no better than the terrorists themselves, who go out of their way to target the innocent.

So I went back to Matches, and I picked it up again. I thought, if ever we needed a book to explain to the world what it is to be a Jewish Soldier, now was the time. And interestingly, I did find a more positive turn as the book approached its conclusion, almost as if Kaufman had second thoughts. Maybe even he couldn't bear all the negativity. Or maybe this was where he was going all along, and I was just too much of a spoiled American to endure the whole ride. Whatever the case, the book does leave one feeling that, although soldiers in the IDF must sometimes do terrible things, they do them because they must, because failure to do those things has real implications on their country and their loved ones, but they never forget the toll it takes on their humanity.

So I do recommend the book. It is powerfully written, and it will teach you things about the IDF that you never wanted to know. But as the rabbi says, it's not for everyone. There is profanity aplenty, and there is graphic sex. And conspicously MIA in this book about the Jewish Army is Judaism itself. Absent are any scenes of religious soldiers donning tallis and tfillin on the battlefield, scenes which have been heart-warming and encouraging to me and many of us in the Diaspora throughout Israel's many conflicts. Perhaps this is the piece of the puzzle that Kaufman is missing. He sees no end to this conflict, because he can't really define the Jew's claim on the land itself, other than the Holocaust and two millenia of anti-Semitism and the social justice of the world that it is right for the Jews to have a homeland.

But the world is not just, and it has proven time and again that it cares little for the plight of the Jews. It is more than these things that tie the Jews to the land of Israel. It is Judaism itself. And I think that is what his soldiers need to win this war.


Irina Tsukerman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Irina Tsukerman said...

Thank you for this honest review. I've heard about the book, but wasn't sure whether I wanted to read it. Now I *know* that I don't want to read it... and that's why I will.

Ezzie said...

Honestly, that was a really good review. Ever think about giving up medicine? :)

And I think you're right about what is needed to win the war... and it's interesting to note that in every Israeli war, even the most secular soldiers seem to show their religious side as the war rages. And that is (one reason) why we will win.

A Simple Jew said...

Thanks for the review. I just ordered a used copy off of Amazon.

LittleBirdies said...

I haven't read the book, but as you said it was heart-warming to see the picture of the IDF soldiers putting on tefillin. I saw a video on youTube of IDF soldiers saying tefillas haderech before crossing the Israeli border. It really shows where their trust is even as they are fighting in war.

LittleBirdies said...

There is another powerful picture (besides the link you provided) of the IDF with tefillin. Not sure how to put a picture in comment.

30cal said...

wow, abba. really nailed that one on the head. I think it may be fair to say that leaving out such a crucial- arguably, the most crucial factor in the lives of these IDF soldiers may have been what skewed the book to a negative point that was clearly a bit too far; thereby, making it difficult to read, due to the underlying unfairness. Jewish soldiers aren't the worlds most moral soldiers for no reason, the same way being jewish means more than just bearing the title. take away the center, and you are left with a black hole.

Ralphie said...

Wait - I thought Little Red Riding hood was a venereal little slut.