Writer coming to S.F. with gripping tale of IDF service

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The Israeli military has always leaned toward the poetic in naming its military systems and bases. Outposts in the rough and dangerous landscape of south Lebanon in the 1990s, for example, were called Basil, Citrus and Red Pepper.

The one where Canadian-born Matti Friedman served was called Pumpkin.

Matti Friedman

To the Israel Defense Forces, “buttercup” is a radar warning system and “artichoke” a night-vision device. And when soldiers hear the word “flower” over their military radio, they know a comrade is hurt. “Oleanders” are the dead.

Friedman writes about the IDF’s propensity for these type of names, and much more, in his new book “Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story,” which reviewers have compared to a host of classic war memoirs.

Friedman is already highly decorated. He won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for “The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible,” pocketing a cool $100,000 (one of literature’s largest awards) for adeptly exploring the Jewish experience in a work of nonfiction.

A former Jerusalem bureau correspondent for the Associated Press, Friedman is scheduled to appear in conversation with New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch at 7 p.m. Monday, May 16 in the JCC of San Francisco’s Fisher Hall.

In his latest work, Friedman explores his stint in the IDF in the late 1990s, when he was part of a small group of soldiers charged with securing a hilltop in hostile territory in Lebanon. Wedged between Israel’s first Lebanon War, in 1982, and its second, in 2006, this was an “under-analyzed war,” writes the New York Times, of which Friedman “has written a top-notch account.”

To wit: “Suicide car bombs, roadside explosives, booby trapped boulders, videotaped attacks, isolated outposts, hit-and-run, a modern military on hostile territory fighting a long, hopeless war against a weaker but more determined enemy for unclear and ultimately unattainable goals,” he writes. “It is hardly possible to understand current events without understanding these ones, and yet they have been overlooked.”

In an interview with J. in advance of his JCCSF appearance, Friedman said he grew up in Toronto where his family belonged to an Orthodox synagogue.

In 1995, at age 17, Friedman said goodbye to his family and moved to Ma’ale Gilboa, a small religious kibbutz two hours north of Jerusalem. His family had been to Israel twice before, and at 16 he had visited on a Bronfman Youth Fellowship. A year after he moved to Israel, his parents and sister joined him.

Friedman said he was “swept along in the Israeli current,” entering the IDF and arriving at Outpost Pumpkin in 1997. “Pumpkinflowers” tells his story and those of his comrades, some of whom he knew, and others who died before he got a chance to know them.

Avi Ofner, whose story opens the book, falls into the latter category. Friedman, who said he kept few notes while on active duty, came to know Avi through the young man’s writings.

“In amassing material for the book at the beginning of 2012,” Friedman said, “I was picking up every scrap of information I could about every soldier who had been at that outpost, reading memorial books, many published by their families. I met Avi’s parents, wonderful and unique people, and discovered that Avi had written a lot at the Pumpkin, and some of his letters survived … He would unquestionably have gone on to be a great writer.”

He was also clearly anti-establishment. Avi “was not drinking the Kool-Aid,” Friedman said. “He had to go stand outside of himself and look at all his friends from a distance, from a cynical eye … He didn’t have to be there, but he was there.”

Avi was one of 73 soldiers killed in February 1997 in what became has become known in Israel as ason ha’msokim (the helicopters disaster) — the midair collision of two transport helicopters that were taking soldiers, some returning from leave, to their outposts.

Friedman’s words paint a picture of the tedium of long days and nights, of waiting and watching. He writes about night missions, where strange objects in the distant darkness might be enemy combatants or bundles of refuse. He writes about out-of-nowhere attacks, like the one in October 1994, three years before he arrived, that changed the way the world viewed the conflict.

In that attack, Hezbollah fighters stormed Pumpkin with rifles and rocket launchers, and planted their flag with a video camera running. The guerilla fighters killed a single Israeli soldier and failed to take the outpost, but Hezbollah’s gripping footage of the incident, seen by millions, was an early forerunner of the type of propaganda that regularly “goes viral” in this day and age.

The “Pumpkin Incident,” said Friedman, is almost “completely forgotten. It was one of the first instances when an Islamic group like Hezbollah really understood what they could do with the media. They used it in a very smart way. The picture of the flag at the Pumpkin looked like a defeat. They saw you don’t actually have to capture the outpost, you don’t have to win, you just have to look like you’re winning.”

Friedman now lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three children.

“I was pretty lucky at the Pumpkin,” he said. “I got through it without losing a friend or a limb or a child. I certainly know people who did not get through it unscathed and who have been dealing with the fallout for years.”

That being said, he added, Israelis soldiers who go through a traumatic experience at least have a small silver lining. They “come back to a society that understands,” he said. “You have a society, for better or worse, mobilized against crisis from the beginning.”

“Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story”
by Matti Friedman (Algonquin Books, 256 pages)

Matti Friedman
with Philip Gourevitch, 7 p.m. Monday, May 16 at JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. $27, discount for members. www.jccsf.org