The Origins of Matches

by Alan Kaufman

Cover of Matches by Alan Kaufman
Many readers who know me only as a poet and memoirist may be rather surprised to learn that my first full-length fictional effort is about Israeli soldiers serving in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. How, they may wonder, did I come to write about Israeli soldiers? I am a bi-national, Israeli and American, and an Israeli army veteran. I touched on this briefly in my memoir Jew Boy, but did not discuss then that I have an Israeli daughter from an early marriage. Isadora is 17 years old, living in Israel, and just a year away from her own army service. A Hebrew-speaking beauty with dirty blonde bleach hair and mischievous blue eyes, she is an accomplished actress and sometimes writer who has already appeared in several important stage productions. She is also a highly skilled equestrian (her dream is to own her own horse someday) and in every way a typical Israeli girl -- her mother's best friend and in perpetual contact with her posse on her cell phone. She dates boys and listens to Israeli punk bands and, despite her mother's protests, wears a ring piercing above her eyebrow. It was my fears for her safety that started me on the road to the writing of Matches.

In 2002, Intifada II raged, and suicide bombings of Israeli restaurants, buses and soldiers' hitchhiking stations were daily headlines. Due to my strained relations with her mother, my daughter and I had been out of touch for three years. But in 2002, each time a bomb went off in Israel my heart stuck in my throat and I became frantic with worry over Isadora. My state of mind was not something that I felt I could share with my friends in San Francisco, Jewish and non-Jewish, who tend to lean politically to the left and are not especially sympathetic to Israel. They all knew that I had served extensively in the IDF, but we never really spoke about it. Although they were receptive to my concerns, I felt very alone with my memories of military experiences and with my anguished worry for my daughter. Also, I felt that the general discussion about Israeli soldiers in the public and media was rather fraught with misconceptions.

During a reading I gave from my memoir Jew Boy, an audience member declared that Israeli soldiers were little better than those who had hunted my mother, a Holocaust survivor, during WWII. The audience applauded her as she took her seat. On another occasion, at a book store appearance, a woman angrily insisted that Israel's leadership should be tried in The Hague for "crimes against humanity." It was evident to me that, when it came to the subject of Israel, these otherwise perfectly nice and undoubtedly intelligent people -- some of them Jewish -- had lost all perspective; could not be more divorced from the realities of life there or grasp the reasons for and experience of actual military service.

Let me then pause here to say a brief word about the Middle East conflict.

At the turn of the Twenty First Century, Israel is perhaps the only modern Westernized state whose very existence remains the source of ongoing speculation and debate in the forums of the world. This, and countless wars, has produced, in Israel, a status quo of existential crisis so deeply-rooted, so profound that Israelis are no longer even aware of it.

The modern Israeli cannot find his or her own reflection in the mirror of the outside world. When he glances that way, he is greeted by looks of inimicable hostility and as often, the barrel of a gun. Surrounded by foes, yet she longs for friends. Proud of their achievements in creating an enlightened modern state from out of desert and swamps, Israelis feel like democratic heroes yet are treated by the world as pariahs.

It is a condition painfully familiar to them for it echoes, with relentless irony, the predicament of their pre-State forbearers at the turn of the last century, when Jews were also universally despised -- a condition which the Jewish State was intended, in part, to remedy.

Israel's most well-meaning critics cannot seem to grasp that modern Jewish history, culminating at Auschwitz, has taught Israel a fearsome lesson; one that constitutes her very raison d'etre, as well as for the Israel Defence Forces. It is that in the modern era, a people without a state and an army are fair game for certain annihilation.

Therefore, Israel's tough and sometimes unpopular diplomatic and military stance reflects, in part, a knowledge of the consequences of failure to defend oneself against attack. To fail to respond -- or be unable to -- spells, simply, the end of existence itself.

What many Westerners -- bred on political and philosophical paradigms untested by so rigorous an experience as the Holocaust -- do not seem to fully grasp is the extent to which, in Israel, sheer survival is the ultimate litmus test of social and political policy. If we are surviving; then the strategy is succeeding. Whichever policy assures the continuation of safe life for Jews in the tiny sliver of land that is the Jewish State, wins the day. Whichever leader fends off the peril that has stalked Jewish history in various forms, is the best leader.

While this does not make for much public relations capital in the world-at-large, it means, for Israel, that a nation of Jews can rise to breakfast one more day and then one more day again.

This is something I learned as a soldier in the IDF, when, in basic training, our sergeant told the unit: "In a war, the best soldier is not the hero but the one who survives." I was to hear this view repeatedly throughout my army service. Later, I would grasp how this very same idea permeates Israeli politics.

For to make diplomatic breakthroughs often requires a people to altruistically stake their very necks for the sake of an idea, a principle, a condition, a vision -- one usually fostered by third parties. This, Israelis are unwilling to do. We know too much. For Israel arose from the ashes of every cherished principle held dear by that very same world which today militates for its concessions; governments and moral codes which utterly betrayed us Jews before, during and even after World War II.

Yet, there is also a kind of lofty pragmatism imbedded within this relentless Israeli impulse to survive at all costs, regardless of how unflattering it looks. For, in order to live, a people, no matter how gravely tested, must also be able to dream


Therefore, twice now, first with Egypt and later with Jordan, Israel, in sometimes glaring contradiction of everything that is thought about her, has proved quite willing to make extraordinary concessions for the sake of establishing peaceful relations. And when, at the Camp David Accords, on the White House lawn, before the entire world -- including many stunned Israelis -- Yitzak Rabin shook hands with Yassar Arafat, who personified, for most of us, the perennial foe, we Israelis proved that we too could make such a leap into the unknown; on the other side of which might lie, equally, in our imagination, a swimming pool or a mass grave.

The Israeli survival mechanism is thus far more complex, more multi-faceted, then any of her indignant detractors at those bookstore readings might care to admit. And yet, there remains the matter of the seeming intractability of the Israeli -- Palestinian conflict. Palestinians have been called the Jews of the Arab world. Like us, they are an exilic people rooted by heritage to a particular ground.

Whenever I meet a Palestinian, I feel a sharp pang for how alike we are in certain respects. Our nimble wit and deft handling of adversity. Our aptitude for science, culture and commerce. Their grandmothers in their scarves look like our grandmothers in their babushkas. We should be friends, not foes. The Palestinian right to a homeland is genuine and unarguable. Theirs has been an aspiration rooted equally in culture and memory and pride. Though he or she does not look back over a diasporic history strewn with the corpses of brethren slain in country after country in genocidal slaughter, Palestinians, like the Jews, have been socially and politically brutalized as the odd man out. Though support for Palestinian aspirations is de rigeur among Arab states, few have extended to them any genuine assistance or substantive guidance. Twice now, in 1948 when the UN partition granted to them a state of their own, and decades later at Camp David, when they withdrew from the Clinton peace process, the Palestinians have retreated from the prospect of a state. Senior Arab governments of the region should never have permitted them do so. But perhaps these were only tough lessons to be learned along the road to eventual statehood. After all, it took us Jews nearly two thousand years to relearn them.

Here is what I fear. I fear that the Palestinians have forgotten what their dreams are. For of late, they have undergone a large-scale radical change from a nationalistically-driven people possessed of a legitimate vision of self-determination, to a religiously inspired one, running aground on a campaign of furious genocidal jihad.

Hamas -- an implacable militant religious movement sworn to the destruction of Israel -- controls a far greater majority among Palestinians then is generally known. Islamic fundamentalism has been steadily spreading throughout the Middle East and not only in such hotbeds of poverty as Gaza but in greater portions of Egypt and Jordan as well. In Israel's former administered territories, the by-now old school Palestinian Authority, who seem to be in charge, are, in fact, not in control, and are barely holding on by their bloody fingernails.

The Palestinian Authority wants a state for the Palestinians. This, Israel desires. Hamas, and so Islamic fundamentalism, covets Israel in her entirety, and encourages a perpetual state of destabilization, for the eventual triumph and glory of radical Islam.

This Israel will not permit.

Here is my hope: that the Palestinians will gain a state, and that it will be enough. But so long as hostilities proceed, the Palestinians remain troubling and oppressed heroes to many people in the West and in a sense, this encourages them to prefer a violent glory to an uneventful peace. For perhaps the Palestinians grasp too that once peace is attained, the world will quickly rush to forget them.

Two parties, faced with an insoluble dilemma, may remain locked in belligerence that, like Maya's bad marriage to Dotan in Matches, eventually explodes. Israel and the Palestinians today are like a marriage in which no partner has been willing to leave, and that has become over time, strangely, awfully, a way of surviving.

In 2002, though Western perceptions of Israel deeply concerned me, it was not until much later that I decided to write a novel about being an Israeli soldier in the territories. For, like many others, I was yet in a state of paralysed disbelief at the sudden tailspin of the peace process that had culminated in the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. I had supported Rabin's dreaming gamble on peace. One moment there was every reason to hope; but then, in the next, none whatsoever. When he was assassinated, gradually the dream gave way to a ceaseless round of attack and counterattack that I knew only too well.

Night after night I found myself at the computer, reading in the online Israeli newspaper Haaretz about the latest terrorist attack on Jews and the inevitable retaliation against Palestinians. Each time I read of a new suicide bombing, I selfishly prayed that the incident had not occurred in an area which my daughter frequented. For a while, such locations seemed magically exempt. And then, a suicide bomber struck too near. I made frantic calls to her home. No answer. It was one of the worst moments of my life.

When I called friends, tried to explain my worry, I could hear by their voices their real inability to grasp what I was talking about. I don't blame them. How can they know -- even given the events of 9/11 -- what it is like to have buses blow up daily on major urban thoroughfares; to have crowded family restaurants explode in a fireball? It's not your average sort of human experience.

It was the attack on Isadora's immediate vicinity that decided me to do something, anything. I could not stand feeling helpless for long. Unable to bear inaction, I sought recourse to journalism. I persuaded a major daily newspaper to accredit me with the Israeli government as a foreign correspondent. I flew to Israel at the height of the suicide bombings and covered the war that had come to be known as "The War of the Buses".

In 2002 I found a country steeped in terror and gloom. Jerusalem, my old hometown, was deserted. Walking its streets reawakened in me many, many memories of events that are portrayed in Matches. I saw the sprawling house in Katamon where I lived in a rented room with a wide veranda, next to the old Kurdistani woman who would accidentally set herself on fire. In its big courtyard still sat old Iraqi Jewish women making apricot leather in big metal pans. I saw the steakias on Agrippas Street where so often I went drinking and dancing late at night with fellow artists and writers. I walked alone with press badge prominently displayed in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the Arab Quarter, where, in happier days, my friends and I would move in a lively shoulder-to-shoulder crush of tourists, shopping for bargains in the crowded stalls; this followed by sumptuous dining on lamb and rice in a Palestinian restaurant. But now, there was not a tourist in sight. I was advised by a squad of militant young Palestinians to return to the Jewish Quarter or else. At the Wailing Wall, normally aswarm with festive visitors, the only people in evidence were armed soldiers and a handful of sombre old religionists.

I also saw something I'd never seen before. In the town center, on Ben Yehuda Street, the most popular party street in Jerusalem (and so, the hardest hit by suicide bombings) the sidewalks were eerily quiet, the shops empty. But on the street corners were musicians, violinists, cellists and flutists, young and old, figures out of a Chagall painting, who stood there serenely playing classical music, Mozart and Brahms and Bach, serenading the desertion. Their playing, they explained, was an affirmation against death. Everywhere I went in Jerusalem, armed guards frisked me at the doors of coffee shops and restaurants. In the streets and on buses people looked anxious, shell-shocked. I had never before seen Israel like this.

I hadn't been in touch with the military side of life for some time but now I visited IDF units in the West Bank and interviewed settlers, Palestinians, and also the families of Israeli teenagers who had been killed by suicide bombers. One of the Jewish mothers I interviewed showed me albums of photographs of her 16 year-old daughter, a talented guitarist, who died in the bombing of the Sbarro Pizzeria in the center of Jerusalem.

The suicide bomber had entered, she said, bearing his nail bomb in a guitar case. He had stood, according to the forensic reports, right next to her daughter, who also bore an instrument case, though hers contained a guitar. The bomber, she explained, had detonated right next to her daughter. She now showed me a photo taken of her dead daughter's face as it looked after the blast. It was completely flattened. "You know," this mother told me, "you don't stop loving your child just because her face looks like this in death. Even this face you love. And I look at this photo with as much love as all the others."

All this reawakened in me traumatic memories of my years serving as an IDF soldier in the territories, in Gaza and the West Bank. Out of this trip came articles, most notably a large spread on suicide bombers and their victims, that I co-authored and which appeared in the Sunday Los Angeles Times. The experience also reawakened in me an interest in the woman's side of war, her experience, as I interviewed many mothers and women and generated two articles about women in the war. This is why women's experience, Jewish and Arab, forms one main nucleus of Matches in the book's long middle section.

While reporting on the war I visited my daughter. It was the first time we'd met in years, and she had grown into a lovely young woman. We circled warily around each other, seeking an opening. The breakthrough came when I hung out with her friends and answered their questions about what girls wear in San Francisco and also about the rock scene. They oohed and ahhed, visibly impressed. They chattered happily about Isadora's new boyfriend, a tall basketball player, and asked, shooting secret glances at each other, for tips about boys. Clearly, my answer was make or break. "Always keep them off-balance," I said. "Women are the mystery that men should spend their lives trying to solve…never let them succeed." They liked that and laughed and laughed. My daughter threw her arms around me and gave me a big kiss. I had passed the all-important best girlfriends test. Now I was accepted.

Isadora talked about the books she was reading: Prozac Nation (In Hebrew translation) and The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. She no longer rode the bus into Tel Aviv for her theatre rehearsals, she told me, but took taxis each way. Buses terrified her, and also bus stations. When we travelled to Tel Aviv together, she slid down in her seat as the cab passed the Central Bus Station. "You don't have to worry here," I said naively "Not a whole block from the bus station." "Of course you do," she said. "After they blow up one bus, then they blow up a car somewhere nearby just as the ambulances are coming to help. That way they kill the rescuers." She also said that each time she rode the taxi to and from Tel Aviv -- about twice a week -- she worried about a terrorist attack. She worried about an attack when she went to the beach. When she sat in a café. When she walked in the center of town. When she shopped for groceries in the supermarket. She worried about an attack when she sat in school, learning. Sometimes she dreamed about an attack. Gradually, we attained intimacy, mended fences. She is a budding poet, and when the Israeli author Etgar Keret staged a reading for me in a Tel Aviv club, I brought her on stage with me and we performed together, I in English and she in Hebrew, each reading our poems. It was a miracle moment! The audience gave us a standing ovation, and Isadora told me that she was proud to have me for a daddy.

One week later a suicide bomber targeted another club close to where we had performed. He tried to drive his car bomb through the club doors and kill everyone inside. Luckily, an alert armed guard at the door opened fire and stopped him. That it could easily have been Isadora in that club (and me) was plain.

In the way of such things, like grim cosmic karma, I was contacted not long after this by an old IDF buddy who told me that because of my experience in the IDF I could be reactivated to a front line unit. I agreed without hesitation to go. I felt that I had to do something to protect my daughter, and Israel, against suicide bombers.

In 2003, I was reactivated and served in the conflict, in a front line unit, alongside young soldiers. During the rigorous retraining, I found that my eyes were less sharp than they had been. I hadn't handled an automatic weapon in some time, and I found it hard to hit the longer-range targets, some of which were 100 yards away. But the young soldier beside me, a marksman sniper, offered to shoot my target for me, so that when the officer in charge came around to grade performance, he was dazzled by my skill. My target bore several direct bulls eyes. The grinning young sniper and I exchanged winks.

To the troops I served with in the IDF in 2003, I was like an older brother, the experienced veteran, and we got on famously. It was a tense time. IDF soldiers were being kidnapped and murdered by militants. My unit was engaged in operations to prevent infiltration by suicide bombings, and I felt satisfied to be able to take a direct hand in protecting Isadora. Naturally, I didn't tell her that I was serving until my tour of duty ended. She would have been sick with worry, and with good reason. Days after returning to San Francisco from my service, one of the boys on the base, a 21-year-old sergeant, was killed by militants.

By this time I was actively engaged in the composition of Matches. Some of the material in the novel was developed directly from notes taken on the front lines of the conflict, during lulls in the action and even, at times, in the midst of operations, hurriedly scrawled into a little notebook which I kept in one of the ammo pouches on my battle vest. Naturally, certain details were later changed, but the feeling -- the urgent sense of things -- is very much retained.

After my years of service in the IDF as a soldier in the territories, I had incurred certain definite symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as the direct result of the sorts of events portrayed in Matches. And it occurred to me that in writing this book I needed to faithfully portray the psychology of a soldier engaged in such service -- not only as an act of personal expiation but also as a guide to understanding the anguish of soldiers, Israeli and American both, who are presently engaged in anti-terrorist operations in the midst of hostile civilian populations. I felt it important that I compose a novel that would avoid the polarities of the heated political discourse and remain faithful to the soldiers themselves, the challenges posed to their decency and humanity. I wanted to show the personal consequences of such warfare. Therefore I tried, to the best of my ability, to create a work that is neither left-wing nor right-wing but an honest account of the experiences of Israeli soldiers themselves.

Alan Kaufman **Alan Kaufman's latest novel is Matches (Little, Brown and Company). His critically-acclaimed memoir, Jew Boy (Fromm/Farrar,Strauss, Giroux), has appeared in three editions, hardcover and paperback, in the United States and Great Britain. He is the award-winning editor of three anthologies, the most recent of which, The Outlaw Bible of American Literature, was recently reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. He has taught in the graduate and undergraduate schools of Academy of Art University and in writing workshops in San Francisco. His work has appeared in Salon, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Partisan Review and The San Francisco Examiner. He has been widely anthologized, most recently in Nothing Makes You Free: Writings From Descendents of Holocaust Survivors (WW Norton).

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