Matti Friedman’s ‘Pumpkinflowers’ (New York Times review, May 3, 2016)

By Gal Beckerman

Israel, like America, is an idea, not just a place. As a result, it has been subjected to much metaphorical thinking — it is a refuge, a beacon, a start-up company, an unlikely flower blooming in an unforgiving desert.

Since the Middle East’s descent into chaos following the Iraq war and the ­aftermath of the Arab Spring, not to mention the crash and burn of the peace process, Israelis have had their own preferred metaphor for their current situation: an isolated hilltop fortress in hostile territory, where a semblance of normal life persists within concrete barriers. In “Pumpkinflowers,” Matti Friedman’s ­sober and striking new memoir, this ­metaphor finds its sharpest articulation.

Friedman was, literally, stationed at such an outpost. Canadian by birth, he served in the Israeli Army during the late 1990s in the last years of its military presence in southern Lebanon. The security zone, as it was known, was made up of a series of fortified lookouts, each surrounded by trenches and housing little more than bare bunkers. The army gave these lonely outposts unusually perky names like Red Pepper and Basil. Friedman was stationed at the Pumpkin.

The book is as much about Friedman’s time in Lebanon as it is a narrative of the Pumpkin’s final years, and especially the young soldiers who fought and died to defend it. Friedman is haunted by the deaths. By the 1990s, the rationale for Israel’s continued presence in Lebanon — a remnant of its 1982 invasion — had worn thin. When a midair helicopter collision near the border in 1997 took the lives of 73 soldiers on their way to the security zone, grieving mothers began a movement demanding that Israel evacuate, which it did in 2000.

Friedman’s own time at the Pumpkin is filled with a sense of inertia and pointlessness — like the trench warfare of World War I, he often notes. But there is also intimacy and brotherhood. There’s the absurdity of all the waiting and watching, as well as the adrenaline rush and confusion when the boredom is ­punctuated by spectacular violence, streaking out of the sky. Friedman understands, too, as few outsiders do, how central the military is to Israeli identity — as much a rite of passage before adulthood as a matter of citizenship. A weekend leave from the base was for these young soldiers, he writes, a time when “your father hugged you and your mother cooked you dinner, and the washing machine whirled green as you fell asleep in the room where you grew up.” The collective portrait puts “Pumpkinflowers” on a par with Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” — its Israeli analog.

(Read more here.)