The IDF is still a base for these two immigrant authors
Ex-North Americans Matti Friedman and Haim Watzman detail their aliyah experiences in a candid mutual interview
Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.
At least on paper, authors Matti Friedman and Haim Watzman could be doppelgangers.
“You actually remind me of a younger version of myself,” Watzman said to Friedman, with whom he was sharing the stage at Tuesday night’s installment of the monthly series Personal Pages: Meet the Authors, at Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum.
The similarities ranged from the superficial — both are North American expatriates living in Jerusalem — to the professional — both used to write for The Jerusalem Report and were Sami Rohr Prize finalists (Watzman placed, Friedman won). Their family lives are also alike — they’re married to Israelis and speak Hebrew at home. And both served in the Israel Defense Forces, an experience that unquestionably influences their work.
But the authors, who share an insider-outsider perspective that’s relatable to many of their fans, take a different tack when it comes to storytelling — and as they read aloud to a cozy audience in the surprisingly inviting underground Crusader Hall, their diametric styles complemented each other beautifully.
Watzman, a writer of fiction long-used to composing the first-person short, comfortably read snippets of his story “The Importance of Low Expectations.” He collected consistent laughs with snarky, self-deprecating observations.
Watzman’s works include “Company C,” which describes life as an immigrant soldier in an IDF combat unit, and “A Crack in the Earth,” about a cross-country journey of Israel from tip to tail, including a pit stop at the lowest point on earth by the Dead Sea.
His initial impressions of Israel struck a chord with listeners who likely also had to accustom themselves to a slightly grittier lifestyle here, even if idealism did play a role in their decision to immigrate.
And while life on one side of the extreme or the other might be simpler, noted Watzman, avoiding situations that require tough moral decisions is simply taking the easy way out.
“I went to the famous Sabra and Shatila demonstration [in Tel Aviv on September 25, 1982] and the next day put on my uniform and went back to Lebanon,” he said.
This is something Friedman can understand — he also served in Lebanon, though he was there in the late 1990s during a low-intensity guerrilla war that culminated in Israel’s withdrawal from the southern part of the country in 2000.
But Friedman, who was a founding staff member of The Times of Israel and spent five years working for the Associated Press, didn’t initially strike as personal of a tone in his writing as Watzman.
“I was used to never writing in the first person,” he said.
His first book, “The Aleppo Codex,” is an exciting award-winning work of investigative journalism following the fate of the famed and mystical religious text.
But his second work, said Friedman, required more of a “transition.”
“‘Pumpkinflowers’ is a story that I have to tell,” he said. “So it had to be written in a different way.”
Friedman takes a slightly rosier view of the IDF, if not its actions on the ground. Noting its civilian draft and lack of gung-ho machismo, he said that an enthusiastic attitude towards violence is mocked, not encouraged.
“The name of my unit, Nahal, stands for ‘Fighting Pioneer Youth,’” he said wistfully. “Try to sell that in the Marines.”
He also described his service in Lebanon as having a floral theme.
“Our outposts were named after basil, citrus, red peppers, pumpkin,” he said. “Casualties were called ‘flowers,’ hence the name ‘Pumpkinflowers.’ The evacuation helicopters were ‘thistles.’ Even the warning system for incoming mortar shells was called ‘buttercup.’”
Despite differing writing styles, Watzman and Friedman share some of the same challenges. It’s a fine line to walk, describing an experience foreign to many readers both abroad and in their new home.
In the end, Watzman said, “We write in English about a society that operates in Hebrew.”
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, the Russian-born ex-minister and former Prisoner of Zion, will speak with Matthew Kalman at Beit Shmuel on Sunday, May 7, about his life, work and the major issues facing Israel and the Jewish people. He will also sign copies of his books, which will be on sale at the event. This event is co-produced with Nefesh B’Nefesh. Advance tickets NIS 50, available HERE.
On Monday, May 15, guests for Personal Pages: Meet the Authors at the Tower of David are Anne-Marie O’Connor (“Lady in Gold”) and Ora Ahimeir (“Bride”). O’Connor is ending a temporary sojourn writing and reporting from Jerusalem, while Ahimeir is a long-time fixture in the city’s diplomatic and literary scene. Advance tickets NIS 50 available HERE.
To join our priority booking list and be the first to hear of each event, send an email with the word “Subscribe” to [email protected]