Pumpkin Flowers Author Matti Friedman
RBC Finalist Matti Friedman (Pumpkinflowers) describes his life in the Israeli armed forces as "beyond the mindset of life in Toronto.”
review by K.J. Mullins for Weir website
When Matti Friedman moved from Toronto to Israel he thought he had landed on another planet. He was 17 and he was leaving the world’s most diversity friendly city for a place that was “so beyond the mindset of life in Toronto.”
“I was young enough to roll with the punches,” Friedman said of the move from his safe North York childhood home to the Middle East as we started to talk about the differences between North American and Middle Eastern culture and his current book Pumpkinflowers which has been shortlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction. “I liked the cultural shock. Israel is chaotic with its Middle Eastern culture.”
One of the most jarring differences between Canada and Israel is in the military draft. All young people in Israel serve in the military (3 years for males and 2 for females). While Matti could have returned to Toronto after high school to avoid serving he wanted to become a full citizen of Israel.
His turn came up quickly. He received his call-up at the age of 19. “I did it voluntarily thinking that I would join the navy. I had visions of a Baywatch life in front of me.” That daydream was just that, a dream. He was put into the army where he was in for the shock of his life. “Toronto did not prepare me for life in the Army,” Matti laughed, “ It's very hard, both physically and emotionally. I was not ready. Today I am very proud of my service to my country.”
Sending his son off to battle was not easy for Matti's father, who grew up in the United States but did not serve during the Vietnam Era. “Of course my parents were worried about me being in the Army,” Matti explained but it is an integral of Israeli life.
The Toronto native wrote of his time in the Israeli military in Pumpkinflowers: An Israeli Soldier's Story. The book gives his and other soldiers' view army life in the military outpost called the Pumpkin. It was built into the top of a small hilltop in Lebanon — it had been the scene of bitter conflicts for decades. The fields around Pumpkin weren’t filled with the orange melons, Flowers is the code word for military deaths in Israel and the Pumpkin was the hill where many young men became flowers - dying in nameless battles barely remembered even though they took place just 20-years ago. The area has been at war zone between Israel and Lebanon since the last century. There are no easy solutions and Matti doesn't believe the conflicts within the Middle East will be solved within his lifetime.
After his time in the Army Matti travelled into Lebanon using his Canadian passport. It was a journey that his friends in Israel would not consider but Friedman was then and is still very much a Canadian. He writes about the emotional trip in his book bringing some of the most moving passages that stay with the reader.
The road trip was “a very Canadian thing to do” Matti said. He has fond memories of the adventure that without his unique upbringing could not have taken place. Because of his Canadian papers Matti was able to tread where fellow Israelis dare not go. There is tension between the cultures that vibrates with every step he took in a country whose soldiers had tried to kill a few short years before.
Friedman says the Israel that he knows is very diverse. While 20% of the population is Muslim there is no doubt that its a Jewish state. “Canada's diversity is completely different. The culture here is very complicated,” Friedman says adding that the differences are “not better or worse, they are just different.”
Matti says that Canadians are blessed with the way they approach diversity within their culture making it very hard for those in North America to “wrap their heads around some parts of the world, like the Middle East.” The conflicts of the Middle East have gone on for centuries, much longer than the entire culture of North America. The conflicts are not simple misunderstandings between the people that are worked out with a few sit down meetings. “It just doesn't work like that.” There is a breakdown between the States of the Middle East with extremist religions. Matti likens it to the ongoing battles in North America over the gun problems. Two sides each have very clear ideals and they are not going to sway from their point of view.
Today Matti is the father of four young children. I asked if he has fears of their lives being in danger because of terrorism. He pointed out that Jerusalem, where his family resides, is actually very safe. Roughly the same size and population as Indianapolis his city had a total of 18 violent deaths last year compared to 118 in the US city. Stating that there is very little gun violence or drug concern in Israel Matti does say that of course he is a little “worried about terrorism.” That worry though does not bleed over in teaching his children about diversity. One of his older children is studying Arabic in school and Muslim culture is all around the city. “I don't think the kids have hostilities towards Islam, they just live very separate lives.”
The winner of this year's RBC Taylor Prize will be announced at a gala luncheon and awards ceremony at the historic Omni King Edward Hotel in downtown Toronto on Monday, March 6th.