Nathan Falk, "Matches" protagonist, is binational, an Israeli army veteran and a citizen of America and Israel. When Alan Kaufman's novel opens, Nathan is serving in a reserve unit of combat-trained Israeli infantry. He had already served two years in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), and as a reservist was frequently asked what brought him to "this insane mess?" Why join the army if he didn't have to? An American by birth, Falk feels he had lived pretending to himself that non-Jews really didn't think he was a "Christ-killing, world-dominating, media-controlling k*ke..." But he was always aware of an "ice-cold separateness." "They never let you forget not so much that you were a Jew but that they....were not." Nathan strongly believes that the only place in the world he can be free of this baggage is in Israel. Toward the end of the novel, an army general expresses, yet again, his surprise that an educated American, "who knows Auden and Yeats," would volunteer for the Israeli armed services. Falk replies that he loves the Jewish State and would do anything to keep it alive. "Because loving it is like loving myself." Then he reverts to dark humor as a way of chiding himself for sounding sappy and sentimental. However, he notes that the general is moved by his heartfelt statement.
Kaufman attempts to provide here an evenhanded account of an Israeli soldier's life at the front and to reflect the enormous human toll the seemingly never-ending Palestinian-Israeli conflict takes on everyone it touches. Although many might say, (and I am sure they will do so), that no one can be objective or unbiased about this horrendous situation that saps energy and hope and breeds hatred and terror on both sides, I think the author does a superb job of bringing the realities of the war into the reader's living rooms. His perspective is much broader than one would think or expect. In an up close and personal, in-your-face kind of way, we accompany Nathan Falk as he navigates his schizophrenic world - the intricate maze of his personal civilian life and that of his military reservist tours of duty. Falk is a wonderful character - absolutely three-dimensional and very likeable, although his life away from the front lines, in Jerusalem where he is a member of an artistic, intellectual circle and the lover of his best friend's wife, may call his morality into question. His heart and mind are in the right place though. Bottom line - he is a decent, thoughtful man.
Kaufman also draws extraordinary portraits of those who people our protagonist's life: Brandt, the squad leader with the looks and sex appeal of a movie star; Avi, a Moroccan-born Jew who drives a taxi in civilian life; Sergeant Dedi, whom the men would follow anywhere, has "the darkstaring focus of a Ninja tenth-degree black belt." He is an art student when not leading death defying patrols; Bachshi, the Bedouin, the unit's best tracker and Falk's close friend - or at least "as close as a Bedouin and a Jew can be;" Rami the cook who feeds his men as if he were a Jewish mother; Elchanon the very religious immigrant from Yeman, lives in a settlement which will eventually be turned over to the Palestinians. He and his fellow "moshavniks" believe that "the Israel granted to the Jews in the Torah which stretched from Lebanon to the Euphrates, and all the way to Amman and Damascus, is the Israel that we should have today." He is a fundamentalist who is sure that "After the war against the goyim will come the war between the Jews." If you do not believe as he does, than you are an enemy.
The narrative is permeated with wonderful humor which alleviates the grim reality of being a member of an occupying force trying to prevent lethal suicide bombers from getting through and succeeding in their mission to kill as many innocent civilians as possible. "Matches" is a war novel unlike any I have ever read. The vivid prose moves, informs and disturbs, as well as causes laughter. "Matches," the author tells us, is a term taken from a poem by Hannah Senesh, "'Blessed Is The Match' - a hymn to valor - and is the IDF code word for a soldier. Among the troops, it has come to mean someone who strikes, burns and dies."
Alan Kaufman is an American who joined the Israeli Defense Forces two decades ago and returned for multiple tours of duty, most recently in 2003. His essay on "The Origin of Matches" at the back of the book is extraordinary. A must read!
I cannot recommend this riveting novel highly enough. Enjoy!