At a snowy Israel Defense Forces outpost close enough to the Lebanese border to see Hezbollah fighters in the distance, an American-born volunteer soldier with his gun on the ground sat with a pen, sketching out a short story about the offbeat characters inside an army platoon.
The outpost was one of many settings in the West Bank and along the Gaza border where 22-year-old Bay Area native Ilan Benjamin wrote a series of semiautobiographical pieces that would become his newly self-published collection “Masa: Stories of a Lone Soldier.” A lone soldier is someone with no immediate family in Israel, usually a citizen of another country who volunteers for the IDF.
Benjamin read from “Masa” in a book launch last month at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley. Sitting in a nearby café, the energetic Benjamin, who was born in Oakland and grew up in Moraga, describes how he knew from age 10 he wanted both to defend Israel and become a writer. His father, Efi Lubliner, is Israeli, and his mother, Shira, teaches education in the East Bay. Benjamin says he grew up seeing himself as Israeli and believed that if young Israelis were required to serve in the army, an American with strong ties to the country should serve, as well.
When Benjamin (who also goes by his given last name, Lubliner) graduated from Campolindo High School in 2008, he made aliyah and spent a year traveling, learning Hebrew and writing before joining the IDF. He says he went for artistic material as much as patriotic duty.
“I grew up in a boring, beautiful perfect suburb where there was nothing to write about,” Benjamin said.
It didn’t take long after his induction to generate material. He wrote his initial piece for the 13-story collection during his first months in basic training, when three soldiers committed suicide and several others threatened to. Benjamin turned the tragic episodes into the black comedy “Abel,” about a whining, misfit American lone soldier who inexplicably takes his own life. In an attempt to highlight what he sees as the severity, even brutality of basic training, Benjamin cast the IDF itself as the Cain who murders Abel, the main character. Benjamin said he was trying to strip bare the novice soldier’s experience and the story is neither “a condemnation nor a celebration.”
“What I hope to accomplish is show what it’s like to be an infantry soldier and be a stranger in a foreign land,” he says. Nearly every story is at least partly based on his own experiences during a period he calls “the most challenging of my life.”
In the story “Wolf Crier,” Benjamin depicts the internal tensions that erupt among soldiers stationed at a tense border zone on the Golan Heights. A Palestinian crosses the border fence in “The Tourist,” which describes an incident Benjamin was involved in on the Gaza border. Fearing the individual is a terrorist, the soldiers are on the verge of shooting him, but he turns out to be a frightened youth fleeing his father’s physical abuse.
On his website, Benjamin describes the book, whose title means “journey,” as “a coming-of-age story, a military yarn and an intimate portrait of life in one of the world’s most respected armies.
“From my first week of basic training to my last day serving next to Gaza, it was driven into our heads again and again that our purpose was to defend innocent people,” he says. “And not just Israelis but Palestinians, too. I saw whole operations foiled based on intelligence of high civilian clusters situated too close to our target. The IDF goes out of its way to protect human life. In 21⁄2 years of service, I was never given one immoral order.”
Benjamin tried to vary his approach to storytelling. Some pieces are narrative poems and some stories are told from an Israeli viewpoint. In “Righteous Man,” written while he was guarding the West Bank, Benjamin takes on the persona of an ultra-Orthodox settler.
During his IDF service, Benjamin wrote every chance he got, including when he was on guard duty. He composed stories hunched over inside military vehicles, in a Hummer and in his barracks.
His fellow soldiers used to laugh, he recalls. “‘There he goes,’ they’d say. ‘He’s in writing mode again. He’s gone.’ ” Benjamin spent as much time reading for inspiration as he did writing. He brought books back to his base from the kibbutz where he was staying when off duty and read them on the sly. “I was influenced especially by escape stories like ‘The Count of Monte Crisco’ and ‘Papillon’ because I wanted to escape myself.”
Benjamin, who finished his service in May 2012, plans to continue to write, possibly a novel. In the fall he entered USC film school to focus on screenwriting and is shooting a full-length documentary on the IDF.
Benjamin says writing “Masa” helped him work through his Israeli military experience, one marked by “trauma and absurdities and frustration,” he says. At the same time, “The guys I served with were some of the greatest people I’ve ever known. Our backgrounds, races, religions — these were all irrelevant. We all went through hell together and came out brothers.
“That’s the beauty of the army. It strips you of your differences. You have no choice whether or not to be tolerant. You’re stuck together till the end.”
“Masa: Stories of a Lone Soldier” by Ilan Benjamin (220 pages, Meises Books, $15)