An Israeli Defense Forces soldier, Harvard student and published author: Shani Boianjiu has done a lot in her 25 years. Born in Jerusalem in 1987, she was raised in a Western Galilee village six miles from the Israeli-Lebanon border. In 2005, she began her compulsory service in the Israeli army. She took part in the withdrawal from Gaza, then became a weapons instructor, training soldiers who were deploying to Lebanon during the 2006 action.
After completing her military service, Boianjiu matriculated at Harvard as a 20-year old freshman — definitely older and probably wiser than her peers. Majoring in English, Boianjiu began to write what would become The People Of Forever Are Not Afraid. The novel follows three young Israeli women through their IDF service. Published in September 2012 to immediate acclaim, Boianjiu became the youngest person to be named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35.”
The critics kvelled. “A dark, riveting window into the mind-state of Israel’s younger generation, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid marks the arrival of a brilliant writer,” wrote E.J. Levy, book critic for the Wall Street Journal. “At a time when so many of America’s best writers seem to be in retreat from realism, championing a return to genre fiction (zombies and ghosts, comic-book characters and thrillers), Boianjiu’s bracing honesty is tonic.”
Boianjiu wrote the book in English; it will soon be published in Hebrew. In advance of her April 11 appearance at the Katz JCC, Boianjiu answered questions via email, from her home in Israel.
Some American Jews idolize the Israeli military and its soldiers. But it’s possible that they don’t know what they are talking about. What are the top three things American Jews don’t know about the Israeli army experience?
The Israeli army is a lot more like high school than most non-Israelis imagine. The army cares that you get along well with your peers and gain an education about what it means to be a good citizen while you are in the army. A lot of times commanders remind you of your high school teachers.
Being in the army is very, very boring. You don’t get to choose what to do, and most of what you are told to do is boring and repetitive.
If someone dares you to swallow one army biscuit in one minute, do not accept the bet even if it is for a lot of money, even if the small biscuit looks totally not intimidating. Those biscuits are designed to dry your mouth and it is physically impossible to swallow one in a minute. Greater eaters than you have tried and failed over the last half century.
“Boring” is not what most Americans think it would be like to serve in the IDF. Now that you are a bit older, do you think that boredom was a function of your age or of the actual boredom of military life?
I think it was not at all just a function of my age. For anyone who thinks that I exaggerate in my descriptions of boredom in the IDF because of my age, I recommend that they do nothing but stand and stare for eight hours. Then imagine doing that for days, with only a few hours of break in between. You get to truly appreciate the meaning of boredom while guarding.
In America, writing “Israel” and “Palestinian” automatically spurs political debate. What questions have Americans asked you that surprise you? What American opinions surprise, scare or anger you?
I think that whenever Americans engage with Israel as an idea rather than a reality, it gets a little scary. I am always disappointed when I get asked black or white questions about who I am “for” and who is right or wrong because I think a fiction writer trades in ambiguities and such attitudes are the opposite of what I hoped my book will bring about.
So you get to Harvard, and there are a lot of Jewish guys there. You are older than they are and you’ve been in the Israeli army. Did they think that was totally hot? Or did you scare them?
I have no idea what they thought and it is not something that concerned me.
This article appeared originally in "Bridges," a special section.