February 24, 2005
The world lost one of its great comic artists last month. I am referring not to Johnny Carson, who was little known outside of the United States, but to Israeli satirist Ephraim Kishon, 80, who, although little known in America, was beloved around the world. I read somewhere that his books have sold more than 43 million copies and have been translated into 37 languages (although I can't confirm that there are, in fact, 37 languages to publish in).
Kishon was Israel's most prolific author. He wrote more than 50 books, plays and novels. You can sample his work in a recent collection of greatest hits titled "The Funniest Man on Earth" (Shapolsky). Kishon, a true king of all media, also wrote and directed several movies, including "Sallah Shabati" (1964), which launched Topol's career, "The Policeman" (1970) and "The Big Dig" (1970). Kishon also achieved Hollywood cred: His films have won three Golden Globes and were twice nominated for an Oscar.
I first learned of Kishon from that inestimable connoisseur of comedy, my mother. She gave me a copy of "Look Back, Mrs. Lot!" (Penguin, 1970). One day, when it no longer makes me laugh, I intend to return it. She compared him to Art Buchwald, which dates the reference. Suffice to say, Kishon was Dave Barry, Seinfeld and Jon Stewart all rolled into one (after all, Israel is a small country).
Kishon wrote of the Israeli everyman: plumbers, newlyweds, young parents dealing with their child's pacifier, new waves of immigrants being mistreated by immigrants who had only arrived a short while before, older parents dealing with their grown-up children. Kishon's stories were wry, wise and always revealing of Israeli culture. They were in marked counterpoint to official government propaganda, which portrayed the new Israeli as a Superman.
Today so much attention is focused in the media and on campus on Israel's day-to-day struggles that most students (not to mention most people) know little of the actual internal political structure, literature and culture of the State of Israel. As a response, UCLA is among the first universities in the country to establish an Israel studies program (for more information visit international.ucla.edu/israel/).
Israel's development is such that 57 years after it was founded, you need professors and a whole department to explain Israel's Menshevik-inspired party system and to study the poetry of Mosad Byalik and Yehudah Amichai; the novels of Amos Oz, Aharon Appelfeld and David Grossman; or even the murder mysteries of Batya Gur. Doing so is admirable, and in light of campus anti-Semitic and anti-Israel agitators, necessary and important.
However, for Israel's first 30 years, Kishon's column was the country's own Israel studies department. In Israel's march to becoming a "normal" nation, Kishon chronicled the development of an Israeli consciousness.
I recall one Kishon story that still makes me smile: a guest brings a bottle of wine to a dinner as a gift. When the host discovers he's the victim of regifting (the bottle actually contains chocolates long gone bad), he decides to track down the original giftor, only to discover that he has opened and ruined Israel's only gift and he must now buy a new one for the nation to start the cycle of regifting all over again.
Ephraim Kishon was born Ferenc Hoffman in Budapest in 1924. Son of a middle-class Jewish family, he was barred from university because of the Hungarian anti-Jewish legislation and became a goldsmith. As the Hungarian fascists came to power, he was conscripted into forced labor and was sent to several concentration camps. On one occasion, a Nazi officer lined up prisoners, including Kishon, and shot every tenth man, just skipping him. Another time, the commandant was looking for a chess partner and Kishon survived by playing him, while others were sent to their death. Still later, Kishon was placed on a train transport destined to Sobibor, the Polish extermination camp, and managed to escape.
In life, as in comedy, timing is everything. Or as Kishon later wrote, "They made the mistake of letting one satirist live." He survived the rest of the war by posing as a Slovak laborer named Stanko Andras.
Kishon returned to Budapest at war's end. He wrote for a satirical publication but found the Stalinist regime not to his taste. After arranging a trip to Prague, he managed to escape. In 1949, he immigrated to Israel. According to a Kishon tribute Web site, "The name Ephraim Kishon was given to him by an immigration officer."
At first Kishon lived in a reception camp and then a kibbutz, working at a variety of odd jobs while learning Hebrew. Within two years he had published his first satire, "The Blaumlich Canal," in the newspaper Davar. Shortly thereafter, he started writing a regular column in the newspaper Maariv.
The height of Kishon's popularity came around the time of the Six-Day War. In his columns Kishon captured the atmosphere of Israel under siege, as seen by a Holocaust survivor who was as surprised to be under attack as he was to see his country triumph, which he mined to great effect in such works as "So Sorry We Won" (Ma'ariv, 1967).
Around this time, Kishon's books began to appear in German. He developed a huge following in Germany, which pleased him to no end. He was delighted, his son told newsmen, "That the children of my hangmen are my admirers."
By the 1980s, Kishon found himself once again an outsider, no longer an immigrant, but not a sabra either, alienated from the literary establishment and troubled by what was going on in his country. He started to write opinion pieces.
Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Kishon recalled, "One day, in other words, I realized that I was growing rather more interested in the PLO's doings up in Lebanon than in the plumber's down my drains.... Maybe it's also a matter of age. A man can't write and write without getting a little older."
Some preferred his humor to his politics, some his politics to his books, still others his movies to his books or his politics.
Kishon began spending part of the year in Switzerland, a country from which he could write about the Israel he was proudest of (without having to put up with too many of what he called the generation of "self-conscious Israelis"). A new country provided Kishon with new comic fodder. In one of Kishon's funniest works, "Land Without Fleas," he chronicles his attempt to litter in a Zurich held to Swiss standards of cleanliness.
Kishon died of heart attack on Jan. 29, 2005, in Switzerland. He was at work on a new novel. He once said: "I'm not a writer. I'm just a humorist. Only when you are dead, you become a writer."
Ephraim Kishon, Israel's greatest humorist and most prolific author is now one of its greatest writers. The writer, whom to millions was Israel, is now part of its history. Just as Kishon studied Israel, his work remains for future generations to study, and for people everywhere to enjoy.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.