Yoram Kaniuk could be called a writer’s writer; though singled out by Susan Sontag as the great Israeli voice of his generation, he never found the acclaim of his contemporaries Amos Oz or Aharon Appelfeld. But this may be his moment. This week, Kaniuk heads to the University of Cambridge where devotees are convening for a conference deciphering his fiction, with its typically rich mélange of autobiography, history, fantasy, tragedy, comedy, and longing. The meeting follows on the heels of the American publication of The Last Jew, a novel Kaniuk first published in Hebrew in 1982 and newly translated by Barbara Harshav. And production is slated to get underway this summer on a screen adaptation of his 1968 novel, Adam Resurrected, to be directed by Paul Schrader. He spoke on the phone from his apartment in Tel Aviv.
First off, the title. Who is The Last Jew?
The name started with my neighbor. He survived Auschwitz by being a carpenter, making beautiful boxes. He was one of the longest residents of Auschwitz and thought he was the last Jew because everyone that he knew and saw there went to the gas. Because there was no radio, no nothing, he thought maybe all the Jews are finished and he will be the last. I added the rest of the story, but he always used to speak about the fact that he thought he would be the last Jew.
But the book goes beyond one man after the war. It weaves in other characters, other eras.
I’m in love with Jewish culture. I read the Bible and the Mishneh and the Talmud and the kabbalah, but without belief, I don’t believe any of these things. I don’t believe in anything so I cannot be religious. I don’t have faith—not in human beings, not in democracy, not in God, not in anything. I like Hasidic stories. In The Last Jew there are many things that I took from the Hasidic background of my father’s family. I have all kinds of meshichim, all kinds of messiahs.
It’s about history. The settlement that I was writing about is the place that I knew as a child.
Tell me about your childhood and your family.
It’s very small and not religious at all—except for my grandfather. He was a Hebrew teacher and at the time there were no books. He had to write his own textbooks to teach history. My mother was a teacher. They were reviving a language, and they were talking the language. They had beautiful Hebrew this generation, they were pioneers. My mother lived through the First World War here, which was terrible because the Turks were tough, and then the war with the Arabs and then the Second World War.
My mother came here at the age of six or seven from Odessa in 1909. It was the year Tel Aviv was founded. They lived in Neve Tzedek, which was part of Tel Aviv, but before Tel Aviv really was. They were one of the first families, but they didn’t get the honor of being one of the families.
My father on the other hand was from a very different background. He came from Galicia, which was Austria at the time. His languages were Yiddish and German. He fought in the First World War in the German army and then he was living in Berlin. He wanted so much to be German, you can’t imagine. He was an encyclopedia of German poetry, writers. He helped the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Dizengoff, create the museum. He was the first curator and made the museum into something. He loved it. That was his life.
They were hard people, my parents. I don’t think they liked each other and they didn’t have a great life together, but each one created a great world on their own. My father helped a lot of German Jews who started to come in ’33. My childhood is mixed up with the pioneer friends of my mother and the German friends of my father. They both did wonderful things, but they didn’t get enough recognition for it, because both were not pushy enough and not connected enough, and they didn’t have each other for comfort.
The Last Jew took 25 years to come out in the United States. Was the writing of it any quicker?
It took 10 years to write. It’s a summation of Jewish fate, and I’m very pessimistic about the Jewish fate. I don’t think Israel can survive more than 50 or 60 years and I don’t think the Jews can survive. But there will always be the last Jew. Two centuries from now there will be some Jews who talk in New York about how there used to be Jews in America and now there are not.
I could argue, though stretching’s involved, you’re not all that pessimistic. If there’s always a last Jew, that means somebody endures.
Yes, but it’s slowly becoming less and less. The world without Jews will not be the same. We produced Christianity and Judaism and philosophy and music, Mahler and Schoenberg, the theater, we enriched the world in so many ways for centuries. So why do they hate us so much? Sholem Aleichem said, “Why didn’t you choose someone else once? What harm did we do?”
In 1939, Adolf Eichmann was sitting in Vienna, the head of an office to sell the Jews. No one wanted to buy them. The British didn’t allow them into Palestine, the Arabs fought against it, didn’t want it. Do you know how many years the Jews were not allowed in Britain? The British exiled the Jews in the 11th century and they came back only in the end of the 17th. Somehow, yes, we survived as a small minority because most of the Jews who could escaped. But one or two or three generations, that’s the end of it.
In the 1940s, the Americans didn’t help at all in saving the Jews, and yet they all come to America, admire America, love America. I like America too, I lived in America for 10 years, but we never really understand how much they don’t like us.
In Commander of the Exodus, you wrote about the ships that brought survivors to Israel in the late 1940s. You worked on a similar boat.
For eight or nine months in 1949. We used to bring 3,000 people on every ship. The ship had conditions for maybe 40 or 50. They were like sardines, they couldn’t move. People had to stand in line for six hours to go to the toilet on the deck. It was hell. Women were lying there in the depths of the ship in terrible condition. They liked to look beautiful. I used to bring mirrors to these girls. They were so happy because of what they went through before.
They used to tell me stories. They walked for days in the snow in Europe, finding some harbor and the ships would come and take them. I looked at these people, each one the greatest survivor of the war. How? A boy of 15, that at age 8 was taken, how did he survive?
Did you stay in touch with any of them?
No. I was just a young Israeli they met. We thought at the time, not me but most of my friends, thought of ourselves as great heroes of the 20th century because we won over the Arabs. We didn’t understand that to the survivors, we were nothing. They looked at us with a disdain. They saw us as arrogant and healthy, people who didn’t have to make a choice to live or not. The only reason they spoke with me was because I was very keen listening to them. I felt the pain, I associated myself with the pain of others. So they did talk to me, and the stories of many of them I used in the Exodus. I don’t think there was much interest in meeting me later. They had to live in tents, and to collect their lives and start all over, like my neighbor. He lost two children and a wife, and his wife now was also married and had two children.
The prose in The Last Jew is challenging—it conjures scenes that are sometimes claustrophobic, sometimes grotesque—but it’s also compelling. One phrase stuck in my head: “you’ve all got the fried smell of God in your pocket.” It made me think of “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”
I love that painting. This period of Bosch, of Gruenwald, was very influential in my life. I like them better than the Italian Renaissance. All my twenties I spent in America, I was a painter at the time. New York was much smaller, much more like Tel Aviv. Today, when I come to New York it’s like being in something so large that I don’t know how will I meet myself.
Why did you come to New York?
I was fighting in the Independence War, in the underground. I was 18. I was distressed from the war and had nightmares from being wounded. Someone on Mount Zion, near the Old City—later, I found out he was an Englishman in a kaffiyeh—shot at my legs and I fell backward. I was a few meters away, but he didn’t shoot again. And this man, he saw me and thought I was maybe good-looking and I was young and I was wearing a good uniform that we had taken from the British camp, a white uniform from the sailors, so this man realized that he tried to kill me and then he saved me. I had seen so much death. I had treatment for my leg at Mount Sinai Hospital. I was the first Israeli soldier they ever met.
What kind of paintings did you make?
I was influenced by German Expressionists who at the time people in America didn’t know much about, people like Nolde and Schmidt-Rottluff. I was continuing that tradition, they were modern paintings but not abstract. At the time, everyone was painting Abstract Expressionism. I fought against Abstract Expressionists. I sold a lot and had exhibitions. I was successful. I still have some matchboxes that I paint—thousands of matchboxes, I can send you pictures of them. You can hang it in your toilet.
The painter I loved the most is this one who paints only subways and cafes, what’s his name—
Yes. They all used to laugh at Hopper. They used to say, “He’s terrible, nothing, sentimental.” I loved it. All my life I was involved in fights. And still am.
What about favorite writers?
I like the younger generation—Etgar Keret, Orly Castel-Bloom, Alex Epstein, and others—I love them. They write with humor and they write free and they’re not speaking in the name of the nation. The generation before, it’s not always meaningful to me because they write in the name of the nation. Some of them are very good; I might not always be in love with Amos Oz but he writes well, and Appelfeld writes good books. The people who really influenced me are Conrad and Jack London. I loved Moby Dick, Under the Volcano, and Dostoevsky, of course, Saroyan, and Faulkner. I loved Faulkner.
The Last Jew took a couple of decades to appear in the States. Why the lag?
It was finished a long time ago. But no publisher wanted to publish it because they felt, as you said, it’s a hard read. I didn’t look for audience, I didn’t look for love. I looked for telling whatever I felt should be told. I collected all these materials all my life. I was about 50 when the book was published, it was a whole life experience that I put in.
This week, in England, there’s a conference about your work. One session focuses on the connection between you and Charlie Parker.
I knew him well. We were close friends. He influenced me in the rhythm of my writing. I painted him. And I knew Billie Holiday. At the time, everyone lived in the Village: Charlie Parker, Marlon Brando, everyone. You couldn’t not know the people, you couldn’t not meet them. There were not that many people, there were not that many bars.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a book about my sickness. A year ago, they found cancer in my colon and they had to operate. They call it “friendly cancer.” They took it out and then the stitches broke. They had to operate again, and again the stitches broke. Very evil bacteria got into my system. I was in fact dead for two weeks. All my muscles were dead, my chest. I couldn’t move. My ability to breathe was stopped. They had to put gas into the lungs. It was a horrible experience but most of it I didn’t feel or know about. No one believed that I would come back. My wife held my hand, she talked to me. She didn’t sleep, she didn’t eat, and the doctors say that she saved me. They were talking about the only thing that could save me would be prayer. Somehow, I survived. Then it took another two weeks before I became aware of things. So, what I’m writing about is the two weeks after. Slowly I was back into the world, and I realized that everything I dreamed about and thought about didn’t happen. I lived in an illusion in the intensive-care area. I went to see it a couple of months ago and it’s not what I remember at all. I invented the whole place.
I’m trying to understand what it is to come back from death. I was as near to it as possible. Since then, I lost many of my dreads and fears, anxieties about dying, not dying, dangerous, not dangerous. I used to be driven by fears and anticipation, and now I’m not afraid anymore of anything.