Yoram Kaniuk, the Israeli author who died Saturday evening at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital, was promptly heralded by the press here as the last of the Mohicans. Up until his death at 83, Kaniuk was one of the few surviving members of Dor Tashach—the ‘1948 generation’ of authors who came of age when the State of Israel was born. That he would be bestowed with such titles is an irony that Kaniuk surely would have appreciated. For decades, Kaniuk was the Israeli literary establishment’s enfant terrible; eschewing the orthodox realism favored by most of his contemporaries, he opted for a surrealist stream-of-consciousness style years ahead of its time. But it was his fearlessness—both in tackling head-on topics that were taboo and in giving voice to his grim, often apocalyptic, vision for Israel’s future—that won him very few fans. That is, until, much later in his life, when he became one of this country’s most beloved authors.
Kaniuk was a contributor to both Tablet and Nextbook.org, Tablet’s predecessor site. No stranger to Israel’s bohemian scene, he spent much of the 1950s in New York, befriending a veritable who’s who of writers, actors, artists and musicians. In this 2006 piece, Kaniuk recalled his friendship with Charlie Parker. He also wrote a Tel Aviv diary at the height of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, where he described the refugees who had escaped the rocket-strewn North and came to the big city for sanctuary.
Kaniuk, prolific as a novelist, also saw many of his works adapted into other mediums. Adam Resurrected, a novel about a German-Jewish circus star who survived the Holocaust by serving as personal entertainer to the concentration camp commandant, only to end up in an Israeli asylum, had two noteworthy adaptations. While Paul Schrader’s film version starring Jeff Goldblum was universally panned, Gesher Theater of Tel Aviv mounted a production in a circus tent widely considered to be one of Israeli theater’s greatest achievements (that production even made its way to Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center fifteen years ago).
But Kaniuk had to go back to 1948, to the War of Independence, when he was a young Palmachnik, in order to finally achieve the renaissance he had never sought out—on the contrary—but of which he was no doubt worthy. His memoir of that period, 1948, was published in 2010 (he had also written about the war for Tablet two years earlier). For the first time ever, Kaniuk had a best-selling novel, and the reprints of his older works were also selling well. That year, he even won the Sapir Prize, Israel’s most prestigious literary award.
Despite his newfound status as beloved author, Kaniuk’s anger and passionate politics only deepened. He was a fixture at the demonstrations organized by the J14 social justice movement, surrounded by activists generations younger than him. More than anything, though, he was angry about Israel’s entangling of Synagogue and State. He appealed to the courts, insisting the Interior Ministry here no longer classify him as Jewish. Kaniuk was successful, and the author of The Last Jew legally became a man of no religion at all.
Just three weeks ago, at home after yet another round of treatments at the cancer ward, he told Yedioth Ahronoth that he’d decided to forego a Jewish burial. “What do I need the whole balagan with the grave for? More food for the worms. My wife Miranda isn’t Jewish, my girls aren’t Jewish, and I don’t want to be buried where I’ll be alone.” In his final blog post, published a month ago, Kaniuk wrote:
We created a country out of religion and not out of the nation we almost became. We didn’t stop in the corridor of civilization along the way, and religion stuck to us like a leech, because that is the only way it survives, and here it’s made its return. We didn’t become a nation, rather, we became the greatest enemy of what Zionism endeavored to become.
Yoram Kaniuk left his body to science and he will have no funeral.
Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.