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Remembering the Greatest Jewish Writer You May Not Have Even Heard Of

Today is Ephraim Kishon’s yahrzeit. He deserves to be remembered as one of the greats.

Liel Leibovitz
January 29, 2018
Wikimedia Commons
Ephraim Kishon (left)Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Ephraim Kishon (left)Wikimedia Commons

Thirteen years ago today, we lost the greatest Jewish writer you may not have even heard of.

He was born Ferenc Hoffmann in Budapest, in 1924. From an early age, he took pleasure in writing short and humorous essays, and won his first award while still in high school. He entered college with the hopes of finding his place in Hungary’s literary establishment, but history had other plans and race laws soon forced him out of academia and into a series of concentration camps. He survived with sheer luck and ingenuity, challenging his guards to a series of chess games in one prison and, in another, pretending to be dead to avoid deportation to the death camp Sobibor. Having escaped, he returned to Budapest, living there under a false name before being arrested by the Red Army and serving another short stint in another camp.

His harrowing experiences did little to suppress his sense of humor, and, after the war, he resumed writing funny short essays, taking on the name Ferenc Kishont. When he received the good news informing him that an independent Jewish state had been established, he set out to emigrate, and in May of 1949 arrived in the port of Haifa. Asked for his name, he informed the Israeli clerk that it was Ferenc. “That’s not a real name,” said the clerk, and dubbed the new arrival Ephraim Kishon, the latter being the name of a nearby river.

Despite his new Hebracized name, Kishon spoke not a word of Hebrew. Still, he was determined to continue and write, which he did in Hungarian, having a friend translate his short and hilarious observations about life as a new oleh in Israel. He also spent every free moment copying a Hebrew dictionary word for word, and by 1951, a mere two years after his arrivals, was good enough to receive a daily column in the popular newspaper Davar.

His command of language was dazzling, and several of the puns he came up with became instant coinages of modern Hebrew. His sensibility was just as sharp: His essays, for the most part, were satirical takes on life in a young country where no one paid particular mind to rules of any kind, which made them both sharply specific and universal. His work was translated to 37 languages, and was praised by newspapers the world over, including The New York Times. When he started writing plays, they met with similar acclaim, making Kishon an even bigger presence in Israel’s cultural life.

But it was his decision to turn to cinema that truly elevated his work and his fame alike. In 1964, having had no previous experience in the medium, he wrote and directed Sallah Shabati, a comedy about an Iraqi Jew who emigrates to Israel and invests his energy in get-rich-quick schemes while struggling with negative stereotypes and systemic racism. The movie, starring Chaim Topol, was a smash hit in Israel, selling nearly 1.5 million tickets. It also won the Golden Globe, opened and closed the Berlin Film Festival, and was nominated for an Academy Award. Kishon directed several more movies in the 1960s and 1970s, all of them wildly successful, and continued publishing at a furious pace.

His popularity, however, was not enough to guarantee Kishon the respect he felt he rightly deserved. A right-winger who supported hawkish policies, including the execution of convicted terrorists, he was shunned by Israel’s liberal elites, snubbed by award committees and treated disdainfully as an entertainer rather than an artist. Frustrated, he finally left Israel, moving to Switzerland in 1997 and returning to Tel Aviv for frequent visits. On January 29, 2005, he suffered a heart attack and died.

Until the very last, he was thrilled by his ability to connect with audiences, particularly in Europe. “It gives me great satisfaction to see the grandchildren of my executioners queuing up to buy my books,” he said on a number of occasions. Today, his yahrzeit, is as good a day as any to remember his work, and take pleasure in a great Jewish writer who never lost his humor even in the darkest of days.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.