Having the last laugh

Ten years after his death, Tel Aviv pays tribute to Ephraim Kishon, perhaps the most pioneering satirist and filmmaker in Israel’s history

Ephraim Kishon (photo credit: YAEL ROSEN)
Ephraim Kishon
(photo credit: YAEL ROSEN)
Terms like “iconic” and “legendary” seem to be bandied about these days with insensitive abandon, right across the board, as we seek to embellish some anecdote or stoke up some hype. But Ephraim Kishon warrants both of those epithets, and then some. His life and work will be celebrated in Tel Aviv with the Kishon Festival of Humor which will take place at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, the Cameri Theater and Bet Ariella between January 19-31 and will incorporate a range of events addressing different areas of his glittering and diverse career.
Kishon, who died 10 years ago at the age of 80, was one of the world’s best known satirists and, during his long career, managed to poke fun at almost every aspect of life here. No one was safe from his rapier- sharp observations. Government institutions and figures of authority, naturally, featured prominently on his ribbing radar, but he was just as adept at championing the cause of the repressed and disadvantaged.
That was demonstrated to wonderful effect in his glorious 1964 cinematic debut social satire Sallah Shabati which laid into nefarious sociopolitics and discrimination against olim, and the chaotic management of absorption. The film was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It won a Golden Globe Award and also introduced Haim Topol to worldwide audiences. Another Kishon gem, The Blaumilch Canal, made in 1971, was in the running for a Golden Globe.
Kishon was born in Hungary, to a middle class Jewish family in Budapest. His innate writing talent came to the fore at an early age and he won his first prize at the age of 16, in a novel-writing competition for high school students. Then racial laws and the Holocaust intervened and he somehow managed to survive incarceration in a string of concentration camps. At one camp his skill as a chess player came to the rescue, as the camp commandant was looking for an opponent. At another, the Germans lined up the inmates and shot every tenth person.
Kishon was in the right place in the row. Typically, drawing on his penchant for humorous self-deprecation, many years later he even had a laugh at that lucky turn of events, when he noted in his book The Scapegoat: “They made a mistake. They left one satirist alive.”
That, according to Kishon’s son Amir, who now lives in New York, was a rare reference to horrors his father’s underwent during the Holocaust.
“All of that was a black box as far as us children were concerned,” he says.
Amir has two siblings – well-known veterinarian and writer Raffi, and younger sister Renana, who is now responsible for her father’s estate.
“There are Holocaust survivors who wanted to share their dark past, but not our father. He never talked about anything that happened to him in Hungary, and before he came to Israel.”
Dark humor and satire can, psychologists note, be an effective means of contending with and in fact sidestepping emotional scars. So, could Kishon’s literary work have provided him with an outlet for offloading some of the trauma of the Holocaust? “I think the answer to that is yes and no,” says Amir, preferring to focus on his father’s circumnavigational maneuvering.
“You talk about other people. You generally don’t talk about yourself or, even if you do talk about yourself, you talk about a slightly imaginary family. That was a kind of way to delete the past.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of Kishon’s success is his ability, as a Hungarian, to fathom – and possibly even redefine – the Israeli psyche down to its finest nuance.
Amir notes that his father made aliya in 1949 with the full intention of becoming an Israeli. He mastered Hebrew with impressive speed and, just two years after coming here began writing a satirical column in the easy-Hebrew daily, Omer. He subsequently started contributing to then-leading daily Davar, in which he ran a satirical tale which laid the groundwork for The Blaumilch Canal. He also acted as a powerful and highly entertaining mouthpiece for the hundreds of thousands of olim who flooded the nascent state in the 1950s. That included the publication of his first book, Haoleh Hayored Lachayeinu, or The Pestering Immigrant, which was written in Hungarian and translated into Hebrew by Avigdor Meiri.
Kishon’s rapid integration notwithstanding, Amir notes that his father was always something of a willing outsider here. Unlike Dan Ben-Amotz, who came here from Poland – albeit at a younger age than the satirist – and reinvented himself as a sabra, Kishon did not make any effort to disguise his cultural roots.
“I would even say that emphasized his Hungarian identity,” Amir notes. “He never dressed like a sabra, he never behaved like a sabra.”
And he imparted that mindset to his children.
“We are not a family that engages in chapchot [friendly slaps], and my father didn’t speak like a sabra – that’s not just a matter of his accent. He was always a bit in the margins of society.”
That enabled Kishon to look in from the outside, and to seemingly leave no opportunity for satire unexplored. Kishon may not have been a fully integrated Israeli but it is difficult to imagine local culture without his heavyweight, tongue-in-cheek presence.
During his lifetime, Kishon wrote 20 books and close to 30 plays, and wrote the screenplay for five movies, including Ervinka – Amir’s favorite – which, once again, starred Topol, this time as a fly-by-night youngster who unwittingly falls for a policewoman.
Law enforcement also features in another acclaimed Kishon big-screen offering, The Policeman, with the irrepressible Shaike Ophir and which brought Kishon another Oscar nomination, in 1972, and a second Golden Globe success.
That and other Kishon movies feature in a retrospective of his cinematic work at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque later this month, and his dramatic creations and other literary works will be celebrated at the Cameri Theater and Bet Ariella in Tel Aviv.
Half a century on, Topol says that Kishon’s insight is just as valuable today, particularly the messages the actor helped to convey in Sallah Shabati.
“It is a social movie of the highest order,” notes the 79-year-old, internationally renowned thespian.
“It is a work which continues to be relevant.
It addresses relationships between a father and a son, between a man and a woman, and between people and the authorities. It’s always about the authority against the man in the street. We didn’t know, back then, how much all of that would talk to audiences, and remain relevant, even after 50 years.”
For more information about the Ephraim Kishon Festival: www.ephraimkishon.com