Unbowed by the horrors of the Holocaust, Ephraim Kishon immigrated to Israel and become his adopted country’s most beloved humorist. But Kishon died in semi-exile Saturday at 80, driven back to Europe by the same outsider sensibility that made for such great Israeli satire.
“With a sharp wit, both favorably and critically, Kishon set before us an exact mirror from which the ups and downs, fears, arts and opinions of Israeli culture could be seen,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in a eulogy broadcast over Israeli media Sunday.
“The painful fact was that for many years Kishon felt rejected by the Israeli cultural establishment,” Sharon told his Cabinet. “But his monumental cultural works remain with us and with future generations. Thus we will remember him.”
“He often said there was a clique of sabras who were against him because he was from Hungary,” wrote actor Haim Topol in Yediot Achronot.
Kishon died of a heart attack in his second home in Switzerland, where he had enjoyed material comfort and renown earned from books that were translated into 37 languages.
A Hungarian who survived Nazi labor camps, he always enjoyed the irony that his urbane, dry humor — much of it Seinfeld-style riffs on family life — had found a ready audience in Germany.
They used to ask him how he could succeed in Germany of all places, his son, Raphael Kishon, told Army Radio. “He would reply: ‘It’s a wonderful feeling to know that the children of my executioners admire me and read my books.’ “
Soon after arriving in Israel in 1949, Kishon taught himself Hebrew and achieved such virtuosity that he was given the satire column in Ma’ariv. Several successful books followed, including “So Sorry We Won!” in which Kishon mounted a spirited defense of Israel’s triumphs in the 1967 Six-Day War, which were already drawing criticism in some parts of Europe.
In the 1960s, he began working in Israel’s cinema and scored major coups for a nascent national industry. He wrote and directed “The Policeman” and “Sallah Shabati,” both bittersweet social satires that were nominated for Academy Awards in the best foreign film category.
“Sallah,” about the trials and tribulations of North African immigrants, shot Topol to stardom years before he appeared as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Ephraim was a comic genius of an international caliber,” Israeli opposition leader Yosef Lapid, Kishon’s lifelong friend, told Israel Radio.
Kishon won the Israel Prize for his life’s work in 2002. He was to be flown back to Israel for burial. “It is a country where nobody expects miracles, but everybody takes them for granted,” Kishon once wrote about Israel.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.