Ephraim Kishon (1924-2005), Israel’s premier satirist, whose biting wit shaped the national agenda of the formative years of the Jewish state and kept people laughing at the same time. Mr. Kishon’s influence went beyond the large number of people who read his books and newspaper column or watched the skits, plays and movies he wrote. He was one of the most popular satirists of his age, selling more than 40 million books in his half-century of writing.
Born Ferenc Hoffmann in Budapest on Aug. 23, 1924, Mr. Kishon narrowly escaped death in the Holocaust. In one Nazi camp, a German officer lined up Jewish inmates and shot dead one of every 10, passing him by. He later managed to escape en route to the Sobibor death camp. Mr. Kishon later wrote of the experience: “They made a mistake — they left one satirist alive.” He changed his name to a Hebrew form when he immigrated to Israel in 1949. He won the nation’s highest civilian award, the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement, in 2003. But by then he was increasingly estranged from the country, spending most of his time in Switzerland.
“He always had the feeling that he wasn’t appreciated in Israel,” Topol told the Yediot Aharonot daily. “He spoke often of the native-born Israelis who he felt were against him as a Hungarian immigrant.” Mr. Kishon felt pleased with his success in Europe, particularly in Germany. “He said, ‘It’s a great feeling that the children of my hangmen are my admirers,’ ” said Rafi Kishon, a son from his first marriage. Mr. Kishon, who had mixed feelings toward Israel late in life, also gained widespread popularity in Europe, and he often felt better appreciated there than in his adopted home of Israel, target of his sharpest barbs. He helped set the tone of national discourse by drawing attention to social problems in a way people could relate to — through laughter. Paramount was his 1964 play “Salah Shabati,” later made into a movie, lampooning Israeli society for making life hard for immigrants. In one telling scene, a North African newcomer is mocked by a veteran European for his supposed lack of culture. The same idea was reflected in last year’s award-winning Israeli movie “Turn Left at the End of the World,” about Jewish immigrants from India sent to a desert development town, where they are disparaged by Moroccans who arrived just 10 years earlier. That was an example of how Mr. Kishon’s sharp vision influenced generations of artists and other Israelis in ways they may not have been aware of. A friend for decades, actor Chaim Topol — who won international fame in the leading role of the 1971 movie “Fiddler on the Roof” — said Mr. Kishon’s satirical column in the Maariv daily newspaper reached the hearts and minds of “simple readers and decision makers.” Topol, who also played the title role in “Salah Shabati,” said Mr. Kishon had a significant effect during the difficult period of the 1960s, when the young state was surrounded by enemies and hard-pressed to provide for its citizens. “He held up morale in this country and had a great influence over [then-Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol,” Topol told Army Radio. [Washington Post]
Efraim Kishon’s quotes:
Israel is a country so tiny that there is no room to write its
name on the world map.
It is the only country in the world which is financed by its
It is a country of boundless boundaries.
It is a country where mothers learn the mother tongue from
It is a country where one writes Hebrew, reads English, and
It is a country where everybody has the right to speak his mind,
but there is no law forcing anybody to listen.
The State of Israel
It is the most enlightened country in the region, thanks to the
It is a country where all the capital is concentrated in Jewish
hands–and there is much grumbling because of this.
It is a country where one can buy anything in the world for his
money–except an apartment, which is very expensive.
It is a country of elections, but no choice.
It is a country where nobody expects miracles, but everybody
takes them for granted.
It is a country where every human being is a soldier, and every
soldier is a human being.
- In 1953, Kishon won the Nordau Prize for Literature;
- In 1958, he won the Sokolov Prize for Journalism;
- In 1964, he won the Kinor David Prize;
- In 1998, he was the co-recipient (jointly with Nurit Guvrin and Aryeh Sivan) of the Bialik Prize for literature;
- In 2002, he was awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement & special contribution to society and the State of Israel. Upon receiving the prize, he remarked: “I’ve won the Israel Prize, even though I’m pro-Israel. It’s almost like a state pardon. They usually give it to one of those liberals who love the Palestinians and hate the settlers.”
Kishon was nominated twice for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and three times for a Golden Globe Award. He won two Golden Globe Best Foreign Language Film Awards, for Sallah Shabati (1964), and The Policeman (1971).
“This Is Your Life” the TV program honoring Efraim Kishon (in Hebrew)