Israeli Satirist Ephraim Kishon Dies at 80
January 31, 2005
JERUSALEM - Israel on Sunday mourned the passing of its premier satirist, Ephraim Kishon, whose biting wit shaped the national agenda of the formative years of the Jewish state and kept people laughing at the same time.
Kishon, who apparently suffered a heart attack, died in the shower at his home in Switzerland, his son, Rafi, said. He was 80.
It was a swift and unexpected end to the life of an artist whose influence went beyond the large numbers of people who read his books and newspaper column or watched the skits, plays and movies he wrote.
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 facing the nation 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 new 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 Moroccan immigrants who arrived just 10 years earlier.
That was an example of how Kishon's sharp vision influenced generations of artists and ordinary Israelis in ways they may not have been aware of.
A friend for decades, actor Haim Topol - who won international fame in the leading role of the 1971 movie "Fiddler on the Roof" - said 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 Kishon was a significant factor 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.
Born Ferenc Hoffmann in Budapest, Hungary, on Aug. 23, 1924, Kishon narrowly escaped death in the Holocaust.
In one Nazi camp, a German officer lined up Jewish inmates and shot dead one in every 10, passing him by. He later managed to escape en route to the Sobibor death camp, his son said.
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.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking at the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, spoke of Kishon's transformation from Holocaust refugee to cultural icon.
"These hardships could not prevent the blossoming of talent and an incredible writing ability," Sharon said, noting that Kishon wrote in Hebrew, a language he learned as an immigrant.
Kishon 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 Ahronot daily. "He spoke often of the native-born Israelis who he felt were against him as a Hungarian immigrant."
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,'" Rafi Kishon said.
Kishon's body was being flown to Israel for burial in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, Israeli media reported. He is survived by Lisa, his third wife, and three grown children.
(Leads with six paragraphs to correct plot of "Salah Shabati.")
© Copyright 2005 Associated Press