Yesterday was the thirteenth anniversary of the death of the Israeli writer Ephraim Kishon, born Ferenc Hoffman in Budapest in 1924. The young Hoffman had hoped to make a career as an author of humorous essays, and, after surviving the Holocaust, returned to his prior avocation, assuming the name Ferenc Kishont. In 1949, writes Liel Leibovitz, he left Hungary for the fledgling state of Israel:
Asked for his name [at the port in Haifa], 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 Hebraicized 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 [immigrant] in Israel. He also spent every free moment copying a Hebrew dictionary word for word, and by 1951, a mere two years after his arrival, 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. . . . 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 Sallaḥ 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 a 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.