Book Review: Memories After My Death by Yair Lapid

–by David Broida

This book is unusual – it’s a memoir of Tommy Lapid, former Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, journalist, member of the Knesset, husband, father, and friend, written in his voice after his death, by son Yair Lapid, a journalist and writer.  An oversized personality (and person, too – Tommy liked to eat), what better way to tell his story!  From his early days in Yugoslavia and Budapest, where his father and other family members were taken away never to return, to his escape from Europe to pre-state Palestine, to becoming an adult in Israel – his story is compelling, always interesting, and just fun to read.  Like many memoirs, of course, his ego bounces off pages, but not to the detriment of this book.

Readers who don’t mind reading one more story of survival – cunning, strength, and luck all played a part – will be captivated by Tommy’s escape from Eichmann’s reach in Budapest.  Equally important is his take on events.  He’s a keen observer, of the Jews, his neighbors, the Hungarian collaborators, and his family, whose comfortable lives were changed forever.  He observes the Hungrian police, no longer collaborting with the Gestapo now that the Russians are at the gate, now dressed in civilian clothes and mixing in with Jews, are actually posing as Jews and hoping to fool the Russians when they arrive.  

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In Israel as an adult, his dislike of anything religious and the Haredim in particular seems to define his public life more than anything else.  He writes that he is no less of a Jew than any rabbi in Jerusalem whose children “cannot find China on a map or turn on a computer, and who do not serve in the army or repress their wives or refuse to work, living off the taxes I pay instead”.  It’s a caricature, of course, but it rings true.  

Tommy writes of “the end of the period of silence” in Israel, regarding survivors finally speaking out when Eichmann was captured and put on trial.  “Fifteen years of mute silence had ended”, and then survivors began to speak out “in an unstoppable flood”.  His observations (he covered the trial as a journalist) highlight the importance of Eichmann’s capture and trial, and the centrality of that event in Israelis coming to terms with the Holocaust (if that’s ever possible, of course).  

As the 1982 Lebanon War went sour, especially with Israel’s role in the massacre at Sabra and Shatilla, Lapid’s opposition was firm.  He felt the war was wrong.  At the same time, he remained a friend of Ariel Sharon the rest of his life.  He did not let differences interfere with friendship.  The same situation occurred when Sharon dumped him from his government.  He served as head of the IBC – Israel’s broadcasting arm – and he writes of his conflicts with Prime Minister Menacham Begin, who wanted more and better television coverage of his government.  From Begin to Arafat, he’s got one interesting anecdote after another.  In the case of Begin, he did not yield.  

Lapid addresses an IDF issue – is the State responsible for the soldiers, or are the soldiers responsible for the State?  He seems to say that the soldiers looking after the State comes first, but the 1982 Lebanon War changed his mind.  He felt that the state’s repsonsibility to the soldier is understated.  

Early in the book, he foreshadows his daughter Michal’s death at age 33, but he does not say how she dies until a few chapters later.  From my visits and reading over the years, it seemed to me that there was one cause of death more likely than any other – an automobile accident.  War aside, it seemed to me the most probable cause of her death was that.  And – that’s what happened, revealed many pages later.

Tommy Lapid was a controversial figure in Israeli public life, so it’s not hard to find an opinion to disagree with.   “I am not a leftist, because their solution – giving up the dream of a Jewish state for a bi-national state (one state solution) – is heartless”.  I agree – it is heartless – but I don’t consider it a “leftist” position.  I consider it way out of the mainstream of Israeli political viewpoints.  The parties on the Left – Labor, Meretz – they don’t advocate a bi-national solution.  

He expresses his disdain for the Israeli left, because it combines Zionism with Socialism.  Coming from Communist Eastern Europe – Yugoslavia and Hungary – it’s easy to understand his impatience with socialism.   But he says “The Israeli Right has lost its way, too, as it has thrown its fate in with the vision of a Greater Land of Israel that could not be actualized”.  I think the key phrase here is “could not be actualized”.  And he seems to be saying that neither the right nor the left is suitable for him.  He can find fault with anybody, any party, so it’s easy to understand why he led his own party (Shinui).

He wrote a famous essay in Israel – “To Live in New Zealand” – which includes this line:  In New Zealand, when a parent refers to “a child who fell, he is referring to a playground”.  So true – and, also true is that IDF deaths of soldiers are so painful to think about and to endure, that the popular euphemism, “fell”, is a common term to describe death.  Not just in Israel, of course.  “He fell in battle”, etc., is said in many countries.

He grew up in a cultured and educated home, and he has a keen eye for irony, for history, and for hypocrisy, too.   He notes that the German language that was the language of Schiller and Heine (a Jew, of course) and Goethe was also the language of Hitler and Himmler.  Nothing new there – it’s been said before, many times.  But he reminds readers that Herzl wrote The Jewish State in German as well.

From an American Jewish point of view, Tommy writes a line that I like, because it shows a human-ness, a sensitivity, and a liberal approach to a difficult subject.  He refers to the “cruelty of some Arabs”.  Good for him!  He does not demonize all Arabs for the vicious crimes of some.   And he calls on Israel to be “an enlightened Western democracy, humanistic and free”.  He says, “In the short run, we must give up our need for retaliation.  It is painful, but essential”.  This comes from someone who is NOT a naive liberal American Jewish cousin (me), but rather a survivor of the Holocaust and an Israeli citizen for more than 60 years.

Tommy Lapid led a full life.  I enjoyed seeing him break away from his mother, join the army, go to school, get his first job, and climb up the ladders of Israeli journalism and politics.  He was bright, energetic, and especially – cultured.  You can see his European parents and their culture and education in all his quotes – the Greek gods, the European literature, etc.  

Some Europeans Jews who lost everything never recovered.  Tommy Lapid did, and then some.  What a life he led!  Maybe he was a difficult public figure, husband, father and friend – who knows.  The only picture we get it his, through Yair.  And maybe his egotism was also difficult to endure.  I imagine it was.  People who rise to power usually are egotistical.  But still – his story is an inspiration to any reader who feels he or she can contribute more to their society or country.  And he’s also an inspiration to those who need to listen to their own voices, those who do not follow the herd.

Perhaps his success in Israeli public life can be traced to his survival in Budapest.  As a teenager, had to rely on his own skills and ability to make quick decisions in order to survive.  He learned independence at a young age.  It served him well all his adult life.

Note:  The book has not been published in English in the U.S.  It is available from from a UK publisher.

Book Review: “East Wind” by Jack Winnick

— Lee Bender

In the genre of international spy thrillers from Daniel Silva and Vince Flynn, Jack Winnick’s East Wind is a fast-paced, page-turner novel involving a credible scenario: Muslim terrorists have penetrated the United States, detonated one small nuclear dirty bomb in a major U.S. city and are threatening further attacks if the U.S. does not cease its support for Israel. Mr. Winnick knows of what he speaks: he has an interesting resume as an engineering professor with 40 years expertise in chemical and nuclear engineering, the author of a popular textbook in thermodynamics, a consultant for oil and gas industry and NASA, and he is a professional actor. He dedicates the book to the many thousands of intelligence officers “who toil anonymously, day and night, to defend the free world from those who would destroy it.” The protagonists are a team consisting of a young female FBI agent from America’s heartland, Lara, a computer whiz who has been able to coordinate the security services’ clumsy efforts to successfully track Islamists, and Uri, a daring, accomplished Mossad field agent on loan from Israel. The climax of the book is their race to thwart the next attack by these unknown terrorists. Along the way, Mr. Winnick introduces many characters from across the spectrum of the intelligence services, Arab and Muslim students, agents, and terrorists, and gives each a credible voice for their own causes. It is his fluid ability to describe nuclear thermodynamics, the makings of a bomb, and the ability of those who want us to “succumb to the forces of darkness” which allows this scenario to be utterly believable.

“36 Letters, One Family’s Story” by Joan Sohn

— Book review by Ben Burrows

It was a chilly windy Sunday. My wife and I had just spent four hours on the top two floors of the new National Museum of Jewish American History on Independence Mall, reviewing artifacts like a deerskin frontier Torah, relearning timelines of Jewish settlement in Philadelphia, New Orleans, South Carolina and Florida. It was a lot of material to take in and to keep straight. It was in some ways a relief to drive down towards the Franklin Parkway, to attend the book launch I had committed to review for the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, for a very different and much more personal sort of history, at The Jewish Publication Society.

Joan SohnJust finding a place to sit down was something of a relief. Rabbi Barry Schwartz of The Jewish Publication Society, which published Joan Sohn’s 36 Letters, One Family’s Story, gave a brief introduction to JPS’s decision to publish this family history. Rabbi Andrea Merow, currently of Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, spoke of Temple Sholom’s involvement with the Korman family where she had earlier held the pulpit, and the dedication of its chapel to Sohn’s great-grandfather Rabbi Binyamin Korman. She spoke of her friendship with Sohn and her encouragement for elaborating the family story.

Then Joan Sohn herself was introduced, to present a brief outline of her delightful, focused yet whimsical history of her grandparents’ romance — of their immigration estrangement while Chaim came to New York, and of Yente’s arrival to live first with her uncle’s Philadelphia family, and of their joyous reunion and marriage when Chaim came from New York and established
himself in the community.

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But a publication launch, even with personal conversations with the relatives who knew the couple Yetta and Hyman as the matriarch and patriarch of their family, is not enough to communicate the warmth and love, the schmaltz, the krupnik and kugel recipes, the sheer passion of two Jews, each the children of classical Jewish scholars, who chanced to meet, who fell in love, who convinced their families to approve a long-distance match. Unlike my experience at the museum, where we hurried through two floors of American Jewish history in four hours, 36 Letters is a book to linger over, which I read eagerly for almost three weeks, despite its length, just under 120 pages.

At the most fundamental level, this is a story of discovery. As Sohn explains in her introduction, her parents (Sarah and Barney Moss) went to organize family items from Hyman Korman’s apartment, when he passed away in 1970. At the time, a box of portraits, documents and letters were packed away for her Uncle Sam, but remained at the Moss home unopened. Then, in 1996, Sam Korman too passed away. It was then that Sohn was invited to look through the materials for her own family keepsakes. Looking at the portraits, she was able to guess that the photographs were those of her grandparents.

Curious about the letters, she asked her parents, to see if they knew what they were about, but they were unfamiliar. Apparently, Hyman had never explained their significance. A family friend, Elyce Teitleman, located a translator, Mark Alsher, and Sohn’s parents underwrote the translation which began Sohn’s journey.

What she found was so much more than the photographs and letters. What she found was the autobiographical love story of the author’s grandparents, and it reads well – with aching absence, with a parting for the New World, with the delight of recognition and caring, with the anticipation of reunion, with the consummation, and the success of a life’s work together. On quite another level, this is a love story of the author, rediscovering her grandparents as young adults, and falling in love with them as valued friends. On still another level, it is a self-discovery by Joan Sohn, moved now from Melrose Park to Toronto, of how much she shared with her grandparents, and yet how different their experiences, in their very different migrations.

Sohn does not hesitate to give the reader background, from world history, from family history, from family recipes, in prefaces, in footnotes, in illustrations, in marginal notes. The experience of reading this book brought me back to my experience reading Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice – one of the favorite texts of my young adulthood — where an apparently simple children’s story was revealed for its complex secrets and internal references. Sohn has provided the same sort of illustrations, annotations, and background, lovingly compiled for the reader to understand the world of 1905, and the burgeoning universe that opened for Hyman and Yetta in the wonderland of the New World. I can only hope that you will linger as I did, and make friends with Joan Sohn’s grandparents, and share their love and their success.

All photographs, courtesy of Joan Sohn, with permission.