Monday, November 20, 2017

Memories After My Death: The Story of My Father, Joseph "Tommy" Lapid - by Yair Lapid - A Review

It has been a while since I have had the chance to put together a new post.  Things have been quite hectic, I suppose.  I'm not complaining about that.

I have been meaning to write a review for a while - about Memories After My Death: The Story of My Father, Joseph "Tommy" Lapid, by Yair Lapid.  This was quite an interesting read.

The book as written as an autobiography, yet it was written by Yair Lapid after the death of his father Tommy Lapid.  As Yair Lapid indicates in the acknowledgements, much of the material came from a series of interviews conducted by Amnon Dankner with Tommy Lapid in the last years of his life.

Tommy Lapid was a remarkable figure.  His story of survival from the Holocaust is powerful and chilling.  The book details the incredible sacrifices his parents made and their efforts to keep Tommy alive as the situation became grimmer and grimmer for the Jews of Hungary.  Lapid and his mother were rescued by Raoul Wallenberg and moved to Israel in 1948, while Lapid's father was murdered in a concentration camp.  

The book also traces Lapid's immigration to Israel and the astounding challenges that he faced along with all of the other new immigrants as they moved one from one existential struggle to another.  Through it all, Lapid became a lawyer, a journalist, a politician and a writer.  He wrote for a Hungarian language newspaper in Israel but later became a journalist with Maariv, director of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Authority, founder of the magazine "At" (a women's magazine), a Knesset member and, eventually, chair of Yad Vashem.

The book is an often intimate look at Lapid's life and those around him.  He doesn't shy away from telling stories of romantic and other sexual encounters - along with various stories of his travels and escapades.  From eating shark-fin soup in Hong Kong to meeting royalty in England, Lapid certainly managed to come into contact with many influential figures.  He covered the Eichmann trial as a journalist, he rubbed elbows with Arnon Milchan, Robert Maxwell (for whom he worked) and Ehud Olmert.  Interesting group of characters.  In fairness, he was also close with Ariel Sharon.

Lapid is a controversial figure in Israeli politics.  He was avowedly secular and dedicated to fostering an increased separation between shul and state in Israel.  This caused him to be a lightning rod for ultra-orthodox anger.  Yet, as Yair Lapid tells it, Tommy Lapid's vision for Israel was a considered one.  Here, for example, are some thoughts about his rift with the Ultra-Orthodox:

"a democratic society is not founded merely on rights but on obligations as well.  I have no problem whatsoever with an Ultra-Orthodox Jew who serves in the army, goes off to work in the morning, then studies Torah all night if he wants.  That man is my brother and I love him better than any non-Jew in the world.  He was there with me in the ghetto and on the rickety boat that brought me to Israel, he sat with me on a boulder facing a ruined synagogue on the island of Rhodes when I sobbed at the memory of 500 Jews led from the building by the Nazis and drowned at sea in an Italian ship."

And he goes on:

"The fact that a man wears a shtreimel on his head and grows a beard does not absolve him from the responsibilities carried out by all the other citizens of the state.  It was not with ultra-Orthodoxy that I have a complaint but with the fact that the Ultra-Orthodox turned it into a permit for ignoring all the chores were are obliged to carry out on a daily basis..."

These excerpts provide a window into the ideology of Lapid as well as his son Yair.  While Tommy pushed for the Israeli government to make changes to laws in Israel that define the religious-secular divide, it was Yair Lapid who was actually able to institute some key changes for a fleeting period of two years during which he was Israel's Finance Minister.  Once Yair Lapid was excluded from the government, the changes that had been made were reversed and the religious-secular landscape has shifted considerably with ever greater power accruing to the ultra-religious and the nationalist religious in Israel.

While I agree with Yair Lapid's past approach to these issues, an approach that was more nuanced than the vision that his father apparently espoused, I felt that little other philosophical ground was covered in this book.  That is an ongoing criticism of Yair Lapid in Israel - that he is shallow and often seems more concerned with who he is meeting, where is speaking and how he looks - than the policy content that he advocates.

I was not able to conclude from this book that I had a solid understanding of Tommy Lapid's goals for the country, his aspirations or his dreams.  Certainly I understood that he was successful, bright, engaging and often acerbic and determined.  He enjoyed fine wine, high quality food and many other trappings of his self-described bourgeois life.

Yet I came away feeling that I had missed out on his real goals.  Sure, Lapid was an ardent Zionist who was committed, unconditionally, to the survival of the State of Israel and to doing whatever he could to help it flourish.  I have little doubt that his son Yair shares those aspirations, just as he seems to share, for the most part, Tommy Lapid's outlook on the Ultra-Religious and the religious-secular fault line in Israel.

But beyond that, this book provides little from which one might discern a further understanding of the real aspirations of either the father or the son.  And perhaps that is by design.  Simply a genuine reflection of reality.  That shallowness, if you will, for lack of a better term, may well doom Yair Lapid to a comparable political fate.

      

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