When I finished translating Yair Lapid’s excellent memoir of his father, I was certain it would be picked up by an American publishing house in no time. After all, the writing by this journalist-novelist is fluid, his father’s life was endlessly fascinating, and Yair himself is a peerless Israeli celebrity with movie-star good looks. But the refrain from those American publishers was always the same: “Who is Yair Lapid and why should we be interested?”
Well, now the world knows they should be interested in Yair Lapid. But who exactly is he, behind the public persona? (The book, “Memories After My Death,” was published successfully by Elliott & Thompson in the UK.)
From the start, my personal experience with Yair has been a pleasant combination of professionalism and great personal warmth. He took an avid interest in my soldier sons’ service in elite commando units. He set his unabashed Zionism on the table between us and heaped praise on me for choosing Israel as my home. He checked out my credentials and ignored an adviser’s recommendation not to work with me (“I can get you a translator for half his price”) because he was stubbornly convinced I would do the best job of capturing his father’s voice and spirit. Sitting with him in his cavelike basement office I experienced a first-ever pang of regret that I don’t smoke when he offered me a cigar from his humidor.
Most memorable about our first meeting, however, was its end. I stood to leave and he stopped me. “You shouldn’t have to worry about money when you’re working,” he said as he wrote me a check. I have worked with many fine people in my career, but here — surprisingly in tony north Tel Aviv — was a man who understood the self-employed person’s predicament and was actually prodding me to take his money before I’d translated a single word.
Many months later and well into our mutual project I asked him about the endless media speculation and his silence about his possible entrance into politics. “I’ll give you the real answer, the one I don’t dare tell the press because it sounds corny,” he said as he gestured to the room around us, the house above, his life. “I have it good. I’m happy, I enjoy my life and my career. But I look at the political situation, and I look at our generation [Yair is two years younger than I] and I don’t see any potential for change. And that makes me think, ‘In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man,’” he said, quoting Hillel the Elder.
When Yair Lapid finally declared his candidacy, he asked me to be one of the hundred signatories on the founding of his party, Yesh Atid. I was honored, but more than that it felt like perhaps the last rite of passage in my own story as an immigrant. Yair, a native-born Israeli, uncannily understood that. “Congratulations,” he told me after the signing. “If you’ve helped establish an Israeli political party you’re now one hundred percent Israeli.”
In the end, Yair’s striving succeeded. His folksy messages, his earnest appeal, and his slick organization of devoted volunteers have turned him overnight into one of the most powerful people in Israel. I am quite certain, however, that such power will not corrupt him or divert him from his path. His victory speech is just one indication. While other party leaders were shouting their more modest successes from rooftops, Yair Lapid reminded his supporters and the television audience that this victory is sobering, and that now is the time for hard work, not celebrations.
Several days before the election I wrote to Yair wishing him luck, predicting good results and reminding him that I and many people I know would be voting for him because we believe he is precisely what he claims to be and will do what he promised. That he might help bring about the change we need so desperately. I did not expect a response at such a crazy time, but one arrived just a few hours later, in the middle of the night. “Huge thanks, dear friend,” it read, “you’ve made me happy.”
Now it’s his turn. Make us happy, Yair.
Evan Fallenberg is an award-winning translator and author of the novels Light Fell and When We Danced on Water. He teaches creative writing at Bar Ilan University and City University of Hong Kong.