Yoram Kaniuk’s last published words: ‘We messed it up…’
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Yoram Kaniuk’s last published words: ‘We messed it up…’

A month before he died, aware that ‘this time it’s final,’ the prickly, provocative author penned a lament for modern Israel, with just a glimmer of hope

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Yoram Kaniuk, photographed in Tel Aviv last year. (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Yoram Kaniuk, photographed in Tel Aviv last year. (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

On Wednesday, May 8, exactly one month before he died, Yoram Kaniuk published his final words — in a blog post.

Written on the cusp of death, the post is entitled Yehemu bnei mei’ai, a reference to physical yearning that, like so much of Kaniuk’s writing, is Biblical and obscure, honest, accusatory and pained.

The author of 17 novels, an artist who made out with Billie Holiday and hung out with James Dean, a teenager who served in Israel’s War of Independence and, as far as I am concerned, wrote the best book about the war some 62 years after it was over; a prickly, contentious, provocative and ultimately brilliant man, Kaniuk started his final post with the subject that was foremost on his mind in his recent years: death.

“I woke up to two weeks of darkness without mercy,” he began, “Ichilov [Hospital] and then home, and gloom, and four days of the end, I’ve lived enough.”

He mentioned the cold and the pain, “the darkness perched at the window,” the confinement to bed and then, in the kind of transition that often illustrated his work, he pleaded, using an Arabic curse, “let it come already, kus amak, let it come.”

Kaniuk, in recent years, was obsessed with death. His last novel, published earlier this year, featured a protagonist who, as an artist, drew portraits of the dead. In the months before I met him in April for an interview about his masterwork, “1948,” he would always say he would love to meet but that he was unwell and that he had to be in the hospital and that, if he wasn’t yet dead, we should try to make it happen later in the month.

But in this final post — in which he described coming back from the hospital and checking the computer to see if his will was in place — he touched on an array of subjects, seemingly checking off the themes that colored his work: women, the State of Israel, writing, the Holocaust, the nature of Judaism and, to his mind, its relation to the demise of Zionism.

When writing, he wrote, “I am alive.” It is the latest of the art forms, emerging after dance and song and drawing, he noted, and yet, as opposed to the technique necessary for the others, “the act of writing requires no knowledge. No skill. Every one can do with it as he sees fit.”

And yet it accepts no forgeries. “If the act of writing is in and of itself reading and writing yourself into the text, how is it possible to counterfeit that which you just created?”

The act itself, he wrote, quoting his daughter Aya, “is the legitimization of the absurd.”

He also considered the word “love” and how it applied to women and to cheese alike and revealed that after coming back from the hospital for the last time, seeking something painless in the early hours of the morning, he turned on the TV and found solace in the “distilled beauty” of Channel 2 news anchor, Yonit Levy, and the fact of her recent pregnancy.

And because this is a Yoram Kaniuk text, he jumped, in the space of a line, from his thoughts on the word love to the nature of Israeli political leadership. “Ben-Gurion was the only Israeli leader,” he wrote. “He sought to, and succeeded in, transforming the absurd existence of the people of Israel, both traditional and new.”

Without elaboration, Kaniuk also accused the state’s first prime minister of “offering the Germans an offer that they could not refuse” in order to establish the State of Israel.

But the last two paragraphs of his final text, I think, are most instructive in considering the man who brought Holocaust survivors to Israel on boats after the war and, more recently, fought a legal battle to be officially labeled as “without religion” rather than Jewish in the Interior Ministry’s records. “Israel is hostage to the Holocaust…” he wrote. “We brought here the sound of the steps of our people; we brought the quiet thunder of the Jews. And we messed it up. Because we established a state out of religion rather than the nation we almost became. Along the way we did not stop in the hallway of civilization, and religion attached itself to us like a leech, because that is the only way it survives, and now it has come back and returned. We never became a nation, but rather the greatest enemy of that which Zionism tried to be.”

Finally, in his own, dark way, Kaniuk left a glimmer of hope. Summoning the Bible’s first murder, he concluded the text with what he called the immortal line that God delivered to Cain in the verse before the murder of Abel. “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.”

The quote seemed to echo the sentiment he left me with when we spoke two months ago. “I want things to be better,” he said then, “but I don’t believe it will happen.”

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