5 films, short and satirical: Homage to Ephraim Kishon as he would have liked

A Friday afternoon cinematic festival in Tel Aviv pays tribute to Israel’s world-class humorist on the 10th anniversary of his death

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Kishon, on a film set in 1964 (Courtesy the Israeli Center for Documentation of the Performing Arts at Tel Aviv University)
Kishon, on a film set in 1964 (Courtesy the Israeli Center for Documentation of the Performing Arts at Tel Aviv University)

A smal silver plaque is set on the stuccoed wall outside the front gate of 48 Hamitnadev Street in Tel Aviv, informing passersby that “Ephraim Kishon, the author, satirist, playwright, screenwriter and film director lived & worked in this house.”

Kishon would have written it more wryly.

It was here that Kishon — the Hungarian-born screenwriter known for his classic Israeli films like the Oscar-nominated “Sallah Shabati” and “The Policeman,” lived — holed up in his spacious attic office to write, screen films and contemplate his vision of the world outside.

“When he was up here, we knew not to bother him,” said Rafael Kishon, the writer’s son, giving a tour of the writer’s lair.

Rafael Kishon, usually known as Rafi, is the oldest of the three Kishon offspring. He’s the product of his father’s post-Holocaust marriage to Eva Klamer, a union that lasted 12 years and ended after the two had immigrated to Israel.

He is also the inheritor of this large, rundown home in Afek, an affluent corner of north Tel Aviv, where his father and his second wife, Sara Kishon, lived with their two children, Rafi’s half-siblings, Amir and Renana Kishon.

“That’s a source of some contention,” confided Rafi Kishon as he walked up the center staircase of the house under a high wall covered with the movie posters of his father’s creations.

Rafi Kishon looking at one of his father's notebooks, with pages covered in story notes and story boards (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Rafi Kishon looking at one of his father’s notebooks, with pages covered in story notes and story boards (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Despite any arguments the three siblings may have had following their father’s death in 2005, Rafi, Amir and Renana Kishon have managed to unify their vision for their father’s property and legacy, forming a family organization dedicated to promoting their father’s works and influence on the current Israeli film industry.

They’ve initiated a number of events in memory of their father since his death, including a humor festival in Tel Aviv and “Kishoni,” a new book in his memory.

Now, on the tenth anniversary of his death, they are co-sponsoring “Short and Satirical,” a screening of five films this Friday (see below for more details) at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The films — as promised, short and satirical — are the fruits of five Israeli scriptwriters, directors and producers in the spirit of Kishon’s works.

The short films are about Israeli society, and specifically, various elements and populations that aren’t always seen in local culture. One of them is based on Kishon’s archives, while another is an animated version of one of his short stories.

Ziv Naveh, director of the Gesher Multicultural Film Fund, which is one of the co-sponsors of 'Short and Satirical,' the upcoming festival in honor of Ephraim Kishon (Courtesy Shahar Tamir)
Ziv Naveh, director of the Gesher Multicultural Film Fund (Courtesy Shahar Tamir)

“Filmmakers have the screen and their cameras and an immense power to affect Israeli society,” said Ziv Naveh, managing director of the Gesher Multicultural Film Fun, a co-sponsor of the project. “We wanted to bring the topics that don’t get enough attention to the screen and the societal conversation. We want to break stereotypes.”

Gesher, a partially government-funded authority, focuses on helping filmmakers make films and TV shows that shed light on Israeli society. Some of their bigger successes include the movie “Ushpizin” and television shows “Jerusalem Brew,” “Arab Labor” and the ultra-Orthodox hit “Shtisel.”

With a current budget of NIS 6.5 million ($1.6 million) to make short films appropriate for social media including YouTube, Naveh thought of partnering with the Kishon brand.

“Humor is something that’s missing here,” said Naveh. “Our goals were to bring satire back to a place of glory, and help filmmakers make short films. And Kishon was the king of satire.”

The Hungarian king of comedy

Humor — and its sophisticated companion, satire — was a specialty of the Hungarian-born Kishon, whose earliest works were subtle treatises on Israeli society, starting with his regular column in the Davar newspaper.

Less than 15 years after moving to Israel he wrote “Sallah Shabati,” a satirical film about immigrants from Morocco that cast light on the Israeli government’s questionable settlement of Jews who arrived from the Middle Eastern countries. The film won a Golden Globe award and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture.

“Some say it’s a movie that emphasizes stereotypes,” said Naveh, “but there’s no question that people saw it; it went up on the big screen and opened people’s eyes.”

As for Kishon, he became a prolific writer of books, children’s books and plays, sharing his opinions and thoughts on manifold and varied topics.

His work ethic was intense, said Rafi Kishon, pointing to the wall of books in his father’s upstairs study. All the spines bear Kishon’s name, whether in his native Hungarian, Hebrew, or any of the dozens of other languages in which his books were translated into over the decades.

His desk, a long plank of wood spanning the wall opposite the bookshelves, is still set as it was when Kishon worked here: a large, leather office chair in the middle, with a bank of telephones to the right and a bulletin board full of family photos, article clippings and reminders on the strip of wall above his workspace.

To the left of his chair, a small window in the wall worked as a kind of small screen, from which he would view and edit his latest films from the projector set in a nearby closet.

He often slept in this room, said Rafi Kishon, evidenced by the twin bed in the office still made up with pillows and blankets.

“The room is preserved exactly as he left it,” he said.

There are cups full of pencils, Staedtler 4Bs, the only kind he used.

“He would go to the store and buy them by the kilo,” said Rafi Kishon.

Ephraim Kishon's desk, left just as he had used it (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Ephraim Kishon’s desk, left just as he had used it (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

There is a framed paper of one of his drafts, a sheet of paper covered in nearly illegible pencil script with many cross-outs.

“He did lots and lots of edits and that was his perfectionism,” said Renana Kishon. “He knew that humor had to be perfect.”

His family knew better than to bother him during his work hours, she said. He would come down to eat with the family or watch the evening news. But his favorite time to work was at night, when the house was quiet.

He spent hours making notes on his projects, she said, filling notebooks with hand-drawn storyboards for films and pages of ideas and comments about his books and scripts.

“He was a sponge of notes,” she said, paging through one of dozens of unlined, 8½ x 11 books filled with Kishon’s script. The books are stacked in a separate room next to the office, its walls lined with metal cabinets filled with Kishon’s work.

“We just keep on going through all of his material,” she said.

The house wasn’t lived in for many years, as Ephraim and Sara Kishon moved to Appenzell, a rural area of Switzerland in 1981 when Kishon felt he was under-appreciated in Israel. He was widely read and beloved in Europe, said his children.

Sara Kishon died in 2002, and Kishon married Austrian writer Lisa Witasek a year later. In 2005, at the age of 80, he suffered a heart attack and died in Switzerland, but his body was flown back to Israel and buried in Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor Cemetery.

And now his family is back in their Tel Aviv home, dilapidated after so many years of disuse, its front garden filled with old television sets and furniture, the living room musty and crowded in its early 1980s design.

HIs children, however, are determined to honor his memory. Rafi Kishon, a veterinarian by profession, has been traveling the world to lecture about his father, showing clips from his most famous films.

He and Renana Kishon, a visual designer, are slowly making their way through their father’s collections and works, finding new ways to expose his ideas and methods to the world. Their brother, Amir, lives in New York.

Rafi and Renana Kishon, two of Ephraim Kishon's three children, in the book-lined study of their father's writing retreat in Tel Aviv (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Rafi and Renana Kishon, two of Ephraim Kishon’s three children, in the book-lined study of their father’s writing retreat in Tel Aviv (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The Friday afternoon film festival, said Renana Kishon, is yet another way of remembering their father.

“Short and Satirical,” Friday, January 29, 2 pm, Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The project is an initiative of the Gesher Multicultural Film Fun, The Second Authority for Television and Radio, the Haifa International Film Festival and the Kishon family.

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