By Yair Lapid. Translated by Evan Fallenberg. 

Elliott & Thompson 2011. pp 358. 

Tommy Lapid was not a man to whom people were indifferent. On the contrary, as he was the first to admit, he drove people crazy with his outspoken opinions. Loud, but also cultured, confrontational, yet open-minded, an atheist, a proud Jew, a rightist, a leftist – there was no end to his contradictions and to the emotions he aroused.

Equally unusual were his accomplishments. Arriving penniless in Israel after World War II at the age of 17, he became in turn a soldier, a mechanic, a journalist, a dramatist, a cookbook writer, a lawyer, a businessman, a politician, and chairman of Yad Vashem. It's quite a story, and provocative as ever, Tommy Lapid has now come back from the dead to tell it.

Well, no, not really. His son Yair speaks for him in first-person voice, in a fascinating, readable "autobiography" of this controversial character who was larger than life in every respect.

Many biographies are essentially hagiographies – justifications for decisions made that turned out to be wrong; attempts to settle scores and make the subject look good. Not this one. Yair, speaking as Tommy, has no qualms about telling the full story, warts and all, with humor, often directed against himself, and shrewd observations about human nature.

Like many Israelis, my view of Tommy Lapid was influenced by what I saw as his vulgar, rabble-rousing appearance each week on the Popolitika television program, in which interviewer and interviewees screamed at one another from beginning to end. That was one side of him, rooted in the Holocaust, where he learned to fight "them" – his enemies, ceaselessly in a daily life and death drama.

The other side was the easy-going private man who easily made friends from the lowest to the highest levels of society.

Tommy Lapid, born Tomislav Lampel, was the indulged only son of a comfortably bourgeois secular Jewish family from Novi Sad in the Serbian region of Yugoslavia. At the age of 12, as he puts it, "I grew up." His father was taken by the Nazis and from that time on, he and his mother fought for survival. The experience colored his outlook for the rest of his life, confirming him in his atheism and determination never to be intimidated again. After the Shoah, he would never again have faith in the essential goodness of people or believe in any particular ideology. As he saw it, "in the name of racial, social or religious justice it became permissible to do what is impermissible in the name of mercy and kindness and charity."

At the same time, these views, rooted in his experience of the Shoah, did not make him bitter, cynical or withdrawn. On the contrary, he lived and enjoyed his life with enormous gusto. He loved food, good conversation, humor, friends and his family and he was intimidated by no one, from the prime minister down.

Few people know that Lapid almost became a taxi dispatcher, a coveted position in the early '50s. Instead, he turned up at the offices of the Hungarian newspaper Uj Kelet and asked for a job. He was lucky; his mentors there included Israel Kastner and Ephraim Kishon. From there, he moved to Maariv, where he eventually became a columnist and developed the iconoclastic style that made him a celebrity.

The book is crammed with charming, amazing anecdotes, which make it a joy to read. A sample:  In 1948, newly arrived in Israel, Lapid joined the IDF. Army trucks brought the new recruits to the mess hall of an army base, in which a portrait of  Lenin hung on the wall. The young recruit was taken aback. "Was this what I had escaped for  from communist Yugoslavia?" he asked. "Don't worry," someone said. "It's not Lenin. That's the president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann."

Another time, as head of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Lapid was asked to find funds to hire a trombone player for the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. He and Teddy Kollek cooked up a scheme to ostensibly hire a ganan (a gardener), for which there was a position, but instead, to hire a nagan (a musician). "Nobody will know the difference," said Kollek, and he was right.

On yet another occasion, Lapid got into a car on a Tel Aviv street, thinking it was a taxi, and asked the driver to take him home. The driver obeyed. When he was asked why, the driver later said, "I stopped at a light and Lapid got into my car. I was afraid if I refused to drive him home he would shout at me."

At one point, Yair Lapid quotes his father, who boasted, "I never missed a good fight or a good meal." That could well be his epitaph. After reading this wonderful book, I was left with the sense that the world is a duller place without him.

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Carol Novis

Carol Novis grew up in Winnipeg, Canada and studied English Literature at the University of Manitoba. She subsequently lived in Ottawa, London, England, Cape Town, South Africa and...

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