This is the biography of Tommy Lapid, an Israeli journalist, writer, businessman, and politician who died in 2008. The book is written by his son, Yair, and largely based on a series of taped interviews Tommy gave after being diagnosed with a terminal disease.
First, this is a beautifully written book. It underlines Yair’s writing qualities, which shine through, even though the version I read was in English, translated from the original Hebrew. So, a big vote of thanks to the translation work of Evan Fallenberg.
Second, be aware of the interesting approach taken by Yair: the book’s perspective is that of Tommy. The narrative is Tommy speaking from the grave, looking back on his life. It took me a little while to get used to it, but when I did I realized the technique helped my see the world from Tommy’s perspective.
Third, many people will remember Tommy as being the Israeli politician renowned for his enmity towards the religious communities, especially the haredim. But the book, which does deal with this aspect, is so much more. It’s a rich retelling of the family history, the suffering through the Holocaust, the chaos of surviving in a Communist country, and the fresh start in Israel. It’s rich because so much happened in his life, and the book is crammed with stories about how he crossed the paths and careers of so many landmark figures of Israel’s early history. For example, Tommy got work on a Hungarian newspaper and through that became close to the legendary Israeli humorist Ephraim Kishon. There’s much more: Tommy was on close terms with Ehud Olmert, for a time was close to Ariel Sharon, met Ben Gurion, fenced with Netanyahu, battled with Barak, worked for Robert Maxwell, and on and on. In part, at least, this book gives the reader another view of the history of Israel.
Finally, while the book reflects the undeniable love Yair had for his father, it does not hesitate to show Tommy in a less than favorable light occasionally. So, the picture painted is that of a real person, who sometimes lost his temper, held a grudge, overindulged his appetite, made a bad judgement call, and did the other things ordinary human beings do. The book deals with the matrimonial troubles of his children, and the tragedy Tommy and his wife suffered.
At the same time, the book rightly celebrates and marks the man’s experiences and achievements. Tommy survived the Holocaust by the skin of his teeth – and his mother’s quick thinking. It was important to record the details of his story. It’s a bonus that it is told so well.
I refuse to criticize Tommy’s attitude towards religion, especially Judaism. What he described as the “death of G-d” was a perfectly natural and understandable response to what he witnessed in the Holocaust. Neither I nor anyone else can dare challenge him. We do not have the right. His views were his views, and that’s all there is to say.
And his experiences hardened his Zionist soul. He witnessed what happened to Jews who were dependent on other people for their lives, and he did not want that to ever happen again.
Simply put, if you have any interest in Israeli history, get this book. It is a magnificent biography, spoiled only by the lack of pictures to remind us of Tommy’s widespread swathe through the world.