70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

Tomi Lapid, the iconoclast

By Frankpeti - 2018-03-05

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

He was one of the best-known Israeli-Hungarian men, who had first survived the Holocaust; then became a leading journalist and later a decisive figure in Israeli politics. He became a notorious atheist, dismissing taboos, rules, and dogmas, and the fiercest opponent of the ultra-Orthodox.


Tomi Lapid was like an old car, all parts of which came from elsewhere: a brutally witty Hungarian intellectual. A bohemian bourgeoisie who was born surrounded with leather chairs and mahogany tables, in a world that could not foresee the war that was approaching. The smartest student in the small Jewish school, who didn’t care about the Talmud, but loved the Bible. A 13-year-old mini-adult who sneaked onto the snowy street of the ghetto in order to organize some potatoes for his beautiful, lost mother locked in the cellar's prison. An Israeli with chubby-red cheeks who enthusiastically jumped into all the conflicts, and even provoked them, just to see how the people react. He was a respected minister, editor, lawyer, automotive electrical engineer, the husband of a famous writer, father of a journalist and a psychologist, a great friend of his friends.


Lapid's life gained pace in Israel - in a country whose young history was firmly connected with this young man's career trying to find a new destiny and identity in the port of Haifa. His fate is the splendid depiction of the Hungarian rural Jewish middle class and of the chronicle of its dissolution, as well as of the story of creating a new home and identity.


Tomi Lapid was not born to waste even one moment of his life idling. The greatest lesson of his life, full with first-hand experiences of the events of history, dense with adventures with dangers was this: from any, seemingly hopeless situation, you can, and you must get out, and it is always worth getting up and starting anew.


He was always creating, writing, talking, and always wanting to communicate. He mesmerized his audience with juggling German, Hebrew, English, Yiddish, Croatian, Serbian and Russian. He regularly appeared in television debates; his passionate style was esteemed even by his opponents.

He was passionate about those who loved him, never ceasing to appreciate them, together with their errors or mistakes. He was able to influence even the greatest cynics if they liked him.


He treated his opponents with grandeur: a leading rabbi invited him to participate as an honorary guest at his son’s wedding; he visited Ahmed Tibi’s elderly father with him; he and Seli Jehimovic used to scare the waiters with their loud disputes, when they dined together on a monthly basis in their usual place. But he deeply despised humorless people, because they ruined his enjoyment of heated arguments; it was his belief that boredom is the true original sin, that Kishon-style profound and yet nimble saying, that drops from the ceiling onto your shoulder when you least expect it. His wife often pleaded with him: "Why must you always tell them all that goes on in your head?" Because he had to.


He was rich, ashkenazi and fat, a capitalist, secular, educated, generous, successful, and refused to sweep any of these under the carpet. If something was difficult to achieve, he made damned sure he got it.


Only one thing really hurt him: if they said he was racist. The man who taped all the parody they made about him, and showed it to his family Fridays at home? He did not hate the Eastern ones. He did not hate anyone; it was precisely his childhood that had taught him colorblindness. True, he did not like Mediterranean music, but in turn, he did not force anyone to love Mozart.

Lapid giving a piggyback ride to his son Yair - graphics: Yael Bogen / Flickr / the7eye.org.il

Of course, he too, succumbed to generalized prejudices. For example, he pretty much hated Hungarians. He did not understand – when towards the end of the war, just like the Jews, the Hungarians were hungry, dirty and frightened - how they still managed to persecute the Jews.


He loved Hungarian culture, their poets, gypsy music, Hungarian cuisine and salami, but he never forgave the Hungarian people. He could not forget how enthusiastically and voluntarily they had been involved in the murder of the Jews, and he was always convinced that there was a small anti-Semite in every Hungarian just waiting for the opportunity to get out. They have often tried to explain it to him that all this was in the past. He listened politely, but did not believe a word. His attitude towards the Hungarians was characterized by an inseparable mix of admiration and hatred.


He produced an extremely popular cookbook of Hungarian dishes; this cuisine was his favorite. "The combination of atheism and stuffed cabbage is a guarantee of longevity," he said.


He was wary of lean people. They seemed bitter and arrogant, so he felt sorry for them.


He was aware of his own limitations, prejudices, and weaknesses: he liked his own children more than those of others, and Jews more than non-Jews. He did not believe that every man was equal, he thought some were superior. He loved flattery, he could not stand criticism, he liked to gossip. He would have preferred to keep the occupied territories, "of course without the Arabs, just like everyone else. And I know this is nonsense, just like everyone else."

When the Air Force bombed Palestinian residential buildings in the Gaza Strip, Lapid said, "This image reminds me of my grandmother Hermina who perished in the Holocaust."


The next day, as deputy prime minister, he objected to the action at the government session. "Those who say that they have to fight back full force do sometimes win a battle, but because of that, we all lose the war. In the long run, we can only stay on top in the struggle with millions of Arabs around us if we remain a law-abiding, free, enlightened and humane country. In the short term, we sometimes have to sacrifice our intention to fight back."

Lapid as Minister of Justice in Knesset, 2004 - photo: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

"If it was only about the national question of the Palestinians, we would have already had a long-standing agreement with each other. But for each compromise-ready, non-religious Palestinian there are two fanatical believers who want our death."


Zionism was one of the greatest miracles of the twentieth century, according to him: it was able to forge a people out of the masses of seventy different countries and to renew an ancient language. "There is only one painful point," he said, "Zionism has set the goal of getting Jews to a place where they can live without threats, and if there is a state where they are in danger, that is Israel. This paradox is still waiting to be solved. "


Despite all his strangeness, Lapid is immovably libertarian. "We need an Israel in which everyone who is enlightened, moderate, a good patriot and a good Jew, finds his place. We want to be good Israelis without being nationalists or Orthodox, without being socialists or belonging to strange sects, and without changing our Israeli identity to world citizenship." For him the antithesis of Islamic fundamentalism was not Jewish-Christian fundamentalism, but Western-liberal modernity.


He participated in the Israeli Pride March. "The Pride March shows us in the right direction. Despite our geography and perhaps our history, fortunately we did not sink into the Levant. We did not fall under the influence of the ornate melodies of eastern music, nor the curious payes-wearing tradition of Galicia and Odessa. Despite its tribal differences, Israel is a modern, western, technologically advanced country, with an undeniably liberal and democratic tradition."

Tomi Lapid has fought for a secular Israel for his entire life. One of the main goals of Shinui was the Israeli civil marriage. According to Lapid, it was absurd that Israel was the only democracy where civil marriage did not exist. He thought it was an anachronism that was to be changed sooner or later.

Graphics: frankpeti

He declared a substantial war to religious taboos. He never hesitated to "tell off" the Jewish bigots. "And after they had run out of all arguments, they trust in God."


He was undiplomatically and bluntly secular and anti-clerical. He criticized the privileges of believers: "The religious should not be deciding who is and is not a Jew. I am a Jew like any of the rabbis living in Bnei Brak, who brings up his dozens of children who cannot find China on the map, cannot use the computer, do not become soldiers, oppress their wives and live off my tax."


Even in his last days, he dismissed the rabbis who had come to see him, because he knew how much fun the religious would have celebrating if it was found out and because he refused to give in to the ancient fears in him.


Does one's death demonstrate something about one's life? He insisted on the right to decide when and how to die. By the middle of chemotherapy, he was thoroughly familiar with his medical dossier and decided to get rid of the instruments. "I do not plan to lie down here in diapers waiting for someone to clean me up," he told the doctors.


Finally he starved himself to death. He refused to take the intravenous diet and rejected every glass of water with a hoarse "no", while his wife stroked his forehead and whispered: “my life, my life.”


“Starvation” was a terrible term, but the process was borne calmly by him. Does it hurt? No. Comfortable so? Yes.


He said farewell with great dignity. He was dignified throughout his life. This was even acknowledged by those who he shouted at in the Popolytics show.


The cancer has taken his appetite. He was born hungry and died hungry. Between the two, he ate his way through all the restaurants and hot dog stands from Berlin to Bora Bora.


God was not there, not even for a moment at his death bed. Lapid did not need any Last Rites because he did not think he ought to apologize for anything.


Like all his life, his funeral was unusual. Instead of the Kaddish, Frank Sinatra's My Way was played.


Tomi Lapid was basically a funny guy. The last words to his son summarizing his death brilliantly mirror his self-deprecating humor: "I know there are some who want to know what's after life. There is nothing. I told you so."

Tomi Lapid's Grand Life

Joszef (Tomi) Lapid was born under the name of Tamás Lampel, in Novi Sad in Vojvodina. During the war his father was taken to Mauthausen's death camp, where he died two weeks before the liberation. It was then that God died for him too.  Lapid went to Budapest with his mother, hiding there from the Nazis, in the Újlipótváros ghetto in a Swedish house in Pozsonyi út 14. He survived the danger when the Arrow Cross took them to the Danube to be shot, but he escaped with his mother. Here he became Zionist. "If the State of Israel had existed when I was 13, I would not have had to wear a yellow star in the Pest ghetto. This is what Israel means."


In 1948, at the age of 17, he immigrated to Israel, joined the army, studied law at the University of Tel Aviv and began writing for the Új Kelet. There he met Ephraim Kishon, who introduced him to the founder of the Maariv daily. He was hired as a personal assistant, and he changed his name from Lampel to Lapid on the boss’ advice.


Later he became a member of the editorial board of Maariv, then Finance Director of the Telecommunications Authority, the director of the TV program Popolitics, and later the Chair of the Cable TV Association, and the director of public media.

His political career has also begun; was first elected into the Knesset 1999, his contra-ultra-orthodox mid-right-wing party, Shinui received 6 seats. After the 2003 election, his party succeeded in achieving its greatest success, earning 15 seats in the 120-member Knesset. In Ariel Sharon's cabinet he became Minister of Justice and Deputy Prime Minister. But Shinui left the government in 2004, protesting because of the government’s decision to transfer several million shekels to the ultra-Orthodox. After his withdrawal, his party began to decline, and in 2006, they were unable to obtain any seats in the Israeli parliament.


Later he retired from politics and became President of the Memorial Center of the Yad Vasem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Until his death he was a confidant to Ehud Olmert. According to the former Israeli head of state, Lapid lived and breathed Jewish fate, history and future.


After a heart attack in his home, he was diagnosed with cancer. Six months later, he died at age 77.

Sources: atlatszo.hu, haaretz.co.il, ynet.co.il, izraelinfo.com, ujkelet.com,

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