Review: Memories After My Death

Deceased Israeli firebrand comes alive

By Geoffrey Paul, March 28, 2011
Dor vador:  father Tommy Lapid lives on in son Yair’s book

Dor vador: father Tommy Lapid lives on in son Yair’s book

By Yair Lapid (Trans: Evan Fallenberg)
Elliott & Thompson, £18.99

The notion is bizarre - that a son might so totally steep himself in his father's life, his innermost thoughts, that, after his father's death, he can recreate the man and write the autobiography his father never penned. But this is what Yair Lapid has done. The result is a literary tour-de-force in which the son reassembles the voice, the spirit of the father so absolutely that, for most of this big book, it is the man himself who turns the pages of his life and speaks directly to the reader.

And Yosef "Tommy" Lapid has a lot to say. As a journalist, a politician, a celebrity, Tommy Lapid wrote, recorded, broadcast and shared with his close and loving family so many of his experiences, his thoughts, his emotional highs and lows, that his son Yair, himself a high-profile journalist and broadcaster in Israel, had an abundance of sources.

Born into a comfortable, intellectual and secular Jewish family in Novi Sad, in the Serbian republic of former Yugoslavia, Tomislav Lampel (later Hebraised to Lapid and the Tommy prefaced by Yosef - which nobody called him) lived in Budapest with his mother after his lawyer father had been taken by the Germans (he died in Mauthausen two weeks before the Liberation).

Mother and son were on a death march to the banks of the Danube, where they were to have been shot and left to die under the ice, when a Soviet reconnaissance plane temporarily distracted the Hungarian and Nazi escort. Young Tommy was pushed into a nearby public toilet by his mother and when both emerged the march had moved on. Not one of the marchers survived.

It was this scarred but street-smart teenager who arrived in Israel with his mother just as the state was born and there, seizing every opportunity he could make for himself in the next 60 years, carved out a remarkable career as journalist, author, radio and TV star, later head of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Knesset Member, a founder of the anti-clerical Shinui party, deputy prime minister and, in his last years, chairman of Yad Vashem.

But this dry catalogue in no way captures Tommy's gusto for life, of a man flamboyant in his many loves: of food (he grew to be a Falstaffian figure), of his writer wife, their children, and of friends, who included humorist Ephraim Kishon and Ariel Sharon.

He embraced almost everyone but Hungarians and it's impossible not to forgive him his delight in his own celebrity. Former Prime Minister Olmert sat in tears at Tommy's bedside as he lay dying from cancer having asked his doctors not to prolong his life.

Having first met Tommy when we were both young journalists in London in the '60s (he for the Israeli newspaper Maariv), I am familiar with his voice and it is remarkable how his son and intimate friend Yair brings it back to booming, ebullient, opinionated life in this extraordinary memoir.

Geoffrey D Paul is a former JC editor

Last updated: 11:04am, March 28 2011