Jew of the Week: Ephraim Kishon

Father of Israeli Satire

Ferenc Hoffman (1924-2005) was born in Budapest, Hungary to a secular Jewish family. He loved to write from a young age, and won a prize for a novel he wrote while still in high school. He was also an avid chess player. During World War II, he was first expelled from university before being imprisoned at a number of concentration camps, ending up in the Sobibor death camp. One of the ways he survived is by challenging the guards to chess matches. Another is by maintaining his sense of humour. After the Holocaust, he went by the name Franz Kishunt, studying sculpting and art history while also writing satire. In 1949, he escaped communist Hungary and made aliyah, becoming “Ephraim Kishon”. He was a passionate Zionist and would staunchly defend the State of Israel for the rest of his life—often being disparaged by the media for his hardline views. Within two years of settling in the Holy Land, Kishon was fluent in Hebrew (he literally hand-copied an entire dictionary) and began writing satire for a number of papers. His most famous column was Had Gadya in the Ma’ariv newspaper, which he wrote almost daily for over 30 years. Kishon soon became Israel’s greatest and most famous humourist. He also wrote popular plays, an opera, and books that have been translated into some 40 languages, including So Sorry We Won! about the Six-Day War. In the 1960s, Kishon entered the world of film. He wrote, directed, and produced five movies, the first being the critically-acclaimed Sallah Shabbati, highlighting the struggle of Mizrachi Jewish refugees to Israel. The film won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar, making Kishon the first Israeli with that distinction. (The film also launched the international career of Israeli actor Chaim Topol, most famous for portraying Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.) Kishon’s fourth film, The Policeman, also won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar. Not surprisingly, Kishon has been credited with opening up Israeli cinema to the world, and paving the path to Hollywood for Israelis. He won a long list of awards, including the Bialik Prize and the Israel Prize. He was a billiards champ, a pioneer in the field of computer chess, and even created a board game (“Havila Higiya”) once popular in Israel. Kishon has been called the “father of Israeli satire”, and inspired an entire generation of Israeli humourists.

Words of the Week

The State of Israel wasn’t founded so that anti-Semitism would end. It was founded so that we could tell the anti-Semites to shove it.
– Ephraim Kishon

Jew of the Week: Manuel Pimental

King Henry’s Best Friend

Don Manuel Pimental (d. 1615) was born to a family of Sephardic Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity in the decades prior. Pimental became a wealthy merchant, trading with the Muslims under the name Isaac ibn Jakar. He soon converted back to Judaism, and did a lot of work on behalf of the many struggling Jewish communities at the time. Despite the ban on Jews living in France, he settled there anyway and became best friends with King Henry IV. The two played cards together regularly, and it is reported that after one 1608 game in the palace, King Henry said: “I am the king of France, but you are the king of gamblers!” Many didn’t like the fact that the king was so close to a Jew, but Henry defended his friend with the following words: “Those who honestly follow their conscience are of my religion, and mine is that of all brave and good men.” A couple of years later, a Catholic fanatic assassinated King Henry IV for being too friendly with Protestants and Jews. Pimental had to flee, and spent three years in Venice. He then joined his friend Samuel Pallache, the famed “pirate-rabbi”, in Amsterdam, and became one of the Jewish community’s leaders there. In 1614, Pimental purchased a plot of land to serve as the first official Jewish cemetery in the Netherlands. Ironically, when he passed away a year later, he was the first person to be buried there! (Pallache was the second.) Pimental played a large role in advancing the rights of Europe’s Jews, and helped transform Amsterdam into a Jewish haven that eventually became known as the “Jerusalem of Europe”.

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Words of the Week

Neither security nor the development of the country is the true mission of the state. Those are only necessary conditions for the true mission… the ingathering of the exiles is the task and the destiny and the mission of the state of Israel. Without this endeavor it is emptied of its historical content and of no significance to the Jewish people in our day, in the generations that preceded us, and in the generations to come.
David Ben-Gurion

*The biography above is adapted from Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, by Ed Kritzler.

Jew of the Week: Hillel the Elder

Greatest of Sages

Hillel (c. 110 BCE-10 CE) was born in Babylon to a poor Jewish family, descended from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. To make a living, Hillel worked as a lumberjack. At the age of 40, he decided to move to Israel and further his Jewish studies. He went to work each morning and earned just enough to pay for his family’s needs, and for the tuition to the Jerusalem yeshiva of the sages Shemaiah and Avtalion. One winter, when he didn’t have the funds to pay the yeshiva fee, Hillel climbed up to the roof to listen in to the classes from the chimney. He was so engrossed in the learning that he didn’t realize the snowstorm that began to brew around him. In the morning, the yeshiva students noticed the clogged chimney and went up to find Hillel frozen on top of it. For his dedication, he was granted free tuition for life. Hillel went on to become the greatest rabbi in the world. He headed the Jerusalem yeshiva, and was also elected president (nasi) of Israel, and chief of the Sanhedrin. He had eighty pairs of disciples, including the famed rabbis Yonatan ben Uziel and Yochanan ben Zakkai. Hillel was famous for his incredible patience. In one account, a man made a bet that he could get Hillel angry so he bothered Hillel incessantly on the eve of Shabbat, yet Hillel remained calm and pleasant. When the man admitted to the bet and told Hillel how he lost 400 zuz, a huge sum of money, Hillel replied: “It is better that you lose 400 zuz, and even another 400 zuz, than that I should get angry!” The school of Hillel became the dominant school in Judaism, and to this day Jewish law always rules according to Beit Hillel. He is one of the most-oft cited sages in the Mishnah, the ancient corpus of Jewish law. Among his most well-known teachings is the Golden Rule: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”, and “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Finally, it was Hillel who instituted the prozbul: In the sabbatical Shemitah year (such as the one beginning next week), the Torah commands that all personal debts between Jews must be cancelled. Because of this, Jews started to avoid handing out loans in the months before the sabbatical, worried that they would never be repaid. To ensure that the needy could still draw loans, Hillel crafted an important legal loophole known as the prozbul, still widely used. According to tradition, Hillel lived 120 years. He stood up for the poor and oppressed, and was beloved for his kindness, charity, and positivity. The Sages would later remark that each person should strive “to be humble and patient like Hillel.”

Shana Tova u’Metuka! Have a Wonderful 5782!

The Kabbalah of Hillel and Shammai

Words of the Week

Gems from Hillel the Elder:

“Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place.”

“Whoever destroys one soul, it is as though he had destroyed the entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the entire world.”

“Where there are no men, strive to be a man!”

“Do not say ‘When I have free time I shall study’ – for you may never have any ‘free time’.”

“Be like the disciples of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all of God’s creations, and drawing them closer to the Torah.”