In April 1974, about a month after Israel’s soldiers returned home after the Yom Kippur War, the satirical program “Nikui Rosh” had its premiere on state television, the one and only channel that existed at the time.
“We started to broadcast while riding the waves of protest against the blunders [by the country’s leaders in the war],” recalls veteran journalist Mordechai “Moti” Kirschenbaum today. Currently the co-anchor of “London and Kirschenbaum,” the daily current events program on Channel 10, he was then editor and producer of “Nikui Rosh” (which means “clearing your mind”). For his work on the program, he received the 1978 Israel Prize for radio, television and cinema.
“The biggest influence the war had on the program was in making it possible,” says Kobi Niv, one of the writers on the show’s team, which also included journalists Hanoch Marmari and B. Michael, and author-satirist Ephraim Sidon. “The country was so battered, and we hit precisely at that moment.”
Kirschenbaum, in a separate conversation, agrees with Niv’s insight. “The war made it possible for us to be so biting,” he says.
Niv: “There was a state of shock, but when it ended, the window of opportunity was shut.” The program was in fact canceled two years later.
But despite the timing, and despite the wave of protest on which the program’s creators rode, very few of the hundreds of skits that were broadcast in “Nikui Rosh”’s two years of existence referred specifically to the 1973 war. For his part, Kobi Niv says he doesn’t remember any sketches about the war. In fact, he is surprised when he is reminded of the close chronological proximity between the program and the war. As is David Alexander, an expert on political satire in Israel, who taught the subject for many years and can recite entire skits from “Nikui Rosh” from memory. “I hadn’t thought of the program in terms of the Yom Kippur War,” he says.
Kirschenbaum, though, remembers such a connection. “It is possible that the references to the war came only at the beginning of the series of 32 programs, and then in a second wave after publication of the report of the Agranat Commission [which investigated the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War],” he says. “It’s true that we also dealt with many other issues: the economy,
the Knesset, the political arena, the swinish story of how a few people got really wealthy − everything that satire is supposed to deal with. But the war constantly hovered above everything; its results were the backdrop. There wasn’t a show that didn’t contain an element related to the 1973 events.”
“Nikui Rosh” was not the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s first satirical program. It was preceded by a series called “Lo Hakol Over,” in which Kirschenbaum was also involved, but whose 12 episodes apparently left no lasting imprint.
“’Nikui Rosh’ was a wild hit,” recalls Alexander, currently president of the WIZO Haifa Academy of Design and Education. “When it was aired, on Thursday evenings, you could go out and lay on the street, because everyone was home watching. The program was the subject of parlor talk when people got together on Friday evenings and on Shabbat.”
The cast consisted of Tuvia Tzafir, Rivka Michaeli, Aliza Rosen, Aharon Almog and Shabtai Konorti. Dubi Gal and Shimon Lev-Ari also appeared in the first season (Lev-Ari returned toward the end of the second season). The second season was bolstered particularly by the participation of Sefi Rivlin, Itzik Ben-Melech and Uzi Levy (who also appeared in the first season). There were guest appearances by Rachel Schur, Yossi Alfi, Margalit Almog, Tikva Mor, Tiki Dayan, Yossi Graber, Aryeh Moskona and Eli Dankner. And there were also additional writers involved in the series: Amos Kenan, Eli Schreiber and Yaakov Lazar.
“In and of itself, the political satire was not an innovation,” Alexander notes. “There were already writers [in that genre] such as Ephraim Kishon and cartoonists like ‘Ze’ev’ [Yaakov Farkash]. In fact, there had been political satire here without letup since 1927, but it hardly touched us. If satire is intended to level humorous criticism at crimes and wrongdoings in society, the theater troupes The Kettle [created in 1927] and The Broom , which were the main sources of satire then, hesitated before touching the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community). It was easier to write about ordinary people rather than politicians, to write about nonsense, about bureaucracy − subjects that Kishon addressed but which today are not considered satire at all.
“In this sort of landscape, the distinctive character of ‘Nikui Rosh’ stood out,” Alexander continues. “The program was above all political, and being broadcast on television, it reached a huge audience. Another element that set it apart was that it was written by a team that was young and completely irreverent. Everything was open. Being native-born, they didn’t feel awed by the sheer miracle of the existence of a Jewish state − as opposed to ‘Dosh’ [cartoonist Kariel Gardosh] or Tommy Lapid [a veteran journalist who a few years later became chairman of the Israeli Broadcasting Authority], who were very respectful of the state.”
Hanoch Levin’s influence
The era of television in Israel began in May 1968, but even before that there was the satire of the playwright Hanoch Levin.
Alexander: “Certainly his was the first truly bold voice, which dared − after the euphoria of the Six-Day War with all its military stars − to say something different. In 1968, he staged the satirical cabaret ‘You, Me and the Next War,’ and in 1970 came ‘Queen of the Bathtub.’ There is no doubt that Moti and the quartet of ‘Nikui Rosh’ writers were beholden to Hanoch Levin.
“Before becoming involved with the program the group wrote for the Hebrew University student newspaper, wrote two works for the stage − ‘What We Look Like’ before the Yom Kippur War, and ‘The Last War’ after it − and were very much occupied with political and social issues, and with questions of religion and state. Television writing was a quantum leap for them, not only because of the platform itself, but also in terms of the quality of the writing. Moti took them to a higher level. Still, I did not find Hanoch Levin’s influence in their scripts; it’s discernible only in their tone. And even if they began writing more bitingly, they did not achieve his level of criticism.
“Levin,” Alexander adds, “leveraged the war into an extreme anti-militaristic and anti-nationalistic statement. Years later, B. Michael would write mordant articles in this spirit in Haaretz and elsewhere. By the time of the advent of the satirical column ‘Zoo Haaretz’ [meaning “this is the land,” but also making a connection between Israel to a zoo by using the English word], which the four edited and wrote in [the weekly] Ha’olam Hazeh, in 1973 they were already bold enough to touch on core subjects of the Israeli experience: the feeling of bereavement, the politician who sends a soldier to die in a war, in the name of an ideology completely unrelated to Zionism.
“But all these features, which would be reprised years later in the work of Sidon and B. Michael (Hanoch Marmari and Kobi Niv went on to other fields), were not evident in the program at the time. Maybe the medium was too sensitive.”
Sensitive? Kobi Niv doesn’t know how to respond to that idea. He does remember that “we also wrote something about how we were all, like, killed” in the satirical book “Zoo Aretz Zoo” in 1975.
Kirschenbaum maintains that “Nikui Rosh” was very biting, though he admits that the sensitivities of state television were taken into account by its creators: “The country was still licking its wounds after almost 3,000 soldiers were killed, so we said we would not deal with the blood of the fallen. As a satirist, you want to touch on that, because that’s where you’re most effective, in the way Hanoch Levin was with his marvelous work. But Levin worked in the medium of cabaret theater. And by the way, he also wrote for us, but not a lot. I wanted him to write more, but he didn’t want to find himself in the context of an item he might not agree with.
“We were a lone channel,” Kirschenbaum continues. “The possible impact on bereaved parents who had lost their loved one, of gouging that wound − we decided we would not do that. We would attack the politicians, the officers − we had no sacred cows other than the fallen. That was the only taboo subject.
“The proof that we were right to take that approach came when we broadcast a sketch about a completely different subject. The income tax authorities had just introduced a snitch system [to fight tax evasion]: You inform on your parents and your friends, and the authorities pay you for the information. We did some small items about situations in which people inform on their friends. One of them
was based on ‘Friends tell about ...’ − a traditional format for talking about fallen soldiers. In the skit the actors sat around looking sad, as the genre required, and said, ‘Yes, he also has a gas station that he didn’t file a tax statement for ...
“Because this was not long after the war,” Kirschenbaum notes, “we received many letters in reaction to the sketches. One was from a mother who lost two sons. She explained why the ‘Friends tell about ...’ evenings were important to the bereaved families, offering them a great deal of consolation and strengthening them. I remember writing her a six-page letter of reply in which I said I was sorry, that it was a dumb vignette which had hurt many people.
“It was totally unnecessary, not even sharp satire, a kind of little joke that’s funny when you tell it to the guys. But when you inadvertently slap people who are already hurting all the time and you aggravate their pain − I regretted it very much.”
The only other principle upheld on “Nikui Rosh,” which Kirschenbaum recalls insisting on, “was that we attack our leaders and not the leaders of the Arab states. People on the [IBA] board of directors were always saying to me, ‘Hey, [Anwar] Sadat isn’t funny?!’ I replied that he’s a riot − so let the Egyptians satirize him. Our satire deals with the people we elected.”
‘Stamping our feet’
Asked whether the IBA board or the government intervened in the content of the show, Kirschenbaum says they did − “but only once.” “Everyone talked about how the country would be different after the fiasco [of the war], how there would be a big revolution. Nothing would be the same. In a skit written by Eli Schreiber, we see a few soldiers sitting glumly around a campfire. One says nothing will be the way it was. Another says ‘We won’t let them pull the wool over our eyes anymore.’ And then a third − played by Aharon Almog − says, ‘No way I’m going to drink coffee without cardamom anymore. I won’t do it!’
“The point of this was that we are all talking and stamping our feet, but in the end everyone adapts and very little actually changes. In fact, that was proved in the national election after the war [in January 1974], when the Labor Alignment won again, despite the huge failure of the war.
“But then [Defense Minister Moshe] Dayan and [Minister of Transportation Shimon] Peres decided that they would not enter the government. A crisis ensued: Two dominant figures who were refusing to be part of the government and were in effect boycotting it. So a campaign of persuasion was launched to bring them back into the government after the war. Dayan was bruised and battered. Everyone claimed he was responsible for the blunder; the big hero of the Six-Day War had become a target for barbs. In the end the two agreed to join,” Kirschenbaum says dryly, “but a reason for their change of heart had to be created” − for example, if tensions should arise along Israel’s borders as a result of the war, the ministers would have to mobilize on behalf of the national effort.
“The tension that [actually] developed was with Syria. The northern border was porous after the war. Both sides were still licking their wounds in that sector, and the army created a state of tension. And not for the first time. We had created situations like that back when I did army service, in the 1950s, but at the time, I didn’t realize it was done for political purposes.
“So we did a skit about that. We took the song ‘Letter to the Rebbe’ from the hit musical ‘Once There Was a Hasid,’ but instead of the rabbi we addressed the letter to [Syrian President Hafez] Assad. We wrote: ‘Don’t take it [the tension] seriously, it’s only for our own domestic purposes; don’t respond to it, it will pass and things will quiet down.”
Kirschenbaum: “[The response was:] How did they ever let something like that be broadcast! Israel is heating up the border!? After the war? The IBA board decided that a revision and an apology were in order. The demand infuriated the program’s staff. And then we got an idea.”
Alexander: “Two weeks later, they broadcast exactly the same song, word for word. Except that at the end, they added, ‘To the city of Damascus, comma, to President Mr. Hafez Assad, period. Please disregard our previous letter.’ Classic satire.”
“I told the staff that after that no one would ever ask us to apologize for anything again,” Kirschenbaum says. And he was right.
Was there anything that you yourselves decided to censor?
“There was one skit that we didn’t air − a ballad about an air force bombing run in Lebanon where the idea behind it was that you don’t kill mosquitoes with napalm, you have to drain the swamp. There was opposition in the air force to the bombings at that time. We decided that even though we had already taped the skit, we would not broadcast it.”
Moti, what was the most biting “Nikui Rosh” sketch related to the 1973 war?
“Probably the one based on the [biblical] scapegoat ritual. We presented the viewpoint not of the statesman, the politician or the top brass, but of the army private stuck in an outpost on the Suez Canal. About how it’s all his fault. During the week in which we broadcast the skit there was a newspaper report about two sergeants, I believe, who had supposedly acted inappropriately. People made a big fuss. The fact that the weapons didn’t work − that’s no one’s fault; the fact that commanding officers screwed up from start to finish − that’s nothing. But the two sergeants became scapegoats. The writers’ team had a great idea: We performed a scapegoat ritual like in the Bible, at the end of which the goat gets thrown over a cliff.
Lentils and bombs
One other sketch that Alexander recalls as touching on the Yom Kippur War was seemingly about a different subject: It involved a slip of the tongue by the country’s president at the time, Ephraim Katzir. “He was a beloved president, but he was slightly out of his milieu: a scientist from the Weizmann Institute and not from Jerusalem politicking,” Alexander notes.
“He said something about Israel’s nuclear potential on a public occasion. Maybe he was referring to the fact that there was a moment in the Yom Kippur War when Israel considered using that weapon, but I’m not sure. Anyway, they came up with a funny skit, which included one of Tuvia Tzafir’s first impersonations. Katzir is seen visiting a lentil growers’ conference in Gedera, but he has no idea that lentils are grown in Israel, and says, ‘All I know is that we have atomic bombs here.’ The routine concludes with him saying: ‘And with regard to the atomic bomb, I just wanted to add: We are all guilty.’ Those [last four words, actually uttered by K-atzir after the war] ... are etched in my mind ... To conclude a skit with those words in 1974 or 1975 was a real slap in the face.”
Kobi Niv also mentions the “We are all guilty” statement, though not in the context of “Nikui Rosh.” Actually he says he had completely forgotten about that sketch, even though he is now deep into writing a book set in the period between Purim 1973 and the war that fall.
Niv recalls that he and his fellow writers actually dealt with the war before it happened: “We knew it would happen ... The writing was on the wall but no one wanted to read about it. On the Friday before the war broke out I was the editor of ‘Zoo Haaretz,’ and was at the printer’s. The issue was scheduled to appear on the Wednesday after the Saturday when the war started. As often happens, just before going to press, there was an empty space that had to be filled up with something you came up with on the spot. The war had already begun, only we didn’t yet know it. I wrote something like, ‘Hey, the whole world is against us now, all we need is some little war and everything will be okay.’ Without knowing it was about to happen. That unawareness. That issue never got to print, and of course there is no trace of it.
“On that Saturday, after the Yom Kippur holiday ended, a satirical cabaret we had written, produced by Yankele Agmon, was scheduled to be performed in Tel Aviv, and that didn’t happen, either. But I don’t remember that there were many references to the war afterward, in ‘Nikui Rosh.’”
You were involved in writing a satirical show for the whole country to see right after the war, and you didn’t mention it?!
“I just don’t remember. I’m also not sure that there is any evidence of that, because the IBA later used the original tapes for other things. We worked in ‘pioneering’ conditions; Moti’s office was everyone’s office. We wrote day and night. Our studio was totally primitive ... Moti did the editing on Wednesday and Thursday. There was some sort of lineup, but we didn’t stick to it. We dealt with the present, not the past. We created current events.”
But how far in the past was it, really? You and the others came back from the war in March 1974, and the show premiered right afterward, in April-May.
“Yes, it was 1974 ... it really was close. What an idiot I am!”
Alexander also admits not remembering that the program debuted so soon after the end of the war. “I have to say that until you asked me, I hadn’t thought about ‘Nikui Rosh’ in terms of the Yom Kippur War. One month or so afterward! My theory is that they didn’t deal with it because it was an open wound, too painful − and it was being ‘patched over’: A new government was elected, there was a commission of inquiry and a new prime minister took office. [Yitzhak Rabin was installed as prime minister in June 1974 after Golda Meir resigned and after he defeated Peres in a contest for the Labor Party leadership.] The program was more preoccupied with being critical of Rabin for his lack of experience and his political gaffes than with dealing with Golda Meir.”
“Before the war,” Niv says, “there was hope that peace was about to come, but the war eradicated that hope to this day. Besides, when you undergo a trauma, you want to recover from it and not delve into it. The fact that we haven’t truly delved into it very much to this day shows how significant it was.”