The Life and Death of Nahman Farkash, Israel’s Jailbreak King

Boxer, violent criminal and escape artist, Farkash was found dead at the entrance to a cave on Mount Meron.

Gil ELiahu

Nahman Farkash, one of Israel’s most famous criminals and acknowledged prison break champion, was found dead on Tuesday at the entrance to a cave on Mount Meron. Police are investigating whether the 78-year-old was murdered or died of natural causes.

Since evidence at the scene failed to answer the question, his body has been sent to the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir for an autopsy.

Born in Tel Aviv, Farkash was an Israeli boxing champ in the 1950s, but he quickly turned to crime instead of sport. In 1956, he and three partners were arrested for an armed robbery at the Tnuva dairy in Tel Aviv, during which the four seriously wounded a cashier and stole 8,389 Israeli pounds.

Farkash was sentenced to five years in jail. But he escaped two years later, only to turn himself in after a few days.

He was arrested several more times over the ensuing decades, for crimes of violence, break-ins and even the theft of a tiger cub from the Tel Aviv zoo (in 1975.) But he repeatedly managed to escape from the police lock-ups and prisons where he was detained, earning the nickname “the jailbreak champ.”

In 1961 he escaped jail in the company of a convicted murderer. In 1963, he and fellow-criminal Yoram Landsberger escaped from a police lock-up in Jaffa and crossed the border into Egypt. Farkash spent about 18 months in Egyptian prison before being deported to Israel.

Landsberger dedicated a chapter in his book “Life-long criminal” to Farkash, who he met a few years before their escape while doing time in the Ramle jail.

“Nachman was a special person,” Landsberger told Haaretz. “We never committed a crime together, but we became friends in jail. He would read books of philosophy and was an excellent chess player.”

Journalist Buki Nae said that police “magnified Farkash’s image” and portrayed him as a danger to the public. “Back then, people would tell their children, ‘If you don’t eat your banana, Farkash will come and eat it,’” Nae recalled.

In 1969, after seven years in jail and four escapes, Farkash decided to return to boxing and competed successfully in two tournaments. “I’m turning to boxing now,” he was quoted as saying at the time. “I read that this industry is neglected, and I intend to apply myself to it in all seriousness and elevate it. I’m going to persuade the Ashdod municipality to invest in this sport. I have no doubt you’ll be hearing about me, Nahman Farkash, and about Maccabi Ashdod in boxing. I’m not young, but when you desire something strongly, everything is possible.”

In the mid-1970s, he moved to Safed, where he was periodically arrested on suspicion of violent crimes or cultivating drugs. Toward the end of that decade, he married, had children and gave up crime, but he had trouble reintegrating into society. Consequently, he often went off to spend time alone in nature, living in caves in the Galilee or on beaches at the Dead Sea.

As the years passed, his health grew worse. He had trouble earning a living and was spotted begging in Safed. He also started becoming more religious, and began frequenting Mount Meron, where the 1st-century sage and kabbalist Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is buried.

Not long ago, Farkash told Safed journalist Meir Yanko that he was in great distress. He repeated this plaint on Buki Nae’s radio show, saying he was reduced to sleeping behind the mall in Safed.

Shai Elias, a resident of Kiryat Ata who often goes to Mount Meron to pray at Bar Yochai’s grave, said on Tuesday that Farkash had asked him and a friend to help him transfer his belongings to another cave at Meron about two months ago, after park inspectors had kicked him out of the cave in which he had previously lived.

“They told him the cave is state land and he can’t live in it,” Elias said. “He pleaded with them. He said he was almost 80 years old and asked them to let him end his life in peace.”