Her Family, Right or Wrong

Ephraim Kishon's daughter, Renana, has reopened the family art gallery and begun reviving some of the renowned satirist's best-loved works.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

"This is where I spent my childhood. From age zero I wandered around between these walls," says Renana Kishon, surrounded by dust-covered sculptures in the loft of the family art gallery in Tel Aviv. "I grew up with the imperative that one day this gallery would come into my hands; I knew that I would be the one to continue this chapter of the family saga. I proceeded toward a clear future, even if I never thought about it and was never involved in it. I waited four years for this moment, because I wanted to find out whether the imperative I had lived with was also my personal choice."

With deep satisfaction, the youngest child of writer and satirist Ephraim Kishon and gallery owner Sara Kishon is fulfilling the responsibility that has weighed on her slender shoulders. Last Friday, she reopened the legendary Kishon Art Gallery on Frug Street in Tel Aviv after four years of closure. Since its establishment in 1975, the gallery has shown many of icons of Israeli art, among them Yosl Bergner, Samuel Bak, Naftali Beze m, Marcel Janco and Meir Pichhadze.

"Mom ran the gallery, but she always consulted with dad about every painting she bought," Kishon says, looking around as though still trying to comprehend the long road she has traveled. "After mom died in 2002, the gallery continued to operate for about a year, but then dad died, and I decided to close it. That wasn't easy for me, but I knew I always had the keys and I was confident that if I wanted to, I would revive it."

She agonized long and hard over the decision. "I consulted gallery owners. A lot of people told me 'Don't get into it,' because it's an entire world, tough, and you can't have a life. But I think that in the end, those kinds of warnings were actually a challenge for me. If fear exists, I want to shatter it - that's the kind of person I am. So, despite the fear, the period in which the gallery was closed made me understand I was not acting only out of the family's will - because mom wanted it - but because I owed it to myself. All in all, I wanted time to understand what Renana Kishon could contribute, because Sara and Ephraim are no longer here."

Behind the scenes

Renana Kishon, 41, has one brother, Amir, a software engineer, and a half-brother, Rafi, a veterinarian and the child of her father's first marriage. The family recently appointed her executor of the cultural estate and legacy of Ephraim Kishon, one of Israel's most productive and beloved writers and an author of international renown - his books have been translated into 36 languages.

She grew up in the affluent Afeka neighborhood in north Tel Aviv. "It was a complex childhood, even if it might look simple from the outside," she notes. "I grew up with a writer father who worked on the second floor 24 hours a day, totally immersed in his work. The whole family revolved around that totality. The feeling was that he was a legend. I think the complexity stemmed from living with two difficult people, both dad and mom. I can't say that I grew up in a home where the parents sit back and watch their children draw. But we come from a generation in which the children were not at the center: we were there alongside the parents. I remember how Amir and I observed the conversations about dad's newspaper columns and mom's shows at the gallery. We were on the side, living their experiences."

The home was constantly buffeted by powerful artistic winds. "We had art, literature and culture from morning to evening," Kishon says with pride. "To this day I remember mom perusing an article, reading about some Italian sculptor and deciding on the spot to get on a plane to Italy. I was always with her on the road - it wasn't a period in which children were left with the nanny. I accompanied her as we drove for hours through southern Italy to meet the sculptor she had read about. Mom worked a great deal in Europe. She grew up in a home with strong artistic ambitions. She was Russian on one side and came from seven generations in Hebron on the other side. When she was 16 she was sent by ship to the United States so she could study piano at Juilliard. At a time when her girlfriends were digging trenches in the Haganah [pre-state defense force] she was exposed to a world of art and music that she had never known."

But even though her mother devoted much time to her gallery, Kishon relates, she dedicated herself primarily to her husband's career. "The world knew about dad thanks to Mom's ambition. I found rare letters that my father wrote at the beginning, in which he said to Mom: 'Darling, I only miss you and the little red heads. What am I doing here?' He traveled abroad a great deal, but didn't like it. He suffered terribly and abhorred the publicity. Mom saw his genius. She wanted him to go as far as possible, she fought for that and she had the elbows for it. He didn't. He always used to say, as all her girlfriends knew, that mom did the dirty work behind the scenes."

At eye level

Ephraim Kishon was born in Hungary and came to Israel in 1949. His experiences during World War II were keenly felt in the family, says his daughter. "He was wracked by fears and anxieties in every possible sense, including the existential. He suffered from nightmares. As children, we knew that we must not wake him up and that we had to stamp our feet as we went up the wooden stairs to his office. We were not allowed to take him by surprise. Once someone opened the door by surprise, and he immediately jumped out the window. We did not grow up with a confident father who said everything would be all right. I grew up with a father who spoke to me at eye level, who always told me to be careful, who did not believe other people. The Holocaust accompanied us all the time, in everything we did. But we never sat and talked about the war; there were no conversations about what he went through; he didn't talk about himself. His personal story in the labor camp in Hungary involved the absurd concept, the incomprehensible thing that was done to him - being condemned by his own nation."

In his books he pretty much documented your family cell, in a very liberated and humoristic way. How did the family respond to that?

In "Family Book" (1980), a book about his family, Kishon describes Renana as an infant of more than 2 who "is still addicted to the pacifier," her 'tzetzi' as she calls it, unable to pronounce the Hebrew word motzetz. "'Tzetzi,' she screams until she is on the verge of passing out, tzetzi, tzetzi ... Of course, after the first tzetzi the whole family is already on its knees and the feverish search proceeds in an atmosphere of apocalyptic panic."

Was it comfortable for you to be a literary figure?

"It is imprinted in me, I was born into it. He exposed us with total charm, there is no malice. He wrote satire that reflects almost the whole family. 'Family Book' in its first edition, the illustrated one, really is the book that is most deeply engraved within me. I grew up with it: I was born as Renana with the tzetzi from the book. At some point I made it part of me. I didn't suffer from it, I liked it a lot. It was clear to me that when I said my name, people smiled a little and would ask if I was the girl from the book."

Being with a superstar

She remembers her father's last film, "The Fox in the Chicken Coop" (1978) quite well. "I was 10, and that movie was his first and last failure in the film world," she says. "Unfortunately, in the wake of it, he stopped making films. I remember very well as a girl the sense of failure he experienced. Artists are terribly alive to the feedback they get, and anyone who says he doesn't care what people write about him is lying. I remember the terribly conspicuous failure of that movie after the phenomenal successes of the earlier movies. He was seared by it."

Renana Kishon grew up during a period in which her father's popularity in Israel was on the decline. "People in Israel did not really know the scale of his achievements. There is something here about people rubbing elbows, about the size of the country, the fact that you know everyone, which gives us a rotten nature - it's hard for people to say a good word about others," she says. "People here don't like to appreciate others, there is a certain envy at work. In Europe it's part of the lexicon: admiration for talented people is part of the civilized language. I remember being with dad in Europe - there was always a trail of people following us. It was like being with superstar, and I was thrilled by it. I remember that people in Germany waited in line for hours to get his autograph. In Frankfurt, ahead of the book fair, the whole city was covered with his portraits. People came up to him here, too, but always in a buddy-buddy way; you didn't see the reverence that characterized his visits in Europe. It was only there that I understood the true scale of dad's greatness."

Did attacks by Israeli critics fester within him?

"It was very hard for him to live with the situation. His explanation for the critical cold shoulder was his right-wing politics. That wasn't fashionable. He wasn't like [the writer] Dahn Ben Amotz who went around barefoot, he wasn't one of the guys, so it was hard to accept him. Public recognition was very important to him until the day he died. That is why Mother worked very hard for him to be awarded the Israel Prize - which she learned about in the last week of her life." Kishon pauses to fight off the tears that well up in her eyes. "The saddest thing I experienced in my life was that two days before her death, she cried and told me, 'I am like Lily Sharon [Ariel Sharon's wife] - I will miss the awarding of the prize.' A month later, father received the prize for his lifetime contribution to the society and the state."

In 2003, a year after your mother's death, Kishon married his third wife, Lisa Witasek, a Swiss writer. How did the family take this new love story?

"At first, very naturally. Afterward I found it harder. There was amazing openness between dad and us. He talked to us about everything, and about that, too. I have to say that the matter was far from simple; I don't think it's easy for any family to accept a new wife."

The press reported bitter inheritance struggles between you three children and Witasek.

"I don't want to reopen that. It wasn't easy, and I don't recommend it to any family. It was a very hard struggle, a continuing mental nightmare. Amid it all I was pregnant, I gave birth, and it wasn't easy to go through that without parents. That kind of battle brings out the worst in people. They touch on the darkest places, and it was no different with us. It took us to bad places. We siblings had to go through serious difficulties in order to be able to preserve the family. What stood us in good stead was that we love one another very much. Still, it wasn't easy. It was a tough family trial."

No borders

This is the first interview Renana Kishon has given since her father's death in January 2005. The first exhibition she has mounted in the art gallery is called "#01 Summer Show." "I knew three artists - Ruth Helbitz-Cohen, Ruth Barabash and Orly Azran - and I just couldn't stop myself from organizing a group show for them. These are three women for whom I have the highest regard. Their work is extremely intuitive. The result is an exhibition based on a random artistic dialogue between the artists, a connection that forged a connective discourse fraught with pain and private outcry."

In 1998, immediately after completing her studies in visual communication at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, and long before she entered the art business, Kishon established the high-tech firm Clementina, which quickly enjoyed a huge success. "Its center of activity moved to San Francisco and to business with giants like HP and British Telecom. It was a tremendous turning point in my life, especially because the change demanded very powerful Internet capability from the outset, when I felt a little like a dinosaur in the world of progress. In the past three years we have actually been working more in Israel with startups. For example, we set up a dating site that was bought by Tapuz and also a social network for soccer fans, which is one of the biggest of its kind in the world."

Surprisingly, the Israeli branch of the company is based on the first floor of the Kishon Gallery. "I come from a different world, from a world of technology that has a totally different pace," she says. "In my work I manage the experience of the user, being in charge of the design and visual appearance of the product. From this position I think of the widest possible audience, not just the top percentile. It's a different language, and that is also the benefit I can bring to the Israeli art world. I am not afraid of the innovative or of the absence of a rigid framework. I believe that the gallery has to reflect the changes that are taking place in the realm of art. It should not be elitist. I have a 40-year family collection of the finest Israeli and European art, which I also manage. To show the collection of paintings by Janco, Bak, Bergner and Pichhadze would certainly have been easier for me, but that is not my aim."

What would your mother have thought of all this?

The reopening of the gallery is only the first step in a broad commemorative project that Kishon has undertaken. The future, she says, is filled with numberless plans and goals. "We own the rights to dad's works and we are the ones who are continuing on his path," she says, "and we very much want to revive all the material we have. In the meantime, we have had quite a few successes. The Cameri Theater is currently staging three of dad's works: 'Sallah Shabati,' 'The Marriage Contract' and 'His Reputation Precedes Him' - the latter won the prize for comedy of the year.

"I don't think that in dad's time, three of his plays were ever in production simultaneously. Habima is now working on an adaptation of 'The Policeman Azulai' and there are other initiatives on the way, too, such as two new plays that have not been produced in Israel: 'Open for Renovations,' which is about show business, and 'The Paternity Trial of Moshe Zimmerman,' which deals amusingly with the question of who the real Jesus is. We are even working on a new drama series directed by Avi Nesher; a kind of imaginary biography of dad."

Do you also plan to publish new literary works?

"Yes. There is an unpublished novel about the entertainment world. The beauty of it is that these texts are eternally relevant. Handling all of dad's material and digging into the huge body of work has enabled me to rediscover his genius. Suddenly I discovered a collection of material that made clear to me his uniqueness and the importance of his work, and how much it still speaks to our time."

Have you thought about doing something with his children's stories?

"I am planning to create a computer game from his children's stories, which were published in old editions. That is a clear duty."

What is your greatest aspiration?

"I want to renew all the wonderful screenplays of his films, to produce contemporary adaptations of 'The Policeman Azulai' and 'Sallah Shabati' and do it in Hollywood. That will happen, too." W