No Business Like Monkey Business

At a large municipal library in Jerusalem a few days ago, one librarian pointed to a half-empty shelf of Kofiko books. Children get excited about the books, she noted, and do not stop borrowing them, over and over. "Kids identify with Kofiko," she said.

The controversial Israeli monkey, created by Tamar Bornstein-Lazar, has just turned 50. The Yes channel is due to screen a new TV movie about him soon, reworking the adventures of the little monkey who likes to play tricks on silly adults. So far almost 200 Kofiko books have been published; the number is even higher if you add Chipopo, the spin-off series also created by Bornstein-Lazar. In addition, several television and video versions exist and plays were also adapted from the series.

Until recently, Bornstein-Lazar published new Kofiko books several times a year. Over the years, both the stories and their style have changed; they have become more refined and have been updated to reflect the changing times, as shown in the title of the latest book, "Kofiko at the mall."

The author, now 80, published the first book in the series in the late 1950s. Her stories later appeared in installments in Davar Leyeladim. To this day, anyone who grew up at the time associates Kofiko with the disgusted expressions of parents and teachers, who believed the monkey represented an inferior culture and that it would be best to stay away from the books. Author Shoham Smith, for example, recalls that while her parents would not buy the books, her mother would occasionally read the children a Kofiko book they had received from cousins, "in order to immunize us. Probably so that we wouldn't get excited," she says. "I remember scenes awash with items used by the pioneering laborers, such as an irrigation pipe or a milk jug. Somebody falls into a crate of tomatoes and Kofiko laughs - ha, ha, ha. The books had a lot of disdain for the overweight and the ugly; it was slapstick humor, a kind of mocking that didn't amuse me as a child because it was so primitive."

But the person who really declared war on Kofiko was writer and translator Uriel Ofek. In his lexicon of children's literature, published in 1973, he openly scorns Bornstein-Lazar, who he says was graced "with a light and quick pen, sometimes too quick."

"Despite the harsh criticism of her writing, and its shallow language, artificial plot and questionable values, most of her books enjoy enduring popularity," noted Ofek.

According to his daughter, writer and editor Atara Ofek, her father was a lot less delicate at home. "Dad just hated the books," she says. "He said they were superficial, containing nothing but a desire to take revenge on one's neighbor. Apparently he was concerned about protecting my innocent soul." Was she curious to find out why he would not allow the books? Apparently she wasn't. "I knew it was about a monkey who does everything kids are forbidden to do. But I didn't have a great desire to read Kofiko, because we had lots of wonderful books, including collections of tales from all over the world."

Ofek's critique probably did not stem from educational reasons. After all, he translated "Max and Moritz," the classic German tale about a mischievous pair of boys who meet a bad end. But according to his daughter, the German story had added value, primarily psychological. "'Max and Moritz' were admired negative heroes," she says.

Dr. Miri Baruch, a lecturer on children's literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says Uriel Ofek's jealousy can actually be discerned between the lines in the lexicon entry on Bornstein-Lazar. "After all, people never read the things he wrote with the same enthusiasm as they read Kofiko," she says.

Kofiko's popularity, it seems, was not affected by the criticism at all, and the debate over quality subsided over the years.

In addition to identifying with the monkey's pranks, Bornstein-Lazar seems to have succeeded in relaying a quintessentially Israeli experience in the stories set in household yards, or in between the living room and the neighbors' apartment, writing from the rather nondescript Ir Ganim neighborhood in Petah Tikvah. The secret of Kofiko's appeal therefore lies in its local feel. In this regard the series resembles the popularity of the so-called "burekas" movies or the series, "Krovim, Krovim."

At least in its early incarnation, there was something subversive about Kofiko. The stories first saw the light of day in a different Israel, says sociologist Prof. Oz Almog, who read Kofiko books as a child. "In Israeli society of the 1960s, children were required to be disciplined, and were expected to conceal their feelings. So if a mischievous being comes along, a half-boy, who makes fun of the adult world, that's appealing to read. Today, Kofiko's exploits seem like a joke," he adds. "Perhaps because our behavior today is not like that of monkeys, but of baboons."

Eli Eshed, a researcher of popular culture and author, says Kofiko books "sold like crazy" in the 1960s-1980s. In his opinion, the secret of Kofiko's success lies in "its extreme portrayal of the sabra [native Israeli-born] character." In the early versions, he even wears a kova tembel, or "fool's hat." "The sabra is capable of stealing chickens and doing pranks, but underneath it all he has a good heart," says Eshed. Yet, contrary to this analysis, it seems Kofiko betrayed the image of the quiet, closed and bristly sabra: In fact, he is an incorrigible chatterbox.

Eshed notes that in the 1960s, children did not appear in books like Kofiko. "They were after all meant to be fighters for the nation." In this respect, he says, Bornstein-Lazar went even further with the series, "Tuchides," whose books were "like a wild telenovella."

Moreover, the slang words Bornstein-Lazar coined or used, such as tralala [space cadet] or rosh calabasa [meat head], were a novelty, because they did not appear elsewhere. In any case, the plots, says Eshed, were toned down in the 1980s: "Kofiko was reformed and became an educational character. Today he is a much better citizen and is even running for the Knesset at the head of a children's party."

According to Baruch, not only has Kofiko repented - Israeli children have changed, too. "The turning point came in the 1970s, when TV came to people's homes," she explains. "Television allowed children to think and talk differently. If in the 1940s and '50s parents said, 'When you grow up, you'll understand,' nowadays children are able open their eyes without needing mom and dad. Neil Postman talks about this in his essay, 'The Disappearance of Childhood.' Bornstein-Lazar did not cause the revolution, but she rode the wave."

Television also "brought with it zapping," Baruch says. "There is no longer any time to read fine literature with a broad perspective, as there was in previous generations. A child no longer has the patience to hear a long story. And we're talking about a time when literature was still heavy and serious, represented by such wonderful writers as A. Hillel, Leah Naor, and later also Nira Harel and Nurit Zarchi. But who was capable of reading 'Dodi Simha' and understanding its many underlying levels? Bornstein-Lazar realized that children need something else."

Yet, in no way does Baruch identify with "the fuss around Kofiko," as she puts it. She claims that children, like adults, need some light reading - just like one would eat a snack - but this need does not contradict engaging in quality literature. According to a study done years ago by literacy researcher Dr. Dina Feitelson, Kofiko books actually improve the reading levels of children from lower class neighborhoods.

In Baruch's opinion, Kofiko filled a void that is missing in the age range between childhood and adolescence. "Kofiko and Chipopo talk to kids aged 6-9. At these ages, kids are capable of understanding a lot more than they are able to read. And Bornstein-Lazar managed to accomplish this; she realized that a six-year-old boy is already smart and has some life experience, although he does not yet know how to read. She writes very readable, very simple works. It is no wonder that she managed to reach a huge audience."