Sensitive Hunk Looking for Love

"Omdim bator" ("Standing in a Column") by Yair Lapid, Yedioth Ahronoth Publishing, Sifrei Hemed, 358 pages, NIS 88.

Here is the absolute Israeli, the handsome Israeli. He wants to be (and thinks he is) both liberal and chauvinist, both nationalist and humane, both Holocaust and regeneration, both a little right and a little left, both sensitive and cynical, both wealthy and modest - impeccable. A handsome, muscular man, but a considerate one; not particularly available and not very fond of traveling, but someone with a sense of humor who is looking for love. And he gets it, big-time.

Here is the most original excuse I have ever read for publishing a book: "This book has been published for people who don't have any space left on their refrigerator door," it says on the back jacket. Thus Yair Lapid has bound his weekly newspaper columns into a book, a nice gift for Hebrew Book Week, the holidays, bar mitzvahs, anniversaries, birthdays and other important occasions in the history of Israel.

One fact is indubitable: His columns are extraordinarily popular. Young and old, urban and rural, women and men, leftists and rightists, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, secular and religious, settlers and refusniks - all vote Lapid. The daily Globes newspaper has already done a survey about his chances of being elected prime minister and its results were encouraging. In fact, why not? He is the Israeli center, like the Rishon Letzion West neighborhood.

For years I have been asking candidates seeking to be accepted to the journalism track at the Camera Obscura School who the journalist is whom they most love to read, and the answer is unanimous: Yair Lapid. Sometimes they also add: Yehonatan Gefen. But Lapid more; Gefen is, after all, sometimes annoying. Lapid's columns make everyone feel good. Now the book.

My refrigerator is bare (of Lapid). After years of avoiding reading his columns I have suffered an overdose now in the form of the book. Perhaps it would have been better to have read this in small, weekly doses that are a bit less repetitive, and not to stuff it all into a concentrated bottle of syrup and mainline it. Therefore, I had a saccharine overdose lacking in charm, with a sense of humor reminiscent of Lapid's dad's old pal Ephraim Kishon. Kishon's "little woman" is replaced by Lapid's "my wife, may she thrive," and only once in the entire book does he call her by her name, Lehi. The attitude toward her is exactly the same attitude, with the same false premise: the male as victim, ostensibly. The wild exaggerations - (the wife is a "serial murderer" and he wants "political asylum in Paraguay"), the generalizations ("Women get colder than men"), the petty, implicit chauvinism - are all Kishonic.

But Kishon never had his own talk show in prime time, nor was he the ratings champion. For ratings is the name of the game in Lapid's writing as well: In the entire book there is not one single sentence that is going to irritate anyone (apart, perhaps, from yours truly). That will inflame anyone. That will provoke debate. And really, why get angry when it is possible to read Lapid? Why not stretch out on the sofa, in the cramped apartment, with the perspiring wife and the tax problems, with all that occupation and violence, and read about another world, different but similar, Lapid's world.

Legendary fame

This is the Lapid guide to the good life. He writes about what everyone experiences and feels, but for him it always comes out better-looking and always ends well. The perspiration isn't really what all of us sweat, the quarrels aren't really the quarrels that all of us have - it always comes with a smile. Not a little deceptive, his extreme wealth is disguised here by descriptions of economic tensions ("Who has the money to go to Eilat?"), his legendary fame by false descriptions of waiting in line, and his relatively young age by descriptions of decrepitude ("She's in army camp No. 80 and we feel like we're 80"). He ostensibly takes his readers into his bedroom, his children's rooms and his living room, but only ostensibly. He shows only the good in those places. He wants us to think that he is the humbled little Israeli, who barely makes it through the month, who goes to the children's park at Kibbutz Givat Brenner on a Saturday and perspires and gets annoyed there, who cracks sunflower seeds opposite the soccer match, who is terribly afraid for the fate of our weak little state, like the cartoonist Dosh's Srulik, a victim that we so very much love to be.

How pleasant it is to read about the gods as human beings, whose children also crawl over them at night and make them go to sleep in the living room. How good it is to know that Lapid too pulls down the elastic waistband of his underpants when he urinates, even when there is a front opening. And, really, isn't it better to think simply that "we have only one real job in this world and that is to make sure that we have the good life? In any case, there's no justice," as Lapid proposes, instead of all that preaching and righteousness and casting of blame and self-hatred that there is in the newspapers?

"I don't want to imply, heaven forefend, that I am one of those Israelis stricken with self-hatred the moment they cross the border at Ben-Gurion International Airport," he writes. "In fact, if you meet an Israeli nudnik abroad who shouts `Hey guys! What's up? Where are you from in Israel?' - chances are that you've encountered me." In this way he charmingly fakes the orgasm. But the manipulation works.

It is no accident that there isn't a date given for each column: Not only are they good for everyone, they are good for all times. The most penetrating question he will ask is "When?": "When did the homeless start panhandling at the intersections? When did we realize that we can't manage without the foreign workers?" Never "Why?" because that could provoke debate. What does he have to say to "his brother, the Jewish settler in the territories?" "Drive carefully. Armor-plate your vehicle and if they shoot at you - duck." What a sweetie-pie. "There must not be a competition between us over love of the land, because both of us will lose," he goes on to write to the settler with nauseating stickiness, taking care not to imply with even the slightest hint that his "dear brother" is also responsible for some war crimes. After all, this might annoy someone and then the ratings will decline as well as the love (for Lapid).

"This is the only country where I could live," he writes elsewhere and a few more aunties wipe away a tear. And a few more baseless generalizations about the beloved country: "a sad country that has come to its senses, whose illusions have evaporated." Sad? Illusions evaporated? Really? It's always pleasant to hear that we are the best and the most righteous. Look what Lapid writes about the foreign workers: "Because they are as capable as we are, in the end they will achieve what we have, in the framework of our laws." How much nationalism and arrogance are packed into so few words.

We are confused, he writes, in a one-time outburst of self-criticism: "This is the only sharp truth we have at the moment. Profound and bleeding existential confusion, that no artery blocker can stop." After a detailed description of the signs of this "confusion" ("We must not submit to terror, but we know that there is no military solution") comes the Lapidary knock-out conclusion: "We are confused. About all the basic questions. What are we - more Jewish or more democratic? We are everything at once. Which makes us, when you come right down to it, relatively good people, but confused. Very confused." Which also makes Yair Lapid a relatively good person, but confused. Maybe not courageous. But certainly very much loved.