After each of these deaths, there was a rebirth. In the wake of the Holocaust, Kaniuk came back to life and worked as a sailor on the boats that brought Jewish war refugees to Israel. After being wounded in 1948, he left the newly established state of Israel and went first to Paris, where he became a painter, and then to New York, where, as he once described it to me, he became a Jew. In the basement batei midrash of East Broadway, he was introduced to the sort of Jewish learning deliberately excised from a Zionist education. For certain Israeli and American Jews, Israel has always been the strongbox of Jewishness, the place where the most vivid, authentic strain of its modern existence has been unfolding for the last sixty-five years, and there has been a constant stream of American Jews passing through Ben Gurion Airport on their way to imbibe this heady brew from the source. But Kaniuk liked to do everything backward, and part of what made him so unusual as an Israeli writer is the fact that this sabra, whose father was the personal secretary to Meir Dizengoff, Tel Aviv’s first mayor, and later the first curator of the Tel Aviv Museum, and whose godfather was the poet Chaim Nahman Bialik—this Palmachnik who was living proof of the success of the Zionist ambition to create new kind of Jew: strong, self-determined, and unburdened by history—found in New York not only jazz and Greenwich Village but also the Jewish past.
And though he died as a painter in New York, he was reborn as a writer, and the books he came to write, in particular his masterpiece, “The Last Jew,” which offers an alternate history of Jewish existence that encompasses both the Diaspora and the Zionist state, could only have been written by an Israeli born again on the Lower East Side. As such, and because formally and stylistically his books were decades ahead of their time, at odds with the prevailing realism practiced by his contemporaries, they were duly derided when they were first published in Israel. But Kaniuk came back to life enough times that he was still around at the age of eighty when a younger generation of readers rediscovered his books and recognized their genius, and in these last years Kaniuk’s phone began to ring again, and he was finally celebrated for being what he had always been: one of the greatest writers in the Hebrew language, and, as he was once called by the New York Times, “one of the most innovative, brilliant novelists of the Western World.”
I got to know Yoram a few months before that final rebirth. I had discovered “The Last Jew” by chance in a Brooklyn bookstore, and, floored by it, I tracked down the rest of his books that had been translated into English; each was wildly original, and the only thing they had in common was that they were all out of print. I began to ask Israeli friends about him, and eventually he heard news of my interest, read my work, and wrote me a letter, dated “2 days after the longest Pesach in the history of the world.” “Dear Nicole Krauss,” it began,
I think that I have written your book. My English is so dull these days and I feel awkward writing to you in my pigs English, but apparently we are related, maybe I am your dead grandfather from the aunt of David’s side who came from Gan Yavne where I was once in love with a girl who is by now dead and you were one year old when you had written your wonderful book and you had found it engraved in Phoenician on my grave.
His surreal letters were made even more so by his madcap spelling, a result of multiple strokes that had eroded his English. Like his books, they overflowed with humor, love, generosity, regret, irreverence, and theatre. Once, when I hadn’t immediately returned a couple of his hundred phone calls or e-mails, he wrote: “I looked in all the hospitals in Jerusalem, all the police stations, I called the mayor of Brooklin, I have looked under stones, under cement highways, under books by other names, I have called you, called all my friends in Jerusalem, called jeremaya, king david on his celular, yoske the beautifuk, hana the cripple, i have turned earth upside and you are not to be found.” He was demanding, sometimes childish, he would lash out unfairly, but a moment later another e-mail would arrive full of warmth and affection, asking for forgiveness. On page after page he spilled out his gratitude, of which he had far too much, for the admiration of a young American writer and her letters about his work:
When I read your letter I began flouting and couldn’t let my self settle down and with the help of my cellular I managed to get a company which helps demolish houses and they came together with a professor from the University of Tel Aviv to try to fathom the impossible Endeavour I have made by braking the law of gravity and flouting over Tel Aviv and an army helicopter came fling towards me to see that both me and the demolishing company and the poor professor who were waiving his hands like a bird with his huge glasses were not enemies coming to destroy the army headquarter of Israel next street.
So I came down, took a shower and tried to think about my joy of getting your letter and about me as a failed writer being bless by a wonderful writer like you and something good and something bad happened to me at one and the same time. Therefore I must tell you something about myself in order to explain why I was born again at 80 after reading your letter.
But, at times, his letters were full of bitter complaint about his standing as a writer, first in Israel, and later—after his memoir, “1948,” recounting his experiences in the War of Independence turned him into an overnight celebrity in May of 2010—about his obscurity in America, to which he had always felt such a deep connection. Mostly he blamed himself, speaking often of what he saw as his failure as a writer.
And yet, though the years of obscurity were real, and the pain he suffered was true, it could also be said that Yoram was drawn to defeat. He once told me that he felt he had grown up under his father’s curse of waiting to be worthy of failure—his father who had been a great violinist who left Ternopil to study music in Berlin, but gave up playing forever when he heard Bronislaw Huberman and realized that he could never play as well as him. “I grew up knowing that whatever I do I must aspire to fail and that’s what has happened,” Yoram wrote, “I am always new but never there, I am a loser even when I am not.” But having never aimed for success, he was free to write like no one else, to write recklessly, like someone who has reached a place beyond fear; sometimes it even seemed to me that he wrote like a man who had already died and who was standing on the other side trying to scream back at the living.
“I want to understand what failure is,” he once said in an interview. “It’s a part of me, very strongly connected to Jewishness, to the fact that I belonged to a cursed tribe.” He made defeat his art; he was an artist of defeat. In “Confessions of a Good Arab,” a favorite of mine, published long ago under a pen name and forgotten by almost everyone, the protagonist Yosef, half Jew and half Arab, torn apart by his allegiances to both, is told by his girlfriend that he must decide which part of him he will let win. “Both have lost,” he replies. “I am the most defeated person in my accursed family.” And yet Yosef is among Kaniuk’s greatest characters, and taken all together, his books compose one of the most moving hymns to failure I know of: failure to become the person, the country, the people we meant to be. Here, too, Kaniuk worked against the grain of the favored Israeli narrative of strength, self-determination, and invincibility. With the stubbornness and tenacity of a Palmachnik sabra, he pursued defeat until he exhausted it, and was reborn a success.
For he was nothing if not Israeli. “Our absurd teachers had gone on at us and stuffed our minds with building and being built in the Land of Israel, but we didn’t really understand what it meant,” he wrote in his memoir, “1948.” “After all, we were born here. With the thistles. With the jackals. With the carts harnessed to the blinkered mules, and the prickly pears, and the pomegranates and the cypresses with their beautiful foliage, so how do you actually build and be built?” And having been born there and having fought for its foundation, and being free of false idols, and being an Olympian in the category of dissent, he became—in the countless essays he wrote for Israeli newspapers and on his blog—a tireless critic of what he saw as Israel’s failures. Last year, in a poignant essay in Haaretz, he wrote that as he edged toward death, he could no longer even conjure up sadness since the country he knew so well, and which was so dear to him, had disappeared before his eyes.
The first time I meet Yoram, after an avalanche of letters, he is clutching his cane in one hand and a rolled up poster tied with the wire that connects a telephone to the wall jack in the other, and with a third arm he grabs mine and leads me down the street, explaining to me that the hump under his shirt is not a potbelly but a stomach brace, because a few years ago all of his stomach muscles were removed in an operation, and that sometimes he falls in the street and, unable to get up, has to wait until someone comes by and lifts him.
We walk slowly through the streets of Tel Aviv, passing the house he grew up in on Ben Yehuda and Strauss, where his father “used to sit on the balcony looking at the sea and trying to swim back to Berlin.” He tells me about how “1948,” which he’d been writing on and off for sixty-two years, had just been published, and how on its cover is a painting of the Mogen David he’d done in 1953, “before the bastard”—Jasper Johns—“started to sell American flags.” How exciting it all is, how he’s inundated by requests for interviews from the TV and radio, how he had stood outside and “every nice looking girl came to kiss me, I felt like a mezuzah being kissed,” how for the first time he wakes up feeling good in the mornings, appreciated as someone who has done something in the world, “just a small comma in a huge book of life, but even a comma is something which can be fun,” he says, and did I know the joke about the guy who’s asked how his wife is in bed, and who replies, “Some say she is like this, and some like that.” We laugh, we keep walking, keep turning corners, his phone going off in his shirt pocket while he still grips the poster, the cane, my arm, apologizing for the spelling mistakes in his letters, “I lost my spellcheck, my grammar is so funny that I want to cry.” He is telling me about how soon he will be awarded a doctorate at Tel Aviv University, the same university to whose medical department he has donated his body after his death, where it will be stored in a basement freezer and studied by medical students, so that his “poor dead mother can come back and be so happy because she’ll be able to sit with her friend Elisheva and Miriam and say, You see? Yoram is now in the university twice, upstairs and down.” We go on walking—is it possible such an old man walked so far? Maybe I’m thinking of a different day when he tells me about how it is hard to be loved after so many years. “I miss being impossible,” he says, “I miss my hatred for myself, at the age of almost eighty-one I am no longer able to be me.”
And then, sooner than I expect, after more than a hundred letters, and a thousand phone calls from his twenty-four-hour cellular phone, after years of walking, we arrive at the place he had wanted to take me, the old cemetery off of Trumpeldor Street, older than Tel Aviv itself. We walk among the crowded headstones; he’s looking for the grave of his mother. Birds fly above, he thinks they are returning from Africa on their way to Germany. He wanted to be buried here, but won’t be, he tells me, “I won’t have a grave in the country I paid so highly to create,” and at first I think that he’s only saying that out of pride, out of the fear that no one will offer him a proper resting place, but then I understand that even now, famous and loved at eighty-three, Yoram Kaniuk has still not yet finished his nearly but not quite exhaustive exploration of defeat, which sooner or later everyone will come to agree is one of the great works of literature.
From the last letter I received from him:
There were some cold days and now is warm, my new book is doing well and people like it though it is not an easy book to read and Miranda still ache from her broken shoulder and tired, Adam Kaniuk our old dog is blind now and can hardly hear and we will be fine soon. my chemo is still bathering me but one get use to it. i send you all my love. one day I will be a writer too
Nicole Krauss is the author of three novels: “Great House,” “The History of Love,” and “Man Walks Into a Room.”