Yoram Kaniuk, Israeli author, dies at 83

June 16, 2013

Yoram Kaniuk, a prominent Israeli writer whose dozens of novels resonated with themes of Jewish survival, Israel’s war of independence and his conflicted relationship with his homeland, died June 8 at a hospital in Tel Aviv. He was 83.

His daughter Naomi Kaniuk confirmed the death to the Associated Press. He had cancer.

Among Mr. Kaniuk’s best-known books are his first, “The Acrophile” (1960), about an Israeli living in New York who attempts to ignore his Jewish background; “Himmo, King of Jerusalem,” about the relationship between a nurse and a patient gravely injured in war; and “His Daughter,” about a military officer’s search for his missing child.

His novel “Adam Resurrected,” set in an Israeli mental institution and whose characters include Holocaust survivors, was turned into a 2008 film directed by Paul Schrader and starring Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe and Derek Jacobi.

If Mr. Kaniuk’s writing was sometimes seen as offbeat and mordant, it derived in large part from two of the defining experiences of his life: combat during the Israeli war for independence in the late 1940s, followed by nearly a decade immersed in the New York jazz scene.


Yoram Kaniuk, the prominent Israeli author, died June 8. He was 83. (Ulf Andersen/GETTY IMAGES)

Mr. Kaniuk was a member of Israel’s founding generation. At 17, he joined the Palmach, the underground fighting units, and suffered a severe leg wound during a battle near Jerusalem. After recovering, he worked on a boat that ferried Holocaust survivors to Israel after World War II.

Born into a cultured family, Mr. Kaniuk studied painting in Paris, foraged for diamonds and gold in Central America, then settled amid the Greenwich Village bohemian set in New York. His encounters with leading writers and cultural figures, such as Dylan Thomas and Charlie Parker, sparked ambitions toward a literary career.

“I have been told that I write in an unacceptable literary style,” Mr. Kaniuk once told an Israeli reporter. “But I write the way I speak. I couldn’t write, so I felt helpless, and my style of writing came out of this helplessness.”

He added, “Yes, I think you could say my writing is like bebop, you know, like improvisation, like jazz.”

In addition to his books, Mr. Kaniuk was widely published as a newspaper essayist. He showed increasing dissatisfaction with what he considered the dominance of the ultra-religious in Israeli society and expressed no desire to be part of what he termed a “Jewish Iran.”

Mr. Kaniuk defined himself as Jewish by ethnicity, not by religion. In 2011, he successfully petitioned the courts to be considered a Jew of no religion in the state population registry. He motivated other secularists frustrated with the rabbinical establishment “to get Kaniuked,” or to change their official status to “without religion,” according to the Jerusalem Post.

But he said his plan wasn’t to galvanize anyone else into action: He said he did it for his grandson, who was classified as being “without religion” because of Israel’s matrilineal laws. Mr. Kaniuk’s wife, Miranda, was Christian, which meant their descendents would not be considered Jewish.

“I thought one day he’ll grow up and he’ll say to himself, ‘My grandfather wanted to be like me,’ ” Mr. Kaniuk told the Jerusalem paper. “And besides, I’m tired of being a minority in my own home.”

Yoram Kaniuk was born May 2, 1930, in Tel Aviv to parents who had emigrated from Europe to what was then the British mandate of Palestine. His father, who was from Galicia, became personal secretary to a mayor of Tel Aviv and later was curator of the city’s art museum. His mother was from Odessa, Russia.

His first marriage, to Lee Becker, a dancer, ended in divorce. In 1958, he married Miranda Baker, who survives him, along with their two daughters, Aya and Naomi.

Mr. Kaniuk won several high literary honors in Israel. In 2010, he published a book based on his experiences in the Palmach, “1948.” His final book, “An Old Man,” came out last year.

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