Jews take pride in calling themselves “the people of the book,” and while there’s something a little vainglorious about the phrase—all peoples have books, don’t they?—its appeal is easy to understand. For millennia, in the absence of land and power, Jews found a kind of virtual sovereignty in texts, and the history of Judaism from the Babylonian exile onward could be written as a history of books and writers—the Torah and the Prophets, the Mishnah and Gemara, Rashi and Maimonides, down to modern, secular authors such as Theodor Herzl, Sholem Aleichem and Primo Levi.
And then there is Leon Uris.
Uris, needless to say, was no Rashi; after reading “Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller,” the new, distinctly unflattering biography by Ira B. Nadel (University of Texas Press, $27.95), one is tempted to say that he was not even Herman Wouk. But like it or not “Exodus,” Uris’ 1958 novel, has earned its place in the history of the people of the book.
It might, in fact, be the worst-written book ever to do so.
Here, for instance, is how Uris introduces Kitty Fremont, the American gentile love interest of the Jewish hero Ari Ben Canaan: “She was even more beautiful than he remembered. They stared at each other silently for a long time. He studied her face and her eyes. She was a woman now, soft and compassionate in the way one gets only through terrible suffering.”
Yet despite a style that Nadel describes as “melodramatic and mannered,” full of “repetitious phrasing, unimaginative language, and clumsy syntax,” “Exodus” became an enormous, worldwide best-seller. A thoroughly romanticized retelling of the Israeli independence struggle, the novel sold millions of copies and was turned into a movie that reached millions more.
Nadel credits it with an “incalculable” effect on the way American Jews, and Americans in general, thought about Israel and Jewish history.
Jews “were no longer victims but heroes,” Nadel writes. “The sheer number of copies sold meant that many experienced Jewish history and heroism dramatically and romantically.”
Such things are hard to measure, of course, and the turning point in American thinking about Israel is more often dated to the Six-Day War a decade later. But there is no question that “Exodus” mattered to American Jews; and it mattered still more powerfully to Soviet Jews.
Exactly how the first copy of the novel got into the Soviet Union is a matter of rumor and legend. One story has the Israeli consulate in Leningrad receiving copies in the diplomatic mailbag and handing them out in secret to Soviet Jews.
“Exodus” soon became a kind of holy text among the Soviet Jewish refuseniks of the 1960s and 1970s, whose Communist education had left them totally ignorant of Jewish and Zionist history.
For them, Uris’ bold, broad strokes, colored by fervent Jewish pride, were the perfect way to fill in the gap. Samizdat translators spent months turning the book into Russian, and then painstakingly typed out copies to pass hand to hand—the dedication of monks in a scriptorium lavished on an airport best-seller.
Nadel quotes the story of one Soviet Jew, Leonid Feldman, who recalled the danger and secrecy that surrounded “the book”—the title was never spoken aloud.
“He waited one night at eleven in a dark corner of a park. He was handed a heavy briefcase. ‘Take a taxi and go home, but you must return with the manuscript to this spot by seven a.m. finished or not,’ said the courier. ‘No one must know what you’ve done.’ ” (It all sounds rather like a scene from a Leon Uris novel, in fact.)
What did the American and Russian readers of “Exodus” get from it?
First, there was the action-packed story of Ari Ben Canaan, a heroic Haganah commander who outwits the British to bring illegal Jewish immigrants into postwar Palestine. Ari has a lost love, Dafna—after whom he names a children’s kibbutz, Gan Dafna—and a new love, Kitty, whose heart he wins with feats like escaping from a British prison.
At the same time, Uris introduces the history of the Holocaust through another character, Dov Landau, who survives the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Auschwitz to become an Israeli freedom fighter.
Most important, however, was the way Uris turned these unimaginably tragic and complicated events into a clear-cut and inspiring tale of good against evil—a Middle Eastern Western. Before writing “Exodus,” Nadel shows, Uris had spent time as a screenwriter in Hollywood thanks to the success of his debut novel, the World War II saga “Battle Cry.”
Uris was not nearly as successful writing scripts as he was with books. The directors with whom he worked, including Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock, complained of his inability to pare down his stories to the requirements of the screen or work collaboratively.
Uris’ one unambiguous success as a screenwriter was “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” a retelling of the Wyatt Earp story, and he learned its lessons well.
“You can write Westerns in any part of the world,” Uris remarked, and he did: “Mila-18” was a Warsaw Ghetto western, “Topaz” a Cuban spy Western, “Trinity” an Irish Western.
Nadel shows how he adopted the genre’s themes: “brotherhood, heroism, the sacrifice of women to a greater cause, male stoicism masking anger” and, of course, “heroes and antiheroes, strong men of virtue and weak men of anger.”
If Uris never really mastered the screenplay, he did import many cinematic techniques into his novels.
“Often, his novels seem storyboarded,” Nadel writes, “as if the plot had been rendered in a series of sketches with a line or two under each drawing expressing the main action.”
This helps to explain why his books were so easy to read, even though they were so terribly written—and why they were critic-proof.One of Nadel’s section headings, “The Critics Are Again Unkind,” says it all. Indeed, reviewers seemed to treat each new Uris book as a contest to come up with most imaginative insult. (About “QB VII,” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in The New York Times, “One can read it and simultaneously work out tables of actuarial statistics … or iron out the snags in Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason.’ “)
Even David Ben-Gurion couched his praise of “Exodus” carefully: “As a literary work it isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.”
Menachem Begin was less pleased by the way “Exodus” transformed the Irgun into a fictional underground group called the Maccabees: He wanted full credit for his exploits.
American Jewish intellectuals frequently were appalled by the way Uris turned the Israelis into fantasies of toughness—what one critic called “Jewish Tarzans.” To Robert Alter, “Exodus” was a clinical case study in “what Americans would like to think about Jews and what American Jewish intellectuals would like to think about themselves.”
Yet as Nadel shows, this view doesn’t get Uris quite right. It’s true that Ari Ben Canaan was a wish-fulfillment figure, a cliched expression of Uris’ lifelong admiration for tough, fighting Jews. But Uris’ whole emotional and mental life seems to have been animated by cliches, and he took this particular one seriously enough to become a fighter himself, for good and bad.
The good came early on, when the 17-year-old Uris enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps just after Pearl Harbor. He was eager to escape a thoroughly miserable childhood spent shuttling back and forth between his divorced, bitter parents.
His father, William Uris—formerly known as Wolf Yerushalmi—was the bane of his existence, as he explained in a late, autobiographical novel, “Mitla Pass.” William came to the United States from Belarus by way of Palestine, but he did not find America a golden land. He drifted from job to job, had a half-hearted career as a Communist organizer, and married and divorced Leon’s mother, Anna Blumberg.
His attitude toward his successful son was a mixture of narcissism and criticism. Freud would have had a field day with the story, told by William in all guilelessness, about how he autographed Leon’s name in a fan’s copy of one of his books.
Joining the Marines was a godsend to Leon—“the war came along at a time when I needed to go to war,” he said—and he identified with the corps for the rest of his life. (His tombstone, in a military cemetery in Virginia, reads “American Marine/Jewish Writer.”) Uris’ experiences in the South Pacific, where he saw action on Guadalcanal and Tarawa, also gave him the subject matter for his first novel, “Battle Cry.”
From the very beginning, Nadel shows, Uris saw it as his mission to offer an unambiguously patriotic account of the war, in contrast to writer-veterans such as Norman Mailer and James Jones. uris provided “patriotism not nihilism, heroism not cowardice.”
The secret to Uris’ success was that he applied this same uplifting formula to every conflict he treated, from the 1948 war (the Jews were good, the Arabs evil) to Northern Ireland (Catholics good, Protestants evil). To Jewish readers, Uris’ message of Jewish toughness, repeated in book after book—even “Battle Cry” featured Capt. Max Shapiro, who dies heroically—was a welcome antidote to anti-Semitic stereotypes. And it was only because Uris genuinely believed in this cult of toughness that he could so earnestly create heroes like Ari Ben Canaan.
Yet as Nadel shows in his account of Uris’ private life, masculine toughness is generally a way of concealing insecurity and confusion.
After hearing about Uris’ rages, bullying, grandiosity and infidelity, it’s no surprise to learn that his first marriage ended in divorce. His second wife committed suicide just months after their wedding. His third wife, who was the same age as his grown children, also left him in the end.
By the book’s close, when the aging Uris, no longer a best-seller, is seen bragging about getting beaten up by a prostitute (she apparently found him “too aggressive”) and asking his (female) editor to “procure him some women,” he seems a pathetic, ugly figure.
It might be fun, or even therapeutic, to read about Jewish Tarzans once in a while, but you wouldn’t want to live with one—or be one.
(Reprinted from Tabletmag.com, a new read on Jewish life.)