Leon Uris 03/09/10 AP
Leon Uris. Helped shape Jewish identity. Photo by AP
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One day historian Matthew Silver got into a conversation with his barber, in Carmiel, in the Western Galilee. The barber, named Haggai, told him he had once worked in a Haifa hotel. Silver replied that he was familiar with the place: In 1959 the actors working on the film "Exodus," based on the Leon Uris novel, had stayed there. Furthermore, he, Silver, had been working on a biography of Uris for years.

Haggai said he had taken something from his work at the hotel, and pulled a thick book out of a drawer. Dr. Silver, who teaches at the Max Stern Academic College of Emek Yezreel, near Nazareth, almost passed out. It was the original screenplay of "Exodus," before it had undergone any editing.

Researchers sometimes report such incidents, but when it happens to you it feels like a miracle. Silver's book about the late author and "Exodus" ("Our Exodus: Leon Uris and the Americanization of Israel's Founding Story," Wayne State University Press ) will be published on September 15 in the United States. It tells a riveting tale.

"Exodus," which was published in 1958, a decade after Israel's founding, was translated into dozens of languages; Silver estimates that it sold about 20 million copies. It recounts the whole of Jewish history, though of course it focuses primarily on the saga of the illegal immigrant ship Exodus, which sailed from France in the summer of 1947, carrying some 4,500 Holocaust survivors.

Together with the film, which starred Paul Newman, the book by Uris did more to shape Jewish identity in America and to promote the Israeli case than generations of other writers. This is not surprising, Silver says: Most of the Zionist writers, beginning with Theodor Herzl, tended for some reason to cast a dreary pall over the entire Zionist enterprise.

Uris was born in Baltimore in 1924, the son of a Jewish immigrant from White Russia named William Yerusalimsky. In 1921, Yerusalimsky settled in Palestine but not long afterward immigrated to America, where he joined the Communist Party and earned a living distributing the party's newspaper. His son, Leon, was apparently named after Trotsky. Shortly after Leon's birth, his parents were divorced; he was raised by his mother, Anna.

Uris had a strained relationship with his mother. In an autobiographical novel, "Mitla Pass" (1988 ), he described his mother as the embodiment of the insufferable "Jewish mother" stereotype, and attributed acts of brutal sexuality to her as well. However, Silver says, "Instead of fighting with his mother, he wrote 'Exodus' a decade later." Thus, Uris seems to have identified the wretchedness of his parents' life with the wretchedness of Jewish existence in the Diaspora; he dreamed of strong Jews and aspired to be one of them.

In 1942, Uris enlisted in the U.S. Navy. His service engendered his first novel, "Battle Cry" (1953 ), which became a best-seller.

Two uncles who lived in Israel, Eliezer and Aharon Yerushalmi, told Uris about the horrors of the Holocaust. His negative attitude toward Diaspora Jewry grew, and he increasingly thought about how Jews should be in control of their fate and capable of defending themselves.

"Exodus" has often been described as the Israeli "Gone with the Wind," a vast epic about the "new Jew," who is building his homeland, personified by the book's protagonist, Ari Ben Canaan. The 1960 film, directed by Otto Preminger, is different from the book, but millions of people around the world came to identify the typical Israeli "sabra," with the character played by the iconic Paul Newman.

In his book, Silver sheds new light on "Exodus" and on its author. The hero Uris was seeking to depict was not Israeli, but Jewish - and American. Israel was not the end but the means. The idea was to fashion a character with whom American Jews could identify, both as Jews and as Americans. That's why Ari Ben Canaan falls in love with a woman who was raised as a Christian in Denmark, the divine Kitty.

That element of the story also did not come about by accident, Silver notes: As part of his effort to integrate into American society, Uris himself married a non-Jewish woman. Nor did the success of the book and the film reflect the admiration of American Jews for Israel, says Silver. In fact, in the 1950s, many of them, perhaps most, flinched from identifying with the Jewish state, for fear of being accused of dual loyalty. The Eisenhower administration also treated Israel with a coldness bordering on enmity. But the affair between Ari and Kitty reflected the American dream of close relations between Jews and Christians in the wake of the Holocaust.

One is left with the impression that, in Uris' imagination, Jewish strength took the practical form of the conquest of non-Jewish women: He married three of them.